City Politics: Community Organizer And Activist Is Leading The Way For LGBT Affairs

Amber Hikes started her career in Philadelphia in social work, and became a well-known community organizer and an advocate for LGBT youth through her work at The Attic Youth Center, William Way Community Center and other youth-focused organizations.

Following a move to California, she returned to serve as executive director of the Office of LGBT Affairs in Philadelphia. She was hired to lead the office during a historic time for the LGBT community, in Philadelphia and beyond.

You told Julia Terruso, back in March, that you had never really considered politics until this recent election, the 2016 Presidential election. Now that you’re in it, what’s the path from here?

I still don’t consider myself “in politics.” It’s the funniest thing – people are always like “well, ok, we’ll wait till she figures that out.” But it’s not just that I hadn’t considered politics, I had been very intentional about staying away from politics. …As much as I really respect politicians, it didn’t feel like it was the right path for me.

My activism and the way that I am interested in affecting change, like, on a personal level and certainly on a larger scale – the traditional political avenue did not really mesh with what I intended for myself. So, I feel like that’s still in a lot of ways the case, frankly. I’m a nontraditional choice for this particular role: not being a politician, not being an attorney, not having any interest in being an attorney. Really being a community activist, a community organizer and coming from that perspective is very, very different.

I don’t think I’m on record saying this yet, but I’ve been very clear with anybody who asks that I am not interested in holding this position for more than two years. …It’s not sustainable. I work 12, 13 hour days. It is not sustainable to keep up that kind of schedule for any significant amount of time. But I feel like that’s necessary to serve this community in the best way possible. And I want to be very clear that I am serving this community in this capacity at a historic time, and a very different time, with very different barriers and challenges than anyone else has before. My predecessors would say as much.

So, I think I would just say, for me what’s next is certainly not politics…For me, I’m going to run myself into the ground with this job, and then after that probably do something that’s quite different.

The goals of your office right now include expanding its reach beyond Center City, as well as making operations more transparent and accessible. What actions are you taking daily to work toward those goals?

Those are two goals that are obviously interconnected, but the first one about extending beyond Center City is so important. When I took the position, we were focusing so much on Gayborhood racism, which is a very important task to kind of tackle. Racism exists everywhere, but racism in the LGBT community exists outside of the Gayborhood. We just had smoking guns, as it were, that existed within the Gayborhood. But LGBT people are everywhere. We’re in every single corner of this city, and beyond.

So, what’s been important to me is making sure that we are meeting people where they are. And that’s a social work term, and certainly therapists from all kinds of backgrounds use that terminology, but we’re meeting people where they are. And so for me that certainly means on a figurative level, but like very literally, going into people’s neighborhoods instead of expecting them to trek all the way into town.

So, we hit that from a lot of different angles… One of the things is, I have the Mayor’s Commission on LGBT Affairs and we meet outside of Center City. Like, we were in Germantown just last week for a meeting, we’ll be up at Penn for our October meeting, but we’ve been out in North Philly and we’ll be back there in November…we’re bouncing around. We’re bouncing around in different parts of the city, so whether people decide to come to the meetings or not, we want them to know that we are willing to move ourselves and go to them. We do the same thing with our community conversation initiatives.

But also, we’re moving from being an inward-facing, policy-driven office to more outward-facing. So that involves a great deal of coalition-building that we’ve never, ever done before. Like, the people I meet with, I meet with the Philadelphia Autism Project, and these like, different elder initiatives, which are not specifically LGBT. We’re pulling in these different folks and these different organizations that work with LGBT people but have never had like, strategic goals or missions around serving the LGBT population. So pulling them in, connecting them and making sure that they’re serving folks more competently.

…Whether we are literally or figuratively going out and connecting with people, we’re making sure that we connect with them in an accessible way and really in a unique way that the office hasn’t ever done before, and that includes really upping our social media presence — we have just completely revolutionized what we’ve done there, and we’re signal-boosting things that we’re doing but also what other organizations are doing. The community conversation series, which is huge and I would say is kind of like a flagship program of this office and something that I’m incredibly proud of, we do. They’re essentially town halls, but much more structured and productive, frankly. We get hundreds of people that come out and then thousands that watch online. So, there’s a million different things we’re doing, but those are the ones that I think are most tangible for community members, kind of off the bat. And we’re only six months in, in my tenure, so we’ve really tried to change that accessibility piece and we’re getting a great response.

Your bio states that you believe in “employing an intersectional lens in all aspects of community work.” Intersectionality is huge right now, could you elaborate on what exactly it means for you?

