Princeton group creates a safe space for queer youth and all marginalized groups
In 2018, Robt Seda-Schreiber opened the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice with the minority movement in mind, a headquarters for intersectionality in Princeton. He envisioned a safe space for queer youth as much as a command post for giving aid to immigrant families.
“We want to serve all the communities that are being underserved, that are being marginalized, that are being attacked at the very upper regions of our society,” said Seda-Schreiber. “Many folks see that as a reason to be hopeless, but honestly, I see it as a reason to have great hope, because we can finally come together and realize that all of our struggles are intertwined.”
Like much of our vocabulary today, intersectionality is a new word. Civil rights activist Kimberlé Crenshaw is credited for coining the term in 1989 and it did not appear in a dictionary until 2015; however, the concept itself is by no means new. Another civil rights activist working in the earlier half of the twentieth century deeply understood the power of intersectionality and fully embodied it despite harsh opposition. This man, Bayard Rustin, is Seda-Schreiber’s hero and obvious pick when it came to naming the center.
Best known as the chief organizer for the March on Washington and for being Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s mentor, Rustin was an openly gay man. As homosexuality was illegal at the time, Rustin faced increasingly brutal discrimination and was even told by other civil rights leaders to step away from the spotlight in fear that his sexuality would take away from the movement.
After being jailed for over a year for violating sodomy laws, among other offenses, Rustin continued working behind the scenes of the civil rights movement while also continuing to live and love openly with his long-time partner, Walter Neagle.
“He would never allow himself to not be proud of who he was,” said Seda-Schreiber. “I’ll never forget being on the phone personally with Walter Naegle and having him say that we have the permission to use the name. I think of that on a daily basis when I sit here in the center— that we have that incredible responsibility to carry that name forward.”
It was essential to Rustin that people working within other movements join forces while still maintaining their own agendas. In other words, he believed in strength in numbers and strength in unity without losing the message behind individual fights. This is exactly what Seda-Schreiber strives for in each endeavor the center takes on.
Within the first months of opening the center, Seda-Schreiber organized a rally in Princeton, which took on the name Families Belong Together. As it is the center’s goal to never speak for others, he called on the Latin American Legal Defense Fund, Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert, the Teachers Union, and the AFL-CIO to take part in the rally. “They all came out and spoke much more eloquently, passionately, and knowledgeably than I would,” said Seda-Schreiber.
Having worked as a school teacher prior to opening the center, Seda-Schreiber remains a huge advocate for inclusive spaces within the education system, which is how he met his colleague Carol Watchler. Now the Rustin Center’s Community Outreach Coordinator, Watchler spent a large part of her career as GLSEN’s Co-Chair for Central New Jersey. She first connected with Seda-Schreiber when he was interested in forging New Jersey’s first Gay Straight Alliance (also known as Gender and Sexuality Alliance) for his middle school. Their success has paved the way for other middle schools across the country, and they are excited now as directors of the Rustin Center to be able to co-sponsor this year’s GSA forum along with GLSEN, which will take place at a middle school for the first time.
“People couch their homophobia in saying that middle schoolers are too young or they’re not sexualized yet,” said Seda-Schreiber in response to opposition over the forum from both parents and school staff members. “They have to understand that this has nothing to do with sex, this has to do with who someone is…All these kids are identifying now. All these kids are coming out. The reason that it’s happening at such a more wonderful, open level — and we still have tremendous strides, of course — but it’s because these kids feel safe.”
In Seda-Schreiber’s mind, the ultimate goal is to make GSAs obsolete, to have the safe space not be in just one classroom for a specific amount of time after school but to have that safe space occur all day in every classroom, hallway, cafeteria, and bathroom. After an exciting turn of events at the end of last year, Seda-Schreiber and Watchler now feel that they are one step closer to this goal.
In November 2018, Seda-Schreiber and Watchler sat down with GLSEN CNJ at the Rustin Center in order to help the organization move forward on a legislative venture that would create a much more inclusive curriculum in the schools.
