Reginald Bledsoe Interview TRANSCRIPT

Henry: So, just to start out, tell us a little bit about what you do on the New Jersey Board of Education and New Jersey Child Assault Prevention?

Reginald: So, first off, I would like to thank you guys for thinking of me to be a part of the Untold Story with LGBTQ history. So, right now, I am with the Department of Education. I work as acting Deputy director for the Office of Civic and Social Engagement and that office was created under Commissioner Repollet and the offices of supporting school districts and superintendents with engaging their external stakeholders. For example, it can include a parent organization, it can include business in the community. It’s very vague, but it basically supports the district when it’s necessary to get those folks to buy into the agenda of the superintendent and just over all the educational philosophy of that particular district. Sometimes we notice our double down approach not needing anything from Trenton and getting more and more into the community and school districts. We notice that, in order to provide that customer services, friendly services, parent services, that we needed to support our educational leaders because most of financing and modernizing our curriculum, a lot of our school leaders aren’t really thinking about that community, so we are there to provide them with that technical support. I had the opportunity to sit on NJCAP’s board by way of my work in the department of education. I respect the organization. They have been around for quite some time, working with the Department of Children and Families and our sister agencies, but pretty much supporting students and making sure that they are healthy and that they are safe and knowing that there is a right as a student in New Jersey that you have to feel safe at home or at school. And to rally against bullying of any kind and just making sure that they are supported wholly

Henry: So, if you could just tell us a little bit about what got you into education as well as child assault prevention?

Reginald: Well what got me into education as a student advocate in the city of Newark was that, during my time as a student, the state was in control of the district financially, the governance. Every aspect of the district was basically taken over by the state, and students and community leaders didn’t have a say on how we could shape our education. So that was my first introduction into the education space. Since that time, I’ve taken a specific focus in Ed policy, and that really sparked the interest from that point on. Understanding 6A and ATA and specifically understanding how districts operate themselves has really taken it to the next level. My advocacy around child protection and protecting children from assault is that I know a lot of student in my community who have been affected by some type of bullying or some type of sexual assault from someone they trusted, and rallying and speaking on behalf of those people who are so important to me. Because, often times, they don’t feel like they have a voice and they don’t feel like they have a person that can advocate for them. So, the feel ignored and that neglect leads to other unhealthy traits or unhealthy practices, and that is what sparked my interest to protect those children. Because, it’s important and they need that voice as well.

Olivia: So, You have obviously been hugely involved in the political scene here in New Jersey gaining your degree from Montclair State and being continuously involved in your hometown of Newark. However, you originally attended Newark Tech. Was your sexuality an aspect of your life that pushed you to get involved in politics?

Reginald: My sexuality was not something I discussed a lot in highschool. I wish I did. I kept a lot of that private. I would say what sparked my interest in the political process and being a part of the solution and not the problem, well, I grew up in a housing development. It’s called High Park Gardens where I was raised by my grandmother and my father, and this community is very engaged. They organize a number of residents to go down to city council meetings, and county meetings, and town hall meetings, just to address some of the social and economic issues that played in Newark at the time. At one point, where I live, this was the most densely populated area in the country, and we had a lot of the high rises and public housing. That was not properly maintained and taken care of in the city, and our current board president who I had the opportunity to work for when she was Freehold president and became an assembly woman, but she runs our board of directors here, and that really introduced me to government and the elective scene and the democratic process and I give a great deal of respect to Ms. Blonnie Watson who put me onto the scene, and, from that point on in high school, being involved and engaged with my two educational leaders. Principal Kafele … and Dr. Kristie Howard who drilled into me what was already reinforced by my neighborhood, and they challenged us to stand up, and speak up, and take responsibility for some of the issues that are plaguing our community, but not only our education so.

Olivia: In 2015 you were acknowledged by Observer New Jersey as one of the top 50 Powerful Young Black Democrats, and, in 2016, you were also awarded with the honor of being featured once again as one of the “political up and coming” under 30. How has your youth impacted your treatment in politics? Has your youth in comparison to your colleagues impacted how others depict you and your sexuality?

