The B.L.A.C.K. Council Wants to Change the World

by Norman Watkins

A conversation with Nik Harris on the Human Rights Campaign’s new affinity outreach group

Its name hints at its ambitions: Formal and formidable, the “B.L.A.C.K. Council” stands for Bridging Leaders Across Communities and Knowledge. One of the new affinity outreach groups at the Human Rights Campaign, it wants to change the world.

“The reason I was attracted to ‘B.L.A.C.K.’,” said council co-founder Nik Harris, “is that too many times, we’re uncomfortable saying it. And I think there’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘Black’... Black, Black, Black! As James Brown used to sing, ‘Say it loud: I’m Black and I’m proud!’”

Harris has ambitious plans for the B.L.A.C.K. Council, plans informed by her love of the Human Rights Campaign and by her faith in the ultimate success of HRC’s mission to achieve equality and liberation for all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people.

Harris is the director of strategic outreach & engagement at the Human Rights Campaign. Involved with HRC for 10 years, she came up through the organization’s volunteer structure, most recently serving as the chair of the Board of Governors. That role gave Harris a keen insider’s perspective on how HRC works closely with volunteers and coalition partners across the country.

HRC President Kelley Robinson along with HRC staff and B.L.A.C.K Council members

HRC has been working especially hard to increase the visibility and representation of multiply-marginalized communities. Harris, who is Black, queer and gender non-conforming, explains, “You don’t get to be the largest LBGTQ+ civil rights organization in the country and not think that Black and Brown folks are going to have a space at the table. I meet other Black people here, and we always say, ‘We love HRC — we can be here, love it and make it even better for the communities we serve’.”

In her current role, Harris focuses on relationship- and coalition-building and corporate partnerships. She works closely with individual volunteers, the boards of directors and governors, HRC’s 33 regional steering committees and folks who are just being introduced to HRC. She develops projects and partnerships with organizations ranging from the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to the national sorority Beta Phi Omega, Incorporated, the National Federation for the Blind and national associations of firefighters and first responders. Harris also speaks on behalf of HRC at the request of companies and organizations like General Mills, Hyatt Hotels, the American Bar Association, KPMG and the United States Postal Service, in addition to speaking at many of HRC’s regional and national dinner events.

Harris is also helping to establish HRC’s other new affinity outreach groups, AANHPI & Proud, which serves the LGBTQ+ Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community, and HRSí, which serves the LGBTQ+ Latinx community.

B.L.A.C.K co-founders Nik Harris and Percy Brown

Within this broad scope of work, Harris remains focused on her fundamental goal: to facilitate effective strategic outreach to local communities across the country and grow HRC’s base of members and supporters from all backgrounds. The B.L.A.C.K. Council, AANHPI & Proud and HRSí are integral parts of this effort.

In mid-2021, Harris and HRC Board of Governors chair Percy Brown began to discuss the need for affinity outreach groups at HRC, groups that could connect staff members, board members, volunteers, donors and other leaders and allies — everyone who is attached to, or interested in, equality for LGBTQ+ people — especially from marginalized communities.

They formed the B.L.A.C.K. Council with David Armstead, Torrian L Baskerville, Jennifer Bobb, Brayland Brown, Adam Carey, Cassandra Corey, Leslie Hall, Shawnie Hawkins, Latoya Holman, Jerry Ivery, Jarred Keller, Chauna Lawson, Brian Martin, Sylvester Owens, Jodie Patterson, Chris Perkins, Adrianna Tender, Jordyn White, Letoi Williams, Tatiana Williams, Jody Willmott and Carter Womack among others.

Last fall, the B.L.A.C.K. Council held its first in-person event at HRC’s National Dinner and board meetings in Washington, D.C. It happened to throw the biggest, baddest party in town. Kelley Robinson, who hadn’t yet officially started as HRC’s new president, attended the event; her entrance into the ballroom was, according to Harris, magical, and the atmosphere, electric. “You can’t put a price on visibility and representation,” said Harris: “I see myself in Kelley, and she makes me and so many of us proud.”

HRC President Kelley Robinson speaking at a B.L.A.C.K council event

Robinson says that HRC’s mission is to create a movement where all of us can be seen and to fight for full equality and liberation for everyone without exception.

In turn, Harris asks, “How can we be a place ‘without exception’? What does that mean?” To ponder these questions is to experience goosebumps.

Harris illuminates the audacity of this radical inclusion: “Our amazing president Kelley Robinson says the Human Rights Campaign has to be an organization for everybody, that we’re going to reach out to everybody — and we’re leaving no one behind. Everybody, everywhere, has to have a place where they see themselves, especially in HRC and in our work. For an LGBTQ+ person, at the margins, ‘without exception’ means, this is a place for you.”

In the year and years ahead, the B.L.A.C.K. Council wants to be a catalyst and conduit for that kind of inclusion, visibility and representation. It will host more in-person events across the country. It will develop networking opportunities for its members in order to connect one another with businesses and to build people up. The council looks forward to assisting HRC’s well-established HBCU program, which is fostering close partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities and their fraternities and sororities. And it wants to expand its educational programming around the health, income and wealth gaps, around faith and religion and “anything that is the lived experience of Black folks in this country,” said Harris, adding, “We’re going to lean into Black joy, too.”

When she travels across the country and speaks to diverse audiences, Harris always asks, “What will your legacy be?” As she explains, “Everybody, everywhere, has the potential to impact somebody else’s life.” That impact, that legacy, is magnified by the giving of one’s “time, talent, treasure or testimony. I’ll take all four,” Harris says, “but I need at least one...”

Harris also points out that “you can’t have a testimony without the first four letters, t-e-s-t.” With current political and social factors such as the onslaught of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in the states and the epidemics of violent rhetoric online, real-world gun violence and violence against the transgender community, particularly affecting Black and Brown trans women, “we are being tested now,” Harris explains: “But from it,” she promises, “we will have a testimony.” Therefore, “no matter who you are or what you’re doing,” she concludes, “there is some gift you can give, some way you can contribute to the movement.”

With this spirit that informs the work of the B.L.A.C.K Council, Harris has a message for HRC’s members and supporters: “We are the civil rights leaders of our time. We have to act like it. Everybody’s got something to give, and we want folks to be involved. We see you. We appreciate you. We value you. One person is great, but when multiple people come together, you’ve got a movement. We’re building a movement that we know will be successful. But we can’t do it without you. So we want you to join us. We want you to join the B.L.A.C.K. Council, and AANHPI & Proud and HRSí. We want you to join the Human Rights Campaign and help us change the world and win together.”