ACLU of Montana announces new director, promotion of senior staff attorney

The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana announced Monday that Akilah Maya Deernose will lead the organization as its executive director after a national search.

Currently senior staff attorney at the state ACLU, Deernose will take over the organization on Sept. 4 amidst new and growing attacks on the civil rights and liberties of marginalized Montanans, the ACLU said. She will be the first Black woman, and first person who identifies as LGBTQ+ and Two Spirit, to lead the organization in its 51-year history.

Deernose will replace Caitlin Borgmann, who stepped down as executive director of the ACLU of Montana in February 2023 after serving in that capacity since 2015, the ACLU said.

“We couldn’t be more thrilled to have a leader with Akilah’s passion, vision, intelligence, and commitment to equity for all inside the organization and throughout the state taking the helm of the ACLU of Montana,” said Paul McKean, president of the ACLU of Montana board of directors, in a statement. “The board of directors is confident Akilah will bring a sharp and dynamic strategic approach to the role that will make a powerful impact on the rights and liberties of all Montanans.”

The ACLU said Deernose has helped fight for the civil rights and liberties of Montanans in state and federal courts since January 2021.

The ACLU described her legal work:

“Her cases have included Marquez v. State of Montana, where she serves as lead counsel challenging Montana’s discriminatory law making it near-impossible for transgender Montanans to amend their birth certificates, and van Garderen v. State of Montana, where she challenged a Montana statute denying medically necessary gender affirming care to transgender youth,” the ACLU said.

“She has also been a part of legal teams focused on litigation to advance the rights of Indigenous people and tribes, voting rights, First Amendment rights, and educational equity, among other ACLU priorities.”

Deernose has also been a leader within the organization advancing an anti-racism and anti-colonialism framework/lens through the organization’s priorities, and working to build those values into the organization’s internal culture, the ACLU said.

Prior to joining the ACLU, Deernose was a staff attorney at the Montana Legal Services Association, where she provided legal assistance and guidance to survivors of domestic violence.

“I am thrilled to continue on this journey, alongside my brilliant colleagues, towards creating a more just and equitable Montana by planting seeds for collective liberation, while uprooting systems of oppression and injustice,” said Deernose in a statement. “With the uptick in hateful rhetoric, discriminatory laws, and violent attacks, we are at an inflection point in Montana’s history; one that demands we come together, lean into our shared humanity,  and join the fight for civil rights to ensure that Montana goes in the direction towards truth, equity, and justice.”

Deernose was born in the East Bay area of California, and spent the first half of her childhood there before moving to Tacoma, Washington.

“Growing up in a single parent household at the intersection of poverty and race, with a disabled brother and a learning disabled sister, also suffering from mental illness, who was funneled out of mainstream schools and into the criminal justice system, Deernose saw firsthand the many barriers to access, equity, and justice faced by a large portion of the population,” the ACLU said. “These experienced shaped her view of the world and grew within her a dedication to ensuring meaningful access to opportunity, justice, and equal rights under the law for all.”

Deernose is a graduate of Willamette University and Santa Clara University School of Law.

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