This is a leadership portfolio that I wrote for a course I took on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the religious context of the civil rights movement. The major tone of the course surrounded how we could draw on Civil Rights Leadership as models for the social justice issues that we personally are invested in. Considering this is a blog that highlights issues that I am concerned immensely about, it is imperative that I post the leadership portfolio as a supplement to the topics I discuss. At this point, it still includes references to source materials I drew upon for my own reflections. I do have some contentions with this project in that I believe it to be impossible to give all the factors through which one can give an account of oneself. However, I do also find it imperative we think critically about ourselves, what our dreams and desires are for shaping the world and what our abilities are in shaping a better world.
I begin this leadership portfolio with a confession: it was a difficult process for me to think about myself in relationship to the civil rights movement. In particular, I struggled with discussing my identity and my communities of accountability in relationship to the identities and communities that formed various civil rights leaders. I come from a very different background than most of the civil rights witnesses that we have read and discussed. It is quite clear that religious communities were central to almost every witness we studied. When thinking about my portfolio and in fact, my life, it is a process of moving from chaotic to ordered. This leadership portfolio is the first step to ordering my life in any coherent way. The portfolio moves from the seemingly secular and becomes more theological as one reads it, which makes sense considering that I only began living a life as an observant Jew about 6 years ago. Despite that there are areas where I differ from our witnesses, all of them should be honored for the work that they have done. I hope within my lifetime, I am able to achieve a modicum of justice in their honor.
I was born on March 16th, 1988 to Laura Ann Peterson and Michael Allen McMahon. Two minutes after the doctors delivered me, my brother, Ian Peterson McMahon was born. Two years later, the world would bless me with a younger sister, Kelsey Peterson McMahon. The neighborhood where I was raised was class divided. On the west side of the Lyndale neighborhood lived a white, fairly middle-class community and on the east side, a predominantly immigrant and working-class community. Since our family was lower middle-class status, we also lived on the east side of the neighborhood. Living among immigrant and working-class populations benefited me a great deal, because it allowed me to learn about a plethora of cultures at a young age. It also meant that I grew up being very conscious about money and the fact that my parents did not have much of it. Especially after my parents separated, leaving my mom to support our family, we lived a modest life. My mother relied on her hard work to give us anything frivolous.
Since my mother provided for our family, she inevitably played a large role in shaping the person who I am. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Christ gave us the goals and Mahatma Gandhi the tactics.” Within my own familial context, my father shaped my political goals, and my mother formed the tactic or method through which I sought to do justice and politics. My father and mother split up when I was twelve years old. My father was around peripherally, but not there much for financial or moral support. I only remember him in our household when my mother had to work nights. My fascination with kinship models grew out of this context. Therefore, more than my father, I have always felt that my mother played a larger role in shaping my personality and values.
The fact that my mother could support us is nothing short of amazing. It taught me the importance of the strength of women and especially how they had to be strong in the face of adversity. She did anything within her power to protect and care for us. Sometimes that meant surrogacy through the help of our grandparents or summer programs in which my siblings and I participated.
I always reflect on growing up and how chaotic it was and the amount of dislocation that I felt. To be sure, it provided a formative experience for my understanding of the world and my drive to question the “natural” assumptions we have about it. It taught me that rejection of respectability and human dignity often go together. Single parents are often viewed pejoratively in our society, that somehow within that model of kinship children grow up lacking. It led me to question respectability and how that can be used to assert ones power over another. Here, I specifically draw upon the ideas of Nannie Helen Burrows, who advocated notions of respectability through proper public conduct.
My mother while representing the protective yet compassionate model of womanhood that is somewhat similar to the vision Burrows espoused, rejected politics of respectability. This is not to deny Burrow’s importance and in the face of celebrating Queer life in the United States, Queer persons are often accepted in society as long as we tone it down: drag queens, flamboyant men, and butch dykes are not allowed. My mom taught me that I should never feel ashamed about who I am and that included rejecting certain notions of respectability. Human dignity in my mother’s mind meant that all life is interconnected, that all the freaky people make the beauty of the world. Personal relationships and love trumped social expectations.
