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Shari Steele: A Legacy of Digital Rights

DEEPLINKS BLOG
April 2, 2015

by EFF staff members, current and former.

When you think of EFF, you may think of our attorneys arguing for individual rights in front of courts across the country, our activists working to coordinate the Internet-wide blackout to protest digital censorship, and technologists developing free software tools to help Internet users safeguard their privacy and security. What many folks don’t realize, however, is that for more than twenty years, there’s been someone less visible who made all of this work possible: Shari Steele.

Shari joined EFF as a staff attorney in 1992—just two years after EFF was founded. She went on to be EFF’s legal director for eight years and then took the reins as executive director in 2000. Ever since, Shari has passionately—but usually quietly—guided the Electronic Frontier Foundation into becoming the world-recognized defender of digital rights it is today. This is Shari’s last week at EFF, as she is moving with her family out of state. We wanted to take a moment to honor the work she’s done and thank her for her many years of dedication and generosity.

When Shari first came on board, EFF was a small organization with just a handful of staff members. Today, thanks to Shari’s leadership, we have over 60 staff members fighting on issues from drones to copyright, from software patents to NSA surveillance, from government transparency to unlocking your phone.

Shari helped the organization grow, but she also ensured that we always stay true to our purpose: fighting for free speech, privacy, and innovation. She created an organization that’s willing to take on obscure, difficult or bleeding-edge issues we believe have serious implications, and also stand firm on the right position, even when it’s unpopular or criticized as uncompromising. Following her vision, EFF built a legal team to battle in the courts, an activism team to rally Internet users in defense of their rights, and a technology team creating free software tools that promote online freedom and privacy. All of these teams work together seamlessly with our international advocacy team and our development team to be the organization we are today. You can read more about how this came to be in Shari’s farewell post

Shari demonstrated that leadership can be an act of service. Shari could have taken on a public role, but she chose instead to work largely behind the scenes creating a foundation and structure that allowed the entire organization to thrive. Since becoming executive director, she focused on issues like fundraising, financial structure, steering our growth, growing internal management skills, employee welfare and benefits, and support systems for the office. She made sure that everyone at EFF had what they needed to do their work as effectively as possible, and her open-door policy ensured that everyone felt comfortable approaching her with their challenges. Thanks to this approach, EFF has become more than just a place to do some of the most exciting work in impact litigation and activism; it’s also a supportive community that’s a fun place to work. It’s why EFF has a reputation for rehiring many of our former employees—they come back because they miss working here so much.

Shari has touched the lives of every EFF staff member, and her life’s work has influenced the course of civil liberties online. We’re all going to miss Shari. We’re also happy to know that she won’t be going far; the EFF board of directors has already elected her a board member, so she can continue to support and guide us even as she begins a new chapter in her life.

To Shari: thank you for 20 wonderful years. The movement to defend digital rights is your legacy. 

We asked several friends of EFF and former EFF staff members to share a few thoughts about Shari. Here’s what they said.

Steve Jackson, first EFF client:

I can hardly imagine the early years of the organization without Shari. Yet somehow I can easily imagine the EFF going on without her. She has left it with that strong a foundation, that much of a sense of self, that much of a tradition of reflection and query and excellence.

Well done, Shari! I look forward to seeing the next world you improve.

Mitch Kapor, founder, EFF:

Shari was at EFF from the beginning, back in the early days of cyberspace, as a junior member of the original D.C. team. Hard to believe or remember, but true. EFF had a lot of ups and downs in its early years and through its adolescence. It was Shari’s return as Executive Director which provided the leadership and stability that has transformed the organization into a beacon for freedom in today’s online world. I am personally grateful to her for taking such good care of my baby and raising it into its maturity. Thank you, Shari, and best wishes wherever your path takes you. 

Esther Dyson, Wall Street technology analyst and founding chairman of ICANN, former EFF board chair:

Shari Steele manifests the ideals of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. As executive director for so many years, she turned a concept into a respected force for electronic freedom. And most importantly, she created an institution that will live on without her.   

Lawrence Lessig, founder of Creative Commons, Harvard Law professor and former EFF board member:

Once there was an idea, launched with incredible inspiration. That was EFF. Now there is the most important and effective civil rights organization for the digital age (meaning now and forever). That is the EFF that Shari made possible. Patient, ferocious, deliberate leadership—with endless humility, and always a smile—did that. We are forever grateful and in her debt. 

