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Radical inclusivity in the post-election era

Students connected to their communities tend to succeed

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diversity, gay news, Washington BladeRadical inclusion is an approach to higher education that I have promoted for years at my college. Diversity is one of the pillars of our identity at Montgomery College. With 72 percent of our students non-white, an active MC Pride and Allies group, and a vibrant Muslim Student Association — among dozens of other student groups — we have many reasons to be proud of our diversity. We seem to understand organically that the promise of opportunity is the one element that diffuses tension and breaks down barriers.

Creating a climate of inclusion is certainly a progressive 21st century vision, but it also has a practical outcome: It strengthens academic achievement. Extensive studies – many based around closing the achievement gap for students of color—confirm that people who feel connected to their communities are more likely to succeed in college.

Sadly, the 2016 presidential campaigns have created ripples of profound insecurity on our campuses. Immigrants and native-born students have been saddened and distraught by the rhetorical targeting of distinct ethnic and racial groups. They have written me heartbreaking messages such as, “I feel unsafe.” “I feel so insecure …. What will happen to us?” “I feel scared, angry, and disappointed.” Having spent immeasurable energies connecting academic achievement and social belonging, these questions threaten to unravel the safe haven of teaching and learning that my institution has painstakingly nurtured. Will students drop out from fear? Will they drive others out under the false logic that opportunity is a zero sum game?

So far, the answer is no. I have been overwhelmed and comforted by messages of concern from faculty and compassion from students. This week we are hosting a roundtable of journalists to discuss, “What Just Happened?” in the form of a post-election panel. With reporters from the three highly respected newspapers, the dialogue will undoubtedly be intellectually rigorous and exemplary in civility, one antidote to the campaign’s worst moments. Our campus lecture series, which has touched on the politics of Afghanistan, South Africa and Poland in the last six weeks—will continue to challenge our students to think globally. Our Refugee Center, which has taught English and citizenship classes since the 1980s, will continue to welcome refugees and push back against the false narrative that victims of state violence and political persecution are somehow a threat to “real” Americans. Our hundreds of ‘Dreamer’ students  — undocumented students who were brought to the U.S. as children and grew up in our community — will continue to attend classes and pay the same tuition as their peers who were born here, something for which we argued passionately. In other words, we’ll continue our commitment to making college affordable and student life welcoming and inclusive.

But what do we teach our students about the campaign’s incivility? The only option I see is a stronger and deeper commitment to inclusion. In the week since the election I have received more messages from people who called for increased inclusion and dialogue than from those espousing intolerance. Not only have our students refused to be entangled in false narratives of blaming the “other,” but they have made some remarkably insightful comments about our institution’s take on opportunity.

At a college where students hail from 160 countries and 30 percent qualify for Pell grants, our students understand that poverty is the real enemy in this country. Opportunity, they well know, is the solution. For most of our students a college education has never been taken for granted; it was earned by a scholarship or a part-time job, or a parent who works at a second job to pay the tuition. When you carry a story like this with you to all your classes or are surrounded by others who do, too, there is no room left for exclusion. In fact, respect for the opportunity that education provides transcends partisan politics. Where opportunity is paramount, inclusion becomes the natural default. Connecting these two elements more closely might help lower the alarming intolerance in national rhetoric. At my college — like many other community colleges, I suspect — it already has.

Dr. DeRionne Pollard is the president of Montgomery College. She is an openly gay African-American woman who remains committed to radical inclusion in the post-election era. 

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Walking the pathway to national cannabis legalization

Social equity needs to be front and center in our efforts

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(Photo by HannaKuprevich/Bigstock)

As we gear up for a major election year, the buzz around cannabis legalization is getting louder. Policymakers are starting to see the need for comprehensive reform, while advocates and small business owners in the industry are cautiously optimistic about the future. But let’s not kid ourselves, this system was designed to keep certain communities out, and it’s crucial that we continue to address these deep-rooted inequities as we blaze the trail forward. A step toward legalization that doesn’t prioritize equity and dismantle the barriers that have held back marginalized groups would be a major bummer. In this op-ed, we’re going to take a groovy journey through the evolution of grassroots organizing in the cannabis industry and highlight the importance of social equity in achieving true national cannabis legalization and boosting our humanity along the way.

