Q: Tell me about your background and how you got involved with Equality Michigan.
A: I got into politics because I needed to do a James Madison College internship. It was suggested that I intern with the legislator from my hometown, Kalamazoo. At the time it was Alexander Lipsey. When I did the internship I came in at the time that the legislative aide was leaving for graduate school. I learned the job in order to fill in and kept it.. The Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at MSU works with James Madison and they give out awards for legislative intern of the year. I wrote my essay on the fact that I was not going to go into politics, because I had been an activist my whole life. It felt like my whole life, because I've been doing this since I was a kid, for LGBT rights and women's rights, race relations, and I had done it throughout college and I really wanted to push from the outside. I was used to activism. Then I got into politics and did that internship and realized how screwed up it was on the inside. How everything kind of just halted once it hit bureaucracy, playing out in political conflicts, partisanship and term limits and I said I don't want to be a part of this because politics clearly isn't working. I mean, politics clearly isn't working, but as I stayed in it and decided that the only way to change it was by being a part. But all along I told people, for eight years, that if there was an opening in LGBT activism that I was going for it - that's my job. At a certain point the policy director position at Equality Michigan opened up and they said "that's her job."
Q: Have you had any other political experience or any other experience with activist organizations?
A: In college [at MSU], I guess it was the first, I was the chair of the first residential college LGBT caucus and I was a student leader and facilitator for MRULE, which has grown. At that time it was in its second year, when I came in as a freshman. I have just always naturally done women's issues. So I already had that kind of work under my belt going into politics. Initially politics left me feeling like some of my soul was dying because I didn't have time to do all of this, the activism.
I worked with legislator that hired me out of my internship, Alexander Lipsey, and from there I went to being chief of staff for Representative Andy Coulouris out of Saginaw. In that time I was a part of several political campaigns, I've run some campaigns, I've been one of the core members on a gubernatorial campaign. Campaigns are something you get thrown into when you work in politics and policy. That's just part of the process of achieving what you want - getting the leaders into office who will advocate for your needs and values. Certainly campaign work has been as much a part of my life as anything else.
Q: What role does interest group advocacy play in the policy process?
A: Working within politics in an advocacy role, you quickly realize that you don't have success unless you are very carefully negotiating a fine mix of circumstances all happening at the same time. I always say I have too many irons in the fire and they are all very necessary. One of those is having people push from the outside. There needs to be a very specific and strong demand. The excuse that you always get from legislators is that if their constituency doesn't care then they won't advocate on that, they can't speak on that. So they need to be feeling that demand from the outside. I need to be on the inside showing them how to be a good advocate for their constituency. This is how you can be the advocate that our leaders are looking for. I'm there to provide the answer while also providing the public with the problem that they need to present to the legislator. There is a lot of public education that needs to happen at the same time that you're working in the background to educate the legislators and give them the actual language and data to work with in order to move us forward. Or in the case of Michigan, to be at the ready to develop the messaging that can stop an issue - to shine a light on it to stop the legislation all together.
Q: What are the different ways that Equality Michigan, or you as an advocate, try to influence the policymaking process?
A: Equality Michigan, just to give a brief overview, is the result of a merger between the Triangle Foundation and Michigan Equality. The Triangle Foundation was much more of a service organization, they did victims services, they did some public policy, but they did public policy from a more grassroots organizing angle. Michigan Equality was much more political in trying to influence campaigns and also work with the public policy issues in a more direct way. Those two organizations merged in 2009. Since then, Equality Michigan has continued to fulfill the role of victim advocate. We are the main point of contact for the FBI and federal prosecutors in the state to alert them to hate crimes and help them with investigations and certainly to help the survivors or victims and victims' families of any LGBT violence.
The whole purpose of the organization is to advocate for equality, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression. Outside of our mission statement, though I consider it a strong part of our mission to do HIV advocacy, defend HIV positive individuals and work toward HIV prevention. That really covers just about any kind of discrimination that could happen against the LGBT community and we're really the only organization that does that statewide. If it has to do with LGBT or HIV it's us.