Gigi Sohn, Counselor to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, former Executive Director, Public Knowledge:

I always felt that Shari and I belonged to a small but special club—female executive directors of technology policy organizations—me with Public Knowledge, and she with EFF. Whenever I needed advice on dealing with my Board or handling an employee, or figuring out appropriate compensation, I’d always pick up the phone to talk to Shari first. What she built at EFF is simply amazing—the organization had some very lean years, nearly on life support as I understand it, and by force of will Shari turned it into the most recognized and influential technology policy organization in the country, perhaps even the world. And despite the daily grind of trying to raise money for my own organization, I never felt envious of that success—only very proud of Shari and what she created.  

Shari, what you have contributed to the tech policy field and to this country is immeasurable. I have no doubt that you will be as successful, if not more so, in the next chapter in your life. 

Sue Gardner, Executive Director, Wikimedia Foundation 2007-2014:

The strength of an ED is measured by the success of their organization, and under Shari's leadership the EFF flourished. I <3 Shari. She's unpretentious, fearless, and funny—and she gets shit done. I'll miss her tremendously, and I wish her every continued success. 

Richard Wiebe, EFF Special Counsel and co-counsel in Jewel v. NSA, First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles v. NSA, Hepting v. AT&T, Apple v. Does, DVDCCA v. Bunner and others:

For a bunch of innovators, revolutionaries, and highly-opinionated advocates, EFF is a remarkably stable and smoothly run organization. Shari deserves enormous credit for making it so. I remember first making my way down to Shotwell Street fourteen years ago and meeting Shari in her small and unpretentious office. Even though she stayed in the background (a neat trick, given how small EFF was in those days) and kept the focus on the organization and the issues, I could tell that there was a great mind and a strong vision at work within her. EFF's growth and expansion over the years has been remarkable; even more remarkable is how its achievements and influence continually exceed its numbers and funds. EFF always punches above its weight. That doesn't just happen by itself in an organization, year after year. Perhaps the best testament to Shari is that, even though she will be greatly missed, no one doubts the strength, stability, and continued vitality of the organization she has shaped and nurtured.

Annalee Newitz, Editor-in-chief, Gizmodo, former EFF policy analyst:

Thanks so much to Shari for creating—and sustaining!—an organization that shaped my thinking on so many issues. EFF changed my life! 

Mike Godwin, director of innovation policy, R Street Institute, former general counsel for the Wikimedia Foundation, first EFF staff counsel:

If Shari Steele had never taken on the job of running EFF as executive director in 2000, she still would have been the single person most responsible for EFF’s health and success today. Starting in the 1990s, Shari shepherded EFF through its most difficult transition from its early years as a public-policy cyberlaw startup … only to follow this by serving as executive director, guiding EFF’s flourishing as the leading light in today’s cyberliberties world. The major secret of her success—she’s followed the "A players hire A players" rule. That is, Shari has always assembled first-class teams and then gotten out of their way to let them get great work done. It’s just breathtaking to look back now and take it all in, just how strong a leader Shari has been, and how much all of us who get to work in this field owe her for keeping EFF a living, growing, and continuing inspiration. I am so grateful to Shari personally for what she given us, and she inspires me to this day. 

Roger Dingledine, Project Leader, Director, Researcher at the Tor Project:

Tor might not exist today if Shari hadn't helped us. First in 2004 she took a chance in funding a technology project when EFF traditionally focused on law projects. Then in 2005 she made sure we had the right resources inside EFF to succeed—ranging from folks to build the website to activists to technical people to help manage our growth. Finally, in 2006 she stepped up to be our fiscal sponsor when Omidyar wanted to give us a grant.

Fred von Lohmann, senior copyright counsel at Google, former EFF senior staff attorney:

Leadership means assembling the right team and creating the conditions to let them accomplish great things. That's Shari Steele, in a nutshell. 

Sarah Deutsch, IP attorney, former EFF board member:

The public needs to know that one key person behind the many successes of EFF over the years has been Shari Steele. Her strategic thinking, wisdom and great leadership has also allowed EFF to grow and flourish. She will be sorely missed!

