When Amber Hikes announced on July 9 that she was leaving her two-year old post as the executive director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs to take a position as Chief Diversity Officer at the ACLU’s National Office in New York City, there was surprise, but not total shock.
The black queer Philadelphia-raised woman is a longtime community organizer, activist and social worker, whether that community happens to be LGBTQ or not. Setting the strategic vision for the ACLU’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts nationwide (“identifying and removing institutional barriers and doing so with an emphasis on those most marginalized”) is what she’s been about forever, whether fund raising for the Attic Youth Center, serving as a board member at the William Way LGBT Community Center or directing the Philadelphia Dyke March in her past.
Since leaving her position of Upward Bound Director at California State University-Long Beach to jump start the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs after director Nellie Fitzpatrick resigned in 2016 in the wake of accusations she lacked forcefulness in dealing with racism within the gay community, Hikes vowed to never let Philadelphia’s marginalized communities down. In her announcement that she was stepping down, the Blue Hen and Quaker Alum wrote, “We have moved the Office from a local policy shop to a formidable force for change.” And that’s what she did.
Starting her position in March 2017 for Mayor Kenney amid controversy about the city’s response to hardcore racism in the Gayborhood, Hikes quickly created initiatives to improve LGBTQ representation, such as the LGBTQ Community Leadership Pipeline, the LGBTQ Philadelphia State of the Union and the “More Color, More Pride” flag, which added black and brown stripes to represent LGBTQ people of color.
She also wound up deeply and personally involved in the lives (and deaths) of so many of her constituents, be they suicidal gay youth, incarcerated teens or murdered trans people of color. This was not in her initial job description. Yet, she took it all on.
And now, she’s closing up shop at City Hall and readying for her July 31 departure. Before she goes, she’ll attend this weekend’s Philadelphia Trans Wellness Conference at Mazzoni Center — one of her prime collaborators and targets during her tenure in office. She also took time to cross the T’s and dot the I’s on an information dossier for her successor and talk with Philadelphia Weekly about her time in and out of City Hall representing one of this city’s many marginalized communities.
What are you sifting through at present? Are you cleaning out your office?
I wish I was cleaning. I’m working right up until the day I leave. We’re still planning programs and setting up some policy initiatives. We’re working hard around here. The cleaning hasn’t started yet.
Very cool. You’re leaving on July 31, but not starting your new job at the ACLU until September. What are you going to do with the time off?
Move my entire life to New York City. And I’m not ready at all. With what time, A.D.? With what time? I know what borough I’m moving to and will spend all of August doing that, getting my ducks in a row.
So what exactly are you doing here before you go?
There are no initiatives of mine that I wish to see pushed to the front either before I leave or after I leave. What I’m doing now is transitional planning so that the person who follows me is able to pick up, if they are interested, where we left off. When I started over two years ago, there was a blank slate, literally. A blank computer and no filing cabinet is what was here when I got here. I would love for my successor to come in and be able to know what we were working on and picking up that torch.
Do you know who might be your successor?
I have absolutely no idea. I would prefer to not be a part of that process.
I would think that since some of the stuff you have enacted had/has real resonance for the city and the LGBTQ community, you might want to make sure the gig was in the right caretaker’s hands.
No. No. No. The work we have done and the initiatives we have put in place in the last two years were what I felt was necessary at that time. I feel very deeply that where we are in 2019 is very different than where we were in 2017, and the person coming in must bring a completely new lens to that work.
So, where are we in 2019, July 19, where this city’s LGBTQ population and legislation is concerned?
Philadelphia has always been at the forefront of demanding rights, protection, visibility and inclusivity for our LGBTQ communities. We’re still there, not just at a local level, but a national level, more so than we ever have been. In terms of a contrast, say, to where we were in 2017, I’ve been open to the fact that our community was in crisis. While we still have issues that we need to work on, internally and externally, I feel as if we are certainly a more cohesive community. We understand the myriad challenges that we have as such a diverse community, better than we ever have, and that better sets us up to move forward in fighting together in the next step of our civil rights journey, citywide, statewide and nationally.
Refresh our memories: Where were you coming from when you got called in 2016 to take the position you have now — geographically, socially, politically, personally?
It’s 2016 and I am in Long Beach, California, for about a year-and-a-half after a decade of having been in Philadelphia as an activist and social worker. Emotionally, I am a queer black woman in the United States, and Trump just got elected. All of those identities are feeling threatened. I’m feeling concerned about the future of our community and our country. From where I am, physically and emotionally, I am thinking very seriously about what I can do, personally, to step up at this time in our history.