My role as policy director, and now as managing director, is to set everything in motion. Make sure everything is coordinated to come together to the end that we seek to achieve in terms of public policy. So I go around the state and I do public education. I call it the "State of Equality" talk because a lot of people look at marriage equality on the national level and think that Michigan is somehow comparable to some of these states that are achieving marriage equality. The fact is that in Michigan we have nothing. Every state that has marriage equality had all the rights that we lack before they achieved marriage equality.
I have to do public education around the state, I also teach people how to advocate for themselves. I'll go into communities and teach people how to engage in negotiation and present their case and we also go into communities and let them know what they can do locally, how to try to pass something themselves, such as non-discrimination policy. Local non-discrimination policies don't often provide what we would like to see in terms of enforcement, but it does make a great statement that the community has waited too long and would like to make its region accepting, inclusive and conducive to growth.
I have made it part of my purpose to reach outside the LGBT community. The LGBT community is a demographic within every other demographic. We're talking about sexuality so even lack of sexuality fits into our issues. When workers are affected, we're affected, when women are affected, we're affected. A lot of people just assume that there are just these few issues that we need to focus on. But really there are things like healthcare and immigration that affect more of our community in terms of numbers than anything else. Letting people know that the scope is really very broad, and building relationships with allied organization is imperative. I build relationships without the expectation of reciprocity. I'm one of those people who truly believe "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." That is not how I was prior to this. I used to be much more of a radical in some sense and now I see that the health of a community depends on all parts of it doing well. The "everybody does better when everybody does better" philosophy.
We were very active in the fight against right to work. We're seeing that people's basic rights are being hindered and we want to speak up for that. But also, there is a selfish justification, we are a demographic within that demographic and unions are one of the main groups to step forward every time the LGBT community is attacked. They are one of the allied groups that always steps forward to offer testimony at committee hearings. They don't get up there and say "we're here because we're nice people." They make it known that their membership is being threatened. Unions are first, often decades ahead of local, state and national governments to provide protections like domestic partner benefits and nondiscrimination policies. We must, definitely, recognize what stake we have in the battles of our allied partners and in setting up that trust. Letting allies know that the health of the whole community is a priority of ours. That egalitarianism has brought a lot of people to the work of advocacy.
Q: What do you count amongst your biggest successes at Equality Michigan?
A: I know that the LGBT community in Michigan is perceived to be rather powerless at least by the general public because of our very conservative leaning leadership. Really, every level of government is Republican and the extremists within our politics right now tend to have a lot of power because of the Tea Party and because of Citizens United. I bring up Citizens United whenever there is a chance to. That ruling gives people on the fringe the power to influence leaders in office and what legislation gets passed. That is the cynical part of me that doesn't like how politics works. Money is a relationship establisher. Right now the Tea Party has relationships.
One of our greatest powers is our ability to shine a light on what our leaders are doing to harm the public. It is very important to our messaging to let people know that there is tangible harm when there is a lack of rights. One example of a success was the anti-bullying legislation that we were able to pass in 2011. We have been bringing that legislation up for about a decade, even in friendlier political and social climates, when Democrats were in power. In this case, we were messaging well on the health of the school climate and how to support our kids. We had finally, at least, started the conversation, and finally it was clearly part of the broader dialogue because unfortunately we had lost a number of kids nationally. We focused on what we were doing to our kids by not protecting them. Michigan had lost about ten kids at the time that we started talking about it - those were bullying related suicides.
We were unsure if it was making any traction with the legislators that don't necessary represent our views and with the extremist element. Then one morning, the legislature, the Senate, brought the anti-bullying bill up and I thought "great we're finally going to make some progress here." They had language that they were proposing, so I ran to the Capitol wondering what is this fantastic language? And now we know the language introduced that day as what we call "License to Bully." The clause allowed bullying based on a strongly held religious belief or moral conviction, even by adults, by school faculty.
