Transcription of the episode “Intersections: Supporting Black LGBTQIA+ students”

[00:00:15] Amy H-L: I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. 

[00:00:17] Jon M: And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Dr. David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition () (NBJC), the civil rights organization dedicated to the empowerment of Black LGBTQ+ people. Dr. Johns served as the first executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans for President Obama. Welcome, Dr. Johns. 

[00:00:43] David J: Thank you for having me. 

[00:00:46] Amy H-L: Before we get started, I want to make sure our listeners understand the terminology. Is there a distinction between Black LGBTQ+ and same gender loving or SGL people? 

[00:00:59] David J: Yes. For people who can’t see, I’m smiling with my whole face, because I appreciate the question. And the answer is yes, and I will love to share a resource as well. NBJC has a terminology guide that’s available on our website, which we produced, acknowledging that too often people don’t engage in conversations like this because they don’t have the language and, more importantly, they don’t want to make mistakes. And so we offer that as a resource and hopefully many others that the community will enjoy. 

The direct answer to your question is that I, as a Black man, do not identify as gay. Gay, often, both in the media as well as in policy or public policy, is often a stand in for gay white men. And not only does my identity as a Black man who is same gender loving, to use a term that was created by a brilliant man and mentor, Cleo Manago, it misses opportunities to name and acknowledge intersectionality in practice and really the fact that as long as there have been people, in particular people who are members of sexual minority communities, who we now refer to under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella. And more to the point, I use same gender loving because often when people think about sexual minority community members or gay people generally they think about sex, they think about deviancy. They might, in particular when thinking about religious trauma or the way it works in Black communities, they might think about HIV. And so I choose to use a term that is often referenced in conversation between two of my favorite people, James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni, which is love. They disagree about a lot, but what they agree upon is that the solution to so many of our problems is love. So I use same gender loving. 

[00:02:48] Amy H-L: Thank you for that. 

[00:02:50] Jon M: Could you tell us a little more about the state of Black young people’s mental health today? And in particular, Black same gender loving young people?

[00:03:00] David J: Yes. And I will broaden it to talk about Black queer, trans, and non-binary young people, some of whom at some point might identify as same gender loving and some who don’t. And I’m making this distinction as well, because same gender loving works for folks who are otherwise identified as gay or lesbian, but does not work for trans folks, because of the distinction between sexual identity and gender orientation. Again, if this is confusing, or you’re just working through it, reference the guide, and if it’s still not clear, hit me up. 

Specific to your question, I want to be clear in naming that the legacy of African descendants, whether we are called African American or Black, Colored at one point in in our country and our lexicon. And the footnote here is that language changes, it’s malleable. I know there are some people who get frustrated and feel like they have language fatigue, but this is always how we’ve done the work of existing in societies or social order our communities. 

But the legacy of Black folks in this country is one where many of us are often finding ways to survive. The most privileged amongst us find ways to thrive in spite of. So I want to be clear that one of the greatest privileges in my life is being enrolled in the process of young people figuring out who they are in this world that they didn’t ask to be born into. And they are often finding ways to innovate and hack and develop new solutions to seemingly intractable problems, and they’re often doing so without the kinds of support and love that they not only require, but deserve. 

Specific to your question about mental health, what we know, based on data, and as a recently minted PhD, I was smiling, thinking about the complications with data. But what we know, based on data, is that the mental health of Black youth generally is abysmal. The suicide rates for Black youth have doubled over the last two decades. They are larger than any other community of children when we think about race or ethnicity, which is to me alarming. At the risk of being persnickety, to put a finer point on it, the suicide rate for every other community of children has decreased in that same timeframe, and they’ve done the exact opposite for Black students. And again, for folks who missed it, this isn’t simply a result of the most recent series of pandemics that we’ve been facing, including coronavirus. This is well before that. 

Similarly, what we know, based on data collected around sexual minority status for LGBTQIA+ youth, is that students who identify as or who are assumed to be LGBTQIA+ or trans, queer, non-binary, or same gender loving face increased suicidal ideation and completion, increased rates of depression, all of the areas of concern for mental health practitioners.

We find our babies, we refer to our children as babies, primarily as a [inaudible] for us to love them in the way that privileged babies are loved. But the data shows that our babies are ringing the alarm, demanding help. Now, I want to be clear for folks who are tracking, I didn’t ask answer the question specific to Black LGBTQIA+ folks because that data doesn’t really exist. One of the challenges that I had to overcome in my data collection process is that data, which is often used as a tool of white supremacy, I can unpack that later if you’re interested, is collected for student age populations without regard for intersectionality or interoperability. So data that is collected around students that accounts for their race and ethnicity and their experiences in schools do not consider their sexual identity, gender orientation, or expression. So the Department of Education data or what people might be familiar with with regard to NIH or other longitudinal studies, doesn’t consider it. And then conversely, the data that does center sexual minority status is often concerned with behavioral health risk factors connected to sex and intimacy, and then that data doesn’t consider or ask questions about students’ experiences in school.