Over the years, I’ve been right in the thick of it, helping to build grassroots organizations like Supernova Woman and Equity Trade Network. These groups have been on the frontlines, fighting for cannabis programs in Oakland and San Francisco. I’ve also rocked my own brand, Gift of Doja, and organized the first Cannabis Garden at a major neighborhood street fair, Carnaval San Francisco. I even served as chair of the first Cannabis Oversight Committee in the nation. But the real magic has always happened in when working in coalitions. Each individual and organization brings a unique piece to the puzzle. Grassroots organizing is as challenging as crafting a democratic society but is worth the effort in generating workable implementable solutions. Collective efforts have been game-changers in shifting public opinion and paving the way for major policy changes at both the state and local levels.

As we navigate the path toward cannabis legalization, lobbyists and lawmakers can’t forget about the small business owners who have been grinding to build their dreams. Political advocacy and lobbying are important, but if we’re not uplifting the voices and experiences of those who have been fighting on the ground, we’re missing the mark. Big companies can hire lobbyists, but small business owners don’t have that luxury and if we are not in the room we are on the table. Coalitions allow for us to be in the room when we can’t physically be there. Our communities, especially people of color, have been hit hard by systemic oppression, from over-policing to mass incarceration and limited economic opportunities to limit our ability to be in the room of power and decision making.

Social equity needs to be front and center in any cannabis legalization efforts. It’s not enough to just remove criminal penalties or create a legal market. We need to actively work on repairing the damage caused by years of prohibition. That means fighting for resources, investment, and low-interest loans for small businesses. It means creating a tiered fee and tax structure that doesn’t crush the little guys. And it means opening up equity programs to all industries, not just cannabis. Social justice without economic access and repair is like a joint without a lighter – it just won’t spark the change we need. We have a responsibility to evolve the economy and break down unnecessary barriers. Activism, social justice, and economic reform are all connected, man.

Industry leaders, culture creators, advocates, and consumers alike, we all need to step up and promote social equity. It’s on us to support initiatives that provide resources, mentorship, and funding for individuals from affected communities to enter the legal cannabis market. And let’s not forget the power of our wallets. Buying from companies that align with our values and support the work we believe in can send a powerful message. Voting with our dollars might just be more impactful than showing up at the ballot box.

As we head into a major election year, the cannabis industry is at a crossroads. It’s a time for drumming up voter interest and for candidates to make promises that grassroots organizations have fought hard for. Small business owners will be navigating a tricky landscape, but we can’t lose sight of the power of collective work. By keeping social equity at the forefront, we can undo the harms of the past while building new frameworks that will shape a brighter future for all.

In conclusion, grassroots organizing has been the driving force behind shifting public perception and pushing for policy changes in the cannabis industry. But let’s not forget that true national cannabis legalization can only be achieved if we address social equity. It’s time for us to come together, listen to the voices of those most impacted, and walk the high road towards a future where cannabis legalization isn’t just about business opportunities, but also about healing and empowerment for all communities. Let’s light up a joint of social justice and blaze a trail towards a better tomorrow.

Nina Parks is co-founder of Equity Trade Network & Supernova Women. Reach her at [email protected].

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World ‘isn’t much different today’

The Nazis murdered nearly 1 million Jewish people at Auschwitz

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The entrance to the Auschwitz I camp in Oświęcim, Poland, on April 7, 2024. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

OŚWIȨCIM, Poland — Łukasz, a Polish man who was our group’s English-speaking tour guide at Auschwitz, on April 7 asked us while we were standing outside one of Auschwitz I’s barracks why the Nazis systematically murdered more than 6 million Jewish people.

“Once they are gone, Germany will be great again,” he said, referring to the Nazis’s depraved justification.