Yeah, I mean it’s interesting you say that, it’s huge right now for some people but, for those of us… it’s like, literally our lives. And so it’s been huge for us for a long time. And so I say that because, as a queer black woman, so much of my identities…are intersecting with other identities.

So, when we had the conversation, the national, international conversation about the flag. Some of the pushback that I’ve heard, and I’ve been very honest, that the vast majority of the pushback came from gay white men. And so that pushback was, you know, “this has nothing to do with us, this, race has nothing to do with LGBT identities.” And like, that is fascinating to me. That’s a fascinating critique to me, that someone could be so rooted in their own privilege that they don’t recognize that there are other people, who identify with this community, that cannot, in any way, disentangle their race from their sexual orientation, their race from their gender identity, and like this is just who people are…so it’s been fascinating, so when I talk about intersectionality, it’s really important to me, specifically as an LGBT community, that we are able to talk about these “isms,” these systemic issues.

As a community, we have fought against so many different “isms” together. I feel like we are better suited than most other communities to actually tackle this and make headway that other communities haven’t. So, I feel like intersectionality should actually be something that we can grasp a little easier than other communities, and certainly that’s been the case when I’ve talked to white women about these issues, when I’ve talked to trans men about these issues, who have some other kind of intersecting oppressions who can say “oh, okay well, maybe I don’t experience this because of my race, but I certainly know what it looks like, I know what sexism is, I know what transphobia is, I can pull on those and I can see how that’s more difficult than this other experience, so I can see how that intersects, I can’t imagine if you added race on top of that.”

So, I just feel that we are uniquely suited as a community to be able to tackle this monstrous, this monstrosity of an issue, together. But we have to be able to use our own experiences, to be able to connect back to understanding the experiences of people who are different from us. So, I’d go on and on about intersectionality but, we’ll end with that.

It seems that people often associate LGBT issues with adults, which can cause youth to be overlooked. As you have experience working with LGBT youth, what are your thoughts?

I was fortunate to do my first year in my grad program at The Attic Youth Center, so I did my internship there, and I mean that just revolutionized everything…it was working with those youth at The Attic Youth Center that just blew my mind. The resilience that I experienced, that I first-hand experienced from these youth, the vast majority who are young, poor, and of color, and of course we know LGBTQ, to know they had all these kind of competing stressors, and so see the joy and the strength with which they live their everyday lives…

The Attic Youth Center is just a beautiful place, whenever I am frustrated, which is often, with this community and where we are going and how slow it’s taking to just change our minds internally, I go and I hang out at The Attic. They’re always dancing, they’re always creating, they’re always building themselves, each other, they’re always building up. They are the best of us. They are the absolute best of us. But I will tell you I saw and heard some of the most harrowing things at The Attic Youth Center. Too many young people homeless, too many young people involved in sex work, and sex trafficking, too many young people who were addicted to substances very early on, and had no help and no hope of getting out of that. And as a slightly older young person at that time, I was keenly aware that this was our future, this was the future of our community, and this was a generation of our community that, without support, could very easily fall through the cracks.

…So that work has actually guided me as I move through, all my predecessors have had kind of very specific backgrounds that they came from that they focused on but like, youth is mine. Youth and education is mine. So we’re doing quite a bit of work in the school district now, in terms of like competencies and trainings, but also just making sure that youth who are bullied have safe spaces, and that those issues get handled with care and efficiently. So, I’d agree that often youth are overlooked, specifically when we’re talking about the homelessness epidemic in this city… it’s terrifying. It’s terrifying, but it is at the top of my agenda.

I know from Twitter that you’re aware of Edie Windsor’s passing on September 12 – would you like to say anything beyond that tweet?

I met Edie several different times, and she’s a Philadelphian so she was back and forth pretty often. The picture I posted, we had — I had, the opportunity to dance in the streets with her at the New York Dyke March which was really, really awesome. But yeah, as I said, Edie and Thea’s love was a once in a lifetime love, and I can’t imagine how difficult it must be, to not just lose your partner, but from this legal perspective to have to tell that story over and over again, to kind of have this great love story of your life get torn apart, and not even have your partner there to support you through it. But to continue on that path, and to stay the course because it’s the right thing to do, and because you hope with all your might that this is going to be like, a landmark, a landmark case that’s truly going to change the lives of so many people after you. I just…yeah, I can’t imagine that kind of sacrifice. But I am so grateful for it.

Because I knew Edie here and there, and I certainly have friends that knew her very well, I know that she lived a beautiful life. And she was full of life, and a whole hell of a lot of fun. So, she’s resting peacefully — or probably raising hell up there. But I’m very grateful to her, and for her sacrifice to the community.

-Text and images by Caitlyn Heter and Linda Sheppard.

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