The final point around data is that while we know that mental health rates generally for Black youth and LGBTQIA+ youth are high, and we know anecdotally that that babies who fall in the middle of the concentric circle face unique challenges as a result of intersectionality, the data is often also underreported. There are so many challenges and complications with regard to how data is collected in this country that it’s important for me to note that whenever we’re talking about data, particularly education data or public health data, that I acknowledge that with regard to Black folks and LGBTQIA+ folks and members of both communities, the data is under reported.

[00:07:58] Jon M: Thank you for that very much. I have a follow up question related to the question of data, which is that I had understood that traditionally, suicide rates among Black youth have been lower than white youth. And as you’re saying that they’re now much higher. Do you have a sense of why these changes have happened?

[00:08:22] David J: Absolutely, and I would encourage people to download and read the “Ring the Alarm” report that NBJC produced in partnership with the Congressional Black Caucus. There was a collective led by Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, a brilliant leader out of New Jersey, where a number of us, practitioners, educators, public policy advocates, parents, and young people alike, grappled with this. I’ll say three things in this moment and encourage people to pursue more information. One is that young people have access to and struggle with the implications of technology with regard to mental health. There was recently a lawsuit that was announced against TikTok, Meta, the owner or parent company of Facebook and Instagram, and one other platform that escapes me at present. But what it does is acknowledge that some of the increases in mental health trauma coincide with the advent and popular use of these digital media platforms, specifically for students or young people in this age frame. And so there have been attempts, including by organizations like NBJC, to get social media platforms to be better actors. And what they’ll often say is that they’re not designed for students younger or children younger than 13, but they’re not really enforcing these policies. And so that’s one area. Related to that, young people have access to, I want to say sources of information, but it’s really people who are profiting off of their pain. The algorithms are designed such that you’re going to be sucked in by things that are hate filled, that will likely have you longing for things that you might not otherwise need or want, especially if you’re in connection with people in healthy and loving relationships, and this particularly affects young people. The third thing I’ll say is white supremacy, a larger conversation about how this is connected to what Black feminists refer to as a nation of domination, the science systems and symbols that allow white supremacy and patriarchy to be omnipresent, yet hyper invisible. But the point here is that in the last decade alone, we’ve seen so many more publicly pronounced manifestations of white supremacy and in particular anti-Blackness, and young people are exposed to that.

I’ll never forget the summer of George Floyd. I want to note for folks who might not know that the same week that George Floyd was murdered, there was a Black trans man named Tony McDade, who was also murdered by the police in Tallahassee, Florida. While all of this was going on, New York City, where I was living at the time completing my doctoral work, was contemplating and ended up undergoing curfew, attempting to lock down and prevent people from risking their lives at the height of a global unprecedented pandemic to protest in streets around racial injustice. There was a moment where Ali Velshi, a journalist I respect, asked two students, high school students at the time, a Black girl and her white male friend, why they were on the streets, risking their lives at that time when they should otherwise be thinking about prom and graduation. And the Black woman, saddled with responsibilities that all too often Black women in particular, but Black children more specifically, are burdened with, said that it was important to her to be out there because she was concerned about her unborn children, that she didn’t want them to live in a world that they had to deal with the things that she, in my words, was dealing with because of the failures of adults who abdicated a responsibility to address things connected to white supremacy and anti-Blackness. The last thing, I know I said three, I think the first two were very much related. That was the second point. 

The third is that we as a country, as a community, have not done a good job of prioritizing mental health in particular. And in non-white communities, there are still celebrated jokes about mental health being reserved for white folks, in particular, privileged white folks who have the ability to do yoga and otherwise center themselves, while trying to survive, prioritizing mental health as if something that people have the luxury of. We also know that there are fewer culturally competent mental health providers, so when people overcome traditional barriers to accessing institutions that have historically wronged Black folks in other minoritized communities, including the healthcare industrial complex, we are least likely to find someone, not only who looks like us, but who loves us as a demonstration of their practice. And so that results in often adults who are dealing with what Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary talks about as post-traumatic slave disorder. I really think that we’re not post-anything and that a lot of it is being exacerbated. Adults who are dealing with toxic stress, prolonged exposure to poverty, things that have a physiological impact upon how you show up and move through the world, are unable to model for children the importance of being able to name their emotions and/or seek mental health support. And so all of those things are all at work and often result in families and then children who need the resources and the support and sometimes the language the most, of being least likely to have access to it. Did that answer your question? 

[00:13:26] Jon M: Yes.

[00:13:28] Amy H-L: I’m wondering whether the culture of mental health itself is not yet part of the Black community in the way yoga and self care is part of white culture. 

[00:13:45] David J: I’m gonna push on that. Let’s reframe this a bit. Some of this is about language and how we use it. And so I want to be clear that what I’m pushing against is the idea that it’s not within the Black community. Black folk, FOLX, have historically dealt with our mental health in ways that do not look like what exists in the box of self-care. Like when I think about self-care and popular images that exist, it’s white women in Lululemon outfits going to get green juice and then Pilates or Barre class, and then taking a bubble bath in a home that someone else pays for, and that might be somebody else’s labor. Go back to that. And then they talk to their therapist, and then they go to lunch with their girlfriends, and then they reference and quote things that their therapist says. That’s what self-care looks like to the extent that that’s what is popularized or celebrated. So for some Black folks, and I want to be clear that I’m talking in generalities, which is dangerous, but it’s useful for the purpose of this kind of discussion. So we’re not a monolith, we’ve never been a monolith. So to the extent that that’s what self-care looks like, many of us don’t do it. 

