Photo Caption: Johnny Jenkins (right) and his partner Frederick Douglas have started a gourmet dessert business called Creme Detroipolis. (BTL photo: Jason A. Michael)
DETROIT – He’s been a leader in Metro Detroit and, indeed, Michigan’s LGBT community for over two decades. Now Johnny Jenkins, most recently director of programs for Affirmations, is leaving non-profit work to create a for-profit enterprise. As he makes this transition, Jenkins sat down with Between The Lines to talk about the change he’s witnessed over the past 20 years and what he believes the future holds for gays in the state.
Jenkins’ first non-profit experience was with Detroit Black Pride, organizers of the annual Hotter Than July black gay pride celebration in Detroit since 1996. Jenkins was one of the founders of the organization, which later changed its name to the Black Pride Society and now has been absorbed by LGBT Detroit (formerly Kick – The Agency for LGBT African Americans). President of the board for about a dozen years, Jenkins and DBP were for a long time synonymous with one another.
“It was never just Johnny, even though at times it felt like it,” Jenkins recalled. “There was always support from members of the board who took on a lot of responsibility. I was just the head of the snake.”
Jenkins’ day job during his tenure with DBP was in the corporate world, specifically advertising. But before long he found that he was spending more and more of his time working on behalf of the LGBT community.
“One of my key things over those 13 or so years was to intersect the mission of Black Pride into social justice work, so while people are partying at the club and hanging out at the park and not thinking about those issues that affect our everyday life, I saw an opportunity to spread knowledge,” Jenkins said. “That was kind of how Homophobia in Detroit came about, when we had those town hall meetings, and that was probably how I got into social justice and advocacy work because I was supposed to be a corporate advertising guy. I wasn’t supposed to be involved in advocacy work.”
But involved he was. Jenkins’ first full-time non-profit job was working for the Arcus Foundation, where he was the Michigan program officer.
“I directed the social justice LGBT rights portfolio for the entire state of Michigan,” said Jenkins. “It was about a $2.5-3 million annual grant making budget, pretty much aimed at advancing social justice and equality in the state of Michigan around LGBT rights.”
Jenkins said a pivotal moment for Michigan’s LGBT community was 2004, when Proposal 2, an amendment to the state’s constitution that made it illegal for same-sex marriages to be performed or even recognized in the state, passed.
“The LGBT community in the state of Michigan, I think, has gotten a lot more cohesive since then,” he said. “Community organizations here are working more collaboratively with community organizers in Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids. Before that, leaders in southeastern Michigan weren’t talking or collaborating with anybody outside of southeastern Michigan.
“Proposal 2 in 2004 was one of our major weak points,” Jenkins continued. “We realized we did not work well together because we never had to. So when that proposal passed, the weight of it was felt across the entire state and by leaders from across the state. I remember we met in a room that was pulled together by (Between The Lines) and we talked about the realities of what had just happened and what people were feeling. And from that, I think, the community statewide is much stronger, much savvier in terms of how we engage our policy makers in Lansing and how we engage our community.”
Jenkins said that savviness has helped change minds and hearts across the state.
“It has been key toward changing attitudes toward LGBT people in the state and on the issue of marriage as well,” he said. “A lot of that was coming anyway, but it needed to be nurtured. We just had a lot of work to do after we lost that proposal. It exposed all of our weaknesses and it was not a pretty sight. Going to Arcus Foundation was a great opportunity to kind of access and analyze all of those weak ends. And Jon Stryker, bless his heart, was willing to throw millions of dollars to address the challenges.”
In 2011, Jenkins joined the staff of Affirmations, at a time when the community center was in great crisis.
“Dave (Garcia, former executive director) brought me on at a time when the center was only open a few hours a day a few days a week,” Jenkins recalled. “Programs had been cut dramatically and there was little to no activity happening in the building. So he wanted me to work with him to expand programs and essentially make the center relevant again. This was all right after the recession. I think the board was smart in terms of bringing someone on board with Dave’s leadership who would provide some spunk and some energy and reengage the community. Despite some of my prior history with Affirmations, I figured it was an opportunity to work within the organization to create some pretty meaningful change. So Dave provided me that opportunity to step up and be a part of that change, and I think we did it pretty well.”
Some of the change that Jenkins hoped to see transpired as a result of the Strategic Planning Committee.
“They included the Multicultural Advisory Report, which was a document of recommendations and action items that were made that the center was advised to move on to make it more culturally sensitive to its constituents who were disenfranchised and marginalized people and, more specifically, people of color,” said Jenkins. “That was made into a pillar of the strategic plan. I think that’s really important with an organization that’s had issues with diversity and inclusion on a multitude of levels for so long. That was significant change.”
Jenkins said the most challenging aspect of his work was “prioritizing the need and balancing that with the resources that were available. There are a lot of needs in our community, and unfortunately we do not have unlimited resources to deal with them all.”
Now, three and a half years later, Jenkins is leaving Affirmations and the non-profit work that has consumed him for so long.
“It’s an opportunity for me to create economic wealth within the community by owning my own small business,” Jenkins explained. “My partner, Frederick Douglas, and I created a dessert business called Creme Detroipolis. We specialize in gourmet sweet potato creme based deserts that are gluten free.”
In addition to sweet potato pies, Creme Detroitopolis offers cookies, cakes, truffles and even features a vegan sugarless sweet potato pie that sells almost as well as their regular pie. Already, Creme Detroipolis has won a Best of Detroit award from Metro Times.
Jenkins said the whole thing came about by chance.
“I started playing around with my mother’s sweet potato pie recipe and started making it for the holidays,” he said. “People started really getting into it. It got to the point where my mother told me she wasn’t going to bake it anymore and I needed to do something with it. So I put my marketing hat on, and the last two years has been an interesting ride. It’s been a great ride.”
But it’s not a ride into the sunset, and Jenkins insisted that his work with the LGBT community is not done.
“I’ve always made myself available to the community when I’m needed, and I will continue to do so,” Jenkins said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done. Once marriage equality is realized, there’s still other issues that will need to be addressed to improve the quality of life in our community, and they’re going to take just as much energy and resources to advance them.
“Our work isn’t done after marriage equality, and unfortunately a lot of people are going to think that it’s done,” Jenkins continued. “There are constant attacks against the civil rights act and there will be constant attacks against our community. And if we’re not vigilant in protecting the rights we achieve in the next few years, they’ll be taken away from us. So I’ll be working in those places.”