Equality Florida: 'We are in a moment of reckoning'

Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, has been a champion of LGBTQ rights for more than two decades, lobbying on behalf of anti-discrimination laws, standing up for race equity, and most recently, mobilizing voters. 83 Degrees Media asked Smith to share her insights about issues related to diversity and race, equality, the election, and what’s next. 

83D: Do you think we are at a turning point in our history?

NS: I would say that we are in a moment of reckoning.  We have pushed to the surface a new conversation that is permeating into every part of our culture. We are asking ourselves fundamental questions about the myth of America versus the promise.

Nadine Smith, Equality Florida83D: How would you define the promise of America?

NS: It’s the promise to live out the actual words embedded in the nation’s founding documents: the inalienable rights of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. Those words are powerful; they stir us because they speak to this deep sense of shared values.  But they were never written for all of us.  It is poetry, but it flowed from a group of white wealthy men, many of whom owned other human beings as property. 

83D: What needs to happen to bring the country together?

NS: People say we are so divided. But in some ways, it’s just that everything has been laid bare. There is no longer any veneer.  The inequality is now at the surface and visible to everyone, not just to those bearing the brunt of it.  America is caught in the contradiction between the ideals and the actual practices.  

When people say, no justice, no peace, it’s not a threat.  It’s simply what happens. In the absence of justice, there will be no peace.  Let’s start with telling the truth about the history of America and how it shapes today. When there are hard truths, you can be angry, you can hide from them, or you can face them.  The question is, at what cost and for how long will we have to struggle to look honestly at who we are.

83D: What are some of the truths about America as you see it?

NS: As James Johnson, a University of North Carolina professor and nationally recognized demographics expert pointed out a few years ago, the “Browning and Graying of America” is underway. We are increasingly a nation of older white people and younger brown people and that reality is reconfiguring our social, economic and political landscape. It is causing many white people, consciously and subconsciously, to fear a loss of power. Closing our borders and the anti-immigration sentiment is not about keeping White Europeans out; it’s about preventing more Black and Brown people from coming here.  

Some people say they fear for the future of democracy, but that isn’t it. They are afraid of becoming a minority in a country they have always considered their own.  It’s about the preservation of power for a slowly shrinking population. Caught in that fear, they don’t care if it means suppressing the vote, throwing out the ballots, or destroying the structures of democracy to maintain the status quo.  

83D: Equality Florida recently partnered with the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg against white supremacy and hate violence. Can you tell us about that?

NS: We have to ask ourselves, will we become a multicultural, multi-racial, inclusive country where everyone has a chance to live in security and access opportunity? Or, will we have chaos.  Fear is potent.  Love and hope are harder to establish, but once they are established, they endure.

83D: What are some of the critical issues driving the Black Lives Matter movement?

NS: Racial injustice didn’t begin with the murder of George Floyd. But when his murder was caught on camera, that video removed any ability to pretend that your eyes did not see what you saw. It interrupted the cognitive dissonance.  Issues of inequality have risen to the surface.  It’s why the Confederate statues are coming down, the Washington football team got rid of their name, and why the Mississippi flag has been changed. It is why corporations are seeking to position themselves on the right side of history. The challenge is to ensure the conversation goes to the structures that perpetuate racism, not just the symbols.

83D: You talk about generational wealth related to racial inequality. What do you mean by that?

NS: Generational wealth is the number one way people buy homes, start businesses, go to college – all the things that set people up for success.  Yet, think of what has occurred in city after city across the country when the Interstate was planned or a new school, or stadium was built.   They always came right through the heart of a Black district. The people who lived there did not have the political clout to stop it.  And it shut down Black-owned businesses and dislocated the Black middle class.  Now you have workers who pay rent rather than own their business. That leaves no transferable wealth for them to leave their children. These things happen all the time while we pretend we don’t understand how that happened.

For me, it’s also personal.  My great grandfather did not want to sell his land on the Mississippi border with Arkansas. So he was shot on his front porch by the White man to whom he refused to sell. A man who knew he would face no legal consequences for the murder. Having no other alternative, my great grandmother sold him that land—land that might have been passed down to his children and grandchildren.  What would that land be worth now? 

83D: What will it take for significant change to occur?

NS: I think it’s a matter of economics. The business community said, ‘listen the Birmingham bus boycott is killing us; you have to find a way to solve this.’  The same situation occurred in South Africa under apartheid when there were a number of international boycotts.  The White merchants said we can’t survive, something has to give.  Economic power is real power.  Boycotts strategically deployed are impactful.  Look what happened with Colin Kaepernick kneeling in response to police brutality and racial inequality. Nike stepped in and built a whole successful ad campaign around him and in doing so, they reached young people and embraced this idea of an inclusive future. People have to leverage the power they have, including the power to vote, to petition for change via legislatures and the courts, and to harness our economic power.  Also if necessary, the power to take to the streets in protest and to refuse to cooperate with systems that dehumanize, suppress, or kill us.
83D: What are some of the biggest accomplishments this year for Equality Florida?

NS: We raised $1.5 million to mobilize voters, the largest and most ambitious voter mobilization program in our history.  The voters trusted us because they know we are fighting for them on issues that concern them:  marriage equality, gay adoption, police brutality, creating a safe environment for LGBTQ kids at school, and fighting discrimination on the basis of race or sexual orientation. 

Another election cycle is only two years away.  We are going to do our part, one step at a time.  I’m hopeful.  The largest number of Americans ever showed up at the polls to vote.  It gives me hope to see a whole generation of young people who are beginning to flex their collective political power. They are already living in that multi-cultural, multi-racial inclusive world that is different from their parents and grandparents.

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Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.