Bianca Cseke | The DePaulia
DePaul’s Student Government Association (SGA) held the third session of its Civic Engagement and Social Action Series Tuesday evening via Facebook Live.
SGA President Alyssa Isberto, Executive Vice President of Student Affairs Marcus Robertson and PR Coordinator Arantxa Reyes interviewed Ed Yohnka, the director of communications and public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illinois.
As the director of communication and public policy, Yohnka said he connects with the media to disseminate information about ACLU’s policies, positions and activities as well as working with his colleagues when they are serving in that capacity. In addition, Yohnka helps influence messages regarding ACLU’s work to share with the public.
“When you work on civil liberties and social justice issues, part of it is trying to take what are often incredibly complex kinds of issues and convey them to a broader public in a way that really lands with them, that motivates people, that moves people, and that touches on their own values,” Yohnka said.
Yohnka has worked at the ACLU for more than 20 years and said he has stayed with the organization for so long as his work is always new from day to day. Yohnka added that he has the opportunity to work with “incredible people.”
“I get to work with some really remarkable, smart, thoughtful people and learn from them along the way,” Yohnka said. “Along the way of doing this work, I have been able to be present and be part of some really incredible activities.”
Yohnka added that some of those activities include “being present in courtrooms” when the ACLU won major victories, including, “being in Springfield when the death penalty was ended in Illinois” and when the Illinois legislature passed the law on marriage equality.
Since starting his career at the ACLU, Yohnka explained that the organization has grown but that it has become more challenging to share information about the ACLU’s work due to the shrinking media market. Yohnka added that some of the work the organization has done over the past four years has been “different” due to the change in the political climate.
While some aspects of the ACLU have changed, Yohnka said the organization’s values remain the same.
“At the end of the day, [the ACLU] is fundamentally the same,” Yohnka said. “It’s about the same principles, it’s about our clients, it’s about what they need and it’s about creating or working towards that ‘more perfect Union’ that’s referenced in the Preamble to the Constitution.”
When asked about potential career opportunities with the ACLU for prospective students, Yohnka encouraged students to visit the ACLU’s website and advised students to make themselves “indispensable” in any of the work they do.
“I think in many ways, this is about creating an opportunity for yourself and there’s lots of people who work at all levels of the ACLU who, frankly, have come in being an associate in the development department and through work and hard work and years become program staff and end up doing great things… I think those are the kinds of things that we see and the kinds of patterns and growth we often see for people,” Yohnka said.
When asked how students can engage in activities to create change in their communities, Yohnka said students should meet with people “where they live and with what they need.”
“Oftentimes we think of this as this big thing where we have to have this grand scheme and think about how we organize people around a very complex issue,” Yohnka said. “We need to do this block by block and neighborhood by neighborhood and community by community because that’s the way that at the end of the day we are able to achieve real change.”
Yohnka stressed the importance of voting as one of the ways people can enact change where they live.
“If you make a plan to vote, if you are ready to vote, bring five people with you,” Yohnka said. “Tell them your plan, let them see if it works for them [and] if there are other things they want to do.”
Throughout his career, some of the obstacles Yohnka has faced includes encountering people resistant to change.
“Sometimes, and oftentimes, we’ll face people who fundamentally resist every bit of change and they will use tactics and strategies which candidly can be described, I think by me as an advocate, as evil,” Yohnka said.
Yohnka encouraged students not to engage in the same kind of behavior.
“Don’t become the thing you’re fighting against,” Yohnka said. “It’s hard because you see things that you don’t like and that you really want to be harsh about that you really want to push back against and that you really manifestly just want to lash out at. Don’t give into that. Because at the end of the day, if you stay consistent to who you are, if you incorporate those values in all of your work, the truth is you’ll be more successful.”
SGA’s Civic Engagement and Social Action series takes place Tuesdays nights at 5:30 p.m. with a new panelist each week until the 2020 presidential election in November.