Activism and The Dark Side of Leadership

Last weekend, QWOC+ Boston hosted our annual fall social to welcome newcomers to Boston, build community, and celebrate both my birthday and achievement via my Lavender Rhino Award — given to an emerging activist whose impact on the local LGBT communities deserves recognition — from The History Project. My birthday had already happened earlier in the month, but as an astrology-enthusiast who believes in manifesting the energy within the “realm” of Virgo, I’ve always made it a point to award myself a month-long period of reflection, celebration, and life planning each year. Indeed, my birthday marks the beginning of my new year, and I’ve never taken this lightly.

Perhaps escaping the shackles that were my last relationship freed up some long-time buried aspirations, ’cause this past year was filled with more creativity in the form of my writing, photography, and drawing, new social entrepreneurial business ventures, deepening relationships with friends and a wonderful new partner, punctuated by an amazing award from a prestigious organization, coming out to my parents, and applying to business school. Craaaazy. And even though the fast pace of my eventful life was overwhelming at times, it felt good to be finally investing in myself, for a change.

I’ve been working my tail off for QWOC+ Boston in the spirit of community for over four years. And I’m only just now beginning to realize that I’ve never actually thought about all that I have compromised on (and, at times, sacrificed) in the name of community: definitely lots of money, my mental and physical health — I had to have surgery last year due to high stress levels creating too much cholesterol and thus, gall stones, for chrissake! — and, most importantly, my privacy.

For instance, last year I went through a painful breakup and had to suffer through the effects of this publicly. At nearly every QWOC+ event, people inquired (or demanded) to know the whereabouts of my other half. I avoided these questions at first, but this only led to whispers and speculation happening all around me. The woman who I’d thought I’d be with forever had just dumped me right before the holidays (ouch!), but I didn’t have the luxury of mourning in private; I was continually forced to relive the breakup with each question and judgment that was passed by people who didn’t know who I was, what I was going through, or even really cared about me…

They say that leadership is lonely. We tweet cute paraphrased quotes about this on the daily but so many of us never know this truth until we get there. And funny enough, the closer the HistoryMaker awards ceremony drew near, the more overwhelmed I became with the task of writing this speech, a speech that no doubt had to include some passionate call to action filled with strength and rhetoric. After all, I was the first woman of color recipient of the Lavender Rhino Award, no doubt it was my responsibility, for instance, to get up there and call out The History Project for asking the community for nominations and then essentially uninviting them by setting the ticket prices at $125 in the middle of a recession. I’d be surrounded by a room full of “white people that could benefit from hearing what I had to say.” At least that’s what someone told me.

At my birthday party, when I was already feeling disappointed that none of my organizers thought to bring out the cake, let alone get people to sing Happy Birthday or make a few remarks to acknowledge the occasion, several other activists (no doubt with a chip on their shoulder), reminded me that I was the “token person of color of the moment”, and my award was “nice and all” but that the History Project was just using me to make money. Sure, we all know that’s the way award shows work — you honor people of value so that you can sell tickets of value (cause someone’s gotta pay the caterer). But it still stung to hear other organizers/activists — who know what it’s like to toil and sweat over a community you love for no money and little to no recognition — attempt to ruin my moment with bitter sentiments and thus trivialize all the work that I have done, consistently, creatively, and collaboratively, for the past four years.

However, before permanent resentment had the chance to sink in, it occurred to me that we, as activists — whether you’re an educator, community organizer, youth worker, artist, parent, lawyer, etc — probably all feel used and unappreciated in some way. Almost every activist I know complains about feeling under-appreciated, tired, regarded with the admiration and disdain of a celebrity (for way less to no money), and yes, at times very lonely. I wondered about how that could be, when there are so many of us complaining about the same things, commiserating in the fleeting moments we walked by each other during community events during which we all had to be “on”. Was it possible that we still didn’t know that we each weren’t alone in this struggle to consistently rise to the occasion on behalf of others? Was it possible that we’d fallen into the dark side, resenting everyone else for the lack of empathy, encouragement, and support we ourselves were failing to give each other?

With this in mind, I decided to write a personal speech. I simply needed to express the conflicting emotions I’d been experiencing over the past month — coming out to my African parents, feeling tokenized, burnt out, unappreciated, proud… ? I didn’t have it in me to get up on a soapbox and rally – yet again – for a cause. For once, I wanted to advocate for myself. In so doing, I really believed I could touch someone else, the way I was touched when  first saw a woman of color speaking at at a Dyke March, openly and vulnerably about, well, being a gay woman of color in a sea of white people. At the time, I was feeling exactly the way she did (organizing with the Dyke March will do that to you), and the inspiration I felt after hearing her, moved me to create QWOC+ Boston.

I fought against the feeling that I was letting people down and committed to writing something deeply personal I hoped would resonate with other activists in the room. I wanted to be brave enough to out myself as human if just to reach one person with this message: “You are not alone.”

