By Matt Simonette
Brian Johnson, who, on June 1, took the reins as the new CEO of Equality Illinois, said that he was attracted to the position for two reasons.
"I felt this incredible gratitude for the right to get married," he said. "I just got married three weeks ago. I felt incredibly grateful for the leaders that came before me and led the fight that gave us this incredible opportunity. But on top of that, I was getting incredibly frustrated with the number of people I'd hear say things like 'mission accomplished' in terms of social justice. Particularly, I remember reading that when the Empire State Pride Agenda closed. They said, 'Mission accomplished.'"
Johnson was announced as the replacement for outgoing CEO Bernard Cherkasov at the end of April. Although he's been in Chicago for about a year and a half, Johnson was previously active in education and politics, primarily in California. He was executive director of Teach for America, then Larchmont Schools, a small public charter school network. He also ran for the California State Assembly in 2012, losing by only a handful of votes. He was most recently vice-president of regional impact for Leadership for Educational Impact, a nonprofit building leadership among Teach for America teachers.
"To me this work is about how issues of race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, schools and communities all can intersect. And personally, the opportunity for me to lead with my full identity as a gay man and as part of as part of an LGBTQ advocacy organization is exciting," he said.
His first order of business in the new job is a listening tour across the state, he said.
"I want to make sure that we are listening to people in the full diversity of our community," Johnson said. "But I also want to make sure that we have the door open to people in intersecting communitiesyoung people, people of color, people in all income-streams. Finally, I just want to make sure that we are talking to people across the entire statethat is important to us."
He added that the organization would soon be at work on its next strategic plan: "We really need to listen to our stakeholders and constituents, champions and allies. And I think, with me being new, it gives me the chance to go out and build relationships."
Getting input from community stakeholders, he said, was a skill he built up while running for office.
"That really forced me to understand what it meant to go out into the community and understand a community, to ask people, 'Where are you hurting? What are your fears?'" Johnson said. "That process will serve us well at Equality Illinois. When I was a candidate, I personally knocked on 4,000 doors and called 2,500 voters. That process of sitting down and listening to people, trying to truly understand their hopes and fears, will serve us well."
He added that he was distressed by the number of religious freedom bills coming down the pike in many states across the country. "We had the risk of people taking their foot off the gas [after marriage equality was settled], but there are so many other issues. If you are a transgendered youth, a low-income lesbian of color, or an elderly gay man relying on social services, marriage is great, but there are so many more fights that need to happen."
Equality Illinois will soon begin work on itsr next strategic plan to carry it up until about 2020, Johnson added, noting that many of the organization's future goals depend on what he and his colleagues hear on their tour in the weeks ahead.
"I do know that there are injustices that are going on across this state," he said. "It is worrying to me about the level of endangerment and stigmatization of transgender Illinoisans face. It concerns that we still have a gay panic defense as a permissible defense to violent crimes and murder. It concerns me that not all of our LGBT youth are fully safe and accepted at schools. It concerns me that we haven't fully made sure that all of our documentation, birth certificates and records aren't fully aligned to an individual's gender identity. These things concern me, but what issues boil to the top will depend on what people are saying on the ground."