Our Hot Spot this month is the extraordinary activist, Amber Hikes. Many of you will be familiar with her, either from her speech at our House of Commons party last year, or her creation, the More Pride More Colour rainbow flag. In this interview, she talks movingly about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on people of colour. It’s a wake-up call to us all. We are extremely honoured that Amber has given us this interview at such an emotional and turbulent time – thank you, Amber.
Describe your role in one sentence
I provide the vision, leadership, and direction for the ACLU’s nationwide strategy to support equity, diversity, and inclusion across all aspects of the organization’s work and efforts – internal and external.
That said, I read once that if you can’t explain what you do to a kindergartener than you’re doing it wrong. So I try sometimes to check myself and say – okay, could I talk about my work today to a 6 year old? And really over and over again what it comes down to is I make sure people feel like they belong at work, like we see them, and value them, and care about them. And sure, there’s a ton of policy and strategy and sophistication behind how we do that but, at the end of the day, that’s what we do.
Your extraordinary success in Philadelphia and particularly with the More Pride More Colour campaign have entered our collective consciousness. Why did you decide to leave Philly to join the ACLU?
When I took the role in Philadelphia as the Executive Director for LGBTQ Affairs for the Mayor’s office, I always planned on being there two years. The job was expansive – to say the least – and the way I knew I needed to do it was to go all in. We tell people sometimes that this kind of work is a marathon not a sprint but I knew the way I could make the biggest impact in that role was as a sprint. So, I sprinted. I gave it absolutely everything in me, and then I knew when it was time to move to the next thing – not only for me but also to bring in a new voice, a new approach. I think our movement would benefit from all of us knowing the right time to say, ‘Okay, I’ve done what I can do here – I’ve given this all I have, let’s bring in the next leader’.
I am so grateful to have gotten to move from that role to the ACLU. Like so many of us, I had been struggling deeply with the state of our country and what my part in that could be. Being able to join the ACLU in our 100th year, at this exact moment – it feels like a calling. I am so proud to be building a culture of equity, inclusion, and belonging for the superheroes that are saving our democracy.
What initiatives – generally, professionally, personally – are currently top of your agenda?
I love the idea of having personal initiatives and an agenda to put them on – I’ll have to get on that! Professionally, the project at the very top of the agenda is building our leadership pipeline – a pipeline to elevate the voices and the communities most impacted by our work. We must be led by those who understand the issues best and create the most effective strategies. There are a few dozen initiatives I’m working on in parallel – an inclusive language guide, anti-oppression training, holistic sponsorship, creating a restorative inclusion practice – but the pipeline is what will make all of those projects sustainable. We need the right leadership to assure that our other efforts are centered in integrity and, frankly, successful.
What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the LGBT+ community in the US and what do you think needs to happen?
We can’t look at any challenges facing LGBTQ community without looking at the intersection of those challenges with racism, classism, ableism, sexism, and xenophobia. Audre Lorde tells us “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives”. I think our biggest challenge, and greatest opportunity, is engaging in those intersections and centering those most impacted. Making sure that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) queer, trans, and non-binary individuals are being centered, uplifted, and supported. Within our community, these identities are often the hardest hit so it’s critical that we elevate their experience.
For instance, during this time of COVID-19, we’re learning how this pandemic is disproportionately impacting people of color. In particular, here in the US, we have early data that shows that the disease spreads and kills Black people at rates that far exceed non-Blacks. While some are asking why that’s the case, those of us who are familiar with the impacts of structural and systemic inequality know that pandemics and crises of this magnitude always highlight our existing inequities. So, while the disease may impact all, regardless of background, religion, socioeconomic status, or geographic location, Black people are at greater risk. Specifically, we’re at greater risk for direct exposure to the virus while continuing to endure systemic failures like lack of access to healthcare, social services, and even nutritious food. The impact on Black folks is significant.
When we look deeper, you can see the similar implications for people experiencing poverty, people with disabilities, people who are incarcerated or in detention, people who exist on the margins.
However, I’m constantly reminded of our resilience as a community – we find opportunities for joy amidst pain, for celebration amidst grief, and even for life amidst death. It’s the story of our marginalized communities: for people of color, disability communities, trans and nonbinary folks, and of course, it’s the story of queer communities as well. We create, we build, we heal, even in our pain. And this time will be no different. Our resilience will continue to persevere. There’s already so much beauty and support coming out of our community during this time. We’ll hold each other through this and we’ll be stronger on the other side.