There were other Americans in our group of about 40 people. I would like to think they are familiar with the dehumanizing MAGA rhetoric to which our country has become accustomed since President Joe Biden’s predecessor announced his White House bid in 2015. The fact that I was at a Nazi concentration camp was simply overwhelming, and I didn’t feel like speaking with them or to anyone else at that moment.

The unspeakable horrors that happened at Auschwitz are on full display. Łukasz’s comment was a stark warning to us all amid the backdrop of the current socio-political realities in which we in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere around the world currently live.

• Suitcases, glasses, shoes, kitchen utensils, prosthetic limbs, baskets, Jewish prayer shawls, and toothbrushes that were taken from people upon their arrival at Auschwitz were on display in Auschwitz I’s Block 5. One exhibit also contains children’s clothes.

• Auschwitz I’s Blocks 6 and 7 had pictures of male and female prisoners along the corridors. They contained their birthdays, the day they arrived at the camp and when they died. Block 7 also had mattresses and bunk beds on which prisoners slept and the sinks and latrines they used.

• The basement of Auschwitz I’s Block 11 had cells in which prisoners were placed in the dark and starved to death. The basement also had cells in which prisoners were forced to stand for long periods of time. Executions took place at the “Death Wall” in the courtyard between Block 10 and 11. Guards also tortured prisoners in this area.

• Medical experiments took place in Block 10.

• A gas chamber is located near Auschwitz I’s entrance with the gate that reads “Arbeit macht frei” or “Work sets you free.” The adjacent crematorium contains a replica of the furnaces used to burn human bodies.

• An urn with human ashes is in Auschwitz I’s Block 4. Hair cut from people who were killed in the gas chamber was also there.

The entrance to the gas chamber at Auschwitz I camp in Oświęcim, Poland, on April 7, 2024. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Auschwitz I, a former Polish army barracks, is one of 40 camps and subcamps around Oświęcim, a town that is roughly 30 miles west of Kraków, Poland’s second-largest city, that became known to the world as Auschwitz. Upwards of 90 percent of the 1.1 million people killed at Auschwitz died at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, which is roughly 1 1/2 miles northwest of Auschwitz I in the village of Brzezinka (Birkenau in German), and more than 90 percent of those murdered upon their arrival were Jewish.

The ruins of two crematoria the Nazis blew up before the Soviets liberated the camp in January 1945 are there. (A group of Israelis were praying in front of them while our group was there.) A train car used to bring people to the camp was also there, along with some of the barracks in which those who were not immediately killed in the gas chambers lived.

Auschwitz II-Birkenau’s sheer size is incomprehensible.

A train car used to transport prisoners to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Brzezinka, Poland, on April 7, 2024. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Nazis killed 6 million Jewish people in the Holocaust. They also murdered gay men, Poles, Roma, Sinti and millions of other people from across Europe.

The day I visited Auschwitz marked six months since Hamas launched its surprise attack against Israel. 

More than 1,400 people — including 260 people who Hamas militants murdered at the Nova music festival in Re’im, a kibbutz that is a few miles from the Gaza Strip — have died in Israel since Oct. 7, 2023. The subsequent war has left more than 30,000 Palestinians in the Hamas-controlled enclave dead, and millions more struggling to survive. Oct. 7 was the deadliest attack against Jewish people since the Holocaust. That unfortunate coincidence of dates — Oct. 7 and April 7 — was not lost on me while I was at Auschwitz. 

Another striking thing is the area in which the camps are located.

The train from Kraków to Oświęcim passes through idyllic countryside with green meadows, flowering trees and freshly tilled fields. Purple lilacs — like those that bloom each spring on the trees in my mother’s backyard in New Hampshire — were in full bloom inside Auschwitz I. Grass and dandelions were growing amid the remains of Auschwitz II-Birkenau’s barracks. Birds were chirping. The weather was also unseasonably warm with temperatures well over 80 degrees and a cloudless sky.

All of it was beyond surreal.