Still, the guilt of selfishly using my moment for my own personal therapy vs educating people as the public persona that is the sassy afrofeminist warrior woman continued to weigh me down. Could I really get up there and whine about how hard it was to be an “activist”? Or how I’d often felt a sense of estrangement being surrounded by fans all the time (vs. my real friends)? Would people, as they do with celebrities, go “Boo hoo, how hard it must be for you winning awards and having so much attention.”?

Or would they listen if I said that I was almost one of those kids I’d just read about on the news? That I was almost a teen suicide statistic because I wasn’t given enough opportunities to feel accepted, heard, and truly be myself. Shouldn’t we as adults, learn to value human beings as they are — open, vulnerable, complicated, diverse — rather than talk and orate ourselves into thin air…? Sometimes to prevent others from feeling completely hopeless, all we need to do is listen, not harp on about societal expectations or worse, send insensitive messages to people who are struggling to “get over it” based on some self-serving hierarchy of oppression.

By noon on the day of the ceremony I’d written a personal speech (which was originally intended to thank my close friends and family for a wonderful earthly-bound journal of letters they’d just given me for my birthday). But, just in case I lost my nerve, I had also crafted the beginnings of another speech, which was way more risque — calling out elitism and tokenization within queer organizing, urging people to consider their role in creating safe spaces for youth to feel accepted, namely, by being all of who they were, themselves —  and was stuck on which speech I should’ve been rehearsing for the evening.

Naturally, I did what any smart millenial leader would do, I tweeted and posted a Facebook question about what kind of speech to write. “Personal or Call to Action?”, I offered. The responses I received were overwhelmingly for the Call to Action. “It’s what people need to hear right now,” someone said, including “I think you’d write a compelling call to action.” I was flattered by all the votes of confidence. But a part of me was angry with the idea that, once again, giving of myself, I’d have to go against my emotional needs for the greater good, for the sake of invigorating others, for the sake of giving visibility to yet another important issue (in my mind, mental health and suicide prevention) when I was running on empty due to the same issue. How about what I needed to do? How about what other leaders needed to hear to encourage them to continue fighting?

My closest friends urged me to go with the personal and last minute, I decided to trust them, and myself. After all, these were the people who actually knew who I was, who were privy to the late nights brainstorming, the bar tab looming at poorly attended events, the fake displays of affection from others for the sake of associating with the “woman who runs QWOC+”… These people knew me simply as “the introvert who loves writing” and supported my need to express myself, personally. Moreover, the news about TWO recent teen suicides touched me in a way I couldn’t explain. I just needed to express somehow that depression and feelings of isolation based on your identity affect everyone, not just kids.

Dear reader, I am SO glad that I followed my heart and shared my personal story with all those people in the room. After my speech, during the mingling portion of the evening, so many people come up to me to share their appreciation of my words and bravery in being open and honest during my soapbox moment. A handsome boi of color (there were just a few of us as you can imagine) came up to me to shake my hand for acknowledging the er, lack of “culture” in the room. An Asian guy who had come out to his mother recently shared his story and offered his comfort. My friends stood up for me — including a few others in the room (I mean, there were a lot of elderly people so…). One of the members of GCN news — a pioneering paper that existed long before Bay Windows sold their soul — said she’d gotten choked up listening to my story, and that it reminded her of the need for friends and family in this work. And a distinguished gentlemen expressed being so filled with admiration that he looked forward to seeing and hearing more of me. This was far more rewarding of a post-speech experience than what I’m sure would’ve included firm hand-shakes and kudos for “sticking it to the man.” What we need is to be able to relate each other. What we need is comfort and inspiration from knowing that we are all human, and that anything — even the things that other people get awards for — is possible.

I didn’t offer a call to action yesterday because sometimes I think our lust for rhetoric and “big ideas” makes us lose sight of what’s important: people, and their connection to other people… in the room.

We all need to feel like we can be ourselves, no matter what. That’s why diversity is important — it creates a sense of belonging for more than just the majority. Creating spaces where people feel like they can be themselves and be both accepted and loved, unconditionally, as whole and complex human beings should be our TOP priority. Without a deep connection to humanity and all that comes with it — pride, culture, togetherness, oneness, vulnerability, support — so many of us would still be in the closet, spewing hate unto others, or as the recent teen suicides should tell us, simply not around when and if equality does finally come around :-/

So here’s my call to action: SPEAK, even when you feel like no one’s listening. STOP SPEAKING, long enough to listen to what others need around you need to say to feel SEEN. And BE ALL OF YOURSELF, all the time. You never know who’s watching you in the present, envisioning you as a future holding all that is possible. Oh, and always surround yourself with good friends :-)

Here’s a copy of the original Thank You note I wrote to my friends, family, and girlfriend, which became the motivation and parts of my speech yesterday. I want to share it with you in case you’ve ever felt like me, and in case it gives you comfort, as it will for me always.