I did not grow up in religious institutions familiar to most because religious observance was not an important reason for the identities of my parents. The culture of Minneapolis is one where alternative communities flourish and despite the fact religious institutions were not privileged, several communities played an important role in my formation. The program that had the most profound influence on my life was Youth Farm and Market Project, and the place where I formed the strongest sense of community. The project emphasized the importance of organic food and in various ways, the power that people have through the food that they eat.
To this day, the coming together of disparate groups through growing, selling, and eating food really empowered me. Hispanic and Somali immigrants along with the white kids of the neighborhood could come together and be one. It broke down barriers in significant ways, specifically how diverse cultures could flourish in a small neighborhood. It helped me to think about the fact that everyday acts can be sites to radically transform social systems. I was one of many kids who participated in the program and later worked for it, shaping and forming communities. I taught art programs as well as coordinated the planting of each garden site. The responsibility that the program directors gave to us was nothing short of amazing. Reflecting back upon it, it was an incredibly stressful yet spiritual fulfilling part of my life. It also gave me a strong sense of appreciation towards concrete political work. Moreover, it helped me appreciate how simple yet profound communities can be. Like Andrew Young who, Andrew J. DeRoche argues, began to develop a strong sense of cosomopolitanism being raised in New Orléans, I gained a great sense of human interconnectedness working with Somali and Latino immigrants. The time at Youth Farm helped me understand how peoples of different cultures are able to work together for common goals and the values that different cultures share. A small act is like a mustard seed; it starts off small but can grow big.
When I came out of the closet, I began participating in a Queer Youth group, “So What if I am.” This too furthered my understanding that we can live radical lives just by being in the presence of others. The group provided me a sense of kinship with other Queers. There are obviously things about the group, in retrospect that were imperfect. My one contention is that many within our group were not insistent on hospitality. I do not think any of us meant ill-will towards newcomers, but it helped me understand that we have to be particularly insistent on including others in our communities if we are to create community renewal. Moreover, if queer communities are to have any vitality in the future we have to be insistent being inclusive towards queers who are marginalized in other ways within society. Namely, one of the failures of the group was that the students most likely to stay were white and middle-class, where the students who were likely to leave were poor, homeless, and/or non-White.
This is one of the motivating factors in wanting to create more Queer Youth spaces. I think that the model of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and their grassroots democratic work is meaningful in my life. This model of justice work is important, especially when considering the power of heterosexism within our society. A grassroots democratic model provides an effective model for building queer acceptance in society. Moreover, when thinking about my communities of accountability, I think less in terms of what leaders shaped me and more about how an entire community shaped my thinking.
The vision of my call is one oriented towards civil society and less at electoral politics. Like Judith Butler, civil society is an important site of focusing my work precisely because it is the place where the norms that govern human interaction are reiterated. It becomes the best site because through civil society, ‘daily social relations are rearticulated, and new conceptual horizons [are] opened up by anomalous and subversive practices’ (Butler 14). Nevertheless, I think that the witness of Bayard Rustin is particularly important when emphasizing that when we protest the conditions of civil society, we should be careful that this protest leads to something substantial. This is why I also think that protest in civil society should be through Queer Youth spaces.
Heterosexism is a prevalent issue within our society. While heterosexism is codified in laws such as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” laws banning queer adoption or same-sex marriage, how do we deal with heterosexism on verbal harassment? Hate crimes legislation can only go so far precisely because, on a whole, we are a nation that values free speech. The case of R.A.V. v the City of Saint Paul is one such example. R.A.V. burned a cross on the lawn of an African-American family, and Supreme Court of the United States struck down the case because R.A.V. had first amendment rights to commit such an act. In the past months, the media has revealed to us the damage heterosexism, in the form of hate speech, does to queer youth. Youth perceived to be queer committed suicide because of anti-gay bullying. We can only assume that many more die every day in the United States. Analysis of reaction to the deaths of Billy Lucas, Asher Brown, Tyler Clementi, Seth Walsh, and Ramond Chase reveals the prevalence of heterosexist discourse within our society and the unwillingness to take responsibility for it.
