Conversation with Asha Leong, SC Campaign Manager
In 2004 Asha Leong worked on Georgia's 2004 campaign against a ban. Today she is the campaign director for South Carolina's same battle this November. South Carolina's campaign, Fairness for all Families, is a branch of South Carolina Equality Coalition, which is a coalition of over 42 active organizations including churches, LGBT, people of color, HIV, economic, and other organizations.
I met Asha at the NGLTF Creating Change conference in St. Louis after the 2004 elections. We attended numerous sessions debriefing our nation-wide losses that year, and preparing for future battles to stop constitutional bans on marriage and civil unions for gay families.
We were two of the few women of color involved and two of the few to stay involved in a campaign against a ban. We met again at Creating Change in 2005 where we spent three days talking about how to build a national Asian Pacific American LGBTQ movement. When I heard that she was running the South Carolina campaign, I wanted to check in with her to find out what it's like working on the issue in the South.
What is your main responsibility as campaign manager for the South Carolina Campaign?
I am setting the direction and vision of the campaign, bringing together pieces to achieve our goals for November, and ensuring that we are building power for after November 7. We want to use our campaign to build a movement in this state that builds social justice in terms of racial and economic equality as they link with LGBTQ issues in the South. We're also working to build political power in the state.
Why did you take this job, especially after a defeat in Georgia?
LGBT groups have a commitment to social justice work not only on so-called "LGBT issues" but also on the intersection of the larger framework like voting rights, parenting, bus services, and issues that affect many people.
Our work is based on our coalition. This campaign was ready to think strategically about a campaign that would create an infrastructure and community base ready for a longer term plan to build power.
I am from the South, so it is important for me to work here. Organizing here is a little different than it is in the North. I was ready for a campaign that was not about packing up and leaving after November, but one that was ready to change hearts and minds in the south, win or lose this election cycle.
I grew up as an Indian, Chinese, Irish lesbian with lesbian parents, my father, and his wife. Family means everything. On our campaign we talk about family. We talk about all of the types of families people grow up with in the South: families where grandparents raise the children, families with single parents, families of seniors who may not be married, and families like mine. This is not abnormal; our message of fairness is about legal recognition for these kinds of families.
What are some of the challenges you are facing in South Carolina on this campaign?
The greatest challenge, as in most campaigns, is educating voters that this issue is on the ballot. People just don’t know. We also need to talk about this as one attack on a long line of attacks on LGBT people. We know that anti-gay adoption measures are next on their list-- we can’t think about this as a single issue. It should be about infrastructure building, training new generations of leaders, Action Teams, building coalitions, fundraising for sustaining movements…basic movement building. So, although I may not be around here after the campaign for too long, there will be a strong transition committee, a staff that transfers over information, and we will ensure that nothing we build falls apart after the election.
You are so right on. We can’t pretend like we have one fight, leave and move on with our careers. This is about movement and that is the only way to fight these attacks.
So how do you think we are doing communicating nationally?
We do alright. There’s the Equality Federation, NGLTF conferences and HRC’s best practices from 2004. I think that there is a lot of national consensus on message, but not at all times. I think the thing for us, is that in South Carolina, we have nothing to loose. We have to appeal to the broader community but take bold steps at the same time. There are a lot of people of color down here.
People of color are an integral part of the movement. Not all the national orgs understand that, and some really do. We need to ensure that we are hiring staff of color, not just because we have to target people of color, but to train young people of color to become the new leaders. We want to reach out to communities of color because our polls show that the people most likely to vote ‘No’ are black women; but also because communities of color are at the heart of this campaign.
I wish it didn’t just take numbers to prove the importance of that to people.
You know, besides national organizations, I think the only other state with people of color in leadership on this issue is in Virginia.
Is there anything you want to add?
I think the main thing here is we want to be creative and bold. We only have something to gain from this battle. Nothing to lose. We want to use our cultures, even Nascar fans or people who listen to Christian radio, to reach out to people. We want to inspire people to get involved and build community.
You can check out the South Carolina campaign by visiting http://www.scequality.org/ or http://dumbamendment.com/