DAVID J. JOHNS
New Leadership at the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC)
Change is on the horizon at the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC) as David J. Johns takes on the role of Executive Director for the leading Black LGBTQ civil rights organization. Mr. John’s replaces Sharon Lettman-Hicks, who served as both Executive Director and CEO since 2009. Mrs. Lettman-Hicks remains active within the organization as it’s CEO.
David served in the Obama Administration as Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. The Columbia University graduate also served as a Senior Education Policy Advisor to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Mr. Johns shares his thoughts as he prepares for his new position.
SWERV: Over the years, NBJC has been at the forefront of civil rights advocacy for the Black LGBTQ community. What can stakeholders expect from the organization under your leadership?
David Johns (DJ): Stakeholders can expect continued unapologetic, strategic and collaborative public policy advocacy that advances the issues that matter most to African American civil rights groups, and LGBTQ organizations. The advocacy of NBJC has been critical to the advancement of productive dialogue in Black communities on issues like marriage equality, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and employment discrimination against LGBTQ people, to name a few.
As the Executive Director of NBJC, I will lead aggressive campaigns that disrupt deleterious stereotypes about Black LGBTQ and same gender loving people. These campaigns and related activations will:
- Highlight more of the diversity that exists within and makes our community strong. Growing up as a little Black boy in Inglewood, California, I did not meet or see people who showed up in the world like me—strong Black men who are equally proud about their Blackness as they are about being same gender loving. I want people to see me, to know that I exist—that we refuse to hide or check parts of who we are at the door, shrink or otherwise fail to show up in our fullness knowing who we are and whose we are. I assume this responsibility, in part, because it’s important for me to show up for younger people the way I wish adults had shown up for me—fully, honestly and without apology;
- Curate stories about the many contributions we continue to make as Black LGBTQ/SGL people to our communities, nation and the world; and
- Provide a platform for Black LGBTQ/SGL people, our allies and our families to advance civil rights and LGBTQ/SGL rights, to strengthen the Black family and to facilitate true liberation of African people throughout the diaspora.
During my tenure, I plan to focus deeply on the empowerment of the Black family which includes the families we are born into as well as those we create—while honoring the opportunity to remain a central repository for advocating for and responding to the needs of Black LGBTQ/SGL individuals and communities. Critical to this work is engaging all Black people in transformative dialogues that honor the diversity of Black families and the roles that Black LGBTQ/SGL people continue to play in both Black families and communities. One of my strategic objectives and passions in this space is to center some of the most relegated people within our communities including Black LGBTQ/SGL youth, trans* people and elders.
SWERV: Organizations like the NAACP, and Urban League advocate for the African American community, while the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the National LGBTQ Task Force represent the entire LGBTQ community. Where does an organization like NBJC fit within the civil rights organization community?
DJ: NBJC has been advancing the work of empowerment for Black LGBTQ/SGL people and our families for over a decade, which is important when you consider that in 2017 people still lobby on Capitol Hill and talk about issues impacting African American students assuming they are all heterosexual or advancing policy benefitting LGBTQ youth assuming they are all white. As long as there have been Black people there have been Black LGBTQ/SGL people. Our unique history as an unapologetic and intentional advocacy organization that celebrates being Black and LGBTQ/SGL, but also mobilizes all Black people around critical issues is central to who we are. We will remain committed to this work under my leadership. To this end, I am uniquely suited to continue the work of advancing opportunities to support collaborative work.
I have spent most of my professional career working to leverage programs, policies and practices to improve the lives of Black people, specifically those most neglected and ignored. During my service to our nation as President Obama’s Executive Director for the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, I made this focus a priority. For example, I produced several engagements to highlight issues impacting some of the most marginalized members of Black communities including: a White House Summit on Black youth with disabilities, developing the African American Women Lead Initiative to respond to feminist critiques of My Brother’s Keeper and to center opportunities to support Black girls, and a White House literacy event for Black girls who are homeless or in the child welfare system.
I began my professional career as an elementary school teacher in Harlem, New York and am proud to have facilitated a collaboration with NBJC and the National Education Association to host the first White House Summit on African American LGBTQ Youth. While working on Capitol Hill and in the White House I served as a champion for, liaison to and thought partner with many national civil rights organizations including the National Urban League, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Acton Network. I look forward to building upon this work at NBJC and leveraging my professional relationships and expertise to highlight the importance of intersectionality, and to bridge gaps between traditional African American civil rights communities and LGBTQ organizations.