What did you know you were walking into?
My eyes were wide open, not at all naïve about the unrest, the frustration, the disappointment, the distrust, the mistrust or anger. I knew the challenges that were there for whoever was going to take on that position. It was a benefit knowing that. And being a member of so many marginalized communities, I understood it on a personal and a historical level. On an institutional level, I got what it felt like to feel like the government had ignored my own personal experiences. I understood that deeply. That was a strength coming into my work here.
Have you had any conversations with your predecessor Nellie Fitzpatrick since you took office?
Totally. I knew Nellie years before I took this position. I stayed in contact since, and have been similar to Michael Hinson, who had the job before her. There were conversations about the challenges and frustrations, and though we are very different individuals, we are women who had held this position and had shared communications about that too. Nellie has a very strong background in policy in terms of law enforcement, and we often discussed the role of the police. Most recently, we grieved the loss of Dante Austin and shared space as community members who loved Dante very much.
What was the very first thing that you knew you wanted to change and/or make your own when you got into office, and how did you set about doing that?
People needed to be heard. I wanted to make sure that happened. That was both a sympathetic solution and a strategic solution. I understood that Philadelphia LGBTQ people felt as if government was isolated, insulated and not connected to the community. I wanted to make sure that we were opening up the office, make it more outward facing, so to let them know that the government would hear their concerns. Community members know exactly what they need and often have innovative solutions. Frankly, they will help you do your work, if you allow them. Yes, it did make sense to listen to them, since they had so long been ignored. I took the things that I heard and tried to give those people the resources they were looking for.
If my timeline is correct, you all but walked into the Mazzoni Center’s troubles at its start — accusations of homophobia, of sexual harassment, of having black queer employees wrongly terminated, and racism, the latter being something we were also still reeling from with the ICandy scandal. How did you think that you and the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs handled that? Were you able to tend to that situation, and ultimately do you think that it was enough?
You’re right about the timeline. It was a concern that had been bubbling up for some time, and I walked right into that storm. For context, the concerns that were brought to the forefront about Mazzoni had been around for well over a decade and had not been addressed in any sort of substantive way. There has since been hearings, official reports that had been issued and confirmed, based on information community activists and advocates had put forth. In terms of what city government had done in the past…. It hadn’t come to the radar in a concrete, specific way like it did in 2016 and 2017. What could have been done had not been done because it wasn’t solidly on our radar. The PCHR Report came out right before I took on this position. Once we had information that corroborated what we were hearing from advocates and activists for all that time, we were able to have a Mazzoni community conversation. What we heard from those internal to the organization is that they never had a forum that spoke to management, senior leadership, the board. What I and my office did was mandate that all of those folks come before the community and answer questions. That never happened before. We were at that for hours, recording it. We made it free and accessible to all. We had an independent mediator. The senior leadership and the board had to stand there and answer questions from staff, from everyone. Now, there’s been pushback as to how well the board answered all those questions, were they truly addressing all that had to be addressed. But, I’m telling you, there had never been anything like that to push for accountability.
That was the same conversation where Mazzoni staff announced that they were unionizing — also historic.
That was a huge deal, and the union there is still doing bargaining negotiations. Also out of that initial talk came our LGBTQ State of the Union, which again, Mazzoni had much talkback and again, staff members held them accountable for their experiences. We did that again this year, another community conversation. It has not been a perfect process, but we are able to create forums where people are actually able to get in front of senior leadership like never before and hold them accountable. That’s the public face. There has been a lot going on behind the scenes too. We held a meeting in City Hall in fall of 2018 where City Council, our office and individuals from the Mayor’s office sat down with Mazzoni leadership at the time, in addition to city funders — DHS, public health — who expressed concern about the controversies that were continuing to come out of Mazzoni and that they needed to see a coordinated plan. After that meeting, we saw leadership change at Mazzoni, and change that happened as it should have. No matter what else happens, this was a $19 million organization that had never been held accountable in this way before. That was a high mountain to climb.
Mazzoni is not the only LGBTQ health and welfare outfit in this city, but it has led the way. Do you think that they can repair all of the distrust they have accrued? Will people in the community ever look at them with positivity and security again?
Absolutely. There’s a lot of work to be done. Again, we’re talking about deeply rooted trauma for some of its community members, patients, clients and staff. The first step is always going to be acknowledging what the problems are, apologizing for the problems, then having a coordinated plan moving forward to earn that trust back. It’s about actually, substantially fixing the problems.