Auschwitz II-Birkenau on april 7, 2024. (washington blade video by michael k. lavers)

I visited Auschwitz while on assignment for the Washington Blade in Poland. I interviewed gay Deputy Polish Justice Minister Krzysztof Śmiszek in Warsaw and sat down with activists in the Polish capital and Kraków to talk about the country’s new government and the continued plight of LGBTQ refugees from Ukraine and other countries. My trip began in Budapest, Hungary, and ended in Berlin. I did not write this piece until I on my flight back to D.C. on Tuesday because I could not properly articulate my thoughts about what I saw at Auschwitz.

Auschwitz II-Birkenau in Brzezinka, Poland, on April 7, 2024. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Governments, politicians, political candidates, and parties in the U.S. and around the world have used specific groups of people to advance a particular agenda, to blame them for what is wrong in their particular country and/or to deflect blame from their own failures. The Nazis and what they did to Jewish people and anyone else they deemed inferior is the most grotesque example of what can happen if such actions are not stopped.

Łukasz told us outside of one of the Auschwitz II-Birkenau barracks at the end of our tour that the world “isn’t that much different today.” He also said that we are “witnesses.”

“It’s up to you how you react to it,” said Łukasz.

Let’s hope we all do our part to make sure the atrocities that happened at Auschwitz never happen again.

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Open or closed? No, not your bar tab

The swinging couple’s dream is the hopeless romantic’s nightmare

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Jake Stewart

(Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part feature on open relationships.)

Boy meets boy. Boy likes boy. 

For the first time in a long time, boy feels that thing, that connection, that spark with boy. 

Then one day boy grabs dinner with boy. Boy’s smiles and laughs throughout are equal parts sincere and excited. Boy wonders, is this the one? After all this time, has it finally happened? 

Boy takes boy home. Boys cuddle. Boys kiss. Boys have amazing sex. And in the glowing aftermath of what can only be described as a perfect night, boy spots an unnoticed ring. 

“What’s that?” boy asks. 

“My wedding ring,” the other replies. “I thought you knew.” 

When I returned to D.C. in 2016, I quickly received a lecture on why open relationships were the future of queer love. Nearly eight years later, they’ve more than just sprouted among the gay scene – they’ve overtaken the landscape. Simultaneously, what became the swinging couple’s dream descended into the hopeless romantic’s nightmare. 

It’s not all so bad given what comes with it: a lot of sex, particularly with hotties who were off-limits before. However, alongside that sex comes a minefield of rules and regulations open couples create but horny singles must abide by. One wrong move, and you’re the villain. 

Truthfully, I’ve soiree’d with open couples before, both separate and together. On the bad end, things get awkward – particularly between me and the other partner. On the good end, I might come home satisfied, but the moment I hop on my couch to watch rerun television, I realize I’m back to where I started: alone. 

If you’re like me and not yet onboard with an open relationship, it’s also easy to feel like a fish out of water. Queer social outings can sometimes become a Swinging 70’s Redux, with partners passed around like gay dishes at a potluck. Next up: ass, and lots of it. 

This leads to another issue: in a scene full of open couples, detached sex is more than just accepted – it’s often expected. The moment you let emotional attachment enter the equation, you lose. Now even the singles are trained to run away, for your attachment may prevent them from jumping onto – or into – the next in their queue. And I can’t even get upset, for I’ve been that guy before. 

For all these reasons, I wanted to dive further into the rise of open relationships. All I needed was someone in an open relationship willing to speak on the matter.

“That’s easy,” quipped my coworker, Chad. “Just open Grindr.” 

Chad and I met working at the pub, and under similar circumstances; he lost his day job a few months after me losing mine. We quickly found solace in our shared circumstance, and now he and I hang in the kitchen of a gay bar divulging details of our sex lives and pining to meet the man of our dreams. 

And Chad wasn’t wrong, for these days Grindr is chockfull of profiles in open relationships looking to play. Yet it turned out I wouldn’t need Grindr, for at that moment, in pranced our fellow coworker, Scott. 

