Written 8 March 2016
By Jeremiah Aviles, Editor-in-Chief
SuSu Stewart Interview, March 8th 2016, Conclusion of ICC meeting
By Jeremiah Aviles, Editor-in-Chief
That Tuesday, SuSu Stewart, Chairperson of the Newark LGBTQ Commission, stopped by the Clara Dasher Student Center to meet the Inter-Club Council and put a finger to the pulse of student life at ECC. She introduced us to the work of the Commission and expressed a desire to collaborate closely with students here. After her meeting with the student leaders, I got to interview her.
JA: I didn’t have any special questions prepared, but I would like to get a general idea of the initiative behind the establishment of the LGBTQ Commission on behalf of Mayor Baraka’s administration. Can you talk to me a little bit about that?
SuSu: Yes. The initiative came from Mayor Booker’s administration (Cory Booker, D-NJ), and then once he left office- of course, you know, when the regimes change, there is a reshuffling of cabinets- I was appointed, and then I was voted to be the Chair of the commission. Basically the commission consists of 11 members, straight and gay, and our focus is to be a medium for the [gay] community, and a medium for the mayor. We are the voice and the ears of the community, and it is our responsibility to voice their concerns and to take them to the city council and to the mayor. And it’s our job to make sure that the city council and the mayor move forward with those concerns. We don’t promise anybody anything, we don’t promise anybody that they’re going to be the next king or queen of the LGBTQ community [laughs]- it’s about us being fair to both the community and to the mayor. We represent the mayor, to let them know that the city is behind them: we’re listening to them, we’re fighting for them, letting them know that we are making changes, we’re changing policies, and we’re here to make sure that everyone is safe, treated fairly, and taken care of in the way in which any other citizen or resident of the city of Newark is.
JA: I’m not personally aware of- and this is a simple reflection of my own bias- but I’m not aware of any other commission like yours, in any other city. This is a two-part question: Have you modeled your organization on that of any other city or situation, and has there been a particular incident or a particular trend that the mayor and/or his administration has identified that has called for the creation of an LGBTQ commission?
SuSu: To answer your question, there are LGBTQ commissions throughout the country. We’re not the first. As far as modeling our mission and our movement on that of any other city, no. We came to the table under Mayor Ras Baraka’s administration, we created our by-laws based on how what we felt we could control, on what we felt we could handle, and for what we felt was best for citizens. We also came up with our own mission, and how and what we would like to see the city do for the LGBTQ community. We also created sub-committees to help us. There are only 11 members on the Commission, but the largest city in New Jersey needs more than 11 people to speak, fight and stand up for their LGBTQ community. So we have sub-committees for youth issues, senior issues, shelter and housing, events, and also health. So we’re open to have straights, gays, anyone who is willing- who is about helping people, and invite them to come and be a part.
One thing that I follow the mayor on is that he is a mayor that is not afraid to cross boundaries. He is not just a ‘let me stay in Newark’ type of mayor, and we started that as a commission. We have partnered with NYC, we have partnered with other cities outside of Newark; this takes us abroad, and people see that. So that’s what our commission is about. But to copy cat another commission, no, we didn’t do that.
JA: What is the state of the LGBTQ community here in Newark? I mean, now there is a commission that one can say represents and protects the interests of this community, but what is, or how do you find the state of this community, since you’re inception in former Mayor Corey Booker’s administration? How do you see the community now, the health of the community?
SuSu: Let me tell you what was told to me, because I was not aware of the Commission under the Booker administration. So, I was told by dignitaries, citizens, politicians, and educators, that this commission is doing the work; that they have seen more from us in one year than they have seen the commission do in the eight years prior. They also said to us that we are making history, and we have. And one piece of history that we made was that on the day that marriage equality was passed was the same day that we launched our decal program. The decals had our LGBTQ logo flags with Newark in it- and everyone knows that Mayor Ras Baraka’s theme is ‘Believe in Newark’- and so our theme is ‘Newark Believes in Pride’. This was for businesses to be able to [post a decal and] say that they accept us, that they accept the gay community, that our money is welcome here, we’re welcome here, we’re not going to be treated any differently, we’re going to be comfortable being ourselves as we patronize your business. So, we launched that, and businesses are taking our decal and placing them in their windows, making a statement that ‘We are Gay Friendly’.
