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Akilah Deernose BA’04 breaks down barriers as Executive Director of the Montana ACLU

by Melanie Moyer,

In Akilah Deernose’s BA’04 college application essay, she thought about how the Willamette motto — Not unto ourselves alone are we born — aligned with her identity as a high schooler coping with the struggles of having a single parent, a disabled sibling, and another sibling struggling with mental health while entangled in the criminal legal system.

Her journey to Willamette began with the removal of a financial barrier with an application fee waiver. “At that point, I was living on my friend's couch; it was a really hard year in my life. The waiver was a lifeline.”

In her application essay, Deernose wrote about how her background shaped her commitment to advocating for others. “Because of my experiences, I have insight. My purpose in my life and my heart is to fight against barriers individuals face to meaningfully participate in civil life,” she wrote.“I'm not born to be a selfish person who's not a part of a community, who doesn't give back.”

Akilah Deernose
Akilah Deernose BA'04

After graduating from Willamette, Deernose went on to earn her law degree from the Santa Clara University School of Law in 2009. She interned at the Mental Health Advocacy Project of the Silicon Valley Law Foundation and worked as a staff attorney with Montana Legal Services Association providing legal support and assistance to survivors of domestic violence.

In September 2023, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Montana announced Deernose as its newest Executive Director after a nationwide search — a tribute to Deernose’s continued commitment to her personal mission and purpose. She previously served for three years as Senior Staff Attorney for the organization’s legal team, and is the first Black woman and the first person who identifies as LGBTQ2S to serve as Executive Director.

“The issues the ACLU addresses speak to my heart, and it's my purpose to work on them,” she says. “A lot of the harder experiences I've had really informed the work that I do now.”

At Willamette, Deernose developed her skills by participating in the first Take a Break program that took her to San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, working on community service learning projects, and spending a summer working for Willamette Academy — a college access program similar to one she benefitted from in middle school.

Deernose notes that the care and attention she received from her professors had a lasting impact. Deernose credits Continuing Professor of History Leslie Dunlap, who encouraged her to go beyond dominant historical narratives to look at unknown stories in Deernose’s communities.

“It was amazing to have a professor encourage me to explore those untold stories during a really formative time,” Deernose says. “It bleeds into my work now. We get to uplift all these community stories that are often not told. That was a beautiful, big gift that she gave me.”

Deernose was also influenced by many professors in the politics department, including the late Robert Dash, who taught her to learn about politics from the communities they affect.

With all the experiences she gained from Willamette, Deernose continues to embody the spirit of service to others as she works to build community and advocate for civil rights in Montana.

“I believe any work that you do, if you have the privilege to do so, should be rooted in care. I appreciate the care that was given to me at Willamette. It's what I needed in order to succeed and achieve.”

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