In addition to the steadfast work of the ACLU of Georgia’s Policy and Advocacy team, we rely on volunteers to be our eyes and ears during the state legislative session every year.

Janis LeMieux (pictured middle, holding award) with some ACLU of Georgia staff.

In addition to the steadfast work of the ACLU of Georgia’s Policy and Advocacy team, we rely on volunteers to be our eyes and ears during the state legislative session every year.

One such volunteer showed up every week this session. During the ACLU of Georgia’s Sine Die Happy Hour, on March 30, we awarded Janis LeMieux with our Outstanding Volunteer Award. Hear in Janis’ own words why she does what she does below.

Our trained capitol observers help defend democracy at the Georgia State Capitol and by protecting free speech at protests. There was much potential for volatility this session, and having these volunteers lend us a hand was essential to the process.

We had capitol observers under the Gold Dome for more than half of the 40 days that made up the 2023 session. Legal observers also showed up for numerous protests — “Stop Cop City” protests, several protests related to Georgia’s anti-trans bill SB 140, and others. With so much happening, we were encouraged to see our number of volunteers grow. From January to March, PAD staff trained 95 Georgians to become legal observers.

Outstanding Volunteer Interview

Tell us about yourself.

I'm a former school teacher in the ancient past, and a retired paralegal. Georgia has always been home because it's where my grandparents lived. I've lived here since 1989. As an adult, I've lived in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland. Now, I call Marietta home. 

I am an active volunteer. I have volunteered for local food ministries, lots of political campaigns starting back in 2008, when I worked as a volunteer and canvassed much of South Cobb for Obama, and then again in other presidential elections. I’ve also done lots of work for Stacey Abrams, and somehow got my name on every volunteer mailing list. I started getting emails from the ACLU of Georgia, so I decided that once I was retired, volunteering for the ACLU was something I wanted to do. I think it's important; they're one of the bastions that keep us from devolving into total fascists.

How did you come about volunteering for the ACLU of Georgia?

I kept getting the emails, and I had been to a couple of online legal observer training sessions during the pandemic. When I got ACLU of Georgia’s email before the start of the 2023 legislative session asking for capitol observers, I had ran out of reasons to say I'm too busy, or I don't have time, or somebody else is going to do it, because I've started realizing that many people think that way, but not a lot of people are stepping up. I felt it would be an easy thing to do. You show up. You just show up. 

I have served as a peace marshal for protests in the past — the Women's March, March For Our Lives, and some of the Black Lives Matter protests. My best experiences have always been associated with my friends, the Quakers. Like the ACLU, you do have to be somewhat neutral, but it's a different role. I thought being there at the capitol as an ACLU representative, being a neutral presence was important. It’s the people's house, and the people who've been elected to represent us sometimes need a reminder that they represent more than the lobbyists who show up. They represent everyday people who are depending on them to do the right thing. It doesn't hurt for them to be reminded that somebody is watching.

What motivated you to show up at the capitol every week?

Yes, I was there every week as an observer. I was also there for additional days, sometimes twice a week. On those additional days, I was there as a private citizen, because it really became apparent to me early on that most of the people who have the ear of the elected representatives are not everyday citizens. Now, not that lobbyists aren't also citizens, but they have an agenda. They're working for a company, they're working for a corporate group, or they're working for a religious group. The impact legislation has on working citizens sometimes gets lost when representatives only hear from paid mouthpieces. It became really important to me to show up and watch.

As far as the volunteer legal observing for ACLU goes, I went into the knowing I could be neutral. One of the senators with whom I disagree on just about everything, I’m on a first name basis with one of his staff members now. Once this session, the (staffer) noted they’d seen me speaking with some folks from Georgia Equality. I acknowledged that I had been, and I thought to myself, they see me acting as a friendly neutral presence, they’re seeing me talk with everyone, which hopefully has a positive impact. It was important for me to engage people, especially people with whom I knew I disagreed on many things. I wish more people were engaged in our governmental process, and I wish more people would show up at the capitol.

What are your takeaways from this session?

The number of young people that I saw show up when a call would be put out, for the anti-trans bill or for the school voucher legislation, was amazing — high schoolers, college students, young adults. It gives me hope for the future, to know they’re there and care. They're courageous in their willingness to call out what they see as wrongdoing. Conversely, I know an awful lot of progressive people who consider themselves allies and belong to all kinds of social media groups. Some of these groups have such a strong presence online, but they were noticeably absent at the capitol. And it's like, social media outrage might make you feel good for a few minutes, but the only way things are going to change is showing up in-person. And young people did just that, and I was filled with hope when I saw it.

Something that was really disheartening to me was watching the people who did show up, and I'm just going to be frank here, how Republicans representatives interacted with them. These were human beings with real concerns about how legislation was going to endanger their lives, like the anti-trans bill. I watched legislators look right through them, pull their phone out and start scrolling while someone was giving them an impassioned plea. My state senator told me when I was down there one time as a private citizen, “Oh, I've heard all the talking points. Thanks for coming.” I was like, well, you've never talked to me, so you haven't heard them all. There's just such an attitude of voting with your party. It doesn't matter how much damage it does to constituents.

But, when I was wearing the blue ACLU vest, I could stand between people who were very angry at the frontline workers and at the senators, and serve as a neutral presence, which hopefully reminded them that the fight isn’t over. I see their hurt, I see what they’re fighting for. Lawmakers pushing some of the most egregious legislation have to look at me, and maybe through me, they can somehow see other people as actual, beautiful creations of the God they say they believe in, but they don't act much like it. It became a real faith-based practice for me as well as a civic obligation.

What would you say to someone considering becoming an ACLU GA legal observer?

I would say do it. Do it. It's a great opportunity to see exactly how the political machine works. If you're a capital observer, it’s an opportunity to be a presence at important events, whether it’s at the capitol, a march or protest. You’ll be helping protect the rights that every one of us is guaranteed. 

It might sound silly to some people, but that's not something we can take for granted anymore. It's really important for people of conscience to stand up and say, “I'm here. I'm watching. I'm taking notes.”