Reginald: Being a young politico as they call us, has been difficult some days and it has been rewarding. I would say the most difficult part of being young and in politics is that generation divide, but, not only that generation divide, but bringing the perspective of being blessed as I like to call it of being a member of the LGBTQ community, a lot of elected officials, specifically in urban areas, like essex county and the city of Newark, have been historically not having those identities at the table. So to be not only young but young and gay, a lot of folks didn’t understand that. It was fresh. It was something that needed to be brought to the table because most of the issues that plague our community, at some point there is a face or there is a member of the LGBTQ community that is either impacted or affected and we can’t just assume that we are going to put everyone in one box so that when we started to have those discussions like “hey we matter. LGBTQ issues matter. Black LGBTQ issues. They exist.” There are gay homeless LGBTQ youth living in this city so there should be representation on policy boards in the city. We feel as though the LGBTQ culture in the city of Newark should be celebrated, and, I’m not sure if you guys know a little bit about the city of Newark. In New Jersey alone, there is a thing called house music and the ball scene and a lot of the musical festivals from Sebesta and the arts started right here in the city of Newark, and historically that has been a part of the city’s history and not to acknowledge or give homage to that was not doing our city justice, and that is what pushed me into going into the political space in the city was because our voices wasn’t there. And oftentimes, and I hate to reference this, if you are not sitting at the table just know you’re on the table for discussion or the mill on the table, and we got tired of not being at the table and folks pushing policy that did not necessarily reflect the youth voice but not only the youth voice the LGBTQ community’s voice as well. I hope I answered that.

Henry: You totally did. So, in the past you have acted as a legislative aid to varying politicians. How did you use this position, specifically in reference to LGBTQ+ policy but also expanding outside of that. How did you use this position as a legislative aide?

Reginald: As an aide to councilman and also freeholder, I’ve had an opportunity to meet these folks prior to getting into the position. I’m very intentional in what I’m therefore and what community I’m really there to serve. I never really hid who I was in the political space, and there is a difference between being very liberal and there is a difference between being moderate and conservative and these folks were really in the middle because they never had that exposure or the discussion about LGBTQ issues, and they were able to move a little closer to the left because of my years of experience and because of the perspective that I brought to the table, and we got so close to changing how we adopt on policy, not only wanting to understand through ordinances the LGBTQ impact which we were pushing for in impact study, just getting and understanding. You put up this ordinance, how it it going to affect LGBTQ people in the city or it, as some point we were going to work on language and putting non-binary terms into the city code instead of using the traditional he or she or adding their/ them was something that was a perspective we provided to the city, and they appreciated it, and, prior to me getting there, Mayor Booker did tremendous work on creating the LGBTQ commission in the city and, at some point, the commission has picked up a lot of that work since I’ve departed the city and now I’m looking at the state. But, as I said before, just being intentional and letting them know “this is what you have and this is the asset that I bring to your office and your team”

Henry: That’s Great! So you have definitely touched on this before, but as a broader question we would love for you to talk just a little bit about how the intersectionality between your black identity and your queer identity has created your professional and daily life?

Reginald: There have been wonderful opportunities that… I don’t want to say that my LGBTQ, my queer identity has afforded me, but there has also been challenges as well. Just trying to figure out that space where you can live and really work in, and I’ve managed to kind of keep a balance, and we are all in this together and we have to make sure that we are lifting each other up and not leaving anyone behind, but it’s been rewarding. I’ve been blessed in my life to be given the opportunity to have a family that supports me, but also being given so many professional opportunities because of my identity as an LGBTQ person, a queer person. Like I said it’s been a struggle because there are still those challenges where, like, the black church is not that accepting and there are some challenges where, in the LGBTQ community, we have to warm up to each other. We come from all different backgrounds, and I’ve been able to get a lot of the folks in our to community to just shift their lense a little bit because we all come from different backgrounds and, oftentimes, LGBTQ, well, black LGBTQ folks, have a chip on their shoulder sometimes because of dealing with racial profiling and racism and I try to explain to those non- African American members of the LGBTQ community to understand the why and to understand the years and struggles of black and brown people in our community, and I think we have come to an understanding and I’m happy to see how evolved we have become in Jersey. Historically we identify the rainbow flag, but now we are adding the black and the brown and just that those, that community is an ally and a lot of the LGBTQ struggle comes from a lot of African American culture. From lack of acceptance from the church, and I think the people, like my idols and my heroes like Silvya Rivera and Marshall P. Johnson who didn’t find acceptance in a lot of their communities because of religious groups, and they used the city, New York City, as a platform to just be themselves, and it’s all intertwined in a way. LGBTQ history is black history, and black history is LGBTQ history, it’s all together. And as long as we remember that, we are going to be a straight course.

