Newly minted Executive Director of Equality NC, Kendra Johnson is a lifelong campaigner for the public good. From childhood volunteerism and neighborhood cleanups in the Bible belt to racial and economic justice in South America, she’s devoted herself to raising up those relegated to the margins of society. Most recently, she served as Arkansas State Director for the Human Rights Campaign, helping to lead the charge for LGBTQ equality in the southern U.S. through the Project One America initiative. Johnson talks to qnotes about cooperation, intersectionality, and why fighting for civil rights isn’t optional.
Before pursuing your graduate degree and beginning a career in the nonprofit sector, you spent many years as a journalist. What led you to change course?
Nonprofits are my first love. Although I’ve taken a few detours to get back to this sector, I started volunteering at nonprofits as a kid, [and] got politicized at a nonprofit founded by Suzanne Pharr in Little Rock, Ark., which is also where I fell in love and came out. Nonprofits took me back to Brazil after I graduated Spelman. I worked for the National Black Women’s Health Project as cultural liaison for a Black women’s organization in São Paulo, Geledes. I came back to the US, 12 years ago, after becoming an adoptive mom of two, intent on returning to nonprofit management.
You also chair the board of directors of Southerners on New Ground (SONG). How would you describe the work you do with that organization?
SONG is my political home. My work with SONG has been an awesome labor of love. I serve on the board alongside many of the black and brown leaders that are broadening the scope of the LGBTQ+ rights movement to engage and center communities that are often left at the margins. Our role as board members is to flank the co-directors, provide strategic guidance based on input from the team, and provide good stewardship of SONG as an organization so it can a political home for others for decades to come. There’s so much more, but you gave me a limit.
Based on your time living and working in Brazil, how would you say the experience of, and public attitudes towards, LGBTQ people there compare to experiences and attitudes in the United States?
Brazil and the United States are in many ways complete opposites and at once completely complicit in their trajectories to development as large economies that depended on the labor of enslaved people. The United States, of course, broke with the colonial system earlier than any other counterpart, except Haiti. But, the systems that kept people of color, women and impoverished people outside of power structures remained in place beyond colonialism.
Public attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people in Brazil and the United States have been largely the same because of the same political structures that delegitimize anyone that is not a wealthy white cisgender man. So while Brazil saw impressive gains with regard to LGBTQ+ visibility and protections in a relatively short period over the last two decades, those advances have been met with a shift in the national Congress to conservatism and extremism led by a political lobby called the BBB – a Bala, a Bibilia e o Boi (roughly translated as the Bullet, the Bible and Beef). It is a coalition of the gun lobby, evangelicals and conservative big business owners (particularly cattle producers). Sound familiar?
Two sides of the same coin. So trans and gender nonconforming people continue to bear the brunt of violence and discrimination, along with black and brown people.
For much of your career you’ve focused on advancing equality in the Southern states — a cause that many would characterize as an uphill battle. Do you feel driven to take on especially challenging assignments?
We have no choice but to fight for our collective liberation. In this current scenario, I don’t feel driven to take on especially challenging assignments, that is simply the reality. We are fighting for our survival. Our opposition is pushing an agenda to delegitimize our basic humans rights in this country based on immigration status, gender and gender identity, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation and race by enshrining the right to discriminate into our policies, laws and constitution. It is our duty to fight.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment from your time with Project One America?
My greatest accomplishment in my time with Project One America was providing the container for Arkansans from all walks of life to protest a horrific Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) that would have been one of the worst in the nation. We organized rallies and through coalition partners we mobilized over 2,000 people over multiple days who stood in silent protest inside and outside the Arkansas State Capitol. It was the largest protest at the Capitol since the then Governor Clinton proposed teacher testing requirements in the 80s. And they were there for us: grandmas with poodles, bikers, restaurant workers, teachers, faith leaders and kids.
What would you most like to accomplish in the next year with Equality North Carolina (ENC)?
I want listen to Equality NC’s community of supporters, donors, traditional coalition partners and under-explored allies to hear what they believe ENC should be in order to effectively address the conditions of this particular moment. I want to understand how ENC can be a better partner to organizations that are working on issues that intersect with the identities of the broader LGBTQ+ community, i.e. immigration, reproductive justice, bail reform, decriminalization and economic justice. I want to bridge a dialogue whereby various facets of the community can speak with a united voice to resist this current movement to roll back our rights in the South and the nation.
What should voters or potential voters be aware of as we approach the general elections taking place Nov. 6?
In North Carolina alone, there are six constitutional amendments on the ballot, all of which aim to gut voting rights and the balance of power in government. The North Carolina General Assembly is asking that we as voters approve legislation that has not even been written. It’s like giving our politicians a blank check and trusting they won’t bankrupt us.
Never has it been more important to vote. Our very right to vote and fair courts depend on it. Research your candidates, research the issues, grab your friends and family and VOTE.
What have you learned in your first few months in your new position?
North Carolina has everything we need to restore some balance at the North Carolina General Assembly in the upcoming elections. The state has some incredible groups doing work on LGBTQ+ plus rights, immigration, criminal justice reform, reproductive justice, racial and economic justice and the environment. If we can continue to work together effectively, we will be unstoppable. Especially if we can work together on voter education, engagement and mobilization.
Why did you choose to leave Arkansas and take this post at ENC?
I chose to leave Arkansas precisely because of the incredible group of organizations working in North Carolina, including SONG. Taking the helm of Equality NC is also a remarkable opportunity. We’ll soon be starting our 40th year, making us the oldest LGBTQ equality organization in the U.S. at a precise moment when we are experiencing a revival of extremism in our country. Working alongside these groups in North Carolina, we have a real opportunity for change and to preserve and advance the rights of our people.
How could I resist?
As far back as your Master’s degree project on HIV/AIDS prevention in Arkansas, you’ve concentrated on activism and initiatives at the state level. What makes that so important?
All politics are local. Full stop. Local and state laws and ordinances determine how long you can keep your trash on the curb, whether or not you can change your name or gender marker, whether your HIV status is a crime, the number of charter schools in your district and your interaction with the police. It is where your vote and your voice most matter.
Are you involved with the LGBTQ+ community or other local endeavors outside your work with ENC and SONG?
I try always to be a supporter or volunteer for progressive causes. In Arkansas alongside my mother, I have worked on two annual neighborhood cleanups for the past 12 years. I also served at the Second Vice-Chair of the Democratic Party of Pulaski County in Arkansas prior to moving to Durham. I have also served on the board of the local NPR affiliate in Arkansas, KUAR.
There must have been occasions when your hopes for a project or a campaign haven’t been realized, despite your best efforts. How do you cope with that?
I try to always learn from success or failure or partial success or partial failure. In any project or campaign, you learn to course correct and adjust expectations. I know that not every campaign will meet my full measure of success, but that often you have unexpected or unanticipated gains or insights that make you better for the next round. For example, the rallies we provided the container for, were organized when I realized I had missed an opportunity earlier that year to provide a forum to discuss a Municipal Preemption Bill. I’d voiced that to my director, who helped me see another opportunity with the RFRA. We organized a forum that over 1,000 people came to and people marched to Governor’s Mansion immediately following, kicking off a week of protests.
And finally, how do you spend your time when you’re not fighting the good fight for civil rights?
Like every good queer Southerner, I enjoy sitting on my porch with good friends and chosen family discussing politics, parenting and culture. I love cooking, music, reading and film. Because I am a different kind of extrovert, I need to be with friends and political family to recharge my energies for the fight. Lately, that’s been on a porch in Durham.