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Recognition in the media is one way to encourage young leaders and show them that what they do matters to the community. Such stories also help inspire others. Another way to help young leaders grow is to connect them with adults who have been down similar great paths.
The Young LGBT Leaders of Color Project tied all of those tools together, giving 14 Detroit Area youth the chance to have their determination and their dreams recognized. Each was featured in a cover story for Between The Lines, plus in a video for Model D. The project culminated with an Oct. 11 event held at Affirmations which featured a speech by New York-based activist Dr. Marjorie Hill, then a panel where she and five of the youth discussed what leadership they have seen in their lives. About 100 people attended the discussion, browsed a display of each profile in the gallery space, and watched the individual videos projected on a big screen. The project was initiated and supported by the Racial Equity Initiative of the HOPE Fund of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan.
Hill, who serves as executive director of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York, talked about her journey; from the days of donning sunglasses at night to sneak into a lesbian support group meeting and being called out to serve on their board, to boldly seeking a job at City Hall and the Mayor of New York giving her a chance, and through her career path that led to AIDS work.
She did not do it on her own. Others helped her along the path, particularly New York Mayor David Dinkins. “I’ll never forget the day walking up the steps of City Hall. And I’m sure you’ve seen the image of the little girl that has on her mother’s heels and the pearls are down to here and she has the mother’s bag? Well that’s how I felt walking up the steps, like I was going to be a grown up,” she said.
Thankfully the Mayor recognized Hill’s spirit and offered her a job. “I was immediately put at ease,” she said, “because Mayor David Dinkins asked me, ‘Do you care about the gay and lesbian community and why?'”
With Hill under his wings, Dinkins made an historic stand in 1991. The Mayor gave up his traditional spot at the head of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and instead walked with the Lesbian and Gay Irish Organization. Never before had LGBT people been allowed to march in the parade. “It was frightening, as they would literally throw beer cans and little Irish grandmothers were saying we should go to hell and die of AIDS,” she said.
Hill recognized from early on that, as she said, “Leadership is about recognizing what needs to happen and what needs to change.” While leaders like her were learning how to stand up for what was right, she also saw firsthand what happened when people did not stand up.
“The first person I knew who contracted AIDS was a heterosexual African American woman who was living in San Francisco with her husband in 1983. She came home to New York to die,” she said. Hill visited her at the hospital and was appalled to see the mistreatment she received because people on staff would not treat her with basic compassion. “Technicians would not risk their life to turn on the TV. Her food was always cold because dietary techs would not bring her food to her room.” It was the first of many times she would see unfairness rear its ugly head, though the encounters made her determined and strong.
Detroit is full of strong, determined people like those recognized in the LGBT Leaders of Color Project. Tony Johnson has fought AIDS, two strokes and a two-month coma, but remains strong and active through volunteering at KICK. Marlin Colyer, who turned 30 the night of the event, has gone through a LEAD training program and is now training other youth to be leaders. Bre Campbell is actively changing the stereotypes of young black transgender women. Rosemary Linares blurs lines as a married, bisexual half-Cuban woman who looks white, and who advocates for all people. And Kibibi Blount-Dorn is part of the local food revolution in Detroit, particularly though Eastern Market. These speakers were just a handful of those recognized by the program. They talked about their experiences and what leadership means to them.
“Before I was thrust into this status, I was at a crossroads,” Campbell said. “I felt that I am a transperson but I didn’t have to go out and tell people ‘well oh, I’m Bre and I’m a transperson.’ So I kind of reverted back and that was something that I kept to myself. I stopped being active in the community and I got a job living the heterosexual lifestyle without problem. So one of the transwomen was murdered. And I remember posting on Facebook how hurt I was and how she wasn’t getting the fairness in news coverage. And someone posted, ‘Bre what are you worried about, you’re not like those girls.’ And it really struck a course [sic] with me because I was like, ‘but I am.’ We share something in common and that thrust me back into the community. …Now I tell my story not for my own benefit but to be able to show that there is a difference… and so other transwomen may want to be more like me.”
For Colyer finding like-minded people has been the key to personal and professional growth. “I’m actually thankful for the people that teased me when I was younger because I was not your typical kid… But eventually as time progressed you get those people who actually nurture you, who accept you for who you are and just let you be you. So in that moment my light began to shine. When you are light to other people, you attract people of like minds. And being in that space with people of like minds makes your light shine brighter.”
The youth talked about their need for older leaders to educate and encourage them. “A lot of our fear is not being understood,” said Rhiannon Chester, sitting in the audience. “My experience is like ‘oh, you’re young, you’ll understand when you’re older.'” Colyer wants knowledge to be shared, not coveted. “Knowledge is infectious. Talk to somebody else and make it grow.”
To see the stories of The Young LGBT Leaders of Color Project, go to https://www.pridesource.com/section.html?section=news-leadership. To learn more about how you can support similar projects through the HOPE Fund, go to http://cfsem.org/hope-fund.