There’s no better way to describe Scott than this: They’re a bundle of positivity and joy. Oddly, I didn’t meet Scott at the bar but rather at a coffee shop in Petworth in 2018, where they were my regular barista. Little did I know we’d work together half a decade later. Life is funny that way, isn’t it? 

Outside the bar, Scott is an actor in productions across the DMV. Naturally, they became my biggest inspiration for abandoning my career for the arts. Following a bar shift last summer we smoked a blunt and talked about it. They taught me to tune out the noise and follow my heart. 

Together, Chad and Scott became my newfound support system. In a way we’re like the Three Musketeers – equally gay, just a lot more working class.

Of course, as soon as Scott entered, I had to ask: “Are you and your partner open?” 

Scott smiled coyly. “Oh yes, honey.” 

So as fate had it, here in the kitchen of a gay bar, I had both ends of the open/closed spectrum represented. On one side Chad, a self-proclaimed romantic seeking monogamy; on the other, the fully open Scott. 

While there were many takeaways from our conversations on the matter, I distilled six truths in the debate between open and closed relationships. But please, take these with a grain of salt – I am just a barback, after all.   

  1. Monogamy is rooted in tradition.

For many of us, gay or straight, finding our one and only was a dream of our youth. Mine was supposed to be Colby Donaldson from season 2 of the hit TV show “Survivor,” but life had other plans. 

Yet many never dissect where this desire stems from. Our culture is inundated with stories of princesses rescued by their prince and true love’s kiss setting us free. There seemed to be a script we had to follow, and if we didn’t, no worries – God would simply banish us to hell. 

This is a common starting point for both the monogamist and the open connoisseur. When I asked Chad what drew him toward monogamy, he replied, “Honestly, it was how I was raised: settle down, have kids, and carry on the family name. I didn’t have any non-traditional role models.” 

Meanwhile, Scott’s past reservations toward open relationships were for similar reasons. “When I was younger, I was not pro-open relationship,” they told me. “I didn’t understand the intricacies of it. I didn’t understand the nuances of it. I also grew up in a very conservative, Catholic household.” 

Both responses touch on a key argument in the pro-open saga: that closed relationships are often reflections of tradition, ranging from folklore to religion, and these traditions held queer people back for centuries. If queer means subverting these traditions, then monogamy is simply outdated. Or so they say.  

  1. The desire to be open is biological.  

Over time, Scott’s views on being open changed. “As I matured and grew into my queerness,” they started, “and saw friends with alternative lifestyles, I realized this is something I could be interested in.”

In Scott’s relationship, this led to an understanding of the core needs for them and their partner. “I knew my partner’s libido was higher than mine. For me, it came from a desire to allow my partner to experience something I wasn’t able to fulfill fully. I personally get a lot of pleasure knowing my partner can go out, meet people, and make connections, knowing at the end of the day we will be each other’s number one priority and person.” 

Scott’s libido reference made me wonder: are open relationships taking off across the LGBTQ community, or specifically among sex-obsessed gay men? Realizing this conversation should probably be more inclusive, I made an arduous journey east – roughly 150 feet, to the front entrance. 

Kelsey is a hot badass who works the door of the bar. She’s stylish, a fellow Aires like myself, and I once told Chad I thought she was Fabulous with a capital F. I realized then I’m getting gayer by the minute. 

While Kelsey is currently in a closed relationship, she enlightened me to the status among lesbians. “It’s about 50/50 with the ones I know,” she replied. Honestly, this surprised me, mainly because I figured men were the ones dicking around.  

Kelsey has also been in open relationships before, and she isn’t exactly closed to that route again. “I don’t think people were made for one person for the rest of their life,” she added. This reflected what Scott shared as well: “The human body craves sex to different degrees, and as you get older those degrees wax and wane.” 

To me, both statements highlight that the desire to be with others sexually is natural for many, so caging that desire can feel confining. As queer people, we can all relate to that. 

Next week: Part two looks at finding the right reasons for pursuing an open relationship.

Jake Stewart is a D.C.-based writer and barback.

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