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Puerto Rico Profile: Anthony D. Romero

May 11, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

The National Board of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recently announced that Anthony Romero will become the organization’s next executive director. As a result, Romero, a 35-year-old public interest lawyer and executive at the Ford Foundation, has quite suddenly emerged as one of the most prominent attorneys in the country.

The ACLU is the nation’s premier watchdog against infringements on individual rights and constitutional freedoms. Founded in 1920, the ACLU has taken a central role in many of the most sensitive issues of our time, from book censorship to flag burning to Internet privacy. Romero, who was born in the Bronx but whose parents came from Puerto Rico, will be the first Latino to head the national, non-partisan group.

"Most civil rights and civil liberties organizations focus on a specific issue or a particular constituency," he said recently. "The ACLU, in contrast, is the only organization that defends the civil liberties of all Americans."

The National Headquarters of the ACLU, in downtown Manhattan, is a short distance and a world away from the public housing project in the Bronx where Anthony Romero spent his childhood. Living on the twelfth floor of an apartment building, without working elevators and at times without heat or running water, Romero grew up cloistered in the family’s apartment, playing indoors because of the threat of random violence outside.

His father, who received no education past the fourth grade, had worked on a sugar plantation in Puerto Rico. After coming to New York, Demetrio Romero supported his family by working at the Warwick Hotel, first as a cleaning and maintenance worker and eventually — after a long wait delayed by ethnic discrimination — in the higher-paying position of banquet waiter.

Anthony Romero’s mother, Coralie, was determined to get her family away from the poverty and perils of the Bronx. Described by her son as "the brains of the family," her own education had been cut short by the need to support her widowed mother and three siblings. When she noticed Anthony’s interest in reading, she pushed him to focus on his studies. "That’s the way people make it in America," she told him.

The Romeros eventually moved to New Jersey, where Anthony became the first member of his family to graduate from high school, finishing second in his class. His academic performance caught the attention of some of the country’s top universities, and he chose to attend nearby Princeton.

Romero’s transition to life at an Ivy League college was not easy, as he was acutely aware of his minority status and his working-class upbringing. However, he handled his insecurities by diving into his studies and excelling academically. After graduating from Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs, he went West, to Stanford Law School.

Having graduated from two of the most prestigious educational institutions in the country, Anthony Romero was in a position to choose any career he wanted. He decided to work in the public interest, with foundations and organizations dedicated to creating a better society.

"I feel I represent organizations and issues like a lawyer with a client," he has said. With law school behind him, Romero went to work for the Rockefeller Foundation, where he led a review of the organization’s civil rights advocacy. Civil rights have always been a high priority for Romero, for in addition to being Hispanic, he is also openly gay.

"I have always been driven by my commitment to civil rights, civil liberties, and social justice," he explains. "This commitment derives from my life experience — memories of discrimination, homophobia, and poverty that stand in sharp contrast to the dignity and love that my family imparted to me."

After two years with the Rockefeller Foundation, Romero moved to the Ford Foundation. He spent five years as the Foundation’s Program Officer for Civil Rights and Racial Justice before being promoted to his current position as the Director of Human Rights and International Cooperation.

Romero has been extremely successful at the Ford Foundation, a global not-for-profit organization that has distributed more than $10 billion in grants and loans since its founding in 1936 by automobile magnates Henry and Edsel Ford. Under Romero’s leadership, Ford’s Human Rights and International Cooperation program has grown dramatically to become the Foundation’s largest grant making unit. In 2000, the program provided some $90 million to civil rights causes around the world.

Last year, Ira Glasser, the long-time executive director of the ACLU, announced his decision to retire in the Summer of 2001. As the ACLU’s National Board began to search for a successor, Anthony Romero emerged as an ideal candidate. Considering his impressive track record with the Ford Foundation, his youth, and his clear personal dedication to the cause of civil rights, the ACLU’s board unanimously voted for his appointment.

"It’s just such a wonderful embodiment of the future of civil liberties and the future of this country to have someone who is so young and who represents the future of America," said ACLU president Nadine Strossen.

Anthony Romero will become the ACLU’s executive director in September. The organization boasts 300,000 card-carrying members and offices in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and San Juan, Puerto Rico. "It is the world’s largest public interest law firm," Romero has said. "It has both the staff and legal acumen to foster this country’s social revolution through law."

Romero has ambitious plans for his new job, which is among the most high-profile and influential legal positions in the country. "Even though we have come so far," he said, "our nation faces serious and continuing civil liberties challenges: widespread racial profiling, threats to reproductive freedom, hostility to immigrants, a burgeoning prison population, and most importantly, a generation of young people who do not fully embrace or appreciate the need for constant vigilance and defense of our constitutional freedoms."

"I hope to begin my tenure as the leader of this vitally important organization by sparking a new dialogue about the bedrock values of American democracy," he continued. "My overarching goal is to promote a new generation of committed civil libertarians and civil rights activists."

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