Harnessing the Collective Power of the NYCLU
An Interview with Amreeta Mathai, Director Of Strategy and Program Integration at the NYCLU
The NYCLU is simultaneously fighting on several fronts to protect and expand the civil rights and civil liberties of New Yorkers. From reproductive rights and education equity to voting rights and criminal legal reform, LGBTQ+ equality, and racial justice, we bring a combined strength born of our robust legal, communications, policy advocacy, and organizing teams. The task of coordinating and amplifying this collective power to achieve our strategic priorities has been placed in the talented hands of our new director of strategy and program integration, Amreeta Mathai, who joined the NYCLU in November.
For more than a decade, Amreeta has been in the trenches representing clients in a variety of legal proceedings stemming from interactions with the criminal justice system—everything from immigration defense to eviction proceedings, employment hearings, and family matters. She has clerked for a district judge in New Orleans, worked as a team leader and staff attorney in the Civil Action Practice at the Bronx Defenders, and been a staff attorney with ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, where she specialized in debtors’ prison and indigent defense work. A native New Yorker who spent summers in India growing up, Amreeta holds a B.A. in History from the University of Chicago and a Master of Philosophy in Development Studies from the University of Oxford. She’s also a Harvard Law School graduate who has served as a lecturer-in-law on holistic public defense in the clinical program at Columbia Law School.
We spoke with Amreeta about her vision for her new role, potential progress areas in the coming year, and the family roots of her activist worldview.
NYCLU: You joined the NYCLU recently as director of strategy and program integration. How would you describe the role?
Amreeta Mathai: It’s a new position. One part is about building out internal structures and cross-departmental systems of communications so that all our departments are communicating effectively with one another about the work, about priorities. It’s about creating spaces where we can leverage the knowledge of all the really talented people we have at the NYCLU to generate ideas, and talk to each other in a way that brings a lot of different skill sets and perspectives to the table so that our work can ultimately be informed by that. The other part is then thinking through how we can consistently build out holistic, interdisciplinary campaigns that leverage our legal, policy, field organizing, and communications muscles so we can effectively address the needs of impacted communities and protect and defend civil rights and civil liberties.
Looking ahead at this next year, where do you see the biggest challenges and where do you see the greatest opportunities for progress?
AM: There are opportunities to increase public education and do work on what real transparency and accountability in the criminal legal system can look like and should look like. I also think there are opportunities for New York to take the lead in state-based legislation and initiatives to protect people’s civil rights and civil liberties in the areas of algorithmic discrimination, machine learning, surveillance, and privacy. That’s an opportunity particularly because the federal administration has put out a blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights and the NYCLU may have an opportunity to help New York think through what that could look like in practice.
Right now, our challenges are that we have a NYC mayoral administration that is taking positions that are against our fundamental civil rights and civil liberties—for example, doing sweeps and involuntary hospitalizations of people who are homeless, criminalizing people who are unhoused or who don’t have financial resources. There’s going to be a presidential election next year so there’s a shifting landscape. Will it be hostile to civil rights and civil liberties? Will there be room for us to really push things forward or are we going to be playing defense in 2025 in a way that’s distinct from what we’ve been doing before?
You were working in ACLU’s Racial Justice Program. How does this move to the NYCLU fit with that work?
AM: I was with the Racial Justice Program at National for five years before I joined the NYCLU, and before that I was an attorney at the Bronx Defenders for many years, so I view all this work as aligned. While I was at the Bronx Defenders, I led an interdisciplinary team of advocates and our work was about, how do we use holistic, interdisciplinary methodologies to make change for communities that are marginalized and whose rights have been compromised? At National, I was more focused on litigation but I was doing economic justice work, I was doing prison conditions and prison detention work in Covid-19 circumstances, I was doing algorithmic discrimination work. The NYCLU does a lot of the same work but my role here is a shift in the sense that, now I’m thinking about the policy angle to this, what is the field organizing angle to this, what is the external communications strategy that we can add to this, and how can we use all these different tools that the NYCLU has in its toolbox to make positive change for New Yorkers? That’s a new and really exciting opportunity that’s distinct from what I was doing at National.
You’ve been in these trenches for more than a decade, going back to your law school days when you interned for the ACLU’s Security Program. Why is doing this work important to you? And have the reasons changed over time?
AM: I fundamentally want to live in a world where people get a fair shake, have equitable access to opportunities, and live with dignity, and that’s been true from the beginning. That motivated a need to take on certain kinds of international development work as an undergraduate and motivated me to go on to law school. My experiences as I’ve gone along have informed the way I think about how we can do the work, and now I have a little more wisdom, I hope, a little more experience for how we can do this work better. But the fundamental reason for it—this real desire to have a society where people live with dignity—has not changed.
Looking back, are there ways in which your childhood background shaped your later professional course as an activist? Was racial equality or civil rights part of your family upbringing?
AM: I went to the United Nations International School as a kindergartener and there are kids from all different parts of the world—they speak all different languages, they’re bringing different food for lunch, they have different cultural practices, they are encouraged to wear outfits representative of their cultural heritage, and when you’re in that space, it becomes completely normal and it feels good. That experience really influenced my feeling that that’s how it should be. We should all be embraced that we’re from different places, that we have different ways of thinking about the world, that we have different heritages, and everybody should be able to live with dignity regardless of where they’re coming from. My grandfather worked for the U.N. World Food Program and did a lot of international development work in his career, so he brought an I’m-a-citizen-of-the-world-and-I-embrace-all-people attitude to everything that he did. At the point that I knew him, he had already retired and come to New York to be with family but he brought that energy and that way of being with humans to every part of our family. So that was also present.
Civil rights activism can be exhausting spiritually and logistically. What’s the thing you do outside of your work for the ACLU and NYCLU that most feeds or balances you?
AM: Maintaining connection with close childhood friends and my family consistently is really important. I love dancing. And I really like watching and reading all kinds of science fiction and fantasy. Science fiction and fantasy have a lot of interesting ideas about what the world could look like and also a lot of commentary on what it does look like. So I like to talk about those kinds of things.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)