Credit: Courtesy ACLU of Montana

This story is excerpted from the MT Lowdown, a weekly newsletter digest containing original reporting and analysis published every Friday.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana has named a new executive director, tapping senior staff attorney Akilah Maya Deernose to lead the advocacy organization. Deernose is the first Black woman and LGBTQ+ person to lead the ACLU of Montana, the organization said. As senior staff attorney, she’s worked as lead counsel in lawsuits challenging Montana’s 2021 transgender birth certificate law as well as Senate Bill 99, a 2023 law preventing trans youth from accessing gender-affirming care. 

Montana Free Press chatted with Deernose about her personal history, ambitions for the ACLU and views on the current political moment. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. 

MTFP:  Tell us a little bit about your history and how it shapes what you’re doing now.

Deernose: I was born in Vallejo, California, and lived there for the first nine years of my life, then moved to Tacoma, Washington. I was one of five children on my mom’s side — on my dad’s side, over a dozen. Needless to say, I grew up with just my mom. It was mostly just me, my younger brother and younger sister. My younger brother has Down syndrome and is partially deaf. My sister is bipolar and has a host of other mental illnesses as well as learning disabilities. Growing up, I saw and learned a lot, especially those first nine years. If you are around children with disabilities, especially when you’re growing up, you learn so much from them. Great empathy, great compassion, but you also learn patience, kindness, a willingness to be more understanding. I’m so grateful for those lessons. 

As an undergrad I studied politics, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, really, but I knew I wanted to do something that made a difference. I had a specific intent of becoming an agent of change. I hoped that it would be doing either social justice legal work or policy work, and now I get to do both. 

MTFP: What’s your vision for the ACLU under your leadership?

Deernose: My vision for ACLU is simply to more deeply embed in the community in the spirit of reciprocity. There’s a lot of room for growth in how we connect with potential community partners to partner on protecting civil rights and civil liberties. More people need to know about, and we really need to work on, uprooting systems of oppression — systematic racism, the rule of colonialism — through education and more. If you look at the promises of the Constitution, and the promises it’s made in terms of civil rights and liberties, and you look at how so many people have been unable to exercise those rights, kept from participating meaningfully in civil society, and you look at issues like anti-racism and anti-colonialism — that’s all in alignment with our mission. 

MTFP: How do you wrestle with the ACLU and the legal profession’s reliance on the Constitution and rule of law at a time when it seems that many of this country’s systems of government are strained? And at a time of major scrutiny for the nation’s highest court?

Deernose: Honestly, I think anyone who is doing the work of uprooting systems of inequality, or systems that perpetuate inequality, grapples with these very questions. Especially if you examine where these systems come from. Are they operating as intended to? Are they a failed experiment? These are really important questions to ask yourself. And where I typically land is, I really, really believe in separation of powers, and I think the courts play an unquestionably critical role in ensuring that if one branch of government becomes too powerful, it is not unchecked. Are they perfect? No, and we are seeing that. And is doing the work to uproot systems of inequality from the inside perfect? No, it’s an imperfect solution, but I really am inspired by the work that I see the ACLU, but also other organizations, do to try to work within an imperfect system to create meaningful and lasting change. 


Raised in Arizona, Arren is no stranger to the issues impacting Western states, having a keen interest in the politics of land, transportation and housing. Prior to moving to Montana, Arren was a statehouse reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times and covered agricultural and trade policy for Politico in Washington, D.C. In Montana, he has carved out a niche in shoe-leather heavy muckraking based on public documents and deep sourcing that keeps elected officials uncomfortable and the public better informed.