SWERV: Recent high-profile incidents of discrimination against the transgender community have taken place. First the tweet from President Trump regarding a military ban against transgender service, and then the comments from comedian Lil Duval on the Breakfast Club. What are your thoughts regarding this issue?
DJ: I applaud and appreciate those who have leveraged these teachable moments to engage in thoughtful dialogue, ask tough questions and endure the discomfort that comes with learning and growing—especially in areas that are too often too taboo to discuss until national moments of tragedy.
We must remember that at least sixteen trans women have been killed this year, and the year is not over. Lil Duval’s comments only highlight conversations too often had in barbershops, around spades tables and in other places where all Black people should feel safe. At a time where too many still debate whether Black Lives Matter, it is essential that we—Black people, cisgender allies, business leaders, elected officials, influencers—all people stand with and speak out against the continued assault on our trans* family members, specifically Black transgender women. As NBJC’s Executive Director, I look forward to meeting and working in coalition with Black, trans-led organizations that are doing the hard work, on the ground, to disrupt a culture that continues to dehumanize and devalue their lives. This is an issue that we, as Black people, must confront with an urgency because our trans* family members are literally dying, and too often at the hands of other Black people. This is a crisis that demands our attention and I look forward to learning more from the Black trans* leadership in our nation about ways NBJC and other traditional African American civil rights groups can contribute to ending this epidemic of violence and hypermasculinity that weakens the fabric that binds our communities.
SWERV: The current Trump administration is hostile to both Black and LGBTQ people. What would you like to see the Black LGBTQ community do to fight back against this administration?
DJ: This is true and the work required to ensure the liberation of Black people demands that we do not allow this President, or his administration, to distract us from our objectives—civil rights, LGBTQ/SGL rights, true equality and equity, and justice for all.
As a community, Black people should stand with one another and speak out together against all forms of injustice. Black people must recognize the impact of the trauma we still endure as a result of transatlantic enslavement and the systems erected to preserve white supremacy. Naming the laws, systems and practices that contribute to our oppression is critical and this includes calling out this President for the many ways he continues to undermine foundational democratic practices and weaken democratic institutions. Beyond recognizing and responding to trauma and naming the systems and practices that we must upend, we can do a better job of working together to implement meaningful and sustainable, community informed solutions that do not necessary require, but can always be supported by, grants or legislation.
As a country, we can commit to learning more about and better engaging in civics. The only President I acknowledge is President Barack Obama, and his legacy is one that includes introducing thousands of people to politics who might otherwise not follow what is happening within our political systems. Beyond showing up to vote in presidential elections we can ensure more people understand how political systems work and are engaged in local elections including by pursuing local elected office, when appropriate. I am truly excited to lead the work of NBJC in developing programming and campaigns that empower through advocacy. NBJC has a call to action, “All We Need Is You!” This call to action is about ensuring that all Black people, no matter if they are LGBTQ, same gender loving or straight identified understand the responsibility we each have to strengthen our families and communities. We cannot allow divisions among us to hinder our progress, which means we have to be about the business of connecting the grasstops to the grassroots to ensure we are working together, in community.
It will take continued and considerable effort to mitigate the harm resulting from the current Administration—and related white supremacist, anti-Black movements that support it but this work for Black people is not new.
Working in coalition with individuals and organizations committed to strengthening Black families and communities to facilitate true liberation—freedom and justice for all is of paramount importance and is necessary to counteract the efforts of the current administration. This work will remain a core focus of NBJC under my leadership.
SWERV: How can the community get further involved in NBJC?
DJ: NBJC has a mandate to give voice to the lived experiences of Black LGBTQ/SGL people and our families. This means creating spaces where all members of our community can show up, as they are, knowing they will be safe, supported and loved. To accomplish this goal it is imperative that NBJC facilities opportunities for our community to be directly involved in the work of NBJC and for NBJC to support community led efforts to advance critical shared goals. As I take on this new role, I will be consulting a number of leaders in the movement and also speaking directly to our communities, across the nation, about what they need and desire from an organization like NBJC.
NBJC believes in leveraging the tools at our disposal to support the work. Understanding the power of digital and social media, we invite you to learn more about our work via Facebook and Twitter. I also recommend subscribing to our email list via our website. Finally, please consider supporting the work of NBJC financially. We definitely want as many people as possible supporting this important work.