There’s also another layer of this, which is connected to the way that Black folks engage in religious practices. And this, what I referenced earlier, this distrust, justified distrust, of institutions, in particular institutions that are designed to preserve privilege. I’m talking about schools and child welfare systems. And so there’s also another layer of this, which is that we Black folks deal with our issues in home or in community or we take it to God. What we don’t do is take it to a often, again, image of a white therapist or someone who is not culturally competent in ways that make Black folks feel protected and affirmed, and you tell them your business in ways that might possibly invite more additional harm.

Third thing is that there are fewer, this because of the way institutions are designed, there are fewer non-white and queer and disabled, and for whom their families this is not their country of origin. The further you move from white, cisgendered, which is simply the opposite of transgender for folks who are, this is your first time, doctors, well intentioned and well resourced and well educated. They make educated guesses about gender and they assign gender at birth. If one, at the point in which they are able to, agrees with the gender that a doctor assigned you at birth, you are cisgendered. If in fact you don’t, you are transgender. That’s all it means. So there’s another layer of this which acknowledges that the further away you are from being privileged in the way that privilege has become constructed in this country, the less likely you are to find someone who not only looks like you, and every time I think or say that, there’s a footnote in my mind, which is to acknowledge that all my skin folk ain’t my kin folk. I would offer a Herschel Walker and Candace Owens as examples of what I mean in this moment. But you are least likely, if you have multiple marginalized identities as I do, or the vast majority of Black folks in this. Most Black folks either are born with a disability or made to have a disability, again, as another example of a how white supremacy works. But we are least likely to then find a culturally competent practitioner. And if we do, there are other challenges, which include we might not be able to have the kind of job that allows us to be able to pay for it or to take the time off to go, or we otherwise face challenges that make it difficult to access.

So I offer up, and then I’ll land this plane, which is that the vast majority of Black LGBTQIA+ people live in the south. We live with other Black people. So there’s a way that Hollywood paints pictures of gay people or queer people and they suggest that they, I’ll say they for the purposes of this example,. queer white folks live in neighborhoods, major metropolitan cities like Hollywood, California, think Boystown, Chicago, Fire Island, Provincetown. There’s an imagining that those are the places where we live. That’s not true for Black folks. We have always been concentrated with other Black folks, and in particular, we call small, rural, and isolated communities in the south part of the American South home. Our access to medical centers and culturally competent providers of medical care continues to be disrupted, not only because there are often intentional divestments in our ability to have these resources in our communities, but because of disruptions that have been exacerbated by COVID, people losing their jobs, not having access to broadband to be able to consistently engage in conversations like this. They might not have the kind of resources that allow one to access telehealth or other digital forms of care. And all of these things for two many members of our community end up being building blocks and the sort of Lego wall that prevents us from being able to access all of the resources that we need to be well.

We have been spending the bulk of this conversation, rather, talking specifically about mental health, but the same points and examples are true when we think about the challenges that too many of us have with fresh produce, living in food deserts, or workforce development programs that allow us to be equipped to have the skills we need to compete in this global workforce. And all of this stuff is hard to find.

[00:19:41] Amy H-L: David, you mentioned the role of God, and I’m wondering, within religious communities, and again, I’m speaking in broad generalities, but are these non-normative sexual and gender orientations acceptable? Can these youth find support? 

[00:20:04] David J: I heard two questions framed in religion. One was, are we acceptable in, I’ll talk specifically about first, Black church or Black religious spaces and then more generally, I’ll make some connections to broader evangelical clouds in the atmosphere. And then the second question was around support. 

So to the first point, words matter. I majored in English as an undergraduate student at Columbia. And so what I think about is that acceptable is the wrong framing in part because, there’s an author, Sobonfu Somé, who wrote a book that I’m looking at on my bookshelf called “The Spirit of Intimacy.” And in the book, the 13th chapter of the book, what she writes is, in my village in West Africa, the words lesbian and gay did not exist, but the word gatekeeper did. And gatekeepers held relationships in two worlds, being connected to our ancestors and being connected to physical community, I offered some attribution, but the first phrasing and acknowledgement around the fact that as long as there have been people, well, all people come from Africa. So as long as there have been people, and in particular Black people, regardless of what the terms were, we’ve existed in beautifully and incredibly diverse ways. And so I want to caution anyone who is living with the question of acceptability and the term acceptability, because words matter. Toni Morrison talks about them as things. They get in your curtain and they get into you. For anyone who is living with that in them sort of ingested, because whether or not you think we are acceptable by the definition of the term, we’re still gonna be here. So that’s one. 

