I hope this letter finds you well. I am writing to report on a movement for change, occurring right here, within your borders.
I write to you as an ally of the city’s LGBTIQ community, and someone who has just recently began contributing to its community organizing efforts. I also write to you as an attorney whose intellectual awakening and life’s work is very much informed by the American civil rights movement, and this country’s inherent struggle to live up to both its ideals and fundamental precepts of human rights. Thus, my theory of change is driven by the understanding that real systemic change cannot occur until communities can create a civic infrastructure to translate injustice, injury, and complaint into agendas, coordinated action, and execution.
I believe that this process of translating problems to solutions–or what I call the alchemy of activism–is taking place within Newark’s LGBTIQ community. I write here to share some of my observations.
Please understand that I do not, and would never would, purport to speak for the entire community. Rather, these are the observations of one individual, recorded here as a step in my own process of understanding, and shared so that others may join me in that process. While I try to provide nuance and context to any generalizations contained here, these meta-observations are intended to crystallize abstract and often-unspoken things like value judgments and group norms, not to paint any one community with a single broad brush.
As I write this letter, small groups are meeting over coffee and putting together agendas, drawing up org charts, planning fundraisers, and doing the boring but necessary little things necessary to stitch a civic fabric that will drive this process of activist alchemy for generations. This fabric includes threads of government issue (with the City of Newark’s newly-established LGBTQ Concerns Commission, and a county-level commission being discussed), threads of local, independent origin (with local community activist groups building their capacity according to national best practices and allied small business owners lending their support), and threads of an origin outside the city (with state, regional, and national LGBTIQ groups becoming more involved). This fabric is integrating the strength and wisdom of older generations of threads with the energy and temerity of younger generations.
As this movement focuses on building civic infrastructure, it has entered a process-centric phase, where local discussions around communication (who says what to whom), jurisdiction (where should they say it), and collective decision making processes (the how) predominate. Paradoxically, it is through these debates over process that I have come to a deeper understanding and more profound respect for the values and normative assumptions that undergird this truly organic effort at community organizing. However, I have also become increasingly frustrated by the failure of certain social justice activists from outside the city who, for all of their zealotry for a common cause, evidence a fundamental lack of understanding and thereby lack of respect, for these local values.
Allow me to explain what I mean. Once news broke that an unarmed man named Defarra “Dean” Gaymon was shot and killed by law enforcement in a part of Newark’s Branch Brook Park that is a known for “cruising”, leadership from Newark’s LGBTIQ community and statewide groups convened informally. This diverse group of community activists, social service providers, religious leaders, and their allies decided to embark upon a collaborative and coordinated advocacy effort in response to this tragedy. Some were concerned about improper law enforcement methods and the unjustified use of force, others were concerned about the unspoken public health ramifications of the problem, and still others stressed the need for additional safe social spaces for LGBTIQ individuals. Nevertheless, there was a spirit of chemistry amongst the older and newer leadership of the various organizations at the table, and, for this coalition, it was clear that consensus-building, community engagement, and coordinated communications were the strategies of choice. While never explicitly mentioned by anyone in the group, I thought that this proposed coalition was actually a test as to whether the city’s LGBTIQ community had yet achieved a critical mass whereby their combined efforts could achieve more than what they had previously been able to achieve as individuals or small, ad hoc contingents.
In many ways, this coalition-building exercise embodied the core values that I have observed throughout many of these process discussions in recent months (to the extent that I can generalize on behalf of such a large, diverse group): the community over the individual, consensus over individual prerogative, egalitarianism over paternalism. Lest it appear that I am ascribing any sense of orthodoxy or suppression of the will of the individual to this group, I must observe that these values are buttressed by the type of profound respect for diversity of thought and persuasion that only a collection of lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/intersexed/questioning groups can have. It is only within the space created by this respect for diversity that these quasi-collectivist values have gained acceptance.
However, I would later witness that these values are not always respected by organizations from outside the city, eager to release their own statement to the press, or send an email blast to their membership within minutes of an event. This is to be understood, on some level. State and national organizations do not have the same level of interpersonal contact with their constituents that local, community-based organizations do. Ensuring a voice in state or national press, or up-to-the-minute internet updates, can assure a distant and detached membership that their organization is active and engaged. For local organizations, the people know if you’re working or not, because they can knock on your door, or look for you at events. Local groups can afford to take the additional time required for consensus building and coordinated communication, because they do not live and die by the mass media’s 24-hour news cycle. That being said, where the prerogative of state and national groups may conflict with the values of local groups most directly affected by events, it my sense that notions of respect and dignity should compel non-local groups to at least temporarily yield to those of local groups and engage in a process of reconciliation to find a workable compromise. Many non-local groups have not fully embraced this principle, which was made evident to me during the organizing effort described above. Further complicating—and sometimes inhibiting—these mirco/macro, state/local, insider/outsider relationships are the dynamics of race, class, and privilege, which Darnell touched on his prior essay on this subject.
While I must report that this process of reconciling divergent values or methods of non-local groups has indeed been a struggle, I can also report that the local coalition building effort described above has been highly cohesive, and remains intent upon developing an ever more solid infrastructure and deeper coalition building. For all of the frustration with non-local organizations expressed above, it is this hum of activity at the local level that engenders the optimism with which I began this writing.
This week saw the Newark Pride Alliance and City LGBTQ Commission’s first of five community forums in each of the city’s wards over the next several months. These forums will record and catalog the concerns of community members in each ward and this record will be used to support various advocacy efforts—especially at the city level. The Newark-Essex Pride Coalition’s planning efforts are already underway for Pride Week 2011 and it is engaged in deep internal review and capacity building process. The Newark Pride Alliance and Hetrick-Martin Institute are prepared to roll out their school-based LGBTIQ student drop in center this fall. The African-American Office of Gay Concerns’s Status is Everything HIV/AIDS awareness campaign has been highly successful by most accounts, and many other service provider organizations are reporting that they are expanding programming, in an otherwise difficult economic climate.
I started off this letter by referring to these social phenomena as a “movement.” I close by emphasizing the literal sense of that word–that is, something that is in motion, and has not yet reached a destination. What I write here is not a story of triumph, but rather one of potential built upon the tireless work of prior generations. The ultimate test will be whether this new and unique milieu of individuals and groups can deliver on an agenda that is relevant to the community, by standardizing this process of activist alchemy.
I invite you to witness this movement and contribute whenever possible, my dear Newark.