• Ben Finzel

The Common Sense Colloquy: Q&A with Earl Fowlkes of the Center for Black Equity

I thought for a while about the focus of this Q&A in this final month before one of the most consequential elections of our lives. What kind of conversation would be helpful at a time in which we have finally realized that we can’t talk enough about racial justice? Who could I talk with about LGBTQ issues and the election during LGBTQ History Month and a month in which RENEWPR is supporting the Washington Blade’s month-long campaign to urge the LGBTQ community to vote? Fortunately, the thought occurred to me to ask Earl Fowlkes to participate in this series. And luckily, he accepted the invitation!

Earl is, among other roles, the President and CEO of the Center for Black Equity, Inc. (formerly the International Federation of Black Pride, an organization he founded in 1999 as a coalition of Black Pride organizers in the US, Canada, the United Kingdom and South Africa). Today, there are more than 30 Black Pride celebrations attracting a total of nearly half a million people each year. And the CBE is the only Black LGBT international organization in the world. And if that weren’t enough, Earl is also the chair of the LGBT Caucus of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). He is not only connected, but smart and focused on issues at the nexus of racial justice, LGBTQ rights and the power of community engagement.

Earl was previously the Executive Director of the DC Comprehensive AIDS Resources and Education Consortium (DC CARE Consortium) and Damien Ministries, two organizations providing services to people living with HIV/AIDS in Washington, D.C. Earl is a licensed social worker who has worked on HIV/AIDS and LGBT issues for 25 years. Earl has degrees in history and business from Rutgers University and today lives in Washington, D.C. So yeah, with that background and experience, Earl’s a total rock star. And I’m fortunate to know him and grateful he was willing to spend a little time to participate in the Common Sense Colloquy.

Our thanks to Earl for sharing his wisdom with us – and you.

Q: Your work and lived experience places you at the center of two of the dominant themes in American life this year: racial justice and the importance of the national election. What lessons do you think the American people have learned this year about racial justice? How do you think those lessons will be manifested in the election results?

I believe that Americans were once again forced to confront the lasting legacy of slavery and its byproduct – racial injustice. The United States seems to confront racism every decade since World War II after Black American veterans returning home from freeing Europe and Asia from fascism, decided to resist the strict de facto and de jure segregation that greeted them after their service to their country. The extension of full civil and economic rights to African Americans have challenged the consciousness of Americans for over sixty-five years. Yet I believe 2020 is different because many Americans were confronted with raw images of police violence towards African Americans unseen for many since the 1960’s. Tens of thousands of people of all races, ages, social and economic backgrounds marched in solidarity with African Americans seeking justice in communities both large and small. I think this increased level of consciousness will impact the 2020 general election dialogue and could prove advantageous for more progressive candidates running for offices up and down the ballots.

Q: As the Chair of the LGBT Caucus for the Democratic National Committee, you’ve had an important role in representing the LGBTQ community before the Democratic party. What have your core messages been? How have they been received?

First of all, I am deeply honored to have chosen twice by my peers to be the Chair of the LGBT Caucus for the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Secondly, I represent all LGBTQ+ Democrats and serve on the DNC Executive Committee. Finally, my core messages have been to remind my fellow Democrats that the fight for full LGBTQ+ equality is not over and while LGBTQ+ Americans have made progress over the past twenty years, discrimination still exist for members of my community depending on where they live. I also lift up and push for greater inclusion of my Transgender brothers and sisters who in my opinion, shoulder a disproportionate level of the discrimination and violence that is often directed towards our communities.

I think more and more DNC members understand my message of inclusion which has resulted in an increase of LGBTQ+ delegates at the 2020 Democratic National Convention from 600 at the 2016 convention to 635. Our Transgender/non-binary totals increased from 24 to 30. The 2020 Democratic National Convention was the gayest political convention in American history. While I certainly cannot take credit for this increase, I can be the messenger for the need to increase LGBTQ+ representation in the Democratic Party

Q: Where does Black Pride fit in the broader national and international community? Why is it important? What do you think the LGBTQ community could learn from your experience engaging the black LGBTQ community over the years?

I believe that Black Pride services two purposes in the greater LGBTQ+ community. First of all, Black Prides were created as a “safe space” for people of African descent to express their duality of being both Black and LGBTQ+. Many Black LGBTQ+ people live in predominately Black communities which unfortunately can homophobic and Transphobic thus posing safety issues. Secondly, many Black LGBTQ+ community members have encountered racism in the predominately white “gayborhood” and for many the celebration of gay pride only serves to elevate the racism they encounter regularly in the greater community. During Black Pride events from Selma to NYC, Black queer folks can celebrate being both Black and LGBTQ+ without fear and with a sense of liberation. Black Pride often serves as the gateway to the greater LGBTQ+ experience and over 450,000 people attended US Black Prides in 2019. There are approximately, eight Black Pride events in Europe, Africa, South America and the Caribbean, and creating safe places in many of these countries is about survival and confronting government sponsored homophobia.

I have attended hundreds of Pride events all over the world and have enjoyed the vast majority of them. These experiences have taught me that most LGBTQ+ people of all races, have much more in common than differences, and there are many ways of “coming out”. Black Pride is just one of these ways.

Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you’ve received?

The next two questions have the same answer for me. Listen without talking. Don’t take every conversation to heart and wait 24 hours before responding to an unpleasant correspondence. Acknowledge and confront your biases and prejudices – we all have them. Communicate with cultural sensitivity and kindness (I still don’t understand why we can’t be kind to one another). Learn how to be a good servant leader and your actions will communicate your intent. I have found that being seen doing the work is more impactful than talking about it.

Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you've given to others?

Listen without talking. Don’t take every conversation to heart and wait 24 hours before responding to an unpleasant correspondence. Acknowledge and confront your biases and prejudices – we all have them. Communicate with cultural sensitivity and kindness (I still don’t understand why we can’t be kind to one another). Learn how to be a good servant leader and your actions will communicate your intent. I have found that being seen doing the work is more impactful than talking about it.


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