Henry: yeah that’s great! So, moving onto a little bit of a lighter note, you were a participant in the planning of Newark Pride, so can you explain your role in that and how it impacted you to be a part of such a celebration.

Reginald: I love the Newark Pride Organization. We’re celebrating 12+ years strong. A lot of it, and I try to remind a lot of the members of the community here, the why was this created and why did this come about and unfortunately it came out of tragedy when we lost Sakia Gunn in the city of Newark and planning a week of celebrations in July, I’m just reminded of all the folks that we’ve lost in this community due to some form of hatred or simply not understanding or acceptance and I’m deeply rooted in giving homage and giving respect to those individuals who played the ultimate sacrifice and has given us the opportunity to celebrate a week long of activities, but again I see this as an opportunity to highlight LGBTQ culture from the arts to music to policy in a week long activities so I love it. I look forward to celebrating it next year. It doesn’t seem like we are going to be able to do it this year, but I think we should definitely give homage to those members of the LGBTQ community who specifically have been impacted by COVID-19 and give homage this year to them in some type of electronic celebration in the future so. I love it, I love it.

Olivia: So, even on top of your work with Newark Pride, you are involved with One Voice which is something I don’t know a lot about, but from what I do know it is an organization that is responsible for advocating for LGBTQ+ rights, so, as I don’t know too much, do you mind telling us a little bit about your role there, and what exactly it is that One Voice does?

Reginald: As we all know, in New Jersey, Newark is the non-profit capitol, so you have a lot of organizations whose missions are aligned, and One Voice is an organization that we decided to create because you have, for example, Newark Pride who does a lot of activity planning and a little bit of advocacy on that end and then you have the Newark LGBTQ Commission that does the policy and then you have the Essex County LGBTQ Advisory Board and you also have other LGBTQ affiliated organizations and businesses in the city and we felt as though, through Rutgers University oral history project, that we needed to get together at one table and hash our differences and just pretty much build a platform and an agenda for all the LGBTQ people in the city of Newark and Essex County and to start really operating in a similar space not everyone is doing their own little thing on their own tracks. We wanted to make sure we all got on board together and pushed a unified voice especially when approaching policy makers and elected officials. We didn’t want to be giving folks the platforms and the opportunities to put folks against each other and that was the intention of the organization. And it’s still living strong!

Olivia: So, last but not least, as we are a New Jersey based publication we ask all of our interviewees the same question: How do you think the LGBTQ+ community in New Jersey or Newark, in your case, differs from others around the country or around the world?

Reginald: I would say that we are a lot stronger here in Jersey. I feel as though we can play a huge national role in being influential in what other states are doing around LGBTQ protection and support for the LGBTQ community granted it has not always been like this. We have a wonderful governor who is now, wonderful, and very appreciative of the LGBTQ community. We can definitely be the beacon of hope for other states and push for national stronger LGBTQ protections, but I feel like New Jersey is leading the way. We have an LGBTQ inclusive curriculum, we have the opportunity to have the proper gender identity on your birth certificate, being able to legally marry, adopt kids, or whatever as a same sex couple is pretty much darn good and is definitely a beacon of hope for other places in the country.

Henry: Yeah, that’s great! So that’s about where we are going to end it. If you have anything that you feel that you haven’t said or that you want to say you can say it now.

Reginald: I would say that I want to go back to my years at Montclair State. I enjoyed those years. I wish I could have been as active with LGBTQ related issues, but I do know, the university, we had one of the first LGBTQ centers on a public state institution and, just not too long ago, I was able to go there and speak on a panel to talk about the work I’ve been doing in Newark around the LGBTQ inclusive curriculum. I just wanted to highlight that, because, I think that that I pretty much skipped over that a little bit? So, Yeah. That’s all. Thank you guys!

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