The Equality March in Flint this past June. Photo courtesy of Equality Caucus.

Grooming Future LGBTQ Leaders

Nicole Derusha-Mackey Helps Community Engage in Politics at Local Level

BY KATE OPALEWSKI

Nicole Derusha-Mackey is on a mission to build a farm team full of LGBTQ people who will best serve their community and represent their city, and state.

As a member of the Genesee County Equality Caucus, she is "recruiting" Democrats and LGBTQ people to advance in leadership starting at the grassroots level.

The goal is to deepen the bench with local activists who can be trained to run for office at higher levels, or to work in campaigns or as government staffers. This effort fulfills the mission of the Equality Caucus, which includes bringing visibility to LGBTQ issues by influencing policy, supporting LGBTQ-friendly leaders and educating the public through community outreach and collaboration within as well as outside the LGBTQ community in an open and honest manner.

"Everyone really needs and wants this," said Derusha-Mackey, a legislative aide in the office of Rep. Pam Faris (D-Clio) in Michigan's 48th House District. She said this became clear to her while working as field director during the 2014 re-election campaign for Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint Township).

"My boss and Congressman Kildee both made a point that we needed to do more to engage the LGBTQ community in Flint and surrounding areas," she said. Derusha-Mackey sought advice and support from people like Mark Lachey, chair of the LGBT & Allies Caucus and vice chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, and Nathan Triplett, director of public policy and political action for Equality Michigan.

They discussed the disconnect that exists, she said, when local politics is widely overlooked while people are heavily-focused on national politics. It's no wonder there is a lack of what Derusha-Mackey calls "ground game."

Policies made by local governments have more of an impact on a person's daily life than most national policies do - from income and property taxes to emergency services, law enforcement, roadways and public transportation - all of which are decided by the people serving on the city council.

This includes non-discrimination ordinances, which exist in the cities of Fenton, Linden, and Flint, so far.

"We've made progress in the city of Burton," she said. "They expanded city employee protections to include LGBTQ, the mayor flew a pride flag - that we purchased - in front of city hall in recognition of LGBTQ history month, and they have begun working on the full NDO."

This is why involvement from the LGBTQ community and its allies matters.

"It's up to us to make sure that local government is properly representing the people who live in the community," said Derusha-Mackey, a citizen in Swartz Creek where she resides with her wife, Sarah, and her 13-year-old son, Devin.

"Many members of the community felt for years and years that they couldn't be a part of the process. We are engaging them and giving them the tools they need to move forward. I think that's really important."

When asked how she is engaging like-minded people in her community, Derusha-Mackey said the Equality Caucus has a presence at events like the Flint Art Walk and Flint Pride, among others. The group rolled out a business pledge during Flint Restaurant Week to help local businesses that want to identify as LGBTQ-friendly. This "Safe Space" directory is now expanding outside the city of Flint.

The Equality Caucus meets twice a month, on the first and third Tuesdays at 6 p.m. The first Tuesday of each month is a social meeting, and the location varies. The third Tuesday of each month is the group's business meeting, and is held at UAW 1D in Flint.

"We will have a precinct delegate training at our December meeting, and it is my hope that every one of our members is a precinct delegate in 2018 - meaning they will all have their name on the ballot," she said.

To put the group's growth into perspective, Derusha-Mackey said that no more than 15-20 people would attend meetings prior to the Pulse tragedy. Following the Orlando shooting last year, she said around 50 people showed up for their meeting.

"Then Trump was elected and interest increased further. The community is realizing there is a lot of work that still needs to be done," she said.

By removing the mystery that surrounds the political process for most people, the Equality Caucus is making it possible for people to do the work.

"And not that it's easy, but that it's not as intimidating as it seems," she said. "So many of our members never thought it would be possible to talk with community leaders. They didn't realize that our elected officials were so accessible. They didn't realize that they really could make a difference."

Tools of Engagement

Transgender Connect-Flint Chapter

http://www.facebook.com/groups/TGconnectFlint/

Genesee County Democratic Party

http://www.facebook.com/GeneseeDems/

PFLAG Genesee County

https://pflagflint.wordpress.com/

Equality Michigan

http://www.equalitymi.org

LGBT & Allies Caucus-Michigan Democratic Party

http://www.facebook.com/TheLGBTACaucusoftheMDP/

Flint and Genesee Chamber of Commerce

http://www.flintandgenesee.org/

Michigan Education Association-Flint

http://www.michigan.gov/mde/

UAW Region 1D

https://uaw.org/regions/uaw-region-1d/

This article originally appeared in Pride Source, Michigan's Annual LGBTQ Magazine. BTL interviewed six changemakers in the LGBTQ community who use their "Tools of Engagement" to provide citizens with ideas and resources to transform their neighborhoods and empower them to make decisions that will create positive change.

For more information or to connect with the Equality Caucus of Genesee County, call 810-620-0102, email geneseeequality@gmail.com or visit the group's website at http://www.geneseequality.org or Facebook page.
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