ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero '87 discusses time at the U. and the pressing importance of activism| Apr 2, 2017
“Student activists at the University probably shouldn't take a fifth course if they really want to engage in influential activism,” urged Anthony Romero ’87, current executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). He is the first Latino and openly gay person to serve in this position.
A crowd of approximately 200, consisting of alumni, undergraduate students, and President Christopher Eisgruber ’83, gathered in Alexander Hall to hear Romero speak about his time at the University and the importance of political activism today.
The panel began with an introduction by Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers ’87, Romero’s former classmate and current judge for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
“Anthony is and has always been a beacon of light,” Rogers said.
She recalled freshman Romero as being “tall, thin, incredibly warm, big-hearted and always well-dressed.”
Sitting cross-legged on stage, he responded, “Well, I had more hair back then.”
After graduating from the University, Romero attended Stanford Law School. When asked about his life as an undergraduate, Romero discussed the struggles he faced as a first-generation minority student who had spent much of his childhood living in public housing projects in the Bronx.
“Princeton was not an easy place for me initially,” he said.
Unlike many of his peers at the time who had attended prestigious private schools, Romero didn’t know he could go to college. He had attended a vocational high school where he took classes such as auto mechanic woodshop and typing.
Romero recalled feeling embarrassed because of his status as a minority and full scholarship student.
“I remember thinking that I was only here because I was Puerto Rican,” he explained. “But I came here because affirmative action gave me a shot — affirmative action opened the door."
The audience responded with enthusiastic applause.
“Don’t doubt that you belong,” he said. Romero reassured undergraduate students who may be experiencing similar feelings of alienation not to allow insecurity to creep into their minds and become debilitating to their academic experience.
Despite the challenges of adjusting to a new environment, Romero thrived as a student. He maintained excellent grades and even began to engage in political activism on campus by creating a non-profit organization that focused on international development.
Romero said that he considers his time at the University as one of three moments of his life that “fundamentally rocketed [him] into a different dimension.”
“I honed my skills here. Stanford gave me a credential; Princeton gave me an education,” he said.
After graduating from Stanford Law School, to his dismay, Romero struggled to find employment in public service. In fact, he was even turned down from the ACLU, the very organization he now leads.
“I was thoroughly demoralized,” he said. Romero said he eventually learned that a career in public service isn't linear. His best advice to students was to “have a little bit of grace and a little bit of presence and power through.”
When asked about the role of activism in the current political climate, Romero emphasized that “there is so much energy to capitalize on.” He characterized the time we live in today as a golden era for activism and further encouraged students to participate as much as they could.
During the panel, he also criticized the University’s decision to reject the Princeton Private Prison Divestment’s proposal for the University to divest from private prisons in their endowment. The University has said that it has no investments in the companies mentioned in PPPD’s petition, however.
“I think institutions can divest from private prisons and not hurt endowments,” Romero said.
Oscar Guardado ’18 and Marisa Salazar ’17 led the panel.
The event, titled “A discussion with Anthony D. Romero” was a part of the “¡Adelante Tigres!” Conference which celebrated the legacies of Latino Alumni at the University. It was held in Alexander Hall of Richardson Auditorium on March 31. at 5:15 p.m.