The second is that underscoring or circling Somé’s use of the term gatekeeper. Many of us acknowledge that in native traditions we’ve held space and there’s actual language to talk about the role that people play, a very spiritual role in holding relationships and occupying similar spaces to elders in lots of other communities, but offering guidance and transmitting information, supporting this process of learning how it is that we thrive as communities. And that has always existed. And more specifically, it exists within Black American religious traditions. I would offer up in this moment the name of Bishop Flunder. Folks can’t see, but she’s on my wall in my office. But she is a religious leader in Oakland, California, that has spent her life and legacy not only demonstrating that which I’m talking about, but operating in service not only in Oakland but throughout the country. What I know as I’m saying all of this is that there are more people who have access to the very loud megaphone projected messages of minority pastors who profit off of the pain of their congregations, who do not do the job of what Howard Thurman, a religious leader, talked about as showing up for the least of these. 

The last point I’ll make about this before going to support and then the broader evangelical points is this. I, Dr. David J. Johns, am the grandson of a Black Baptist preacher, and I’m thankful for, I’m looking at a Bible that was on his casket that sits in my office, I’m thankful for a lifetime of opportunity to not only be loved on by him, but to watch him grapple with some of the teachings of false prophets. And what I know, based on his teachings and preachings over time, the thread that runs through them is one that God doesn’t make mistakes. I was formed, all of us were formed, as perfect before I could even form a thought. I know without a shadow of a doubt that none of this is by mistake. It is all by design, and every example of Jesus in the Bible and in a number of versions of the Torah that I have had access to always shows up for the least amongst us. And so when I think about the broader Evangelical, and really it’s a organized effort funded by white billionaires who believe that their wealth is a reflection of God choosing them to create the world in their image. But it is a funded campaign effort to turn out voters using hate to drive wedges between people who should appreciate that we’ve always been beautifully and incredibly diverse, and that especially in America, we benefit from our diversity. 

The last part about support, yes and no. What I found in my dissertation, I wrote about the experiences of Black trans, queer, non-binary public middle and high school students in this country. It was a mixed method study, so I looked at data collected by GLSEN, which tried to trouble that issue I talked about early on in our conversation about data not existing that considers children as whole people. And I engaged in qualitative data, I collected my own data. And one thing that I found is that students or young people who lived in the South often did not have access to support, in part because religion controls a lot of the community-based resources. So if you are in a part of the Bible belt where people are teaching the clobber passages, those passages like Sodom and Gomorrah, are often read incorrectly. People read them as they were attempting to enter Lot’s house to engage in sodomy when the context provided says that the teaching there is really about acknowledging problems with xenophobia, that it’s really about us being friendly and open to our neighbors, exactly the point that I was just making. But people who are teaching the clobber passages will not then provide spaces for community-based resources or programming that might otherwise provide young people with the ability to engage in a conversation that looks, feels, or sounds like this. That problem is being exacerbated in part because in the last legislative cycle there were more than 375 anti LGBTQ pieces of legislation introduced and some of them codified throughout this country.

There might have been a point in our relatively young democracy where one could have said well then move to another part of the country, except that I said 42 states. There are very few places you can go where people have not already taken action to preserve white supremacy and to fight against truth and difference, which is often not a deficit unless we’re talking about it being used to chip away at white supremacy. But the point here is that the supports that we otherwise might have assumed people would have access to in schools or other public institutions do not exist. And so I’m making a footnote to say that in spite of all of these challenges, as I reference the legacy of Black folks in this country, we still try and find ways to meet specific needs. And given the the number of challenges that we are facing, especially now at this point in our geopolitical environment, there is not nearly enough support. Did I answer your question?

[00:27:40] Jon M: Yes. How helpful and effective are legal protections from bullying and harassment for Black LGBTQ students?

[00:27:53] David J: I’m gonna back into this. So most important right now is ensuring that there are clear and consistent non-discrimination protections that account for sex. So, gender, sexual identity, gender orientation or expression. The phrase a lot of folks use in the public policy space is SOGIE. To ensure that we move away from the ability of people who operate businesses, people who provide and are benefitted from public services being able to discriminate. Period. Full stop. 

Next paragraph. Once of NBJC’s priorities for the last five years has been codifying the Equality Act to do exactly this. The Equality Act, which is often talked about as an LGBTQIA+ bill, would provide clear and consistent non-discrimination protections that would protect women, acknowledging the issues that we still have to deal with regarding discrimination that women face, both cis and trans, and individuals based on sexual identity, gender orientation or expression. As an example, this is important because right now there are not protections, discrimination protections, for things like ride shares, Uber, Lyft. Those things didn’t exist when the Civil Rights Acts of ’64 and ’65 were codified. So that means that I can, as I have been, kicked out of a ride share because someone is intimidated by the fact that my nails are always done in ways that they might think are or should be exclusive to folks assigned female at birth or women or because they have questions about the person sitting next to me. 

There was, before the Supreme Court decision Bostok, which made it illegal to discriminate based on sexual identity, gender orientation or expression in employment settings. It was legal in states like my parents’ home state of Texas. It would’ve been legal for me to be fired because my employer assumed that the picture of myself and my best friend, or at this point in my life, my partner, meant that I violated their sensibilities. And so as a country, and my hope is that while we work through the politics of a white supremacist, emboldened House of Representatives. And I say that, for people that might feel shocked by those terms, but many of those members, especially those who are holding it hostage, were elected by and or people who participated in the attempted coup or insurrection. 

