The pavilion in Bubeck Park was a bright spot on an otherwise dull day in Schuylkill Haven, Pennsylvania.
The chipped red picnic tables were filled with colorful plates of squash soup, challah bread and bright red rice. Sounds of conversation filled the air — one woman screeched as a cup of water spilled down her back, and the quacking of ducks awaiting crumbs mixed with cheerful conversation about politics and life.
Women and men of all ages mingled, discussing the background of the foods filling their plates.
“What is the nationality of the person who made this dish?”
“Do you know where they are from?”
These interactions were exactly what Nadia Hassani hoped for when she began planning this event, titled Cooking with a Hyphen.
“Let’s transfer the diversity that we have on our plates into our lives,” Hassani said.
The event is associated with a program called People Power, which was developed through the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU is a national organization working to protect American civil liberties that are provided by the Constitution and the laws of the United States. The organization has state and community chapters around the country. Events like Cooking with a Hyphen can be registered through the People Power program and take place around the country.
Hassani is one of many people who joined the ranks of the ACLU after the 2016 presidential election. She said the election woke her up, along with a lot of other people. Among these people is Robin Beaty, who is also a new ACLU member.
“In good times, it’s really easy to tell yourself that everything’s going fine and then you discover that, well, you weren’t really paying attention,” Beaty said.
The New York Times reported that after the initial immigration ban, the ACLU raised $24 million from online donations in three days — close to seven times what it had raised in 2015. The ACLU also saw a spike in membership, with approximately 200,000 new members signing up at that time.
The addition of new members created a management issue within the ACLU, as it had thousands of new members looking to get involved. As a result, the organization created the People Power program, which was designed to give new members a way to have hands-on experience with some of the many issues supported by the ACLU.
“By its very nature, People Power is a little more open-ended and less controlled,” said Joseph Welsh, a member of ACLU-Lehigh Valley and the ACLU-Pennsylvania board.
Hassani said any event can be added to People Power. She said people can go online and add an event by ZIP code and it will then be vetted by the ACLU to ensure that it relates to its core values. If an event passes this process, it will be added to the People Power website and can be found by anyone who searches the ZIP code of the event.
Hassani’s Cooking with a Hyphen event was listed as a People Power event, but she said the town is so small that she does not think people even knew to check online for events like hers. Instead, she invited community members from both political groups in town and encouraged them to spread the word to friends.
Hassani said the lines between the ACLU and People Power are very fluid.
“People Power is really whatever people want to do locally to rally others to do anything about civil rights — that’s the idea,” she said.
Hassani is a resident of Schuylkill County, but she has been attending ACLU meetings at the Lehigh Valley chapter. She said her county only has 70 ACLU members, while the Lehigh Valley has more than 1,000. This number has only gone up since the election.
ACLU-LV is led by volunteer president Jim Palmquist, who said the local chapter saw its membership triple in the months following the election. Their meetings grew from six people to 35 in just a few months.
Local chapters like the ACLU-LV provides support for the national chapter through outreach and advocacy. Much of the work they do involves educating the community about its rights and providing it with information about the ACLU. Groups of volunteers frequently table at local community events like the Lehigh University Club Fair, where they hand out ACLU materials. So far this year, they have tabled at more than 20 events.
The local chapters use these events to learn more about the sentiments of the people in their communities and relay this information back to the state office.
Communities and the ACLU alike are undergoing change in light of the election results. This spring, the ACLU will be representing five different cases in court.
“To have the ACLU in five of them is phenomenal,” ACLU-LV vice president Tara Stephenson said.
Stephenson said the work of the ACLU has not changed since the election, but the response to the organization has changed. These changes include greater recognition in the community. For example, this was the first year Lehigh students approached the ACLU table at the club fair with prior knowledge of the organization’s work.
No one knows what the future holds for the ACLU, but most long-term members take pride in knowing people knew where to turn when they felt their civil liberties were in danger. Whether it’s locally or nationally, its members believe the organization will continue to fight for the rights of the people.