January 30, 2019

Bayard Rustin Center Opens Its Doors, Seeks Social Justice for All

SAFE SPACE: Chief Activist Robt Seda-Schreiber, second from right, and local Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) members gather at the newly refurbished headquarters of the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice (BRC) behind HiTOPS. The BRC is hosting an LGBTQI panel discussion tonight at 6:30 p.m. (Photo courtesy of Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice)

By Donald Gilpin

In the spirit of the legendary civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, whose homosexuality caused him to face intense discrimination during his lifetime, the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice (BRC), settling into its new home on Wiggins Street behind the HiTOPS building, is reaching out to provide support to all who seek its services.

Remodeled as a community space for gatherings, the BRC will be hosting a panel presentation tonight, January 30, at 6:30-8:30 p.m on LGBTQI Cultural Competencies, including information about language and definition of terms associated with the LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, trans, questioning, intersex) community — just one of many events planned for the new center.

“I wanted our kids and families to have open space to have rainbow dances, screenings, lectures, workshops, and symposiums,” said BRC Founder and Chief Activist Robt Seda-Schreiber. “I want it to be a community activist center and a safe space for all.”

Sponsored by the BRC, the Princeton Public Library, PFLAG Princeton, and HiTOPS, tonight’s session, moderated by Seda-Schreiber, will include discussion of definitions of sexual orientation and gender identity and how the two interact; a primer on pronouns; the LGBTQI experience, hetero-normativity, gender binary, and privilege; changing our systems, policies, and procedures to be inclusive and non-binary; and how to be a good ally to the LGBTQI community.

Panelists will include HiTOPS Program Manager Alex Aikens, PFLAG/TNET Princeton member Michele Mazakas, and others.

“This is about how we name ourselves and each other,” said Seda-Schreiber. “It’s about who we are and making sure we see no one else as the other. We do this by listening and asking questions.”

“We need a place where all can come and move forward together,” states the BRC website www.rustincenter.org, “galvanizing each other to be and to do our best, to be our most loving and most understanding selves, both individually and collectively.”

It continues, “We need an environment wherein kids (and adults) will learn and

indeed be inspired to be our future leaders, imbued with a strong sense of community spirituality, and compassion. To that end, the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice will provide a safe haven and an educational enclave for all our students as well as our entire community.”

An art teacher at Melvin H. Kreps Middle School in HIghtstown for 23 years, Seda-Schreiber was an activist long before he conceived of the BRC. “I always was a huge supporter of social justice in my classroom and in my community,” he noted. “I started the first GSA [Gay-Straight Alliance] in a middle school in New Jersey. I was always listening for that voice, that kid who didn’t have a friend. I wanted to be a voice for the voiceless, a friend for the friendless. I wanted to be there for that kid, that teacher, that community member, whoever was in need.”

About two years ago, Seda-Schreiber had what he described as “an epiphany moment.” As he was receiving an award from the National Education Association as Social Justice Activist of the Year, “I realized that I can do more,” he said. “There’s a larger platform I can serve. I love my classroom. I love my kids, but there’s something else I can do where I can exponentially help more people.”

Just two years short of receiving a full pension, Seda-Screiber decided to leave the classroom to begin work on creating a social justice center. “It was the moment,” he said. “Our country is in a difficult state right now. It’s a great opportunity for us all to come together, to realize that when one of us steps forward, we all step forward.” 

Seda-Schreiber pointed out that Bayard Rustin is one of his great heroes. Rustin planned the 1963 civil rights march on Washington and brought the idea of non-violence to the movement from his studies in India, but was “excised from the history, edited out of the stories, because he was gay. He wouldn’t dismiss or hide who he was,” Seda-Schreiber said.

He went on to emphasize the BRC’s purpose “to make sure no name is ever lost, no person is ever forgotten, whether they be in an office building, the leader of a movement, or a student in a classroom.”

Seda-Schreiber, who lives in Princeton Junction with his wife, a public defender and head of the Mental Health Advocacy Division, worked without salary for the first year of planning for the BRC.

Last September he found a home for the BRC, ideally located behind HiTOPS, and, after three months of renovations, replacing some walls of what used to be a HiTOPS clinic with open spaces for coming together, the BRC is up and running.

“Their mission of advocacy and inclusiveness for people who are often marginalized is something welcomed here,” said Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker. “In the current climate where there is so much pointing fingers at the other, the work that Robt is doing is invaluable. We’re all in this together. I thank him.”

Zwicker noted that Seda-Schreiber has been eloquent in his advocacy for legislation supporting LGBTQ rights.

BRC board member the Rev. Robert Moore also expressed his support for the Center and for its being named for Rustin. “A lot of people, including immigrants and members of the LGBT community, are fearful because of who they are. It’s a strength for BRC to now have a physical location.” 

Moore noted progress in social justice, but cited a recent ban on transgender members of the armed forces, and observed, “We’re seeing things go in reverse under the Trump administration. It is incumbent on us to be supportive of marginalized groups as they go through this difficult period.”

The BRC, organizer of the Families Belong Together rally that brought more than 800 demonstrators to Hinds Plaza last summer, has a full complement of events planned in the coming weeks, many in collaboration with other local organizations, including tonight’s panel discussion; a screening and discussion of Free CeCe! a documentary about the controversial imprisonment of trans woman and LGBTQ activist CeCe McDonald, on February 19 at the Princeton Public Library; a drag queen story hour for children and families at Labyrinth Books on February 23 followed by an after party at the BRC with a full drag show; a March 2 coming out party grand opening extravaganza at the BRC; a March 14 New Jersey LGBT organizations meet and greet; and others. 

“There’s a lot of work to do,” said Seda-Schreiber. “We want to be of service — caring, observing, listening, talking to people in town, finding these community members, and figuring out where we can help. If we can’t get them to come here, we’ll go there.”