Tag Archives: activist

Happy Birthday, Bonnie Raitt

8 Nov

Bonnie RaittToday Bonnie Raitt turns a very youthful 66 years old. I would like to honor and pay tribute to Bonnie Raitt and thank her for all of her energy in making the world a better place.

Bonnie Raitt is a lifelong activist. Born in California in 1949, Raitt’s parents were both musicians and performers and provided a home full of diverse musical influences. She also developed a strong social conscience early, enrolling in Radcliffe College’s African Studies program.

My plan was to travel to Tanzania, where President Julius Nyerere was creating a government based on democracy and socialism. I wanted to help undo the damage that Western colonialism had done to native cultures around the world. Cambridge was a hotbed of this kind of thinking, and I was thrilled.

I love that she talks about her own privilege and about colonization. While in school, she met and befriended legendary blues promoter Dick Waterman. This sparked her childhood fondness for performing and she quickly found herself enmeshed in the local blues and folk scene. Although she had planned to finish her college education, she had a chance to move to Philadelphia to work with a number of her musical heroes and took it.

While most people are familiar with her Grammy-winning work since 1989’s brilliant Nick Of Time, she had a celebrated muscial career and began releasing critically acclaimed albums in 1971. Her bluesy sound and musical excellence dazzled critics and her core of fans but found little in the way of commercial success. She was eventually dropped by her label, Warner Bros., in a purge that also cost Van Morrison and Arlo Guthrie their contracts. She took the time to regroup and work with her idols, eventually working on a project produced by Don Was. That connection led to the resurgence of her career. Eight albums, nine Grammy’s and a 2000 induction into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame later, she’s still going strong.

Throughout it all, she has been a dedicated activist. Her second album featured a dedication “To the people of North Vietnam…” recognizing the human cost of war. She helped found Musicians United for Safe Energy and has campaigned for numerous causes. It’s quite telling that her website features a prominent ACTIVISM button with numerous links and opportunities for her fans to help make the world a better place.

She also pushes for fairness and equality in her profession. Recognizing that most of the original blues performers were victims of exploitative contracts, she works tirelessly to establish funds for the generation that inspired her. She also recognizes the gender inequities in the music business and has been a vocal part of the Women Who Rock movement. An engaging speaker with a genuine heart, a passionate advocate for social justice, and an amazing musician, I wish you a very happy Birthday! Raitt is another woman I think I could cross the road for; her talent and sense of social justice  make me fall in love with her.

Happy Birthday, Olivia Newton John

26 Sep
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Today is Olivia Newton John’s 67th birthday!  I want to say Happy Birthday and I would like to celebrate a woman whose music has brought me endless joy and whose dedication to social justice inspires me. Olivia Newton-John was born in Cambridge, England in 1948. Her father was a Welsh-born professor and her mother a German Jew whose family fled Germany as the Nazis came to power. (Her mother’s father was Nobel-winning physicist Max Born.) The family moved to Melbourne, Australia when Olivia was six, and it is that country that she considers her home.

A talented singer, she began performing in her teens and took part in a number of Australian TV programs. She met future collaborator and producer John Farrar, who encouraged her to take part in a contest on Sing Sing Sing. She won a trip to England, initially planning to stay for a year to explore the country and her career. She built up slow, steady momentum and released her first album in 1971.

That launched real international success, including an invitation to perform the U.K. entry in the 1974 Eurovision contest. (She came in 4th; the winner that year was Sweden, with ABBA’s Waterloo.) She was still struggling to get a foothold in the U.S., but won a Grammy for best Country Female Performance. That award raised anger in Country purist circles, in part because she was still based in England. (The ever-wonderful Dolly Parton, however, supported her.) Taking advice from fellow Aussie Helen Reddy, Olivia moved to the U.S. In short order she launched a massively successful career.

I remember getting beaten up in the bathroom when I was a little kid at summer camp.  I was singing You’re the One That I Want from Grease, when a couple of bullies came in and beat the tar out of me.  How I hated those kids and how I loved Olivia and how did I not know I was gay back in the 7th grade?  Of course, even today I sing to Xanadu and all of the classic Olivia songs.  There is another song that holds a very special place in my heart, Tutta La Vita.  This song came out when my friend Kent was sick in the hospital and I loved this song for both the lyrics and for the music.  Sadly, my friend Kent passed away from HIV, but I think about him when I hear this song.  How wonderful that our Olivia stands in solidarity with the LGBT community.

Besides her beautiful music, Olivia has been a tireless advocate for many causes. She is an outspoken environmentalist and animal rights advocate. (She has cancelled Japanese tours over the slaughter of dolphins in tuna nets.) A breast cancer survivor, she also devotes a great deal of energy to cancer education, diagnosis, research, and treatment. She has also worked closely with UNICEF and been an advocate for LGBT rights.

