Creating Change Returns to Detroit

Ellen Shanna Knoppow
By | 2019-01-18T17:55:27-04:00 January 17th, 2019|Michigan, News|

Back in the D
For the third time in its 31-year history, the National LGBTQ Task Force’s annual Creating Change Conference will take place in the Motor City. And although its new director, Andy Garcia, doesn’t hail from Michigan, it’s still something of a homecoming.
“I’m just thrilled, said Garcia. “This is a dream job for me, to be really clear. I’m really excited that my first year as director is going to be in Detroit, because my very first Creating Change ever was in 1995 in Detroit.” The conference was also held here in 2008.
Garcia said to expect 3,500 participants at the conference, which is set to last from Jan. 23 to 27 at the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center.
“This conference is big,” said Garcia. “It is beautiful. It is everything that is wonderful about the LGBTQ community and our allies. It really showcases our brilliance, our resiliency and our commitment to make the world a better place by creating change. I also say it’s bold, and it’s visionary. It really is where the ideas that shape the movement and the future of the movement and the focus of the movement are born, and where we strategize to bring the ideas to reality.”
Given the current political climate, “creating change” is more important than ever for the LGBTQ community said Garcia. And with that in mind, the conference is an opportunity for people to connect with each other, learn new concepts, new skills, new ways of being and an opportunity to learn how to resist, he said.

Creating Change Director Andy Garcia. Courtesy photo.

“An emphasis for this year, as we go into Stonewall 50 (the 50th anniversary of Stonewall riots), we really want people to kind of pick up on this theme of persistence: We have always been here; we will always be here. And it’s really important for us to recognize that we’ll get through this time as well, that change is on the way,” Garcia said.

 

Michigan Made
Without the coordinated efforts of its 100 host committee members, the conference would not have been possible. Garcia called it an amazing showing of local support, adding, “Detroit is just such a wonderful city to work with, because as you know, the folks are really passionate and committed, and it has such a rich history of activism and social change and organizing.”
Garcia shared that in several respects, the conference will feature some local flavor. To begin with, attendees can expect to see familiar Detroit faces at the opening plenary on Thursday night. Moderated by BTL contributor Michelle Brown, the panel discussion will include Cynthia Thornton, Cecelia LaPointe and Dr. Abdul El-Sayed.
“We don’t typically focus the plenary on the city that’s hosting us,” Garcia said. “So this year, we are. We really wanted to welcome people to the conference by hearing from activists that live there, to give folks a sense of the place they’re in.”
While film screenings are a regular feature of Creating Change, Garcia said he’s particularly excited to show “America You Kill Me,” a documentary about the life and activism of Jeffrey Montgomery. It was Montgomery who co-founded the Triangle Foundation, a landmark LGBTQ activism space, in 1991 after his boyfriend was killed outside a bar in Detroit.
Another event specific to Detroit’s conference will be a house ball on Friday night. Garcia said that while they’ve held balls in some other cities, “since Detroit has such a vibrant house ball community, we really wanted to make that a part of the conference as well.”
Visitors can expect cash prizes and trophies, too. In addition, for the closing plenary and brunch on Sunday, Garcia said they are pleased to be able to feature local talent: hip-hop artist and activist Deirdre D.S. Sense Smith.
There are other ways that Creating Change aims to not only showcase this year’s host city, but also give it a boost.
“We are really focusing on leaving Detroit better resourced than we found it,” said Garcia. “That’s really a commitment of ours. To help the community come together and build something like this is part of what we hope everyone will walk away with, to see how that can happen on a city-wide scale. Pulling off an event like this takes a lot. We really want folks to leave feeling like they understand what makes Detroit special.”
To that end, said Garcia, they will be presenting awards to recognize local heroes. One of the awards, the Susan J. Hyde Award for Longevity in the Movement, will be presented to Jan Stevenson and Susan Horowitz, publishers of Between The Lines and Pride Source Media Group. The award is named for Sue Hyde, the director of Creating Change for its first 30 years. (Garcia laughed that he’s received many “big shoes to fill” comments regarding his new post as director.)

Courtesy photo.