So as we deal with those politics, my hope is that leaders at the local level, and I’m talking about school board leaders and employers and folks who are on city council do the work of engaging in non-discrimination protections. That is important for me to start with as a foundation, because too often these conversations around LGBTQIA+ youth start and end with bullying. And what I found in my dissertation is that the remedies, the practices that adults frequently go to to respond to bullying, invite an additional form of violence to the victim and end up protecting the person who or people who engage in the bullying, without ever getting to the root cause of why one felt it important to bully and/or were bullied themselves, which is what usually causes it. 

 If folks who are thinking about this in the social science space, this is Bronfenbrenner’s ecological system, which talks about how we all live in environments that are shaped by what people have access to. Kevin Jennings is a brilliant man. We served in the Obama administration. He helped to advance conversations around the importance of legal protections to ensure our safety, which is important. I want to be crystal clear about that. It is important to have legal protections to ensure that we are safe, especially in the spaces we are compelled to move through by law. And too often traditional approaches to bullying prevention don’t go far enough. 

Last thing. One of the lessons I learned as a staffer on Capitol Hill, a space that I wish more of us had access to, and the “of us” is people who aren’t privileged enough to be there. One of the things I learned is that public policy is important and the most thoughtful, researched, informed piece of legislation, which is the result of the action taken in legislative branches or the law, which is the result of the actions taken in the judicial branch. Those things mean less if we don’t do the work to ensure that we’re, this is what my first lady, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama would say, is changing hearts and minds. Often the law is the last step. It’s the backstop. And for too many of us, we don’t even have the resources to play the legal game to get to the outcome that we otherwise should expect, based on what they say the system is designed to preserve. And so at the risk of being persnickety, I want to underscore that what I’m attempting to say in answering this question is yes, legal protections are important as are policies that help people to understand the parameters around which how we want to engage with each other as members of a community. And it’s most important to ensure that we are doing the work as educators, as parents, who are our child’s first and most important educators and practitioners, and people who otherwise accept the responsibility to get into the arena and to do so in education, that we do the work of understanding that unless we’re going to ensure that all of the children who are forced to come to the schools that we operate and elect to show up in, feel seen and safe and supported so they can thrive, everything else becomes window dressing. It’s tinkering. And at the core of the work of NBJC and my research agenda and my dissertation is attempting to highlight that schools are essential for recreating social order. America would not be what it is without our public school system being designed as it is. And the footnote here is it’s also being buttressed by a private elite system that enables supremacy to exist as it does. And unless and until we understand that we all have to say gay and trans and non-binary and disabled and all of the other things that people intent on preserving white patriarchal, often cis, male, able-bodied privilege don’t want us to name, acknowledge, or dismantle, we will always be tinkering around the edges of otherwise preserving democracy. 

bell hooks, in teaching critical thinking, wrote about all of this. She referenced John Dewey, who makes all of the points I’m attempting to make about the centrality of public education in our country, why I’m a sociologist, to think about them as social institutions. And she talked about the fact that so many of us forget, and in part because we’re never taught. And if you live in states like Florida or Texas, they’re passing legislation to ensure that it’s not taught. But we are not taught that it is every generation’s obligation to defend democracy. And often what we lose in piecemeal conversations around protections for some and not for others is that that’s the very nature of anti-democracy.

[00:36:00] Jon M: Can you elaborate a little bit on what you’ve just been saying? What, what does some of that work look like that you’re urging people to do as being absolutely necessary, especially in terms of schools? 

[00:36:13] David J: Three things. One, it acknowledges that educators who would lie to themselves and say, “I’m a teacher, I’m not engaged in or I don’t want to think about politics,” is lying. Education is political. What we decide to teach and decide not to teach our children is not only reflective of political decisions that people are often making in their own personal interests, but it’s also a reflection of the society that we want to have, not only now and in the future. And so for educators, footnote step back, some of this is not necessarily new. Before “don’t say gay” was introduced in Florida, there were “no promo homo” laws that made it a fireable offense for folks to show up in the classroom in the way that I am in this space. Before that, let’s take it away from the queer stuff, there were laws that said you couldn’t teach Black kids in certain spaces or name certain things connected to Blackness.

There have always been efforts to advance anti-democracy. Move away from the race, ethnicity, any of the social constructs. There have been attempts to destroy democratic efforts that are all about preserving white supremacy, acknowledging that the vast majority of educators are white women. I say this acknowledging that I was one of three Black men in my elementary school building. I was the only classroom teacher. One of my colleagues taught art. The other one taught P.E.. They did so brilliantly, but acknowledging that the vast majority of the workforce is white women, I want to be clear that this is about them interrogating the ways in which they enable white supremacy that often benefits in public the men that they love and birth. Specifically in terms of practices, this is about people acknowledging the importance of moving beyond the surface and performing democracy or purporting to celebrate diversity. It’s having conversations about Black folks outside of Black History Month. It’s having conversations about queer folks outside of June. It’s acknowledging the importance of disrupting the assumptions that people make by using or inviting the use of pronouns or simply respecting someone’s pronouns. I find it fascinating that prior to May of 2022, when the degree that I earned was conferred, that people would say, I have a really difficult time with pronouns. I just want to call this person this. What I know is that people respect that I’m a doctor. Even when I say to folks, oh, you can just call me David. People will, no, I’m gonna, I’m gonna acknowledge you as doctor. So there’s a way that we, educators in particular, who have the power to disrupt, lie to ourselves not only about our power, but the ways in which we are either preserving democracy as it has existed heretofore, or engaging in these radical conversations about creating spaces where all of the children who exist as a result of the plurality of our society can actually thrive. Does that answer to the question? 