David Barton argues that the suicides of queer youth is proof that homosexuality is unhealthy. Barton further argues that since it is unhealthy, homosexuality should be regulated like trans fats or cigarettes. In a similar vein, American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer argues that groups like Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and homosexual activists are to blame for these suicides because to make youth identify as gay is to condemn those youth “to yield to dark and ultimately tragic impulses.” These arguments ignore that similar discourse was spoken at a City Council meeting in Norman, Oklahoma. The City Council proposed October be honored as LGBT month, leading to a negative response by many residents present. Many of the arguments made explicit links between homosexuality as an abomination and the person standing up for their Christian values or standing up for their God. Afterwards, queer youth Zach Harrington, who was present at the meeting, committed suicide. In other words, bullying is just one manifestation of heterosexism; even the theologies of our institutions give to that system. My focus is to continue work against heterosexism in our societal attitudes through the creation of Queer Youth spaces, empowering young leaders to create change, especially if our institutions are the very site of heterosexism.
Much of our understanding of queer spaces, generally speaking, goes back to the Stonewall Riots that took place in Greenwich Village in New York City in 1969. Before the Stonewall riots, bars — understandably so — were the few places that accepted gay people. The riots were in reaction to a police raid on the Stonewall Inn. The consequence of the riots was the creation of several organizations such as Gay Liberation Front, and Gay Activists Alliance. Furthermore, Gay Pride marches commemorate the Stonewall Riots. It is tempting to valorize the event as a liberation event: it heralds our liberation from “Egypt” in hope for a “Promised land.” This is not to mitigate the importance of the event because these are the people who paved the way for my own work. The bar culture is still a popular and legitimate option for queer adults. However, the issue with this narrative is that it ignores the fact that many people identifying as Queer cannot take part in Queer bar culture. My hope is that these spaces empower queer youth so suicide does not become an option.
Queer youth spaces should draw from institutions like the Black Church, even though my goal is for queer youth spaces to be non-religious (or rather interfaith) safe spaces. We have discussed the importance that the Black Church played on the life of not only Martin Luther King, Jr. but the multitude of Black lives throughout the United States of America. The Black Church and especially Black mothers taught their children the value of “sombodiness.” This acknowledges that justice for any group of people occurs only when a community has a sanctuary present to sustain and empower them. Key to combating heterosexist practices and discourse is building queer youth spaces that can embody many of the concepts that King envisioned in his own beloved community: love, forgiveness, reconciliation, freedom, justice, human dignity, and morality. Furthermore, I am dedicated to the creation of a space that allows queer youth to help others in obtaining wellness, in research and education, as well as with cultural activities.
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) also provides a useful source of information when working to build queer youth leadership. SNCC’s presence as the front line of the Civil Rights Movement is one such reason. SNCC was responsible for leading Sit-Ins and the Freedom Rides. Both the Sit-Ins and the Freedom Rides were campaigns of vital importance because they put SNCC in confrontation with Southern racism. Participants in SNCC faced the physical and discursive violence of racism. Many also faced jail time. SNCC is also important for its model of membership. Ella Baker formulated the SNCC in response to the hierarchical nature of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Baker envisioned SNCC as imbuing “the students with her own ideals of grassroots participatory democracy and group-centered leadership.” She did not want the Civil Rights Movement controlled hierarchically and envisioned the Civil Rights movement as a collaborative effort of all people.
The presence of SNCC in the Civil Rights Movement has implications in the way we should handle work in the present. Youth are always at the front lines of any movement. I believe this especially true of queer youth. Becoming an adult affords us some movement socially. Of course, this differs depending on one’s social class, religion, or ethnicity. Nevertheless, adults have some choice when it comes to determining our communities. Youth have almost no control. They might be in families that are homophobic, forcing them to choose between having food and shelter, or to come out. Queer youth are required to go to school, often the breeding ground for heterosexist discourse and assault, as recent news has shown. We need Queer Youth leaders who are in schools, who are able to navigate and speak out against harassment. They will offer voices in the wilderness for youth who might not be able to come out to their parents or peers.