A great singer, actress, activist, and all-around decent human being, I love our Olivia! (And who can forget her amazing performance in Sordid Lives?) Thank you for bringing your joy and passion into so many lives.

Black History Month 2014: Audre Lorde

18 Feb

audre-lorde-500x250I would like to honor and pay tribute to Audre Lorde.  Today would have been her 80th birthday.  Lorde was a native New Yorker who grew up in Harlem. Her parents both immigrated to the United States from the Caribbean. Among her many career moves, Lorde was a librarian and a social worker. In fact, she received her Master’s in Library Science from Columbia University.

Although she was married to a man, Edwin Rollins and had two children, Lorde identified as a lesbian. The self-described “black-lesbian feminist mother lover warrior poet,” became a well recognized voice for women, lesbians, blacks, mothers, and poets; let us not forget her anti-war activism. Her fight for equality and peace was rather inclusive, as she was able to see the connections and ties amongst them all. Lorde was one of the first to acknowledge and point to how connected racism, sexism, and homophobia are — what I would call the intersections of oppression. Lorde addressed this intersectionality and how her work at that time dealt with oppression from the dominant discourse:

My sexuality is part and parcel of who I am, and my poetry comes from the intersection of me and my worlds. . . . [White, arch-conservative senator] Jesse Helms’s objection to my work is not about obscenity . . .or even about sex. It is about revolution and change. . . . Helms represents. . . . white patriarchal power. . . .[and he] knows that my writing is aimed at his destruction, and the destruction of every single thing he stands for.”

What is lovely about this quote is that Lorde was not only inspiring and was practicing good social work, but her legacy is on the right side of history, unlike Helms who left a legacy of hate and racism. It seems odd to me that anyone could not see how connected racism, misogyny, and homophobia are.  Our silence about any of these forms of bigotry will not protect or help us.  Happy Birthday, Audre Lorde!

Black History Month 2014: David Walker

11 Feb
David Walker's Appeal

David Walker’s Appeal

Today I would like to honor and pay tribute to David Walker, abolitionist and voice for social justice. Walker is believed to have been born in 1796 and died in 1830.  During  his short life of 33 years, Walker left an indelible mark in history and left an amazing legacy of tireless efforts towards equity and equality for African Americans.

Walker’s mother was a free black, and thus Walker was also born a “free black.”  Although he grew up in North Carolina, after witnessing the atrocities black people were subjected to, he moved to Boston in 1825.  He worked as a sales agent and writer for Freedom’s Journal, published in New York, the first newspaper owned and operated by African Americans. This experience honed his writing voice and created an enthusiasm for activism in the black community.

Walker is probably best known for his pamphlet An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. Viewed as radical in its day, it called for direct action within the African American community to oppose slavery. He called on all African Americans to resist oppression and strive for personal responsibility. He argued that free blacks must work toward abolition as a political goal and pursue more comprehensive education. While appreciative of the early white abolitionist voices, he argued that relying on a return of liberty strictly from the people who had restricted it was unreasonable. Walker created organized resistance to the false and racist rhetoric that President Jefferson published regarding the “inferiority of blacks.”  Granted, Jefferson was a complex and contradictory human being, who did support the abolitionist movement.

Walker’s Appeal was so powerful and influential that another one of my heroes, William Lloyd Garrison extracted much of Walker’s message in his publication The Liberator.  Many of you may recognize Garrison’s name, for he was also a suffragist.  I take great solace in knowing that Walker’s work lived on and informed so many activist and abolitionists.

One of the Voices of Social Justice: Tama Seavey

23 Sep

Tama and I became friendsTama through social media and we both do the same type of work. I had posted a story about Paula Deen and Trayvon Martin and received a great deal of rather nasty resistance from a particular white heterosexual male.  His comments opened the door to meet a great number of lovely people such as Tama. We both run companies that provide Diversity/Inclusion and Racial Equity workshops. Sadly, we are across the country from each other, but I still hold out some hope that we will get to work together.  As you will see from this interview, it is difficult not to fall in love with Tama.

Many of you may already know Tama by her last name or by the work she does. Her first husband was Neal Seavey, a news reporter for WNBC who died of AIDS in 1983.  Tama lights up when she talks about Neal and it is clear she was drawn to him because of his dedication and commitment to civil rights and social justice, core values which Tama shares. Her experience being married to a gay man helped Tama become a fierce LGBT ally and understand the intersections of oppression.  Her amazing compassion demonstrates that she operates from a place of abundance rather than deficit.  Like her late husband, Tama  challenges:  racism, heterosexism and the abuses against targeted people wherever she can.

