Stepping down so others can step up

As I head to the 15-year anniversary of co-founding Access Now this coming July, it feels like the right time for me to step down as Executive Director, passing on the leadership of this amazing organization to someone new.

Since 2009, I will have completed three five-year terms as ED. I’ve been thinking a lot about what that means. We call for transparency and transition from our political leaders — and I believe the same should be expected from civil society. It’s time for ED renewal at the helm of this wonderful, world-changing NGO. Over the coming months and before I leave my post, I look forward to supporting the Access Now Board in the search for a new ED, with applications open from today

When digital technology began to seriously disrupt our world 15 years ago, I knew intuitively that a global digital rights organization combining technical, policy, and advocacy expertise could make a real difference. 

Access Now launched prior to the Arab Spring, before citizen media defined our news cycle, and before social media shaped our consciousness. It was a full decade before AI went mainstream and three years before Facebook went public. We began as Iran’s valiant Green Movement was resisting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s attempts to steal an election, just after Myanmar’s hopeful Saffron Revolution and the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s departure from Tibet. These moments were formative in the organization’s evolution. 

Much has changed since then, but our original Access Now mission to defend and extend the digital rights of people and communities most at risk remains the same. With the Access Now team at the forefront, we have stood firm in our beliefs. 

Together with our partners we have helped to write a new discourse, campaigned against digital injustice, forged new territory, and occasionally ceded it. Our team has organized 12 RightsCons, from San Francisco, California, to San José, Costa Rica. We’ve briefed the UN Security Council, distributed millions of dollars in grants to dozens of digital rights organizations around the world, and closed almost 20,000 Digital Security Helpline tickets. We have changed lives, and in some cases saved them.

Having what is right and just on our side has made the journey easier, especially when speaking truth to power. And there has been a lot of that. We have tried to build a new type of global NGO — one with equity and impact at its heart. There have been missteps along the way, of course, but I’m proud of (most) of them, as they’ve helped us grow and move forward. 

It has been the honor of my life to lead this organization. I want to pay tribute to the hundreds of staff, interns, and fellows who took a chance on and with us; from those who launched their careers at Access Now, to others who started as interns and ended up as our most treasured directors. Your commitment to digital rights, and to our mission, is inspirational and evergreen, even when it comes at personal cost. Thank you, all of you. I want to shine a special spotlight on the Digital Security Helpline team members past and present, who have served, and continue to serve, clients at risk across 170 countries, working  365 days a year, 24/7, since 2013. Not. One. Day. Missed. 

I also want to sincerely thank the donors, foundations, companies, and governments who have supported us along the way. While these partnerships haven’t always been easy, they have been essential to our evolution. Many of you bet on us early on, before our track record was clear. I have enjoyed all our collaborations, honest working relationships, and shared communications — and I look forward to watching them deepen in years to come. 

I’d also like to acknowledge and thank Access Now’s global 10-person strong Board, led by Andrew McLaughlin and Arzu Geybulla. They put so much of themselves into this organization and will, as I note above, play a leading role in the transition. You each bring a unique perspective and contribution to the stewardship of this organization. And of course, I have to give a shout out to our Chief Operating Officer, Joe Steele, for being my buddy, partner, and co-conspirator. 

Finally, I want to pay my respect to the individuals who are on the front lines of the fight for digital rights, to our partner organizations, and to our entire vital and growing sector. Your spirit and vision for a better world often stand in stark contrast to the cold realities that you face head-on. And yet you push on. It has been enlivening and enlightening to partner with you; to issue joint reports and statements, to strategize late into the night, to co-propose solutions or initiate a blockade, to regroup after our losses, and to celebrate our wins when the moments arise.  

Is it possible to feel deep sadness and great joy simultaneously? Admittedly, I feel both. Sadness and a sense of loss, as I say goodbye to the role of Executive Director, but also joy, for what Access Now has achieved to date and will achieve in future.

When a leader leaves, there can be uncertainty or organizational wobble. However, the Board, and Access Now as a whole, have the foundations to move forward while retaining Access Now’s vision, operations, and special sauce. And as we continue to follow our strategic vision, you can remain confident in the brilliant 135 odd-strong global team. They are the real heroes here, and I have full faith in their ability to carry Access Now far into the future. 

I will spend my concluding months as Executive Director helping the Board to identify, appoint, and onboard my successor. I’ll keep fundraising, advancing internal initiatives, and overseeing progress on our 2024 plans up until my last day. 

The Board is seeking a highly capable, intuitive leader with lived experience and/or extensive knowledge of the issues to which Access Now is committed, as well as either a track record working in digital rights or a deep understanding of the human rights framework — or both. If this sounds like you, please consider applying for the best job of the digital age!

As for me personally, I have lots of ideas, thoughts, and dreams of what will come next and I look forward to sharing them as we get close to my departure as ED.

If you have any questions or thoughts, please feel free to reach out to me directly at [email protected]

Best wishes and thank you again so much again — for everything!