Discovering a passion through speaking out against injustice

By Katie Garwood |

For her fourth grade career day, Kimberly Simon, now the regional organizer of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northeast Florida, went as a protester. And it was during her elementary school years she first witnessed racism, not personally, but directed toward one of her best friends.

Growing up in Northeast Florida, Simon said she saw racism and other forms of discrimination repeatedly, and because of that, sought to work for an organization like the ACLU and solve the issues she notices in her community.

After applying for various positions at the ACLU’s Jacksonville office, Simon finally got the chance to work with the organization in March as a regional organizer, where she serves as the “eyes and ears out in the community,” finding civil liberties issues and working to address them. And in her position, she hopes to right the wrongs she’s seen in her community since elementary school.

“America’s supposed to be the land of opportunity, but those opportunities aren’t the same depending on which neighborhood you go to,” Simon said. “There’s lots of disparities in education and just opportunities across the board. I would like, especially Northeast Florida and eventually growing out from there, just to be a place where people really can thrive and not just survive.”

The ACLU is an organization that seeks “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties” guaranteed by the Constitution. For the past several months and until election day on Nov. 6, Simon and the ACLU of Florida are working to fulfill that mission by passing Amendment 4, the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative, which would allow felons in Florida to have their right to vote automatically restored upon completing their sentences.

“The current process is so degrading to people that have paid their time and are really doing the best they can and are contributing members of society and they’re still being treated like criminals,” she said. “So when is it going to end? When do they get their rights back? When do they get their voice back?”

After the midterms, Simon’s work will get back to normal, both in the variety of issues she works on, and the hours a week she spends doing so.

When she’s in “campaign mode,” as she has been for the past few months, she said she logs 50 to 60 hours of work per week. Simon’s position covers more than what’s typically considered Northeast Florida territory – she works from Tallahassee to Gainesville and across to Fernandina Beach. So as with any sort of nonprofit work, Simon said, that amount of that kind of work can take a toll.

“I think I’m supposed to have a nine to five job,” she said. “I think that’s what I was told when I was hired, but it definitely isn’t. So I do take it home with me. I get calls from people who were in jail. I get calls from people who feel like their civil rights are not being honored or protected. And I do take that home with me because I’m worried about it. And I’m like, if I can’t do something immediately, then I’m sitting there thinking about what can I do moving forward, what can I do tomorrow?”

“Normal” work at the ACLU’s Jacksonville office focuses on issues, such as criminal justice reform, immigration issues, evening out disparities in education in the area and police accountability.

For police accountability, they’ve held unconscious bias training with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office to help minorities feel like they can trust law enforcement. And as a former substitute teacher on the northside of Jacksonville, Simon saw firsthand the inequities in Jacksonville schools. Some lacked funding and “really felt like a jail.” The textbooks were outdated, and many students, she said, were below their grade level.

Since starting work at the ACLU, Simon’s learned more about immigration issues, and has since become passionate about defending immigrants through her job.

“I don’t think I was as aware of a lot of the issues that go on and the immigrant community,” she said. “It’s really just because I see how people are being treated. We are a country of immigrants. So to see people who are coming here from places where they don’t feel safe or where there just isn’t any opportunity there, where there’s war, whatever. They come here because we’re the land of opportunity. We’re supposed to be this friendly country and then they come here and get treated horribly.”

Since Trump’s election in 2016, civil liberty issues have become more familiar to the general public. And because of that, Simon said, the ACLU has received a “surge” of people from the community who wanted to volunteer with and support the organization. But many of those issues have been around for a much longer time.

“There’s always civil rights and civil liberties issues that are going on,” Simon said. “Not just on a small scale but on a systemic scale … A lot of it’s covered up. So I think the ACLU has the job of bringing those things to light and fighting back in those communities where nobody’s listening to their voice.”

And spreading awareness of issues in the community, as well as having a hand in solving them, is why Simon loves what she does – and why she’s thrilled to be working at the job she’s dreamed of having since grade school.

“I really enjoy being out in the community with people and hearing their stories and then being able to go to a job where I can help and I can do something about it,” she said. “I don’t try to be people’s voice. Nobody tells their story better than the person who’s impacted by it. So I like being given the unique opportunity to lift up their voices and provide them the venues to tell their stories and tell their truth. I think the biggest thing is being able to see something and then do something about it. And I think a lot of jobs you don’t have that.”

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