Let’s talk about the political and social initiatives you pushed forward with personal victories such as the Community Conversations Initiative at a time when racism in the community was at a fever peak in the Gayborhood. What were its machinations, and how did it solve the problem?
To be clear, I didn’t solve racism (laughs). There are many successes that I’ve had, but solving racism isn’t one of them. We wanted to take a big chunk out of the historical trauma that marginalized communities were experiencing in this city. That was a tall order. So, we had to bring people to the table who had not had access or space to talk. Once they had that opportunity, we wanted them to tell us what we needed to know. It wasn’t just about racism or Mazzoni. It was about elders, people of faith, youth, different communities within the LGBTQ community — larger issues that we have and how we can solve them collectively and individually. The idea is that we must recognize that we are stronger together than we are apart. We are the experts of our own experience. That gave people the opportunity to come from behind their keyboards and picket lines and sit together. It was different hearing the intention and tone behind somebody’s voice rather than angry words on a computer screen. I wish we could have done something like that on a state and national level.
The Community Leadership Pipeline was yours, and it focused on increasing the number of transgender/people of color, young and old, at the leadership levels of LGBTQ organizations. How did you fare? I know you have very up-to-the-minute news here.
There are pipeline programs like this in all sorts of communities. What’s different about ours is that we’re not just trying to make our leadership diverse. We’re putting a very specific lens on how we can eliminate social, institutional and economic barriers to participation in programs like this. Face it, programs such as these cost money. Usually they take up an extraordinary amount of time, and none of these programs make it so you are absolutely guaranteed that you will be placed in their organization. We do that and much more. One hundred percent of our participants have been placed and are moving onto boards of LGBTQ+ organizations in this city. It’s not just about those 25 participants. Each one of them represents one, two or three people. That place at the table doesn’t just represent them. It’s about everybody they’re bringing to the next happy hour meeting or event. They’re bringing other people who look and sound like them into the process and giving them access to all people coming after them, as well.
Your black and brown stripes addition to the LGBTQ flag goes beyond mere cosmetics. How did it come to pass, and what did you think of the ensuing controversy where as many people were hating or disappointed as there were people charged up and grateful? It was pretty shocking to see that.
You and me both were surprised. Compared with all the social work I have done in the fields before I got to City Hall, putting two stripes on a flag was a softball measure. We’re kicking down doors and protesting in the streets, and people were pissed — really pissed — about a sweet, symbolic gesture. People were so galvanized and angry about those stripes. What was truly interesting was that many of those folks complaining were from my LGBTQ+ community. What was fascinating was that we have tons of flags — beards, lesbian, the leather community, bisexuals, pansexuals — and there is no policy. What this controversy told me was that within the LGBTQ community, we have a lot more problems with racism than I thought. I celebrate that that flag was a lightning rod for conversation and got picked up on and repeated around the world. Another side of that coin that makes it challenging is that it was a topic of conversation in the first place that should never have been. It’s two strips from a marginalized community within a marginalized community — what’s to argue about?
How does bureaucracy play into your gig considering it is not an elected post?
Personally, it was a challenge because I’m not a bureaucrat. I was a social worker with an education and advocacy background. This was my entrée into politics, so the challenge became how an outsider to government can get things done on the inside. That was significant. How to build coalitions and navigate a system you previously had no access to. That challenge was also a great strength in that I had some less than traditional methods in getting things accomplished. With that, what we were able to accomplish within two years was nothing short of amazing. Then again, I didn’t have access to conventional methods, but I used that to my advantage in moving through the system.
What were the personal ways that made you get things done?
Being a bureaucrat — and I don’t mean that in a pejorative way — a person who has been in the political system for some time, you know the expectations and social graces. You know how you need to ask for things and the timeline of that idea but have to work itself out.
They take time to build coalitions, make it happen.
If you’re coming from an advocacy or activist background, it comes from kicking the door down and asking questions later. I am moving quickly through the door before they have time to ask how I got to this other side.
Was it better not having a huge staff to deal with, to cart along? Or could you have benefitted with a bigger staff?
I could have used a bigger staff. We would have been able to accomplish so much more. I came in March 2017 and did this job entirely by myself, aside from having interns, to December 2017 until I was able to bring in a Deputy Director. Then we could build a robust training program and push through policy faster.
What do you think most Philadelphians gather about who you are and what you or the office of LGBT Affairs does?