Here is the interview with this lovely and amazing woman, Tama Seavey.

Tama is a black woman who will celebrate her 57th birthday in October.  She lived with her mother and her family in Newark, NJ until she was 11.  She left home at the age of 12 and lived in 14 different homes within the foster care system.  All 14 of the homes were white.  While Tama describes herself as “being a handful,” I suspect she was using all of her resources just to survive.  She managed to graduate high school with honors at 16. She was married at age 19 and graduated from the University of New Hampshire.  She has three daughters — she lights up when she talks about her daughters.

Tama, what brings you to the  work of social justice? 

I worked for a number of years in administrative capacities in human service agencies noting the great disparity between their stated missions/social justice agendas and the reality of how people of color and other disenfranchised people were treated both staff and clients.  All of the isms were present internally and demonstrated to the clients. The stated agendas were there with the funding dollars flowing freely to the agency based on the missions, yet the reality was every agency failed dramatically to “live to the missions/visions.”

I was outraged at what I saw as mini racist and exclusionary societies supported and functioning primarily with government dollars and realized the true meaning of systemic racism.  How systems were linked together – networked together to bring about a complete system of organized oppression against targeted populations.  The understanding of this fueled my drive to turn it around, one agency at a time, sometimes one individual at a time and to be a voice of freedom from oppression.  I decided to work as a change agent in every aspect of my life.

Over the course of the following years, I have brought education, training, insight, and management change to boards, executives, and managers of diverse non-profit human services organizations working to create systemic change while teaching to build effective bridges between the mainstream population and those who have been denied access in our society.

Do you consider yourself an activist?

Yes, very much so.  My roots are in activism and I believe in activism at the grassroots level.  I am an effective trainer, writer, speaker and have worked for years studying organizations, systems and the responses of systems to the pressure of duty and responsibility to be inclusive entities and non-supporting of racism and injustice.  I believe that change – the sustained change we are looking for — that will create change for excluded populations will only come as a result of grassroots activism and by those people who work outside of the systems that keep exclusionary/unjust behaviors in place.

People comprise the systems that keep racism, discrimination, harassment and overall exclusion in place.  This condition in our country does not come from some huge overall entities without names and faces.  Those people sitting in the positions of power need to be called to task for maintaining the power imbalance, the privilege imbalance and for denying opportunity to all people.  This tipping of the scale, I believe, can only be accomplished through grassroots activism work.

What should marginalized communities do to have a stronger voice?

Oh, the list is very long.  At the top though is that they must speak and must speak the truth of their experience (no sugar coating, no finding the exact perfect words to appease mainstream society’s [white men and women with power] delicate sensibilities) – they must speak the truth of the experiences of exclusion.  Marginalized communities must stop tolerating their experiences and “challenge with the purpose to change” when presented with discrimination and harassment.  They must use every resource available to seek compensation and force as much justice as is available.  We, as minority individuals, walk away from challenging what we meet up with far too often saying to ourselves “we must pick the right battle.”  This walking away and waiting for the right battle plays a part in strengthening the system of injustice.  Every instance is a reason to speak and every act of discrimination and harassment is actionable.  So, getting educated to your rights is probably number 1 with the rest following.  The system of injustice will not end/will not be changed until there are penalties in place and the penalties are paid by those who perpetuate it.

What do you want your legacy to be?

I believe there is a difference between duty and responsibility.  I have worked towards a legacy that will be that I fulfilled my responsibilities for the choices I made in my life and I lived up to my duty to humanity by being of service to others.

Tama, thank you for sharing just a part of your narrative. I hope we get to hear more narratives like yours and that we all can take action.  How lovely it would be if all targeted people could stand in solidarity with one another.  I am very grateful that I have Tama in my world.

Hero of the Week Award, August 9: Judge Harvey Brownstone

9 Aug

HarveyI need to thank my friend Bruce for inspiring me to celebrate Judge Harvey Brownstone as this week’s HWA.  Brownstone, the first openly gay judge in Canada, had the great pleasure and honor of officiating the wedding of Thea Spyer and Edith Windsor.  You might recall that it was Windsor who was the plaintiff in the case in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the core of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act — which restricted federal marriage benefits to opposite-sex married couples — as a violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection. Thank goodness we finally saw the death of DOMA.

Our Brownstone takes Tikkun olam  (Repair the World) quite seriously.  As a gay Reform Jew, Brownstone recounts:

I came from a Jewish community devoted to inclusiveness, helping one another, and fighting injustice—or, at least that’s what I thought growing up in Hamilton, Ontario.

Our Jewish community was filled with Eastern European immigrants and Holocaust survivors, and my father, a social worker who directed the Jewish Community Center, would bring affluent community members together to assist the newcomers with housing, furniture, clothing, and jobs.

