The Rev. Valerie Ackerman has advocated for homeless children and domestic-violence victims. She volunteers as a mediator, has served parishioners from the pulpit and is active in her neighborhood association.
Now, Ackerman, 56, will bring her diverse experience to New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, a statewide organization headquartered at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany. A resident of Schenectady, she was recently named executive director of the group, succeeding former Schenectady resident David Kaczynski.
Ackerman said the group’s goals dovetail nicely with her own.
“I’ve been advocating for non-violence for pretty much my whole life,” she said during an interview in her office. “This is a perfect match for me.”
After the New York Court of Appeals declared the state’s death penalty unconstitutional in 2004, effectively banning it, New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty shifted focus. The emphasis became violence prevention, healing for victims and rehabilitation, rather than the abolition of capital punishment.
“Just eliminating the death penalty isn’t a solution to any real problem,” Ackerman said. “We want to figure out how people can avoid getting involved with the criminal justice system.
The group, previously known as New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty, changed its name to better reflect its more holistic, community-oriented agenda. And as it continues to evolve, Ackerman said another name change might be necessary.
“We’re working on how to frame our paradigm shift in a way that is accessible,” she said.
Albany Diocese Bishop Howard Hubbard said New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty is “at a critical juncture.” The group must remain “vigilant to ensure that the death penalty does not come back,” but must also address the root causes of violence. He said one of the group’s challenges is communicating its vision, which is less defined and broader in scope than the more single-minded focus on ending the death penalty.
“Now that the death penalty has become a moot point, we want to address wider societal issues: bullying, domestic violence, people with emotional problems,” said Hubbard, who serves as chairman of the group’s board of directors.
Hubbard said Ackerman is a good fit for the organization because “she has a real commitment to social justice. She shares our vision about the death penalty being something that’s unneeded and really immoral in today’s society.”
He noted that Ackerman lacks the celebrity of Kaczynski, whose story is well known: As the brother of domestic terrorist Ted Kaczynski, he assisted the FBI in its search for his brother, then fought to save his brother’s life when prosecutors mounted a death penalty case. Ted Kaczynski ultimately pleaded guilty and remains incarcerated.
“It’s not an easy task following David Kaczynski,” Hubbard said, “but I think her open and collegial demeanor will serve her well.
Kaczynski retired last year and moved to the small Ulster County town of Woodstock with his wife, longtime Union College philosophy professor Linda Patrik, to run Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery.
One of Ackerman’s big tasks will be continuing to steer New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty in a new direction. The organization is involved in two programs aimed at violence prevention and rehabilitation:
• The Limits of Loyalty program brings panels of people who have survived violence to schools to talk to students. The idea is to teach youths that sometimes loyalty to friends and family can condone and even abet violence. The program has been implemented in the Schenectady City School District, and New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty would like to expand it to school systems throughout the state.
“We want to take Limits of Loyalty on the road,” Ackerman said.
• The group is also involved with Project Safe Neighborhoods, a national program that helps parolees transition to life outside prison by having them meet with a panel that includes other ex-convicts and law-enforcement officials. The idea is to welcome them home and let them know that they have choices and options, Ackerman said.
Project Safe Neighborhoods is “really powerful,” Ackerman said. “The parolees are welcomed back to the community, which no criminal ever expects. They expect to be treated like pariahs.”
Ackerman moved to Schenectady about five years ago from Tulsa, Okla., and is now active in a variety of civic and social change organizations.
In Tulsa, Ackerman founded Peace House, where she served as chaplain and worked with people suffering from domestic violence. Not long after moving to Schenectady, she was hired by the YWCA of NorthEastern NY, where she served as coordinator for the organization’s domestic abuse response team and domestic violence task force.
Ackerman is ordained by the Unitarian Universalist Association. In that group’s tradition, she said there are three types of ministers — parish, education and community — and she considers herself a community minister. That means she is “out in the world doing things,” rather than serving a congregation or teaching.
“I have been in the pulpit, but I think my gifts are best used in the community,” Ackerman said. “Most Unitarian Universalists are, in one way or another, trying to change society.”
Ackerman grew up outside Pittsburgh and has also lived in Michigan and Illinois. She and her husband, Bill, moved to Schenectady when he was hired by General Electric. They live in the Stockade neighborhood, and Ackerman has become active in the Stockade Association, serving on its board of directors.
“I really love living in downtown Schenectady,” Ackerman said.
Ackerman said one of her big challenges as executive director of New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty will be convincing people that violence prevention and rehabilitation are possible.
“It’s hard to convince people that there’s a way to prevent problems,” she said. “I think we’ll have plenty to do for a long time.”