From a young age, Oni K. Blair dealt with racial discrimination. Those experiences led her on a career-long journey, culminating with becoming the first Black executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.
“As a Black girl growing up in Oklahoma and Texas, and a descendant of enslaved people, racial discrimination wasn’t just part of my family’s history, it was also a part of my own experience,” she says. “My experiences as a Black person in the United States have helped me understand that every person—no exceptions—should have equality under the law, should have access to opportunities to thrive, and should be treated with dignity and respect.”
Blair has focused her career on public policy at the local, national, and international levels. She previously served as the executive director of LINK Houston, a nonprofit organization advocating for accessible and equitable transportation. In her position, she influenced a $7 billion transit plan, worked with the mayor to improve walking and biking safety, and won $51.5 million for communities of color negatively impacted by highway expansion. Prior to LINK Houston, she served as a diplomat in the federal government. Through assignments in Jordan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Washington, DC, she led large teams, worked on human rights policies, and coordinated humanitarian assistance to refugees.
Blair attributes her knowledge of civil rights to her parents, who shared with her a range of literature that spotlighted characters who faced discrimination.
“As a shy, awkward kid, I loved to read,” she says. “The books I read depicted characters who were marginalized, on the fringes, different physically and emotionally, and enthusiastic about being treated equally with dignity and respect. Through those stories, I realized that I wasn’t alone in my journey. I realized I wanted to do something bigger to change systems for everyone to have opportunities that I’d had.”
Blair’s career fighting for what’s right took a new turn in 2021 when she joined the ACLU as executive director, leading the organization through attacks on voting, reproductive, immigrant, and LGBTQ rights.
“My experiences as a Black person helped me understand that every person—no exceptions—should have equality under the law, should have access to opportunities to thrive, and should be treated with dignity and respect.” —Oni K. Blair
“From Amarillo and Brownsville to Beaumont and El Paso, we believe in a Texas that works for all of us—a Texas where each person has an equal say in the decisions that shape our future, where everyone can build a good life,” she says. “At the ACLU of Texas, we work on civil rights and civil liberties fundamental to having that good life: voting rights, immigration and border rights, reproductive rights, smart justice, free speech, and LGBTQIA+ equality. When the state and local government ban and criminalize bodies, books, clothes, offices, language access, and even people, the ACLU of Texas pushes back to protect our rights. Advocating for LGBTQIA+ equality is necessary to ensure that we are truly advocating for the equality of all Texans, no matter the color of our skin, the languages we speak, or whom we love.”
In recent years, the transgender community has come under attack, threatened with the violation of their basic human rights. Blair believes it’s imperative that we all work together to ensure transphobic laws do not pass or take effect.
“We have condemned policies and laws punishing families for supporting their trans youth and for providing gender-affirming care,” she says. “Alongside Lambda Legal, the ACLU of Texas blocked the State of Texas from targeting trans youth and their families who are members of PFLAG, the nation’s largest advocacy organization of LGBTQIA+ people and allies. Additionally, we represented The Woodlands Pride; Abilene Pride Alliance; Extragrams, LLC; 360 Queen Entertainment LLC; and drag performer Brigitte Bandit—all plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the prohibition on drag bans. We successfully blocked the 2023 law from going into effect as a result of our litigation.”
As Blair looks ahead toward 2024, the fight to protect the LGBTQ community has never been more vital, and she will continue to advocate and shield those who are caught in the crossfire of today’s political environment.
“We will continue our policy advocacy, engagement, training, public education, and litigation to protect LGBTQIA+ youth—especially trans kids—from discrimination in schools, and advance non-discrimination protections for LGBTQIA+ persons at all levels of government,” she says. “Across our work, we will continue to incorporate a racial-justice lens while working alongside BIPOC-led organizations, such as our collaborations with the Transgender Education Network of Texas, Equality Texas, Texas Freedom Network, The Mahoghany Project, Black Trans-Women Inc., and the Lavender Project.”
Blair emphasizes that anyone who wants to advocate for equality and stop discrimination laws needs to get involved.
“Vote!” she concludes. “Show up and talk about issues with your family and friends. Share resources with a student or parent—like our All in for Equality’s “Free to Be Me” toolkit. Attend our Know Your Rights training on free speech, or volunteer with us to monitor elections.”
To learn more about the ACLU of Texas, go to aclutx.org.