Alphonso David is more than the new national president of the sprawling LGBTQ-rights organization the Human Rights Campaign ( HRC ).
He literally is the face of change.
David is the first civil rights lawyerand the first person of colorto be president of HRC in the organization's nearly 40-year history. Many have seen this as a step in the right direction for the organization, and David himself has said ( on HRC's website ), "There must be space and room for everyone in this movement, including at the Human Rights Campaign." David already immersed himself in HRC in his first 100 days, doing everything from touring critical election states to starting various pro-transgender initiatives.
Windy City Times talked with David when he was in town for the HRC Chicago gala.
Windy City Times: You been in office for at least 100 days. What's been the most surprising thing to you?
Alphonso David: There have been so many. I have been pleasantly surprised by the dedication, commitment, passion and talent of people in the organization; they've far exceeded my expectations. There are people who have been in the organization for 20 yearspeople who understand the movementand there are people who have been there two to three months, but they all have the passion, love and dedication for the work.
What's also been surprising is the depth of commitment from supporters across the country. People are ready for change. They understand how important this election is and what this election meansnot just for them, but for future generations. They're willing to invest their time and resources to make sure we effect change.
WCT: What attracted you to apply to HRC, in the first place?
AD: It is the largest LBGTQ-rights organization in the world. What attracted me was the opportunity to bring about change. It's the most dynamic organization; I thought it was the best place for me to go to if I wanted to effect change on a national level.
I've been working in government for 12 years, at the state level [New York], working with a governor who's very supportive of equality and equality-related issues. I was not looking at the time, but it was too difficult to say no. As I think about the next election, my family and friends, it was important to me to take a position in which I could effect changeand have the resources to do it.
WCT: Talk a little bit about growing up in Liberia.
AD: I was born in the United States and I grew up in Liberia for 14 years, moving there when I was a year old. It is a country founded by freed slaves from the U.S., although "founded" is a relative term because there were already people there ( similar to indigenous people in the United States]. The constitution mirrors the U.S. Constitution, and the flag actually mirrors the U.S. flag, although the Liberian flag has one star. The capital, Monrovia, was named after President James Monroe.
Growing up there was an incredible experience for me. I didn't appreciate it then because it was all that I knew. My father and uncle were elected officials, and it was an incredible loving, rewarding, deeply enriching experience. I went to an all-boys Catholic schoolwhich was an interesting experience. [Smiles] If you did anything wrong, the nuns would use rulers to bang your knuckles.
In 1980, there was a military coup, and my uncle was assassinated. My father was put in prison, and released about a year and a half later. He sought asylum; I was born here, so I didn't have to seek asylum.
WCT: When you were named HRC president, a lot of people saw this as a step in the right direction regarding diversity. However, there were naysayers claiming the move was tokenism, and that you're just a figurehead for the organization to say, "Hey, we're being diverse." How do you respond to that?
AD: It's unfortunate. A judge that I clerked for said something that's so true: "People arrive at conclusions with too little evidence." I don't criticize people for having opinions, [but] it saddens me when those opinions are uninformed.
There is no information they have to draw that conclusion. If anything, based on my record and accomplishments, it suggests the [opposite]. I drafted the marriage-equality act in New York. I drafted legislation to ban conversion therapy in New York. I was responsible for making sure transgender people were protected in New York.
My record supports the selection. I'm not being arrogant about this, but we need to look at the evidence. We live in a culture where facts no longer matterand that's not just with Donald Trump.
WCT: You mentioned trans people and, as you know, HRC has been criticized for not being trans-inclusive. What pro-trans initiatives is the organization involved in?
AD: Okay. So we have the Transgender Justice Initiative, which we announced about a month and a half ago, and which will be officially launched next year ( although we've started the pilot program now ). That initiative is multitiered. It's focused on employment training; the unemployment rate for members of the trans community is very high, so we're looking to see how we can address that, with our coalition partners. We want to post job fairs and engage with community and corporate partners to identify job opportunities. We also want to create a training pipeline for positions across the board.
Next is capacity-building. There are many members of the trans community who work in not-for-profit organizations who need the support and additional skills to be even more effective leaders. We're creating fellowships and identifying a cohort of transgender leaders who we will be working with over the year.
The third is working with local governments to identify the plight of violence against trans members of our community. So far, there have been at least 22 transgender people who have been killed this year; over the past seven years, it's been about 150 people. The violence is happening all over the country, but it seems to be [concentrated] in certain places, so what we're looking to do is identify those regions or cities and work with local governments. It may require training, geo mapping and other things to address violence in those regions.
Finally, there's a communications strategyelevating the stories of trans members in our community. We don't want to just talk about violence. We want to elevate positive stories as well.
WCT: Let's talk international efforts. What is the organization doing, globally speaking?
AD: Internationally, we work with nonprofits to expand their reach, their resources; we've been doing that for years. We also work with corporate partners, using the Corporate Equality Index to make sure that more spaces are inclusive. Do you have health-insurance policies that are inclusive? Do you have nondiscrimination policies that are inclusive? Do you have facilities that are inclusive?
So we're working with corporate partners hereand, for those with global offices, we work to make sure those offices reflect the same policies.
WCT: Now how does that work if you want to effect change in countries with anti-LGBTQ policies?
AD: That is more complicated. So you may have a corporation operating in a country that is anti-LGBTQ. So the employees are protected in their buildings, but when the leave they're not protected.
Expansion of the global program involves looking at litigation. We want to work with our international partners, identify countries and regions that are ideal for litigation, and file cases. We have to be very careful where we go; we want to make sure we effect positive change. You could lose a case and expose people to significant risk.
WCT: Let's switch to politics. There are several parts of the left, such as progressives and centrists. How does HRC navigate these different areas of the left?
AD: They're all pro-equality and support pro-LGBTQ issues, so we support them. It's that simple.
There are going to be elected officials and candidates running for office over the next year. We're in the process of looking at a variety of candidates across the board; we're looking at their credentials and their plans. We're trying to get away from the labels and look deeper into the issues.
WCT: Lastly, if you could ask our current president one question and have him be totally honest, what would that question be?
AD: [Pauses.] That's a very good question. I have 6,000 questions.
If I only had one, I would ask him to tell me everything that has violated the law, as I define it. Alternatively, I'd want him to tell me everything he's done to hurt the LGBTQ community.
For more about the Human Rights Campaign, visit HRC.org .