What people don’t grasp is that it is a political office. Two sides of the coin that represent efficiency and effectiveness. One, it feels as if we are everywhere and effective at all that we do. Then there is the other side where some of the stuff we do is not what we’re supposed to be doing. As a policy office, we are supposed to be focused on how local government is fixing things for LGBTQ Philadelphians. We’re not supposed to be healing all the ills of LGBTQ non-profits. We shouldn’t necessarily be at the Criminal Justice Center every day to aid LGBTQ people’s problems within the justice system. We are, because that is how we approach the work.
When you raise the bar, you raise expectations.
Those expectations lead us to push and push, so then the community has become a little bit accustomed to a certain level of productivity. I just want to remind folks that there are other offices such as ours around the country, in city government, but these are unfair expectations to have on such a small, under-resourced office. We’re a minority community, seven percent of the population, but this office operates at a greater level doing a lot of work.
We mentioned you coming into this office in the time of Trump. As a black queer woman, thinking of the national and the local profile where hate crimes have not lessened and intolerance is at an all-time high, what is your take on the present?
In 2017, it had everything to do with me answering a call to do whatever I could, personally and professionally, to step up for my communities. Vitriol and violence in our country is not softening. In the recent days, it actually feels as if it is ramping up which is, in part, why I have taken my next position. I do feel comfortable about all that we have done in Philly and stepping on to my next piece. At this time in the history of our country, my particular skills and my particular lens could be helpful on a national level. That’s why I made my choice to go to the ACLU. I can bring my Philadelphia lens to how we could move forward in the country.
Did you have a pre-planned obsolescence as to how long you would have the Philly job when you came into it?
I love that term. That’s exactly what it was. Before I accepted the position, I told Mayor Kenney that he would have me for three years, tops. I knew exactly what needed to be done, and how it needed to be done. The way that it took to get that done is not sustainable for any human being over any extended amount of time. So, yes, three years, tops. I’m going to fix it up, and get out of the way. I thought, however, that when I was done, I’d go back to social work or education. It wasn’t that I was going to step in to a national context. I wanted to take a break. I wanted to relax, as running for two years straight at 12 to 14 hour days was rough. But it was all temporary. They say, ‘Man plans. God laughs.’ So my plans have changed. But I was transparent with the Mayor, never me just planting myself at City Hall for a decade.
Since you never made it to those three years, was it you looking outward to something national, like the ACLU, or did they poach you?
In the last two years, quite a number of people have come looking, including some corporate inquiries and in education and nonprofits. Nothing felt right at all. This ACLU position, they contacted me through a headhunter, that my name had been put forward a number of times, and that I would be excellent in this new position. It was very recent, right in the middle of PRIDE month, that this occurred. Actually, it was the week that Dante Austin [Philadelphia Sheriff Deputy, LGBTQ Community Liaison] passed when I heard from them initially. In addition to helping his family plan a funeral, writing a eulogy for my best friend and working on PRIDE stuff, I was actively grieving. It was the job of a lifetime, and I just couldn’t apply for it. So they moved forward without me, without me being emotionally present. Eventually, they reached back out, I went up, and they offered me the job on the spot.
Are you anxious, ready, prepared to take on a broader palate of people when it comes to matters of racial, sexual and social justice in this new job? Mass incarceration? Immigration? Abortion?
One of the things I am most looking forward to is actually being surrounded by folks whose values, ideals and priorities are deeply and closely aligned with mine. One of the challenges of being in a government context such as this, even in a progressive liberal city like Philadelphia, is that so often you’re pushing for policy to folks who are often diametrically opposed. There has been a lot of opportunity to compromise just because of how people’s ideals intersect and often oppose one another. That has been a wonderful growth experience, but, I tell you, I am very, very excited to work with folks who are on the frontlines of fighting for the folks who need us the most and against government overreach during this time, and for me taking care of those on the frontlines. I am looking forward to getting back to my social work roots behind the scenes with individuals, as opposed to the always outward facing and external ways that the Mayor asked me to be. That’s my bread and butter, connecting with individuals so that they’re able to fight the fight. I’m looking forward to it not being me on the outside, fighting the fight for a while. It’s almost as if I am getting a break.
Wow. You had to join the ACLU to get a break.
(Laughs) You should have seen them, explaining to me what I would go through at the ACLU. I said, ‘Oh yeah? Would I have to go [inside] prisons and be the person who gets the call at 3 a.m. when a trans person is murdered or when LGBTQ people are brutalized on the street or go down to the morgue? No? OK, I’ll have coffee with [the ACLU].’ Honey, that’s a break. It’s a job of deep, deep trauma, and I hope [for] my successor that’s not their experience. However, our people are in crisis, and it’s been a challenge being that person on the front lines in Philly.