MISSOULA, Mont. – The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Montana announced today that Akilah Maya Deernose, J.D. (she/her), will lead the organization as its next Executive Director, beginning on September 4th. The announcement comes after the ACLU of Montana conducted a nationwide search.
Currently Senior Staff Attorney at the ACLU affiliate, Deernose takes over the organization amidst new and growing attacks on the civil rights and liberties of marginalized Montanans. She will proudly be the first Black woman, and first person who identifies as LGBTQ2S, to lead the organization in its 51-year history.
“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. “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.”
Deernose will move into leadership of the organization from her current role as Senior Staff Attorney, where she has helped fight for the civil rights and liberties of Montanans in state and federal courts since January 2021.
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. 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 also has worked closely with the ACLU of Montana’s policy and advocacy team, analyzing legislation, lobbying, and providing testimony on important issues facing Montanans at the State Capitol in Helena.
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.
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. “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, WA. 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. 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.
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.