Nyala Hunt, executive director of the Charlotte Coalition for Social Justice (CCSJ), says she had a bit of culture shock when she waded across the pond from her native Scotland and England.
“Coming here and finding that it was okay that elected officials would use derogatory language about gay people just blew my mind,” she says. “People here feel so free to be homophobic and heterosexist.”
As a teenager in Britain, Hunt first became involved in social justice work during a time of epic social and class struggle.
“I grew up in a culture where it was very normal for working class people — I was part of a working class family — to recognize oppression, to recognize that the system was oppressive and to organize to challenge it,” Hunt says. “I was just one of those young people just like the young people in CCSJ who felt passionate about injustice and wanted to do something about it. I was fortunate enough to be born in a time and location when there was a lot going on and a lot to be involved in.”
Hunt’s early involvement in social justice work ultimately shaped the person she is today and her career. She studied community engagement and went to school for community education. Thirteen years ago, she came to Charlotte — hired at CCSJ’s predecessor in 2000 and promoted to executive director in 2001.
In her time here, Hunt has had a unique impact on matters of social justice and inclusion as CCSJ works with young people across the region and teaches them the importance of equality and inclusion. Charlotte, she says, still has a long way to go.
“I think Charlotte is like the U.S. and the rest of the world; it’s struggling to work out how to embrace all sections of the community and treat everyone equally,” Hunt says. “That’s essentially what CCSJ is working for — a community that is inclusive and just for everyone and Charlotte is not.”
Hunt says the Queen City’s history doesn’t always lend itself to large-scale movements of grassroots activism. “Charlotte’s history is very much top down leadership. People at the top decide change needs to happen and they determine how it will happen.”
It’s an unfortunate circumstance, she says, especially considering the history of social change.
On the record… with Nyala Hunt
The democratic process: Matt Comer interviews Hunt, discussing CCSJ youth, their involvement in activism and local politics and the democratic process.
The role of a straight ally: Comer asks Hunt about her thoughts on the role of straight allies in the larger movement for LGBT equality.
“Throughout history, young people have led every major movement for social change,” Hunt notes. “It’s not been the aristocracy. It’s not been church leaders. It’s not been CEOs. It has been young people, grassroots activists that pushed for change.”
And, she adds, that while established leaders have supported change movements, and allowed those movements to push them, the “impetus has always come from the grassroots and from young people specifically.”
The role of an ally
Upon coming to America, Hunt says the culture shock she felt was a “wow” moment. She’d always considered herself a straight ally, but her new environment kicked her awareness up a notch.
“I think recognizing the need to really become a vocal ally, to be willing to stand up and publicly support is something that I think has become clearer to me over the years…and I think probably more so since I’ve come to Charlotte…because the homophobia seems so much worse.”
Her experiences as a newcomer led Hunt to speak out more often and more forcefully.
“When I first came here people thought I was outrageous because I would ‘name’ everything,” she recalls of her tendency to point out oppression.
First established as an affiliate of the National Center for Community and Justice, the Charlotte Coalition for Social Justice (CCSJ) was founded in 2006. The group and its small, but dedicated staff works with youth in public and private schools across the Charlotte region hosting seminars, workshops, camps and conferences throughout the year. The group focuses on social justice, inclusion, equality and community engagement education.
Nyala Hunt, executive director, says CCSJ is committed to creating a local community that is both inclusive and equitable for all its citizens.
For more information, visit charlottecoalition.org.
Fortunately, it’s a tendency that’s continued to this day. After the California Supreme Court upheld Prop. 8 last year, Hunt was one of few straight ally community leaders present at a grassroots protest march and rally in Uptown Charlotte. Organizers of the event — the Charlotte Rainbow Action Network for Equality (CRANE) — asked her to speak, but she took only a couple minutes to recognize her role as a straight ally and thank LGBT community members for inviting her. [Ed. Note — This writer is an organizer with CRANE.]
Hunt says she sees herself as a supporter, not a leader, within the movement for LGBT equality.
“For me the primary role of an ally in any struggle is to work with their own group because your group is the one oppressing other people,” she says. “I see my role as an ally predominately actually with the straight community — to say ‘Come on people, we need to get our act together and stop doing this’ — because whether I want to be or not, I’m a part of a group of people oppressing another group of people.”
Mirrored by her comments at last year’s march and rally, Hunt says a straight ally role should be in “responding and not trying to lead someone else’s struggle.”
She says: “When the LGBT community says we would like you to be a part of this is when you come. You don’t try to come into other people’s struggles and lead them. It’s so important that straight people understand that it’s never their role — anymore than it’s the role of a white person to lead a black organization or black struggle or a man to lead a women’s organization or women’s struggle — I think us straight folks have to recognize that it’s not our role to lead, to determine what should be done, to define the strategy, the tactics.”
And, despite her near constant support, Hunt also believes there are times when straight allies can say “no,” and she’s counted only one time she’s done so herself — when CRANE presented a Valentine’s Day card to anti-LGBT Commissioner Bill James.
“There was no way I could sign something that says ‘We love you Bill James,’ so I had to say I can’t do it,” Hunt says. “That’s the only time I’ve said no because most of the time I’m happy to support. So, I do think as an ally you have the right sometimes to say, ‘I can’t go down that road,’ but at the same time predominately we want to be responsive to what the oppressed group wants and needs from us, and really to keep our folks in check.”
She adds that it’s also important that straight allies never expect gratitude. “That’s another thing I try to convince people who are allies. You can’t expect people to be grateful when you take your foot off their neck.”
Recognizing privilege, Hunt concludes, is among the most important roles of an ally:
“Oftentimes it is very hard for people in the oppressive group to recognize how much privilege they have and for straight people, just like white people, it’s so taken for granted how privileged you are. I think perhaps for straight people it should be easier to let it go but when you look at the reluctance for people to accept that gay people should have the same rights as straight people to marry if the want to get married or to have inheritance rights, to walk publicly in who they are and know that that’s a safe thing to do is such a huge privilege that a lot of straight people do not understand that they have.
“And, so I think when you have that kind of privilege it’s your responsibility to want to extend that privilege to other people and for it to become a right for everyone as opposed to a privilege for your group, to recognize that what you have as a privilege is really a human right and it is a responsibility to make sure that other people have that basic human right also. It’s not just about being accepted into the military. It’s about the right to be accepted as the human being that you are and everything that comes with that.”
[Ed. Note — Slated to appear online with our May 15 print edition content, this article’s publication was delayed due to several technical difficulties. We regret any inconveniences.]