by Ej Dean
Sitting in the balcony of the Brooklyn Academy of Music today, surrounded by a community about to get to their feet over and over again – hands clapping – I was reminded how one person can influence change. I was reminded that “community” is sitting next to you, is next door, and we need to support one another. Our friends struggling all over the world, as Haitians are right now, are our neighbors.
So what does community mean? What does it mean to make change? How do we make the world a better place? Where do I start when so many of our days are spent trying to put food on the table and pay bills that come in faster than paychecks?
When I presented this question to a friend six months ago, she said, “You get up and go.”
Before sitting down to lunch with her, I had spent the last weeks of my life debating two futures: Keep my well-paying job with health care and an upcoming promotion, or risk walking toward the first thing I’ve felt committed and driven toward – joining the LGBT movement – trying to make a living by making change.
A Michigan native (born way up north in Empire), for the past few years, Kalamazoo is where I have lived and found community. It is there that I also found a campaign – one that I’m not so sure needed me as much as I needed it.
It took me two weeks to take a leave from my safe job and dive head-first into the One Kalamazoo campaign, fighting for the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance. On Nov. 4, 2009, as the campaign campus coordinator for One Kalamazoo, I became part of the privileged community of organizers that stood together and won.
Twenty-four hours later, those same volunteers helped pack my car, store and sell my belongings and raise money for my travel to New Jersey and a new LGBT campaign.
That cold Election Day, I learned what it felt like to be free. I learned that we each have the ability to change the world if we can get past our fear. I needed to get up and go, to take this fuel I had been graced with to New Jersey. Why? Because they had been working for months on their own fight and they weren’t done just yet.
I walked into an office on the third floor of a non-descript building on a main street in Montclair, N.J. on Nov. 12 with a megaphone slung ’round my shoulder with pride. I was just Ej Dean from a small town in Michigan.
I have to admit, I was surprised that I found the same willingness to fight through fear from straight allies, lesbian couples who have been waiting years to be married and single queer college students that I did in Kalamazoo.
Marriage equality, whether you want it for yourself or not, is a right we all deserve. And the people fighting for it in New Jersey were as earnest, steadfast, stubborn and fun-loving as the Midwesterners I’d grown up with my whole life.
In New Jersey, a very corrupt, cowardly, Republican governor had been elected the same day Kalamazoo won. His win meant we had our work cut out for us to pass the marriage equality bill before he took office on Jan. 19.
Volunteers filled the state House six times; over 3,000 people had been part of one or more of these days, all taking action. We spent every day, freezing or not, on the streets, door to door, in coffee shops in non-supportive districts asking complete strangers if they support marriage equality and handing them a dialing phone to call their legislators in support. Over 7,000 calls from constituents were made in front of our faces in the seven weeks we were on the streets. Volunteers showed up every day in our five offices around the state.
That’s the win we can count, for now. New Jersey, like Kalamazoo, now has community. Not only does it have a community of people who recognize and know each other, it has thousands of trained volunteers ready and willing to continue the fight, to take action.
I was offered the job of deputy field manager with New Jersey’s statewide LGBT equality organization, Garden State Equality, earlier this month. Six months after I joined the movement, I am now helping to lead the fight.
We are in the process of suing the state of New Jersey for not upholding their commitment to equality alongside LAMBDA Legal. I am humbled by the opportunity to continue the pursuit of equality for all. I will, without a doubt, work minute by minute toward creating a country where we each live without fear – fear of losing our jobs, of losing our partners without the right to be by their side, of being out. I will work bit by bit to create a country where no human has limited freedoms because of who they love.
Today, I sat in a theatre filled with hundreds of people and held hands with my neighbors and sang, “We will overcome.” Join the fight. Get up and go. Break through the fear. Come make change.