[00:39:34] Jon M: Yes. So tell us about the National Black Justice Coalition. Where is it based? How did it come about? What are some of the things that you do? 

[00:39:43] David J: Yeah, I appreciate that question. NBJC is, this year, a 20 year old civil rights organization. And it is the only civil rights organization that has always been equally intentional and unapologetic in acknowledging that as long as there have been Black people, we’ve been beautifully and incredibly diverse or otherwise LGBTQIA+. So much of our work is showing up in community with progressive – read “white” – LGBTQ organizations. Historically, I would start by naming the Human Rights Campaign, which is most notable to most people, and I celebrate now that that organization is led by a Black SGL woman, but legacy white progressive organizations as well as historically Black organizations, people might think about the NAACP, the National Urban League, Black Greek letter organizations. I’m a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Incorporated, a Black religious community, and we try and have conversations like this and otherwise find ways to support people in meeting direct service needs. But really our job, our value add, is advancing progressive public policy that addresses lots of the issues that we’ve talked about heretofore and so many others that we haven’t.

[00:41:00] Amy H-L: Would you go over the NBJC policy agenda?

[00:41:05] David J: Yeah. Our work falls into three categories. The first, as to the point of your question, is public policy. The second is direct services, and the third is around media and messaging, attempting to change the way that people think about our community to the extent that they do think about members of our community. 

And at present, our public policy agenda focuses on non-discrimination protections to ensure that we reduce the likelihood of members of our community being discriminated against or denied access to the programs and services we need to otherwise thrive. We focused a lot in previous congressional cycles on reducing HIV/AIDS transmission and rates. Since the introduction of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the late eighties, Black people have died at disproportionate rates, not just Black queer folks, but Black cisgender, heterosexual women as well. So a lot of our work focuses on attempting to reduce stigma and ensure that people are connected to services and support so that we get tested and are are better equipped to have conversations about comprehensive care.

Another priority at present is related to the conversation we’ve had heretofore, which has been attempting to increase resources committed to reduce the mental health stress and strain upon members of our community. So connected to our direct service work, I’m really proud of a partnership we have with the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation. This is a foundation that is led by Taraji P. Henson, who a lot of people might know because of her creative contributions. But over the last two years, we’ve worked to provide free, culturally competent mental health support to more than 200 Black LGBTQIA+ young people. We also provide micro grants to organizations that support LGBTQIA+ young people thriving.

And so really whenever we can, we try and fill gaps and connect dots such that members of our beautifully diverse community feel safe in our connected and otherwise in communities where they can thrive. 

[00:43:15] Jon M: You’ve talked about the Equality Act. What is the Equality Act and what is happening with it? 

[00:43:22] David J: The Equality Act is one of the more recent manifestations of legislation that people might be familiar with, including the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and ’65. It is the evolution of the more recently overturned Supreme Court action connected to what was Roe v. Wade, and it is a civil rights bill that would provide clear and consistent non-discrimination protections to people on the basis of sex. So it acknowledges gender discrimination and addresses sex discrimination as well as sexual identity, gender orientation or expression. It’s incredibly important because there are too many instances in which people benefit from or receive public resources. They get money from the federal government or the local government, and then will choose to discriminate or deny access to services that should be a public good, available to all members of the public, based on one’s sex or often assumptions about one’s sexual identity, gender, or expression. The bill has been introduced at the federal level in every Congress that I can think of for the last 10 years. It was voted out of the House of Representatives in many, if not all, of those sessions. And it continues to be stalled in the US Senate, in part because of the Senate control in that space.

I want to note for folks that there has been progress and shifts in this regard, consistent with public polling, which shows that many more Americans today support members of sexual minority communities having access to things that our counterparts don’t. And recent votes in the House of Representatives, including the fact that the Equality Act was endorsed by every member of the Congressional Black Caucus, signal similar shifts as well. Based on the current composition of the new Congress that was just sworn in, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll see any productive movement around the Equality Act. And so, at present, the focus is on similar non-discrimination protections at the state and local municipal levels.

[00:45:27] Amy H-L: David, what states are you working in? 

[00:45:30] David J: We work everywhere where there are members of our beautifully diverse community. Primarily, because Black LGBTQIA+ folks are concentrated in the South, so are a lot of our efforts, but we also show up in coastal cities and spaces like California, where I’m from. As a son of Inglewood, California, we’ll be doing some work with our colleagues at the LGBTQ task force at a convening called Creating Change in San Francisco next month, in February. We show up in partnership wherever there are community-based organizations or leaders who are members of our community, who are interested in engaging in public policy, or where there are otherwise opportunities to get into what Congressman John Robert Lewis called Good Trouble.

