Guest post by Gwen Stembridge
Northeast Ohio Coordinator
Though the national political scene has been tumultuous, unpredictable, and downright discouraging these past few months, I have the privilege to work with passionate Ohioans in several of our cities who are determined to do everything they can to stand with LGBTQ Americans in the face of harmful rhetoric coming from this new administration and its advocates.
One example is a group of community members from Akron, Ohio. The Rubber City (headquarters of Goodyear and the University of Akron College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering) has put rubber to the road to ensure Akron residents have legal protections. Beginning with an announcement from Mayor Dan Horrigan in May 2016, fueled by dozens of conversations at Akron’s favorite coffee shops and restaurants like Angel Falls, Mustard Seed, and Crave, this group of almost 30 residents and community leaders have gathered regularly since this past fall to steer the city toward greater legal and lived equality for all.
After conversations with the law director and mayor’s staff in Summer and Fall 2016, it was determined that updates were needed in the area of employment, housing, public accommodations, and ethnic intimidation. With help from the city and local HIV support and LGBTQ advocacy organizations, CANAPI (Community AIDS Network Akron Pride Initiative), a steering committee was recruited with representation from LGBTQ organizations, faith communities, housing advocacy groups, business leaders, local political leaders and other community organizations. The steering committee (some of whom are in the featured picture), who has claimed the name “Akron United”, works together to educate and advocate with businesses, faith communities, and the general public on the advantages of protections at the city level, especially in one of the 28 states in the U.S. that does not provide them.
Equality Ohio’s role in the initiative is two-fold. The first is as a convener. The city identified the need to update the code but did not have the capacity to convene partners and build the support necessary to educate council and the public. Equality Ohio is able to build partnerships from diverse areas of the city’s footprint to gather and educate Akronites on the need for these protections. The other piece of our role is as subject matter expert. We have worked successfully with 16 cities in the state to include LGBTQ protections at the local level. While each city’s process is different, Equality Ohio has built institutional knowledge and expertise in this work.
Our capacity is greatly expanded when the Equality Federation provides customizable media trainings equipping local community members to speak about LGBTQ equality with confidence and in ways that change hearts and minds toward support of our work. When city officials have questions about data or are apprehensive about potential backlash, Equality Federation staff are available to give a higher level view of the work including examples from other states, which instills additional confidence in these local leaders. All of the cities that passed LGBTQ-inclusive ordinances in 2016 did so with a unanimous vote from city council. We could not have done this work so well without support from the Equality Federation.
Conversations around legal versus lived equality remind this group of leaders that changing the laws of the city serves only a portion of the goal. In the process of meeting, community members have become more aware of those identities at the intersections of race, income, gender identity, and more. The new ordinance will update the code affecting employment, housing, public accommodations, and ethnic intimidation to include protections based on the following characteristics: race, color, gender, sex, religion, national origin, ancestry, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, military status, and familial status.
In this era of uncertainty on the national scene, it is an encouraging and uplifting experience to gather with local, everyday people who have the grit, tenacity, and heart necessary to keep us all moving forward. If all goes as planned, Akron will soon join the 16 other cities in Ohio who have implemented these comprehensive nondiscrimination protections and therefore declared they are open to everyone to live, work, and play in this great city!
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