By ANDREA POTEET
A well-worn saying reminds us that time away from something we love can help strengthen our love for it.
For Roland Leggett, absence from Michigan not only made him fonder of his home state, it made him roll up his sleeves and start fighting to change it.
In 2009, Leggett had just moved back to Michigan after working for Obama for America in Chicago. He said moving from progressive Chicago back to a state with so much anti-LGBT legislation was a shock.
“I had really grown accustomed frankly to the reality of being a gay man of color in the city of Chicago and in the state of Illinois and so I was shocked when I came home, about the really difficult legislative reality that there is here,” he says. “There’s a big, big difference. Illinois just recently got same-sex partner benefits and civil unions and to think that I moved from a state that has civil unions to a state that doesn’t even have domestic partner benefits for employees underlines the importance of those issues.”
So he got started trying to change it, working for ACLU of Michigan for two years before landing in his current job as a field organizer at Equality Michigan.
“It’s funny because when you’re a little kid, you don’t think ‘I want to be a field organizer when I grow up,’ or anything,” Leggett says.
Though most of what Leggett does now – registering and educating new voters for a nonpartisan voter activation initiative and lobbying for anti-discrimination ordinances and other pro-LGBT legislation all over the state – eventually ends up in the news, he began his career literally making the news, as a production intern at WDET a decade ago.
“Initially, I wanted to work for NPR or PBS,” Leggett, 31, says. “But I got more interested in affecting the story instead of just telling it.”
While working for WDET’s subcarrier, the Detroit Radio Information Service, he began studying under its communication director and his workload began to include less production responsibilities and more advocacy, as he accompanied her to panel events and meetings.
“I’d see how she would bring people into the work she was doing and be able to expand the scope of the work she was doing and seeing her do that was really when something switched in my mind,” he says. “I thought ‘that’s something I would like to do is combine that communications piece with empowering and lifting up folks in the community.”
A self-professed “total nerd,” decked out in dark-framed glasses and a preppy-staple alligator sweater during a recent day at Equality Michigan’s Detroit office, Leggett said he is already working in his dream job, which incorporates his love of politics and involves anything from helping register voters and identifying potential leaders with whom the organization may work to helping to craft communications strategies. He balances work with Equality Michigan with his class load at Eastern Michigan University where he is “on the 13-year plan” finishing a bachelor’s degree in political science.
“I love the fact that its not a 9-to-5 job but I really get to get my hands in pretty much every component of the work the organization does,” he says.
He most loves the work he does in small towns, where he’s still surprised and overjoyed to find people working to make equality for everyone a reality.
“I think it’s really cool to be able to go to small towns in the state of Michigan and meet really progressive people, meet folks who are committed to gay and transgender issues,” he says. “I had the privilege over the last year or so to travel to Mt. Pleasant several times and see the great work they are doing there; that work led to the passage of a nondiscrimination ordinance, and I think if we had that conversation a year and a half ago, if I had told you we would have passed a non discrimination ordinance in Mt. Pleasant or in Muskegon…you would have thought I was crazy. I think it’s obvious that there’s a thirst in Michigan for this work and a thirst for us to move the ball forward. That’s what I love, is to be able to go to places that aren’t obvious and still find allies, still find people who are ready to get the work done.”
And there’s much more to be done, Leggett says, and frankly, he and the rest of the organization’s staff could use some help. He urges those who believe in the cause of LGBT rights to find a way to help – be it at Equality Michigan or any other LGBT organization – that works best for them, from a few hours answering phones to a day setting up and breaking down an event.
“I would encourage folks to not be daunted by the work that needs, to be done in Michigan,” Leggett says. “It can be overwhelming when you think ‘oh, we need to get some new legislatives in office that are focused on pro-equality issues,’ or ‘wow, what’s happening in my job now is really challenging for me to find a way to find healthcare for my family,’ all those things can be daunting. We would love it if we had 1,000 volunteers in here that could volunteer 40 hours a week. Most folks can’t do that, but if you can volunteer for two hours a month, that makes a tremendous difference. I would really encourage folks to take a deep breath and get involved in any way they can. Something you might think is the smallest most insignificant thing can make all the difference.”
Back before he was helping to shape the political climate for LGBT people all over the state, Legett was growing up in Auburn Hills. He came out when he was in high school and said he was surprised at how supportive his environment was.
“I was fortunate enough to come out at a high school were being gay wasn’t that much of an issue,” he says. “I took my boyfriend to Homecoming, the staff was supportive, and I had a lot of friends. I think coming out in the late ’90s in the suburbs, my experience was unusual, because it didn’t really matter that much.”
But, it may not be over in a state where one can be fired or face other legalized discrimination for being gay. Now planning a wedding with his partner of several years, Leggett says he anticipates a second “coming out,” similar to that facing many gay or lesbian couples who plan to adopt children.
“The process of coming out and the process of starting a family with someone, there’s a bit of a coming out process in that too,” he says. “There’s a potential you have to do it several times in your life; you might have to come out when you get a new job because you want your partner to have healthcare benefits or you want your child to have healthcare benefits and you don’t have a family structure that your boss is used to seeing. What’s interesting for me is the coming out process for me was not challenging, but I’m nervous about meeting that social worker and having a conversation about adoption.”
A lover of politics and a news junkie, Legett is adjusting to a more indirect role in this year’s presidential election, but he said having a different seat for the process has allowed him to see the effect 2008’s Obama for America campaign had on the young people with whom he interacts.
“I think what was really great about that campaign is a lot of folks roughly my age really felt invited into the process,” he says. “So while I had always been interested in progressive politics, I’ve always been interested in working in that capacity, I think it became obvious to me and a lot of folks that we have a responsibility to step up to the plate.”
He said he’s also seeing another byproduct of the last campaign: the activated young voters of four years ago are becoming the candidates of tomorrow.
“In addition to folks coming into the fray as far as progressive politics, you’re seeing a lot of people our age taking it a step further and thinking ‘we need to start running for office,'” he says. “So I’m excited to see in the next couple of years that crop of political activists that the Obama administration helped activate, I’m excited to see them enter into politics in the state.”
And until then, Leggett will continue enrolling voters, working for LGBT rights and watching the election from an observer’s seat.
“It’s like being in an amusement park on a roller coaster,” he says. “You get in line, you get on the roller coaster and you’re like ‘why am I on this ride?’ Its nerve racking; there’s a lot of excitement and a lot of energy. And at the end of the ride it’s so much fun.”