May 27, 2010 | by Sarah McKibben
The art of building relationships

Jeffrey Richardson recently posted to Facebook: ‘Thought: Are you living your life or the life you have been told you should live?’ (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Jeffrey Richardson, 31, is the type of guy who you’d want to sit down and have a beer with, to talk about everything from politics to the best local hiking spots. His magnetic personality and genuine outlook on life are admirable, but it’s his ability to find common ground with almost everyone he encounters that has earned him respect around the District.

Yet from his humble demeanor, few would guess that this self-proclaimed introvert was one of the pivotal figures fighting on the front lines of D.C.’s battle for same-sex marriage. An influential leader in the Democratic Party and staunch advocate for the LGBT community, Richardson has accomplished more by age 30 than most people hope to accomplish in a lifetime.

On May 28, during the 2010 D.C. Black Pride Opening Reception, Richardson will be honored with the Welmore Cook Award, along with the late Charlotte Smallwood. The award is given annually to two members of the local black LGBT community for outstanding leadership. Earl Fowlkes, board member and spokesperson for Black Pride, believes that recognizing Richardson’s efforts is long overdue. “He’s a young man who has accomplished quite a bit, and he hasn’t received the credit he deserves,” Fowlkes says.

Ironically, Richardson never intended to get tied up in politics, but his work with local youth laid the groundwork for his political involvement. After a short stint with AmeriCorps, the North Carolina native relocated to the nation’s capital to run civic education seminars for students.

Eventually, he took a position at Howard University where he spread awareness of adolescent sexuality and pregnancy prevention. It was during that time that he formed solid partnerships with DC public schools and local families, fostering bonds that would soon prove indispensable to the District’s fight for same-sex marriage.

With encouragement from local parents, Richardson volunteered for the state Democratic Party, and his involvement at the local level snowballed into a ready-made national political career. Within two years, he became the vice chair for the State Democratic Party and before his 30th birthday, Richardson was in the midst of serving a second term as the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club president.

He also held the distinction of being the only openly gay black superdelegate to the 2008 Democratic National Convention. “I’m still in awe of having been so blessed that folks thought enough of me for whatever reason to be put in a leadership role of that magnitude,” Richardson says.

As a tireless activist for the LGBT community, Richardson makes a point to be present at meetings, hearings and other events. Fowlkes praises Richardson for his efforts to pass same-sex marriage and for the “courageous conversations” he had with community and Council members almost nightly. During those “stressful and difficult times,” Fowlkes says, “Jeff was having quiet one-on-one discussions with people in the African-American community who are not LGBT. He is one of those rare people with connections on both sides of the fence, and he quieted down some of the opposition.”

Through all of his political and community experience, Richardson learned that building relationships is the key to advancing equality. “You have to find common ground with others — and that common ground is humanity. And while there are people who we can’t bring closer to the middle on some issues, we don’t stop trying,” he says.

For Richardson, the fight for equality hit home on a very personal level. His partner of four years died of cancer in 2005 and it was after he fell ill that the gravity of the situation came to light. “Marriage, healthcare, power of attorney — those issues suddenly became real to me. In the middle of the night, when we needed to go to the hospital, we’d have to make sure that we had our papers with us. You never think people have that much power over you until something like that happens,” Richardson says. “I never got the opportunity to marry my partner, my best friend, so when the issue of marriage came around, it was something that I was personally connected with. That became my drive to do my part.”

With his involvement in the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, Richardson has expanded LGBT rights on many fronts. The group, which has been in existence for more than 30 years, has been instrumental in advancing legislation to increase partner benefits in the District and in electing more pro-equality, pro-LGBT members to City Council.

The future looks bright for Richardson, both politically and professionally. Currently working with the D.C. Children’s & Youth Investment Trust Corporation, he’s set to switch gears on June 14 when he will join the Center for Progressive Leadership as the group’s national program director. There he will help create opportunities for minorities to enter the pipeline of organizational leadership.

As he finishes out his second term as Gertrude Stein president, Richardson is unsure of where his path will lead. All he knows is that he will try to live authentically and seize “every opportunity to do something new, something that will affect change.” A recent post on his Facebook page neatly sums up his outlook: “Thought: Are you living your life or the life you have been told you should live?”

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