This spring, Nick Pressley was the campaign manager for ACLU-PA’s Vote Smart Justice Campaign, a grassroots public education effort during the primary election for district attorney in Philadelphia. In July, after this conversation, Nick was hired as the field manager for ACLU-PA.
Nick shares his reflections on the #VoteSmartJustice effort.
You had a whirlwind couple of months with us. A lot happened in a short period of time. Why did you take on the challenge of running our #VoteSmartJustice campaign in the Philadelphia DA’s race?
I’ve been a strong supporter of criminal justice reform in my personal life, but I hadn’t had a professional opportunity to work within this field until this campaign. I saw that the work was important, and I knew that I had the experience needed to make it a success. I realized that I had a real chance to help affect not just this campaign, but the kind of work that the ACLU and other organizations will be pursuing over the next several years. Campaigns are always whirlwinds, and that’s part of the job that I relish. Taking advantage of this opportunity was really a no-brainer.
Most of our canvassers have criminal records. Why do you think it was important to hire people with that background?
I can speak from personal experience when I say that once you find yourself tagged with a criminal record, life gets different. As a returned citizen, I know the kind of despair that can happen when all avenues forward in life begin to seem blocked off. It can lead you back to those same roads that got you in this situation in the first place. On the other hand, I know the kind of energy that getting involved with a program like this can bring to one such as me. Creating change is very difficult and time-consuming work. It takes a certain amount of strength and passion to be able to be effective. If we really want criminal justice reform, we’re going to need the help of those who have firsthand experience with it, because they will have that strength and passion necessary. Finally, this work is all about changing hearts and minds. Speaking to someone with direct experience is far more effective and motivating than to someone who knows the theory but not the reality, so to speak.
Did the campaign meet the expectations you had before it started? Were there any surprises?
I can honestly say that the campaign exceeded my expectations in many areas. There were inevitable hiccups, but the staff really managed them well. One big surprise was the relative lack of major problems. I really want to express my appreciation for the affiliate’s staff with this work. The level of professionalism, adaptability, and talent in that office is unbelievable and a large part of the reason we avoided major mishaps. The canvassers themselves exceeded my expectations. I’ve worked with canvassers from all over the country, but this project was different. It’s one thing to understand why it’s best to use affected people, but many times in the past I hadn’t been allowed to hire people with criminal records. The amount of buy-in and passion for the program was amazing to be able to finally witness in person. This also extended to the membership. While we may assume that ACLU members are supportive of the work that we do, this is still a very new avenue for the organization to take. New avenues can be scary, and it’s a testament to the organization and the membership the amount of readiness and the willingness to stand at the forefront of the humongous tasks we have ahead of us as a country.
What did you find most rewarding about the experience?
One of my favorite things about the work that I do is getting to meet people. From the volunteers, to the canvassers, to the staff, I got to meet some great people. I live in Central PA and have traveled to many other places in this country where people just don’t understand or care about these ideas the way that we do. Those that do care aren’t always able to share that belief comfortably. This project allowed me to be in contact with many different people who cared and put their hearts and souls into this type of work. That is refreshing and gives me the strength and will to keep on going myself.
What do you like to do when you’re not organizing people at the grassroots and managing campaigns?
After and in-between campaigns, I come home to Central PA where I live with my beautiful new wife. We like to take our son swimming in the summer to one of the local water parks or natural swimming holes. We also catch up on our Netflix shows and visit our favorite date locations. I’m a huge video game nerd, as well, so I do a fair amount of that too. I actually signed up for Extra Life, a fundraiser for Children’s Miracle Network hospitals around the country, so after the general election this year, I’ll be playing 24 hours of video games straight to raise money. I’m really looking forward to that!