Kevin S. Bankston, policy director for Open Technology Institute, former EFF senior staff attorney:

Shari has always been the model of modest leadership—focused not on her own profile or achievements but on making sure that the EFF team always had the money, staff, and other resources necessary to make a difference where others couldn't and, pardon my french, kick some ass defending the Internet. Since moving on from EFF after spending nearly ten years under her wing, I've carried that lesson with me as I too have begun to move away from the front lines and into management: leadership isn't about what you do, it's about what the team that you support can do with your help, and the pride of leadership comes not from your own accomplishments but those of the people that you've fostered. I learned that from Shari Steele and I'm forever grateful for it. 

Brad Templeton, chair of Computing & Networks at Singularity University, EFF board member and former chairman:

In 2000, the EFF had gone through a period of tumult. We had gone through a couple of executive directors and the organization had actually shrunk and was divided. It turned out the answer we needed was right at our feet. Shari Steele, who had been with EFF from the start, had left to build her own organization, but our best decision ever was bringing her back to be executive director. Since then, we've never looked back, and the EFF is many times larger and many times more effective, and continues to be on a great track. She leaves behind big shoes to fill. 

Ren Bucholz, associate attorney at Lenczer Slaght LLP, former EFF Assistant Director of International Policy:

EFF was founded to tackle some of the hardest, most important questions presented by the impact of new technologies on civil society. There was no playbook, no way to predict how the battlegrounds would develop or who would require assistance. Shari has quietly, reliably steered EFF through the last decades of unprecedented changes. Her unerring sense of compassion and justice, her incredible tenacity and commitment, have been the foundation of EFF’s good work. I am proud to have shared part of her journey. 

Jonathan Zittrain, author of "The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It," Harvard law professor, EFF board member:

Shari has inspired EFF to rise to the many challenges confounding Internet rights. We're grateful for her fearlessness, her energy, and her ability to cut through the fog of today's tech issues. 

Jason Schultz, Director, Technology Law & Policy Clinic, Co-Director, Engelberg Center on Innovation Law and Policy, NYU School of Law, former EFF senior staff attorney:

Focused. Inventive. Agile. Determined. Shari brought all those qualities to the office every day along with a sense of humor and camaraderie that inspired all of us to change the world and have fun while doing it. Great mentors have that subtle ability to guide you and give you the resources you need without getting in the way. Guiding one or even a handful of fiercely-independent advocates is tough enough; Shari guided dozens of us for over a decade, creating an amazing network committed to fighting for digital rights. 

Trevor Timm, Executive Director, Freedom of the Press Foundation, former EFF staffer: 

We are deeply indebted to Shari Steele and EFF. Many people may not know that Freedom of the Press Foundation would not exist today if Shari didn't encourage and facilitate its founding and allow EFF to incubate it at its very beginning. She is also an inspiration, as someone who took a fledgling civil liberties organization that not many people had heard of and turned it into the national powerhouse it is today.

Alex Fowler, Co-Founder & SVP, Business Affairs of Blockstream, former EFF staffer:

The two years leading up to Shari's appointment as EFF's Executive Director were tumultuous ones. We were coming off some amazing accomplishments. Years of work on Bernstein v. US had culminated in the historic Ninth Circuit decision that source code is speech and existing export control laws on encryption were unconstitutional. Our computer Deep Crack twice broke 56-bit DES, an insufficient encryption standard to protect our nation's financial data, and led the federal government to adopt Triple DES. And EFF's Blue Ribbon campaign was still the gold standard of advocacy for the future of an open Internet. Internally, however, the organization was in turmoil. The appointment of new Executive Directors each year was taking its toll. People were unhappy. Many moved on. The future looked uncertain. Through it all, the one person we looked to for continuity and direction was Shari, who was the legal director at the time. She knew, better than anyone, the organization, including its idiosyncrasies, founders, funders, values, and its place in the world. But what made Shari indispensable was her focus on supporting the team and doing whatever she could do to help us be successful. It was therefore no surprise when the Board turned to Shari to lead EFF into the future. 

Katina Bishop, former EFF development director:

In my time at EFF, we often addressed Shari's birthday cards to "our fearless leader" and she is a true leader in every sense of the word. When I started at EFF in 2000, I was one of eight employees and by the time I left, more than a decade later, EFF had become an internationally recognized thriving organization of 40 people, all thrilled to be there. Her vision, instinct, boldness and creativity inspire everyone around her to work and live at a higher standard. I am honored to have worked closely with her for over ten years, and grateful for her friendship. 

All photos shot by Quinn Norton at past EFF events. Licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0

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