NBJC Executive Director Alexander Robinson speaks to a crowd of supporters at a Maryland lobby day.
CHARLOTTE — Community activists Dianna Ward and Quan Rutledge feel that many issues aren’t being properly addressed within the Carolinas’ LGBT community. Matters like discrimination, education and quality of life for LGBT African-Americans need more attention, they say.
Because of the lack of action, Ward and Rutledge have been working since August to establish the new Charlotte Steering Committee of the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC).
Nine additional leaders from the Queen City’s LGBT community have joined them in forming the committee. They are Jahaan Davis, LaToya Hankins, Kistyn Mathews, Brodderick Roary, Monica Simpson, LaWana Slack, Ken Tinnen, Karen Worrell and John Wright III.
The committee is working on the local level for the national organization’s “The Power of Us” campaign. The effort is a community mobilization initiative designed to increase visibility, financial support and activism.
Organizers say “The Power of Us” contains a positive and uplifting message to embrace, celebrate and promote the talent, capabilities and contributions of LGBT people of color. They want to generate pride and empowerment and motivate black LGBT people and allies to take action and join NBJC.
Under the group’s auspices, African-Americans in the Carolinas who identify as same-gender-loving or LGBT, or are straight allies of these communities, can band together to make a difference on issues that Steering Committee members feel are ignored or misunderstood by mainstream queer organizations.
“The Human Rights Campaign does not address black LGBT issues enough, or in a way that could really make an impact,” Ward told Q-Notes.
She explained that there are differences in basic priorities that must be considered.
For example, while HRC and similar national LGBT organizations busy themselves fighting for marriage or employment discrimination, LGBT people of color are still battling for basic issues like educational opportunity, healthcare and the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Steering Committee members point out that they don’t dislike HRC or other major, mainstream LGBT groups. “They are all doing great work,” Ward said, “but a lot of their agendas don’t always affect us in the here and now.”
A key issue that national groups could better address, organizers feel, is the racism that is still present within the larger gay community.
NBJC’s logo, the nyansapo, symbolizes wisdom, ingenuity, intelligence and patience. It conveys the idea that ‘a wise person has the capacity to choose the best means to attain a goal.’
“I think the white straight community at least owns up to having some bias,” Ward said. “On the other hand, the white gay community thinks that since the LGBT community is so ‘diverse,’ they really don’t have any problems with bias or prejudice based on race.”
Rutledge added that the ignorance surrounding issues of race and diversity translates into what feels like avoidance “because the white gay community — for the most part, although not all — does not talk about the issues important to us.”
But things seem to be improving. Ward was happy to see HRC’s strong support for the Jena 6, although their speaking out came as a surprise.
“The fact they did anything at all was a shock,” she said. “I definitely thought it was a step in the right direction.”
HRC has begun circulating a survey for people of color and ethnic minorities. The survey will help the organization identify the issues most important to particular minority communities.
In addition, Donna Payne, HRC Associate Director of Diversity, joined Rev. Al Sharpton, Martin Luther King III and other civil rights and religious leaders at a Nov. 16 march on the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, D.C. The event was called by Rev. Sharpton’s National Action Network and other black leaders to protest the lethargic response of the Department of Justice in investigating hate crimes.
“I think HRC is trying to begin to address the fact that they haven’t represented the entire LGBT community, and that is a good thing,” Rutledge said.
Ward echoed the sentiment and stressed that progress will be built on teamwork and coalition building.
“We want to work with folks from a variety of organizations, including the NAACP and HRC,” Ward said. “We absolutely want a diverse crowd and we want to build relationships outside the black community. I think we can do that while we also work to unite the black gay community.”
Organizers acknowledge that people who grew up apart from racial and ethnic minorities might feel uncomfortable getting involved, but “everyone’s participation is so needed and so welcome,” Ward said.
“We want people to know that we want folks who will really have their heart in it and work with us, instead of trying to ‘help’ us or run an organization that focuses on our community’s perceived circumstances.”
Earl Plante, NBJC’s national chief operating officer, says the proliferation of local steering committees like the one in Charlotte helps the national group address issues that are particular to one region or another.
“A lot of our national organizing is about looking at the overall landscape and figuring out where we can maximize our resources and have the broadest impact,” Plante told Q-Notes. “This is why the steering committee is so important and vital in areas like Charlotte and in the South. They are our eyes and ears on the front lines. They are our public ambassadors for our work. The people who know their hometowns best can do the best work at the local level.”
Plante said that when the national organization planned its first black church summit three years ago, Atlanta was chosen to host as “a statement on our part, showing the community that we are working on trying to understand the issues facing them and conveying the message that you aren’t alone there in the South and in rural areas.”
The tactic is critical for success, Ward said. “Southern states have such a large population of black people. If NBJC never really focused on the South, then we weren’t ever going to get anything accomplished.”
Rutledge said one of the Charlotte Steering Committee’s top priorities will be to focus on building leadership and strengthening a new generation of black LGBT advocates.
“The emergence of new leadership in the black gay community is urgently needed,” he said. “Fresh voices, new faces — we want NBJC in the Queen City to really be a launching pad for new, bright ideas and leaders.”
As part of this goal, they plan to raise awareness of queer youth homelessness, something that disproportionately affects queer youth of color.
“We want to come up with a ‘do-able’ strategy,” Ward said.
Rutledge added, “Homelessness is a serious issue in Charlotte. We’ll definitely be addressing it.”
On Dec. 8, the NBJC Charlotte Steering Committee will be hosting their first fundraising and social event at the Wadsworth House on Summit Avenue in Charlotte. The semi-formal event will feature live entertainment, a DJ and hors d’oeuvres.
Ticket prices are $50 per person and $75 per couple in advance and $50 per person at the door. Tickets can be purchased online or from any Charlotte Steering Committee member.
— For more information or to buy tickets, visit www.nbjcoalition.org/news/power-of-us-charlotte-dec.html.