While I do not subscribe to any religion, I have to admit that I wish more humans behaved in this inclusive manner and navigated the world through a lens of social justice.

It is important to note that Brownstone’s start was a difficult and painful one.  Coming from this social justice Jewish background, one would think his parents would have embraced their only child when coming out of the closet.  Sadly, this was not the case:

I decided to tell my parents that I was gay. We had always been close—I was an only child—and I anticipated that my father’s social work background, coupled with my parents’ strong Jewish values of “supporting your children no matter what,” would govern their reaction.

I could not have been more wrong. My parents exploded. They felt shame (“What did we do to cause this?”) and embarrassment (“What will people say when they find out?”). One of the most painful things my mother said to me was, “I survived the Holocaust for this?”

It was immensely painful to know that I had caused my parents such anguish and turmoil simply by revealing the truth about myself. To me, being gay was no different than being right-handed or having brown eyes. I believed—and still do—that we’re born this way. But to my parents, being gay was a choice, a “lifestyle.” I had been taught that what Jewish parents want most of all is for their children to be happy. But I quickly realized that my parents’ definition of “happy” was what counted, not mine.

Fortunately, Brownstone and his parents had a great reconciliation and he was celebrated for the mensch he is:

I invited my parents to my law school graduation, and they proudly attended. That was the beginning of a rapprochement that, over the next five years, would result in a full reconciliation…

In the early ’80s the Jewish community didn’t get that we were all Jews. If the Holocaust had taught us one thing, it was that to the Nazis it didn’t matter if you were gay or straight, Reform or Orthodox—you would share the same fate. But in my experience, this startling reality was overlooked when it came to accepting Jews who were different than the norm.

Eventually I became Chutzpah’s president. And in 1985, I persuaded the board to engage as gays and lesbians with the mainstream Toronto Jewish community.

Again, I am not a religious human, albeit I am spiritual, I do love how Brownstone concludes his interview with ReformJudaism.org:

Put simply—and no one should understand this better than we Jews—civil rights are not just about the law, and they’re not just about rights; they’re about human dignity. We were all made in God’s image. When we discriminate against and hurt each other, we hurt God. And that is why—whether we’re gay, straight, or plaid—this issue needs to matter to us all.

Celebrating Harry Belafonte

2 Aug

BelafonteGiven the recent events involving one of my personal heroes, Harry Belafonte, and Jay Z (a staunch supporter of marriage equality), I thought this would be an appropriate time to celebrate a social justice hero.  Belafonte is known world wide for his entertainment career, but I have always had a much greater appreciation for his social activism.  Belafonte has used his celebrity to help and support Dr. Martin Luther King.  In fact, it was Belafonte who bailed King out of the now famous Birmingham Jail.  He also financed the Freedom Rides, and helped our Bayard Rustin organize the March on Washington.

Belafonte’s dedication to human rights is not restricted to the borders of the United States, although it is worth noting that Belafonte was one of a handful of people who vocally opposed the policies of the George W. Bush administration. This was during the Great Silence when practically NO ONE dared to question the administration for fear of being called unpatriotic.  One of Belafonte’s most famous admonitions addressed Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice and their implication in the violation of human rights under Bush II:

There is an old saying, in the days of slavery. There were those slaves who lived on the plantation, and there were those slaves who lived in the house. You got the privilege of living in the house if you served the master, do exactly the way the master intended to have you serve him. That gave you privilege. Colin Powell is committed to come into the house of the master, as long as he would serve the master, according to the master’s purpose. And when Colin Powell dares to suggest something other than what the master wants to hear, he will be turned back out to pasture. And you don’t hear much from those who live in the pasture.

Belafonte has fought against the neo-colonization of countries in Africa.  He has helped the fight against HIV and AIDS in South Africa.  Belafonte has dedicated his life to human rights and continues to interrupt oppression around the world.  He also expects all people to take action and stand in solidarity with all targeted populations. He was proud to serve as one of the Grand Marshalls of the New York City Pride Parade this year in recognition of his support of LGBT rights and marriage equality.

While I do not wish to get into the particulars around what Belafonte said and how Jay Z responded, I would like and hope that these two men can come together and have a conversation away from the public, as Belafonte has suggested. They both make good points — progress requires direct action and public figures with whom marginalized youth can identify.

Belafonte is not only a treasure for social justice but he holds institutional and systemic memory.  Jay Z is young and has enormous power and influence.  Imagine how powerful these two voices could be if united and how many of us would support them both to help celebrate counter narratives that challenge the dominant culture. If we want the world to change for the better, we need to look towards the solidarity of targeted populations coming together in numbers too big to be ignored.

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