The means to empower queer youth is through the creation of queer safe spaces. Like the SNCC, I envision queer youth spaces as participatory and democratic. Each person who participates is building a mode of leadership that relies on a movement of people. This model of youth leadership offers insights into how queer activists should allow queer youth a role in queer acceptance. In the contemporary setting, the Queer Youth Center in Seattle provides a useful model for queer youth campaigns. The purpose of the campaign is to form communities for queer youth so that we as adults can listen “to queer young peoples’ perspectives about the state of our movement and allow them to organize and change how things run in their community.” Furthermore, central to Seattle’s campaign are three different wings: a cultural activism, a wellness collaborative, and research and education institutes. Each activism wing works in different ways, offering diverse venues through which queer youth can be empowered.
I focused on SNCC and the beloved community because I am interested in the interplay between communities of meaning and justice. The Black Church and family structures provided a means to engrain African-Americans with a strong sense of sombodiness. However, on the issue of heterosexism, churches are often silent, especially in the recent cases of queer suicides. Even churches that are supportive towards the queer community have been relatively silent, which is problematic in light of the American popular consciousness envisioning the Church as a moral compass. Building queer youth spaces offers alternative communities of meaning for queer people, that seek to discuss the relationship of how queer communities intersect with other identity-based communities. I grew up in a queer youth space where King’s beloved community was manifest, without us ever calling it such. Furthermore, I think queer youth spaces offer a place where alternative families can be built. King obtained from his parents many of the values that made him an effective leader. When I reflect on my experience in a queer youth community, I think of the people within it as family. I think this is important for queer youth, especially those who feel particularly vulnerable in our society, to have in a community.
In my justice work, I have found it incredibly important to analyze the Civil Rights Movement, while paying particular attention to the importance of community. My two interests have been in the importance of the Black Church and of family, while being aware of the fact that Queer people are not united under one religion and that many within our community do not have family structures that can offer liberative power. Nevertheless, these institutions can give us profound insights into how to emphasize queer community. By giving honor to the roles these institutions play and by thinking about why they function effectively, they will prove useful to anyone doing justice work in a contemporary setting.
Understanding my covenantal passion about Queer issues requires understanding the theological underpinnings of my work. The assumption of many is that coming out is an event and this is true, yet short sighted. Coming out of the closet is a process and it occurs everyday of our lives and some days it is more difficult. Sometimes it is a process of negotiation but it is also a spiritual process. Robert E. Goss describes coming-out as a ‘break-in moment in our spiritual growth’. Break-in moments are moments where we transcend the here and the now and catch a glimpse of something greater than ourselves. Many Queer theologians would go so far to describe coming-out as a sacrament. Coming out is a double-edged sword because it is an experience of self-acceptance and above all, a measure of grace. However, it is also a call to face rejection from a judgmental society.
The truth of my desires and to continuously come out is a stand to witness and testify. It is a call to truth. My desire to advocate for queer communities is a stand on the side of truth. Religion, in that sense, plays a large role in helping me formulate how to understand my work. Central to Judaism is the sin of idolatry. My calling to stand for the truth means that I must reject a God that refuses to work for human liberation, not just in the aspect of my justice work but in any justice work. I cannot stand with a God who justifies the suffering of any queer people, nor the suffering of human life. Furthermore, it is a refusal to worship false gods. Marc Ellis, in a brilliant effort to link the disavowal of idolatry to support of liberation movements, understands that the idolatrous have to carry their idols while the believers are lifted and liberated by God.
If all human beings are made in the image of God and if this transcendent presence in present in all human life, idolatry, in particular, becomes the systems of domination in the life of human beings. The destruction of human beings and nature, acts of political oppression require that we must refuse those systems because those systems prevent human compassion and solidarity from flourishing. Rejection of idolatry means a process of denaturalizing basic assumptions about the systems of power in our lives: unbridled capitalism, nationalism, racism, patriarchy and heterosexism.
Like King, I really believe that oppression destroys both the one hated and the hater. Moreover, my advocacy of a queerer public and private life is that I really do believe that queerness teaches us what it means to be human, and that the quest for justice means a queerer society. My goal is not to defeat the opponent but to reconcile the opponent. It is not the opponent that I take issue with but the system in which the opponent participates.