Learn. Connect. Resist. Persist.
The more than 250 workshops and caucuses offered at this year’s Creating Change reflect the diversity of the LGBTQ+ community. Whether one’s interests lie in activism, community, democracy, justice, faith, healing or organizational development, Garcia says there is something for everyone. Wide-ranging workshop titles include Queering Reproductive Justice, Sex Positive Trans Sex, Digital Branding for the Modern Queer, POC Joy as Radical Resistance, Queerspawn UNITE!, Hack the Law: The Advocate’s Toolbox and Kink 101. BTL spoke with leaders of two workshops.
When metro Detroit-based Stand with Trans was asked to submit a proposal for a workshop at the conference, Roz Keith and Yma Johnson answered the call. Keith is founder, executive director and president of the organization, which is dedicated to supporting and empowering transgender youth, and Johnson is a board member. Both are moms of transgender sons and will be presenting Creating Change One Family at a Time.
“We will give them some tools and some skills where they can maybe shift how they parent, whether they’ve just found out about their child’s identity, or if they’ve been dealing with it but struggling a little bit, and we’ll share some real-life examples,” Keith said. She added that they’ll discuss advocacy: advocating for one’s child, then broadening the message to create meaningful change in the community.
“Then we want to talk about how the support that they provide at home really makes a significant difference in mental health in families being a more cohesive unit in preventing isolation and bullying,” she said. “Simple behavior shifts by parents can make such a huge difference in their child’s entire existence.”
Johnson brings to the table her parenting experiencing, as well as a passion for social justice. She said that beyond the one-at-a-time approach, she’s excited for the opportunity to affect change on a systemic level.
“Part of what we’re bringing is, we’re adding to the momentum of a conversation that’s really evolving right now. There’s evidence that we’re in a cultural moment around transgender issues. It’s a watershed moment, the evolution of trans rights.”
Johnson never imagined herself the activist that she has become, and said she’d like to share with parents how her life has changed because of supporting her son.
“My life is better now than it was before my son came out,” she said.
Regarding the quickly-approaching conference, Johnson stated, “There’s an excitement that happens when like-minded people congregate from all over, to have these kinds of conversations and share knowledge. It really is exhilarating.”
Faith Williams, another workshop leader, echoed that sentiment.
“You do a lot of work in the lead-up to these types of workshop presentations,” said Williams, who is the senior manager for government relations for the National Council of Jewish Women, headquartered in Washington, D.C. “And you get there, and you are so energized because you are surrounded by people who are so knowledgeable and so passionate about these things that you work on in your office and it’s really wonderful.”
Williams, along with representatives from the Human Rights Campaign and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, will be presenting LGBTQ Folks & Religious Minorities: Natural Allies for Religious Freedom.
“Religious freedom has really … kind of shifted from this shield that protects religious minorities to this weapon that is used to attack — I would say primarily LGBTQ folks — but also religious minorities, single mothers, anyone with whom a person of any religion might disagree,” Williams said, describing the theme of the workshop.
She added that it’s an issue that’s worsened since the last presidential election, which reflects the impact of a candidate who aligned himself with the extreme religious right along with the reaction of people whose narrow interpretation of religion rejects things like marriage equality. Workshop topics will include health care “conscience” laws, rules surrounding adoption and fostering, and private school voucher programs. She said she hopes people leave the workshop with new ideas for partners and coalitions to work with on religious freedom issues.
The organization’s tagline, “Making Change since 1893,” suggests that Creating Change is a well-named conference for NCJW, which Williams described as of Jewish women, but for everyone.
“I think the one constant of NCJW is change,” she said. “We’re just getting more diverse as an organization, more diverse as a country and more diverse in terms of the policies we pursue as a part of our larger mission to advance the well-being of women and families and safeguard individual rights.”
Beyond workshops and speakers, conference participants can enjoy the art studio spaces, learn their HIV status and attend a variety of spiritual gatherings. Drop in to the Healing Justice Practice Space to relax and recharge. Recovery meetings are on the schedule, child care is available and separate hospitality suites are set up to welcome guests — including people with disabilities, elders, guests on the asexual/aromantic spectrum and others. Plus, there’s ample opportunity to make new friends at numerous receptions and two dances, plus the house ball.
“This conference is a really magical space,” Garcia said. “We create this place, within the conference hotel, that is really special to people. And our philosophy at the Task Force and Creating Change is this concept of radical welcome, where everybody who is in that hotel feels like they are exactly where they need to be. So we really want people returning to where they came from, returning to their hometowns feeling re-energized and feeling less alone and feeling like they have the skills, the knowledge and the passion to create change in their communities.”

Find out more about the conference at creatingchange.org. Online registration closes Jan. 12, but participants may register onsite. Day passes are available. 

Welcome to Detroit Opening Plenary
Thursday, Jan. 24
8 p.m.
Renaissance Ballroom
This panel explores what makes Detroit and its residents special.
Find out more online at creatingchange.org.

About the Author:

Ellen Shanna Knoppow
Ellen Knoppow is a writer, editor and activist. She also volunteers for the Human Rights Campaign and Affirmations.