One month later, leaders from various organizations, including the Rustin Center, joined together at the statehouse in Trenton to testify in support of Bill A1335, which, according to GLSEN, “would require Boards of Education to include instruction, and adopt instructional materials, that accurately portray political, economic, and social contributions of persons with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals.”
The bill passed in the House that day, and on January 31, 2019, Gov. Murphy signed it into effect. Watchler explains the impact of this bill in a metaphor of windows and mirrors. “Students learning about minority or marginalized communities are going to get the opportunity to see people whom they didn’t have familiarity with before through a window, and there might be some other people in that classroom who look at that and say, ‘oh this really mirrors my experience.’’’
GLSEN, in conjunction with the BRCSJ and many other organizations, including the NJEA , and with the help of strong advocate and ally Chris Cannella, are now working on creating the documentation that will make it easier for districts to integrate this inclusive curriculum so that when it goes into effect in 2020, there will be minimal pushback.
The Rustin Center’s efforts and successes in the education system have generated a powerful momentum that they plan to expend toward a range of underserved communities. “I care a lot about the rights and welcoming spaces for LGBT people but I care about a lot more too,” said Wetchler, “and we’re even just beginning to work out how some of those things are going to come into the center.”
One of the center’s Community Liaisons, Steph Salvador, is on the same page. While Seda-Schreiber brought her on as a member of the LGBTQIA community and of which she is an ardent supporter, Salvador’s passion lies with sustainable gardening and nutrition education. Seda-Schreiber gave her the space and support to incorporate this into her scope of work at the center. The second Saturday of each month at the center is now a sustainable gardening workshop for ages 10-17, which will give them hands-on opportunity to work with the earth, while also learning about where their food comes from and the importance of locally sourced agriculture.
“Any individual that we meet, we want to make sure that they know they have a space to come to both for themselves and for their community, but also what they can do to be of service. I hope that each person that walks in here is inspired to be of service in some way,” said Seda-Schreiber.
While hosting rallies and large events is a great way for the center to be a conduit between communities and to allow underrepresented voices to be heard, part of their philosophy is to have the flexibility to hold space for someone to walk in who is just looking to be heard. They hold this space formally every Friday from 3-6pm for teenagers as part of their Safe Space Hangout program. But they will never turn a person away who is seeking help. They will guide a person to other resources if the help they need is out of the center’s scope.
They do however offer pay-what-you-can therapy sessions with clinical social worker and therapist, Tracy Post, twice a week for LGBTQIA youth. “Sometimes it’s just sitting on the floor and listening, and that’s just as important, if not more so,” Seda-Schreiber said.
The openness that the center prides itself on has allowed for them to form positive relationships with both church and political leaders, who can often feel out of touch or in disagreement with minority communities. When a Princeton-area pastor reached out to the Rustin Center looking to have Seda-Schreiber speak to their congregation on the importance of allies, he agreed under the condition that he would remain a conduit and instead bring actual members of minority communities in to speak. He first called on Watchler who had spent a number of years working as a member of the church before taking on her role as an activist. “It was nice to step back into a setting of people whom I could feel were really committed to a spiritual life and to actively be of service to other people,” said Watchler.
To those in the queer community feeling conflicted by their faith, Watchler says, “Be open to going to different faith communities and find the one that fits for you even if that means stepping away from what has been your tradition. It is so important to be with people who care about each other and are on the same spiritual journey and are able to affirm you in your journey.”
The success of this first speaking engagement has turned into an ongoing series at the church that gives congregation members the opportunity to learn from and converse with people whom they otherwise may not have had the chance. Previous speakers include a woman of color who spoke on the effects of microaggressions and a transgender person who spoke about their experience transitioning.
As it is still in its early years, the Rustin Center is eager to expand its reach exponentially and is looking, as Watchler puts it, for people to donate their “time, talent, or treasure.”
“What happened to Bayard Rustin can never happen again and that’s our real goal,” said Seda-Schreiber. “No name ever forgotten, no person left behind, no one exiled from the history books or from their community and that’s what we intend to do. That’s the very foundation of the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice.”
People are encouraged to visit and contact Seda-Schreiber directly with ideas.