I’ve travelled the world, and there are places in which it is made clear as day: the gay flag is placed in their establishments to say, hey, we’re gay friendly; Newark didn’t have that under the prior administration. So this is what the commission has done. That is one example of how we’ve made a difference and how we’re making a difference.
Something else that we’ve started this year has been warming stations- you’re familiar with Code Blue? Code Blue is a federal mandate that states that if the temperature drops below 15 degrees Fahrenheit, municipal authorities must take the homeless off the street. What we implemented as a commission is that, for safety reasons, there should be a separate station operated by gay volunteers in order to get the gays of the streets and make sure they’re safe. There was an incident prior to us being under this administration that the authorities mixed the two communities, and the gay folks were being bullied, picked on, their belongings were being stolen, and they didn’t feel comfortable. For us to avoid that, we thought, why don’t we send our gay instructors, mentors and managers onto the premises so they can keep an eye out and identify who is LGBTQ so they can focus and work with those LGBTQ to get them off the street.
We’re here to work; we’re here to make a difference.
Also, there are the Centers of Hope. Centers of Hope are being placed by the mayor in each of the wards. They are safe havens in places for the community- not just youth- for the entire community to go and congregate, to have meetings and to engage. They are recreational and educational places for the community to go and basically, be off the streets, safe. We are now opening up LGBTQ Centers of Hope for the gay community to feel the same. Like I said, there is no age limit. It could be young gays, old gays, gays in between, the seniors, to have a place to go for resources, for help, for health, for understanding, for gathering, as a place in which they can feel safe and say ‘I know where I can go and meet my friends, hang out, find out about when the next HIV testing is, when the next family cookout for the community is’. All the resources will be at the Centers of Hope.
JA: How many Centers of Hope- one per ward, or…?
SuSu: Actually we’re up to five now. That’s how it started, the Centers of Hope opening up one per ward, but now it’s two in the central ward. And when the LGBTQ Center of Hope opens up, that will be in the Central Ward as well.
JA: Is there a question that I haven’t asked that I should have asked?
SuSu: So moving forward we’re really looking forward to support HIV agencies. We’re looking to really bring the division together- Newark is so divided: you have a gay group here, a gay group there, a trans group here- and so our mission is to say ‘hey, lets all come together and be one big, happy and healthy gay community and work together and build up’. That’s what we’re looking to do. Here at ECC, since its been brought to my attention how the Gay-Straight Alliance has kind of fallen off the map, I’m going to make a commitment to come back in, bring resources and engage city officials and the community to come in and help build it up. That’s what we have to do as a community, we have to build each other up. What that will look like we don’t know, but that’s what’s needed. I know a lot of students here that are gay, and they say to me ‘well I want to go here or there because there is nothing here at ECC’, but this coming fall we want to change that. We want ECC to have their home for the gays, just like Rutgers- Rutgers has their gay community, why can’t ECC have a home for the students here?
JA: It’s even more important for ECC to have one, because we’re a community college, a county college, and we have people from all over Essex County coming here, maybe lower income people, people that don’t have access or may not have as much access to essential needs anyways, so yes, definitely.
SuSu: And we need people like you- are you straight or gay?
JA: I’m straight, I suppose.
SuSu: So people like you from the straight community. Give us those ideas; support us when we’re making the move. We’re trying to bring awareness to the colleges and to the community and to the streets. Just get behind us and support us.
JA: Definitely. You have ECCO’s support, and I’m going to call out to all people to support these initiatives.
SuSu: OK and I’m going to give my number out publicly: 862 500 1516, if anyone has any questions or concerns, please give me a call personally.