What do you see as the single biggest challenge that you (and/or your team) face in 2020?
The obvious answer, at the moment, has to be the short, medium and long term implications of COVID-19, but I’d like to answer this as I would have done before the pandemic. Because it’s hard to even conceptualize what other challenges will face us this year without knowing how this election will turn out. And certainly, a presidential election is not a silver bullet – none of the available outcomes will solve many of the problems we face. This Administration has done so much damage to the integrity of our courts, appointed so many judges that hold dangerous interpretations of the most basic principles of our constitution – that no matter who is elected in November – we still have so much work to do. But it’s a different world we’re fighting in – and make no mistake we’re fighting either way – but it’s a different kind of fight depending on how the election and its build-up play out.
What are the five instruments that you play (as mentioned on Wiki)? And do you still play?
Do you think everyone cringes when they first read their Wiki page? I am still cringing! But I love this question – I play clarinet, drums, piano, saxophone, and the recorder! I wish I had time to play more – not so much recently.
You are a fantastically talented orator, amongst other qualities. Will we see you standing for public office in the future?Thank you. And no. Ha. I am so grateful to have a gift that allows me to communicate ideas of equity and hope and connection with people but I don’t plan to use that to run for office. I believe I can be more effective, and of more help to the communities I care most about, outside of elected office.
What has been the highlight of your career?
Introducing the world to the More Color, More Pride flag is the most visible highlight of my career but the accomplishment I’m the most proud of is creating the LGBTQ Leadership Pipeline for the city of Philadelphia. Being able to do capacity building and then place 20 new leaders on non-profit boards – leaders that genuinely represent the communities the organizations are serving, leaders that were not being voted on to these boards organically but were desperately needed – that’s my personal highlight.
Who or what has been your main inspiration in your career?
There’s not much I’ve done that’s not inspired by my mom. Her brilliance and light are always guiding me. A few months ago, I found the last speech she gave before she passed and in it she quotes Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays – “[Everyone] is born into the world to do something unique and something distinctive and if [they do] not do it, it will never be done”. That sentiment holds so much of what drives me and grounds me in purpose.
One of the most important lessons from my mom that I carry with me and try to execute on every day is accompliceship. I don’t know that she would have called it that, but she is absolutely who taught it to me. That when we get to the top, we make sure we’re not just holding the ladder steady for the next person climbing up – we’re reaching down to bring them along. That principle is core to my approach to the work and to my own career and it was – for me – inspired, created, fostered by her.
What advice would you give to the younger you?
Keep at it. In my life, the amount of work I put into something has directly correlated to how successful I was at that thing. There’s an old joke that goes something like, ‘the harder I work, the luckier I get’. I’ve always been a hard worker, always had three jobs at once, always said yes when an opportunity came up and – while I know I have natural talents and abilities – I also know how big a part my work ethic has played in my success. So, I think I’d tell young Amber to keep at it, that the hard work will get rewarded with more hard work but that it’ll be worth it. Keep at it.
What is your favourite restaurant – or best ever meal – and who was it with?
Brunch! I know how queer that sounds but it’s true. I love the intentionality behind brunch – making the time and space to really connect over a meal. Brunch always holds so much joy for me, and I think that’s true for a lot of us, and when we’re doing this kind of work and just living in the world right now, we need to be cultivating and capturing that joy wherever we can. Also, mimosas.
Do you have a pet – if so, what’s their name and why?
I have two cats. Channing – he’s named after American actress Stockard Channing. The American drama The West Wing (and Abby Bartlet specifically) has gotten me through some of my toughest times. And Charlie, who was named before I got him. They are so sweet and cuddly and not very cat-like and I just couldn’t imagine home without them.
What author most influenced you when a teenager or child?
Without a doubt, Toni Morrison. She taught me some of my earliest and most important lessons about being young and black and a woman in the American south. She helped me understand the world. She helped me understand me. Toni Morrison was the first and most primary reason I fell in love with literature. She’s the reason I became an English major. She is my favorite writer of all time and she is so much more than that. If we’re very lucky, we find the authors that transform how we see the world and our place in it – having found that in Toni Morrison at a young age shaped so much of who I am and who I aspire to be.