We the People is a blog series that features the stories of members, supporters, volunteers, and allies of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota. Together we are accomplishing critical work in our state to protect and advance civil liberties across the midwest and beyond.

Chriss Gooding is from Colorado Springs, Colo., and is currently a patient accounts representative at Avera in Sioux Falls. In his spare time, Chriss has volunteered with the ACLU of South Dakota at events like the Sidewalk Arts Festival.  

Tell us a little about yourself.

When I was young, my stepfather once told me that his goal was to lead a life that was not boring. It made quite an impression, and I decided to make that a goal of mine as well. In the intervening years, I went on to travel through most of the states in the union, excluding only Alaska at this point. I’ve lived in nine of those states for periods lasting at least six months at a stretch, though there are few places I’ve lived for longer than a few years. South Dakota has been home for close to eight years now, which is the longest period I have ever lived in one state.

I served in the Marine Corps for close to five years, beginning at age 20, including service in Iraq for about 14 months total over two deployments between 2005 and 2007. I worked as a helicopter mechanic, so thankfully I was not out kicking doors in during that time. I earned a few decorations, even one for good conduct, which is ironic because I didn’t get out of the military in the best way possible. I was generally discharged under other than honorable circumstances, which means I get no VA benefits and no G.I. Bill to pay for my college. I was fired, essentially, and from their standpoint, they had justification, as I had developed a drug problem after my second deployment. Unfortunately, their response was to kick me out rather than to treat me, and so I spent some time homeless in California after I was discharged, then picked myself up with the helping hand of some relatives, distanced myself from the party culture of southern California and the military culture alike, and eventually moved on with my life.

I’ve since earned a two-year degree in network security, with highest honor, from Dakota State University. All along the way, I’ve tried to get as much knowledge of the world to stick to my fingers as I possibly could get, and with such a varied set of experiences in life, it turns out that’s quite a bit, but not all of it is useful all of the time. I think I can confidently state that I have met the goal of living an interesting life. Sometimes I wonder if it was a terribly wise goal to have, but at this point I have no regrets.

When did you first hear about the ACLU?

To be honest, it’s hard to say exactly, but it was about nine years ago and I was living in Minnesota at the time. Volunteers for the Minnesota chapter of the ACLU were handing out copies of the Constitution of Minnesota and the U.S. Constitution combined into a pocket-sized book. I find old documents to be fascinating reading, and so my first love of the U.S. Constitution comes from that, but over the years I’ve read it through many times, and I’ve learned about it, and why we chose it as a symbol of our government, rather than say, a person like the president or a body like the congress or the courts.  Knowing this stuff, seeing that booklet, I had to have one and so I stopped to chat with the volunteers handing them out, and learned for the first time that the ACLU was not a university, but rather a union – the American Civil Liberties Union. Just learning the name of an organization or hearing about it from the point of view of a supporter is never enough for me, and afterward I did some crawling around on the web looking for information. What I learned eventually led me to donate a few of my dollars, and now a bit of my time and some words. 

How does the ACLU and our work relate to you personally? Are there any issues you feel most connected to?

Personally, I find the Bill of Rights from our Constitution to be a work in progress, but good work so far.  These are our civil liberties, and we have fought, bled, and died for them – and I am not referring only to uniformed armed service-members fighting foreign enemies or distant past battles. The civil rights movement began before my time, but not so long before that it’s difficult for me to imagine. I said began, not happened: the civil rights movement is very much happening still in America today.

The issue I feel most connected to is not new, though it wears a new technological face. The ability of wealthy corporations, powerful individuals and private groups, and yes, our government to spy on the lives of lower class citizens has reached a degree that staggers my mind. I literally decided to get a network security degree in college so that I could have some peace of mind in knowing that I could protect myself from some of that spying and maybe help some others avoid it as well.

I’m a huge advocate for privacy enhancing technologies, which has a really cool acronym: PETS.  The struggle over network neutrality has my attention currently, because I live in a state where the majority do not agree with my political views and therefore I was concerned over the possibility of eventually having to pay more to reach content that most internet users in my state don’t try to access, like someone trying to order an out-of-state sports game from their cable company. The ACLU has fought with organizations like Fight for the Future and the Electronic Frontier Foundation against these overreaches of government and large corporations alike, because they impinge on our civil liberties as citizens and as human beings.

Recently you volunteered with the ACLU at the Sidewalk Arts Festival. What was the experience like?

It was my first time volunteering my time for any organization. I’m not used to being in the public eye, and the ACLU has a somewhat undeserved reputation for siding with one political party over another.  I was honestly a bit nervous, but the message we had that day was really simple: elections are coming, go out and exercise your right to vote.  Not “vote for so-and-so.”  Just go out and vote.  It was a message that was well received by the majority of the people who stopped by our tent, and as a result I had a very pleasant experience. 

As it turns out, free speech is something most people can get behind. We had several people stop by who had a lot to say, and on balance most of it was positive. I think it did me good to speak to people who are basically my neighbors, because it really brought home the fact that this state is not a monoculture – it is definitely made up of individuals who have individual views developed through individual sets of experiences, much like myself. Their experiences and my experiences might differ significantly, but in a way, we’re all alike in being guided by our own experiences, and I see that as common ground. 

What would you tell someone who is considering joining the ACLU as a volunteer or member?

There are not many organizations I can think of that are better to volunteer for from a citizen’s standpoint.  The ACLU is all about upholding the Bill of Rights. If you care about your freedoms, you should volunteer for certain, and if you have the means, you should donate and become a member.  There are lots of non-profit organizations out there right now doing amazing things, but if you’re an American, none of them is more close to home than this.

What advice do you have for people trying to make a difference in their communities?

My community is the internet, and I can assure you that trying to make a difference in your community, wherever it may be, is hard. Knowing that is important. This is going to be a challenge, and you should be prepared to encounter resistance. Avoid making it your whole world, because there is more to life.  Avoid going it alone, because there is strength in numbers, and because it’s your community you are trying to help. Community is made up of more than just one person, and to help a community, you are going to need more than one person on your team. Remember that your purpose is not only to make things change, but also to make things better. Lastly, try to find the common ground. You won’t reach everyone – and that is OK. But the people you do reach are going to be the ones you find common ground with, and every last human on Earth shares some piece of common ground. 

How would you describe the ACLU in six words?

Advocates for the Freedoms of Americans.

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