Dominique Jackson, one of the stars of the critically acclaimed FX television series "Pose," will be the keynote speaker for Equality Michigan's annual Mission Equality event. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year's event, which takes place Friday, Aug. 7, will be virtual. Equality Michigan Executive Director Erin Knott said that creating the event was not easy.
"The first challenge was the decision itself," Knott said. "Mission Equality is such a fun event where we all get to congregate, meet new people and connect with old friends as we celebrate our successes and highlight areas still needing our attention. It was hard to admit that a packed room in Detroit wasn't going to be possible because of the pandemic."
Once Knott and her crew realized this, they were faced with an abundance of questions that included "determining what format to use virtually, how to make it fun and inclusive for our guests and how to communicate to sponsors that funding for our programs and services are still needed — even if our guests at Mission Equality will not be able to interact with sponsors the same way."
Rounding up sponsorships provided its own difficulties, too. Knott said that there had to be an adjustment made when other nonprofit organizations began reporting slowed ticket sales and sponsorships.
"It became even more obvious that fundraising would suffer as we made fundraising calls to past donors asking for their support," Knott said. "Several were impossible to follow up with because their offices were closed, many told us they were focusing on emergency basic needs and some have decided not to give at all because their own future was uncertain. And, while there is no doubt that this pandemic has disproportionately impacted the LGBTQ community, we are not the only community being affected. We also had to spend a great deal of time usually reserved for fundraising focused on learning how to put on a virtual event."
And that was, Knott said, perhaps the greatest challenge of all.
"Very few of us even knew what Zoom was before March of this year, let alone how to use it to plan a virtual event," she said. "In order to make sure the event runs smoothly we met with tech experts about our internet services and laptops. We watched endless videos on how to launch a Zoom poll, how to share videos and sound during a screen share, how to spotlight a speaker, how to preset breakout rooms, etc. We spent hours thinking about how to make it interactive by sending guests a party favor ahead of time and providing an opportunity for them to participate in the program by having a Q&A session."
And despite all that preparation, there is still much work to do as the event draws nearer. Still, Knott said that she's looking forward to the event and that she measures success by more than fundraising.
"Because we use this platform to highlight LGBTQ wins and upcoming challenges. I want to point out the great opportunities turning virtual provides, specifically traveling to the event isn't a barrier for our guests so hopefully more of our community will be able to participate," Knott said. "And we were able to secure an amazing keynote speaker in Dominique Jackson."
Jackson, who hails from the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, came to the U.S. when she was 15 to escape persecution for being transgender. In New York City, she became a popular member of the ball scene and also the pageantry system, winning six titles while competing locally and nationally.
Today, Jackson is an actress, model, author and activist. She appears in the role of Elektra Abundance on "Pose," and she recently released her first book titled "The Transsexual from Tobago." In the book, Jackson talks candidly about her mental health struggles and her search for acceptance and self-actualization.
On the book's Amazon page, Jackson said her book "is an attempt to bring visibility to a community constantly abused by its peers. It is the experience from one but of many. It addresses the need for understanding not just tolerance. it is a plea for not only equality but for compassion. All labels, titles, genders, colors, nationalities and communities aside, all I see is human."
Tickets for Mission Equality range from $75 to $175 with some free tickets available. To purchase tickets, visit equalitymi.org/missionequality.