By Joanne Sprague
As a social entrepreneur, I’m often asked why I decided to do what I do. And as a straight woman, I’m often asked why I picked LGBT equality as my focus. The answer I give in cocktail conversations and grant applications is pretty simple and familiar.
I had been an MBA student for three weeks when a friend of 10 years came out to me, and shared her experience of coming out at our school. At a recent diversity training she had sat next to a classmate as he argued that LGBT folks should stay closeted at school and work, and not a single person in the room had spoken up in her defense.
I knew I didn’t want to spend two years at a school with such a culture of silence, so I joined the LGBT club and started campaigning to build a stronger straight ally presence. Our efforts quintupled club membership and created a visibly and actively inclusive campus culture in less than a year, and that’s where I learned the power of bringing allies into the movement.
It’s true that my MBA experience was the catalyst for re-founding Friendfactor. But the real story of why I do this, the one that keeps me going on Saturday nights and red-eye flights, is deeper than the elevator pitch. It goes back to grade school, when I first learned about slavery and the Holocaust. I remember being appalled that I was part of a human race capable of treating each other so horrifically, and I was adamant that if I had been around back then, I would have done something about it.
It may have been naïve – I couldn’t exactly have sauntered singlehandedly into Auschwitz and torn down the gates. But that determination stuck with me, especially when I learned that “back then” was actually in the present, just with different populations: the global poor, disabled communities, LGBT people, and a myriad of others.
That determination took me around the world, first manifesting itself in a drive to tackle socioeconomic inequality: I moved to Kenya and taught sex workers business skills to start small enterprises and pull themselves out of poverty. I moved to India and built a consulting practice to help non-profits and foundations ensure that the country’s skyrocketing growth was inclusive of its lowest income populations. I interned in Nicaragua and helped social entrepreneurs scale their impact at creating sustainable development in Central America.
When I finally decided it was time to address inequality back at home in the US, there was no question to me that LGBT issues were the most pressing equality violation of our time. I couldn’t imagine raising my future children in a country where discrimination was still acceptable, or where who they turned out to be might make them second class citizens. So I figured I better change that country.
I took everything I had learned fighting global poverty and applied it to the LGBT movement, because all of these equality issues are interconnected: they all boil down to our ability to dehumanize or “other” a community of people we see as different from us, and therefore to deny them the humanity and fairness that are intrinsic to our values.
That’s why Friendfactor is so focused on people who don’t identify as LGBT. As the majority, straight Americans hold substantial power to dictate public opinion and culture, just by sheer numbers. Thus we have an opportunity to discriminate, or to ensure equality and inclusion.
So the more people in the majority who identify with the LGBT movement – who see themselves as central and core to the march towards equality, both legislative and cultural – the more these lines between populations break down and we all see each other as fellow humans.
As Lilla Watson is credited with saying, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
We are all denied a bit of our humanity until every one of us is truly equal to the next, so it’s time we stopped drawing boundaries between each other and started working together to create a more equal world.
And that’s the “not-quite-light-enough-for-cocktail-parties” story of why I do what I do.