Our power at that moment, and quite often, is in the messaging. In making sure that we get the word out to the national sphere, to make sure that there is a focus on Michigan and what a contrast it is to the progress that we are making in other states. Also to make clear the fact that our leadership tends to be completely misrepresentative of the general population's will. Every time that we can point that out, we need to. We shone a really bright light on that language and the fact that they were trying to harm kids. My role in that kind of scenario is to make sure that the legislators know what the issue is and what the repercussions are. Most of what I do is in the background. We were able to get all kinds of national attention on the issue. We had legislators that turned into great champions for us. We were able to say, because there was a public push, "This is how you do the right thing for our kids, this is how you do the right thing for your constituents. This is how you move us forward."
I'm at a point where I don't care what our leaders' motivations are. I just need them to do the right thing. If we killed bad policy and made it right because of the correct perception that something egregious happened, if it's because of the national embarrassment, or if it is because we triggered a conscience - I'm unconcerned. I want to make sure that people know what the harm is, but I am grateful that they passed it regardless. It wasn't the version that we would have loved to see, not the version that I would have considered the most effective, at all. But after a decade of working for it, suddenly we had protections that were required for our kids. There is a requirement that every school develop an anti-bullying program. That was a major victory for us and something that was unexpected.
Another victory that we had was something that came at the end of this last legislative session. I am less likely to talk, much less gloat, about this one in public, because unfortunately a lot of our allied partners did not come out very well at the end of the last legislative session and I both recognize that our allies are hurting right now and that our victory depended on their support. They had a late night legislative session during lame duck, when they passed all kinds of destructive legislation. We had a number of bills that could have passed that night that did not for a great number of reasons. We were just about the only community that didn't have a piece of legislation that was specifically targeted at them pass through the legislature that night.
A lot of that is due to the work that we've done in the background. A lot of that is due to the public education, we mobilized our base whenever there was even the opportunity for something to come up. We made it very clear that if anything bad happened that absolutely everybody would know about it.
We also have relationships with Republicans. I don't work in a partisan way. I come from the Democratic caucus, so it is challenging sometimes to be perceived as nonpartisan. What I have learned is that a vast majority of our legislators on both sides of the aisle, when you talk to them about equality issues for the LGBT community, they almost all say they know that we need to make big changes. They are shocked that we don't have discrimination protections for the LGBT community. Most people fall in the category of valuing or considering themselves to value fundamental fairness and equality. So when you go to them and ask them about it, they tend to agree. They all know somebody that is in the LGBT community, absolutely everybody knows somebody at this point.
The issue that I'm having is that while I will also hear from legislators that tend to be more conservative, "yes I'm in support" they also say "I'm not going to be the first one." It is a matter of finding a champion. We know, from studies, that even when there is the logical argument there, even when there is the data there to support the argument you need the extra push of personal relationships with legislators. They need to feel accountable to and for people. That's where the power of the public making the demand comes in. They can't just write letters and be angry and say this is what should happen. They need to say this is my family and introduce themselves to legislators. When we see legislators shifting their votes it is always because they have a personal stake that they have developed or stumbled onto by meeting somebody that they now know they could be harming. We have those relationships. There are a great number of Republicans that I can think of on any issue that get just as upset about the anti-equality sentiment out there as I do.
I'm also the political director for our PAC and I won't tell you who answered the questionnaires this way. But I can tell you that I made our questionnaire this cycle to be dependent on answers to pro-choice positions. I made sure that we were advocating for the choice community. That made available to me data on both the equality issues and choice issues. I found this year something that we haven't seen in previous years, we saw people who were running for office who would openly and publicly want to be in support of equality for the LGBT community, but would be anti-choice. That shows that we are at a very strange moment in our time. We thought we had made so much progress on women's issues and we should never assume that any issue or any right is something that we'll never have to fight for again. Women's rights and the choice community are really struggling right now and we need to be there with them.