Baldwin argues that King supports a culture of openness and enlargement and that King did not simply advocate a culture of tolerance but rather a culture honors and celebrates differences (35-36). Like King, I do believe that this must be connected to the culture and politics of radical democracy: the prophetic expansion of rights and the human community (37). As Judith Butler notes, radical democracy is the incessant contestation over the key terms of liberalism (equality, freedom, justice, humanity) to make them more inclusive and concrete. My task for Queer communities is to generate a more encompassing universal of our competing paradigms.
Finally, I think integral to the maintenance of any covenant between us, God, and the people is Shabbat, or rest. It has taken on a greater role in my life, especially since I have moved out to Boston. Shabbat is this paradoxical time, where we face both limitations as well as catch glimpses of the ideal. Humans need rest. We need times to recuperate from living intense lives. Shabbat, in my life means that I need time away from advocating for the Queer communities in which I hope to build to allow my various identities flourish. Shabbat does not just mean a safe space, it means a place that we allow our ideals to come to life– through food, community, and religious practice. Shabbat is not unlike King’s understanding of the beloved community, where God’s plan for the future intersects in the present, to bring communities of people together. While it is a recognition of human frailty in that we cannot possibly do it all in the time we are given, it is also a call to stop work and embody the ideals that we want to exist within our communities.
As I noted in one of my journal entries earlier this year, “I don’t want to leave people behind, nor do I want to let them down. It’s a fact of life that we will leave people behind. The thought is an unsettling one. We have to make those choices, however… I know two things, if I ever want to lead, I will need to learn how to say “no” and be realistic about my expectations.” This is something I have always struggled with and it is one of the traits I gained from my mother. Our duty is to support others, even if it means ignoring our own needs and limits. In the context of my mother, this trait makes sense because she did not have the privilege to say “no.” I am blessed to have that privilege in my life and to act as a more responsible agent, I need to recognize the limits of my power and abilities. The most responsible thing that we can do as leaders is to admit our limits as leaders. There are several occasions where I had too many obligations, This is where I think my strengths and goals for leadership come into play.
I both admire and lament Bayard Rustin’s leadership. I always wonder if he saw himself in the background because of his homosexuality. Nevertheless, I also admire it because as —- said, “Some of this is attributable to a leadership style, long cultivated by Rustin, that fused Quaker and Gandhian influences into a seamless modesty that never drew attention to himself.” My leadership style, like Rustin’s is more modest. This is congruent with one my strengths, my ability to build bridges, which gives me the strength as a negotiator. My personality is malleable and allows me to interact with other easily.
I want to conclude thinking about leadership by pondering the next steps, and thinking about my promised land. I agree with Ella Baker in that, in regards to political issues, we need to have indigenous leadership over local communities. Leadership indigenous to communities acknowledges the thickness of culture and the concrete realities that separates one community from another. We looked at the issues Martin Luther King Jr. faced when he attempted to fight racism in Chicago: racism in the North manifested itself much differently than in the South. This is the same with heterosexism and homophobia.
Since many people work under different frameworks for addressing this issue, especially considering the diversity of Queer communities, the value I hope to emphasize in any leadership position I have is to teach of responsibility. When I make difficult decisions, I attempt to make them before God as well as the people with which I am accountable. Ultimately, they are one in the same. I believe the call of the people is the call of the Sacred. The cry of the oppressed is the Sacred crying out for us to act with justice. Our decisions have effects and we need to think about and consult the people who will be most affected by them.
Moreover, we need to be aware of the possibility that the promise land might not be reached, at least within our lifetime. The future is always an open possibility and we are always on the brink of unknowing. Radical democracy as and attempt to live in a culture of openness, as I believe, is always an ongoing process. This causes despair in some and sometimes even in myself. But this is where we should dare to dream. Social transformation is contingent upon our willingness to risk destabilizing unjust systems. It is about daring to risk fantasy, of learning to imagine, of articulating and embodying the impossible.