[00:46:12] Jon M: You mentioned some of the direct services that you do. Can you talk a little bit about how you provide these and how people access them? 

[00:46:20] David J: Yes, I can. The two that I am most proud of, I’ve referenced, but will name again, our Benevolence and our partnership with the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation. So acknowledging that too many young people don’t have access to culturally competent and or free or affordable mental health resources, we partnered with an organization that could help us fill that gap. And so if you are teaching or love or are in community with a Black person who identifies as or who may be LGBTQIA+, ask them if they have access to mental health services and supports. And the same way you might act. Go down a rabbit hole. Ask them that question. And if the answer is no, visit, and on our homepage you’ll see a link to Benevolence. And we hope that it’s a simple process to apply for the resources thereafter. And then Benevolence, this is an initiative that this year will celebrate three years of and in honor of NBJC’s birthday, which is December 8th, we provide micro grants to organizations that serve and support Black LGBTQIA+ children, youth, and young adults. And so these are organizations that are embedded in communities. Some are attached to organizations that I mentioned before, like the NAACP or the Urban League or a YMCA,, and some of them exist on college campuses.. One that I’m really proud of, in part because of proximity, is Howard University. There’s an LGBTQ student organization there named Cascade. They do amazing work, not only for the community of Bisons on the campus and the alumni network, but for the entire HBCU community. So we’re really proud of our partnership with Cascade as well as other LGBTQ+ student organizations, primarily at HBCUs throughout the country.

[00:48:13] Jon M: How can school administrators or teachers better support Black LGBTQIA+ students and how can they do this in conjunction with NBJC?

[00:48:29] David J: I love the question. To answer the second part first, in conjunction with NBJC is just to engage me. Send me an email at, and you can find me across digital platforms. I’m Dr. David Johns on most, and let’s get crackin’ as young people probably don’t say anymore. To the question of better support. So I want to acknowledge, and I’m trying not to be dense, take off my PhD hat. What I want to acknowledge is that I appreciate…

[00:48:57] Jon M: No, run with density.

[00:48:59] David J: No. And I’m just trying not to not to dance in that space. So when I hear the question, what I fear is that what I offer often becomes the ceiling and not the floor and otherwise becomes a check box. When really, if you want to know how you can better support Black LGBTQIA+ young people, ask them. Literally, ask them. The thing that I’m most proud of in my tenure serving President Barack Hussein Obama, his fabulous wife, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama, Sasha and Malia Obama, the dogs, Sunny and Bo, and Grandma Robinson is that I led an initiative, the White House Initiative on Educational Access for African Americans, established by President Obama. It was designed to complement previously existing White House initiatives, the oldest of which was the White House Initiative on HBCUs established under Carter. And this initiative allowed me to name and disrupt the habit that adults have of solving problems for young people without ever engaging them. I can’t tell you the number of conferences I was invited to where we as educators and system leaders and parents would say student voice is really important and it’s really important for young people to be able to demonstrate and acquire these skills. And then we would read letters from them. We might show videos of them doing the thing that they otherwise could have done in the space. We have all of these panels with adults talking about them and what they need, and we never engage them. And so I made it a rule that said anyone who is in this space that I occupy, you can’t do that. If you’re going to talk about students, they need to be present. And we produced White House Summits in partnership with Ebony Magazine, Johnson Publishing Company, and a number of brilliant people, some of whom are still connected to NBJC and what we call our Radical Educators Network. And we went to college campuses around the country, two year, four year institutions, and produced these summits to talk about what the community could do to better to support children, Black children in particular. And the one rule is that at the summit, the primary convening, the only experts who got to speak were students. We invited adults, system leaders, funders, parents to come to the audience and listen. And at the time, I would often play, there was a video of a young boy named Mateo who would often say, listen, Linda, listen. But getting adults to listen to young people and avoid the reflexive desire to tell them what we were doing to make it better, or how we knew better or all the ways that we suffered more than they, was one of the toughest and most rewarding things that I’ve ever done in my life. And to the point of the question, young people, especially students who are most sensitive to the fact that systems are often not designed to ensure that they thrive or at least have the skills to disrupt and dismantle them when they are preserving the measures of domination.

Again, the science systems and symbols that allow white supremacy to be omnipresent yet hyper invisible, those students are often most prolific at naming what they need. It often goes beyond the performative bulletin boards that make some educators feel good. It includes creating safe spaces. That is not just a place where there are HRC or Rainbow Pride stickers on the door, but where people are competent and demonstrate compassion in ensuring that the students who are forced to move through those spaces, regardless of the terms they might use to identify themselves or the way they might present, feel seen, are safe and have access to the relationships, experiences, and information they need in order to thrive.

And so I’m really sitting on and resisting the listing of things. I often think of threes and there are three things that I immediately came to mind when you ask the question. So let me, where I begin, which is to say, ask young people and listen in love. Don’t listen to respond, but listen in love. And when they give you an answer, then engage me so we can talk about how to make it real. 

[00:53:12] Amy H-L: Shouldn’t this sort of training be part of every graduate school of education?

