Taking a Stance With Johanna Miller
Meet Johanna Miller
The idea that expressing yourself freely is a human right has continued to be a theme throughout the work Johanna Miller has done in passing impactful social justice legislation. As a Law professor and Advocacy Director for the NYCLU, she is constantly "do-ing" by putting policy in motion to improve lives and taking a powerful stance for basic human rights.
Occupations, affiliations, and projects.
Advocacy Director at New York Civil Liberties Union, Adjunct Professor at New York Law School
How did you get into your (badass) field of work?
I always wanted to work at the ACLU. My mom is an artist and I can remember her explaining the first amendment to me when I was really little. That lesson, that expressing yourself freely is a human right, always stuck. When I was deciding to go to law school, I sought out New York Law because the then-president of the ACLU (Nadine Strossen) and a NYCLU board member (Deborah Archer) were both professors there. I basically stalked both of them and it worked.
What inspires you to do the work that you do?
The "founding fathers," these white slaveholders, wrote the Bill of Rights and the Constitution to give themselves power. But the Constitution and the Bill of Rights have been used in exactly the opposite way—to expand freedom and justice. The right to vote, reproductive rights, LGBT rights, the right to be free from discrimination, the right to keep the police out of your pocket or your email, all have been found in those words. I'm always awed that you can apply those "founding fathers’" words and ideas to the 21st century and actually use them to make people's lives better. We have a long way to go, but civil rights work gives me principles to measure the world by, rather than having to rely on a political party to tell me what is right or wrong.
When you pass a major piece of legislation, can you describe how it makes you feel?
Passing social justice legislation is sadly not something that we are able to do very frequently but when we have a victory, it's deeply gratifying. It gives you hope that people can take on this beast of a government and make it work better.
To date, what accomplishments are you most proud of?
I think my proudest accomplishment is that I’ve paved my own path at every step of the way. No one in my family is a lawyer or works in policy. I often had a feeling that I was completely imagining the career I wanted, but I also weirdly believed I could make it happen...and I actually made it happen. I really like going to work every day, which is the best feeling there is.
What’s your favorite thing you’ve learned so far this year?
I love learning new things—trivial facts, key information about a law or policy issue, details of people’s lives—I can’t pick a favorite!
Have you had any life-changing experiences throughout your career?
The day before my first day of law school, I had a crazy accident. I was caught in the crossfire of a shootout between rival drug dealers. A bullet went through my arm, missing my face by inches. It was the first such accidental shooting in that neighborhood in decades.
I wasn't seriously physically injured but I was in pain, I was isolated, and I was an emotional wreck. My family was terrified. I found myself at this decision point I never planned on - should I stay in New York, start law school the next day? Or should I just get the fuck out?
Something told me if I just got through the first day of classes I would be an official "law student" and then I could make it through. But if I missed that initial step, I didn't think I would ever go back.
I don't know if getting shot changed my life, but it showed me a side of myself - brave, tough, tenacious - that I didn't know before. Taking that first step taught me a lesson about breaking down challenging things into easy bites. It's a lesson I use all the time. You don't have to finish your dreams all at once, you just have to show up the first day.
Who inspires you?
I am totally surrounded by inspiring women. My grandmother had five children when her husband left her in the 1960s, and she went back to school and got a masters degree. She always told me she wasn't brave, she was just living but she was a badass. My mom is an accomplished and incredible visual artist; she inspires me to be reflective, quiet, and creative. My best friend from childhood quit her job in tech to become a cheese monger and sommelier; she inspires me to take risks and commit to projects I care about. Another one of my best friends is a truly glamorous jet-setting businesswoman, and she inspires me to have confidence in my talents, to let go of what's holding me back, and to always ask for more money. I love picking up these lessons from people around me.
Can you remember a time when you were discouraged with your work and what you told yourself to get through it?
There are always setbacks, but November 8th, 2016 was a big one. I really had to take some time to myself after the election and find something to give me hope and energy again. The thing that snapped me out of it was actually my job. I looked around at my staff (I manage a team of about 20 people) and I realized I needed to be a leader for them. You can't win with despair.
What’s the best piece of advice that you can give to someone who's looking to take a stand on a civil issue that needs attention?
All politics is local. Everyone wants to take on Donald Trump every day, but there are things happening in your own backyard where you can really make a difference. For example, New York's abortion laws are wildly outdated and millions of New York women will be at risk if Trump's Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. Find out who your state senator and Assembly member are and pay them a visit. Chuck Schumer represents 20 million New Yorkers, but your state senator represents about 300,000. You can actually meet this person and tell them what you care about. They work for you!
What’s your next goal?
I'm going to a yoga retreat this month and I want to master my handstand before then!
By "do-ing", you create your own unique legacy. What do you want your legacy to be?
I hope I can help people feel powerful.
Interested in getting involved? Learn more at the NYCLU here.