[00:53:20] David J: Absolutely, if we wanted to talk about creating and preserving democracy. But those in power, in particular, those emboldened by radical right, evangelical, anti-democratic totalitarian practices are fighting to prevent that. But yes, this is one of the reasons why I appreciate and often go back to native and indigenous practices of African folks. And Black Panthers are still dealing with the state response of Cointelpro, which was created to disrupt their understanding of all of this and attempts to fill the gaps that didn’t exist in their community by design. So in this moment, I just want to acknowledge and name that there are some members of the community who are listening to this conversation, who are doing this work. And I just want to say thank you. I see you, I love you, on behalf of our babies.

And my hope is that those who are still giving us, me in particular in this moment, the gift of their time will sit with what I hope is moments when they’ve been uncomfortable. My job is to be disruptive. I understand that that’s a part of my charge, but my hope is that those of us educators, adults in positions of privilege don’t do the thing we’re often inclined to do, which is to move past the discomfort, but we sit in it, interrogate it, and find ways to shift and move in ways that create more space for our babies, or the least of these, or however you name the individual and groups of students who you know because you know are marginalized and undersupported through no fault of their own. 

[00:55:17] Amy H-L: This isn’t the subject of our conversation today, but as an older person, what about those LGBTQIA+ and SGL folks that are middle-aged or older? 

[00:55:32] David J: I love and appreciate the question, in part because selfishly I want to become one, and a part of what I am struggling with, having celebrated the opportunity to have 40 turns around the sun last year, is that the way Hollywood and those in power imagine queerness doesn’t include aging or becoming old.

So one of the ways that NBJC tries to acknowledge and disrupt this is a partnership with AARP and it’s to celebrate members of our community who are members of the aging and elderly community who have their AARP card. Although, again, I’m struggling with that because I just applied for mine. I want my benefits, too. And so folks can’t see this, but on the wall behind me in my office are five frames. And each of these frames are from an event that we produce. You can find the footage from these In March of every year, we produce what we call the Wisdom Awards. And during that time we honor and celebrate women identified members of our community. This is Ms. Major, that’s Bishop Flunder, who I talked about earlier, but we celebrate the members of our community who deserve to get their flowers and who don’t for lots of reasons that we don’t have to go into, but we can just say are results of culture. And then in August, which is around James Baldwin’s birthday, we celebrate male identified folks and in this picture it includes Alvin Ailey, who’s done amazing things for us with regard to representation and culture. That award was accepted by Robert Battle, who leads the Ailey Institute and Foundation, as well as Reggie Van Lee, a mentor and pioneer, who’s a partner at the Carlyle Group and was a pioneering partner at Booz Allen Hamilton.

And so a part of what we are attempting to do is create space in the culture for an acknowledgement that if we are lucky enough to be loved on and in community in ways that are required, we too grow old and connected to some of the work that we’ve talked about more in the course of this conversation, we try and create spaces where the knowledge can be shared between our elders and our existing emergent leaders, such that we can all go further faster.

[00:57:56] Jon M: I had a question going back for a moment to students. If you had anything that you wanted to say in terms of specific issues or specific work with Black students who are immigrants, whether documented or undocumented, if any of your work has been particularly focused on some of the issues that these students face.

[00:58:20] David J: Yes. NBJC is primarily concerned about the experiences of students who are not native to this country, including ’cause there are often language and cultural barriers that exacerbate some of the challenges that we’ve talked about heretofore. And there are a number of partners that center this primarily in their work. One that I’ll name for the purpose of offering up a resource is BAJI. They do a lot of work in this space, not only around policy but around connections. 

[00:58:47] Jon M: I’m sorry. For clarity, BAJI is BAJI? 

[00:58:51] David J: Correct. So BAJI,, is the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, a phenomenal organization that centers this part of their work. And the only other thing I’ll say to supplement this is that our country is long overdue for comprehensive immigration reform. Reform. I have little hope that it will move, given the composition of our current Congress. And it’s a need, to put it mildly. 

[00:59:19] Jon M: Absolutely. Is there anything else that you’d like to discuss that we haven’t spoken about yet?

[00:59:26] David J: I’m sure there is, but we covered a lot of ground. So let me not get into it now, and then you’ll have to invite me back to for part two. 

[00:59:34] Jon M: Absolutely. Thank you very much, Dr. David Jones of the National Black Justice Coalition. 

[00:59:40] David J: Thank you to both the of you, Amy and Jon, as well as to your listeners for allowing me to hopefully be provocative and be disruptive, but also to provide some resources so that you can appreciate that not only are you not in this part of the arena alone, but that there are a plethora of resources that you should have access to. And if they don’t exist, we can create them with you. 

Jon M 

and for our listeners, we’ve invited you to send any resources that you’d like us, any links or anything like that, that you’d like us to post on the website along with this interview.

[01:00:18] Amy H-L: And thank you listeners. Check out our new video series, What Would YOU Do, a collaboration with Dr. Meira Levenson of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and EdEthics. Go to our website,, and click video. In the first case study, a teacher using action civics faces pushback from a parent. The goal of the series is not to provide right answers, but to illustrate a variety of ethical viewpoints.

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