Gay Obama appointee talks LGBT leadership, upcoming Out for Work Conference

As a reverend, Vice President of Strategic Partnerships at the Victory Institute and an openly-gay appointee to President Obama’s Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, George Walker said the key to successful LGBT leadership is “being your authentic self.”

“You can do it with excellence when you get to do it as your authentic self,” he said.

Walker, 43, is set to speak at the upcoming Out for Work Conference at University of Illinois at Chicago Sept. 28-30, where hundreds of LGBT students and allies will attend talks about LGBT leadership, the job market, and attend a job fair. Headlining the event is Joe Solmonese, the former head of the Human Rights Campaign.

In his current role as head of strategic partnerships, Walker oversees efforts to increase partnerships that advance diversity goals among corporate or nonprofit organization partners. Before strategic partnerships, he was the vice president of leadership initiatives at Victory, development director at American Constitution Society of Law and Policy, major gifts officer at HRC, as well as other roles in major LGBT and political organizations.

With the Out for Work Conference approaching, Walker shared his thoughts on LGBT leaders, LGBT people entering the workforce and his personal experiences in political and leadership positions.

Chicago Phoenix: For those who don’t know a lot about the Victory Institute and Victory Fund, what exactly does it do?

George Walker: The Victory Fund is a PAC that endorses LGBT folks to run for office all across the country — from small offices to U.S. Senate. We support them in a couple of ways, fundraising and capacity building. Capacity building is done through our non-profit 501(c)3 work. Legally, they work separately, and in practice they work separately, but there is overlap in the work. My work is strategic partnerships.

CP: What exactly does that entail?

GW: Last year, I wanted to do more in the realm of building deeper relationships with strategic partnerships with some of our funders. I work with the Bank of America Foundation — they have a student leadership conference and about 250 students come to Washington for it. I do a couple of presentations around leadership. Another big project is the David Bohneett LGBT Leadership Fellows program and send two cohorts to Harvard for the summer and learn about being a senior executive in local government.

CP: To you, what does it mean to be an out-LGBT professional and what is the message you want to share with students about that?

GW: What does it mean to be an out professional? What do you do? What does it look like? I want to tell them that it has to do with who you are. You can do it with excellence when you get to do it as your authentic self. The way I’m looking at the speech is to do a bit more on the intersections — as someone who is openly-LGBT and someone who is religious and deeply rooted in the African American experience. Those three things are some of the big things this country struggles with. My work in the political and religious spheres are informed by my experiences as a religious African American form the South.

CP: What is a particular personal experience that taught you the importance of being yourself?

GW: When I was a Peace Corps volunteer, I’d become more gay, more Christian and more Black than any other time in my life when I was living in South America. [laughs] I wasn’t just coming out, I was certainly always religious — I was also in a country that was very Catholic. I’m definitely a Protestant. I can’t push that down or submerge that — it feels very different when you are somewhere where there are very few other people walking around you of the same type.

If you go into a career thinking you’re a minority, that may not come out.

CP: What do you think about the concept of LGBT people being in a minority? How does that affect the potential for LGBT folk to take on executive careers and leadership in government?

GW: I think that the whole “minority status” in general is negligent. All of us have been in the majority segment at some point in our lives. I present as a man, so I certainly do not appear in perception that I’ve had to struggle like someone who is trans or a woman. I don’t mean degrade or disrespect those people.I think about privilege and what that means. I definitely want to say that. I think that it’s not just about empowerment, it’s also about — there’s a place in which it feels like when you tell how you can be your best self — I’d like to suggest that it’s not just about the point of empowerment but that it’s really living as who you are. You talk to people in their 80s and they tell you that they don’t really care what box they fit in.CP: Why do you think that is?

GW: That becomes a lot less necessary. There’s a part of it living your most authentic self and then there’s a part where there are tactical tools to do that.

CP: How necessary are events like Out for Work. Have you experienced other events like this throughout the country and should there be more like it?

GW: Yes, this is necessary. It should expand. It should get bigger. One day, we’ll be in a place where these conferenes won’t have to exist and every student there will be able to get what he or she needs. We’re not there yet. Too many young people live in fear because of their sexual orientation. Honestly, many folks don’t come to the reality of their sexual orientation until they’re much older. There are plenty of places where that doesn’t happen because of fear, but also because people don’t come to that realization.

There are other LGBT leadership events — we run an LGBT leadership conferecne every year that is geared toward elected officials and it offers the a little bit of the same things, but not quite. How it means to be LGBT in a space that might not be as open to them… I applaud them for their work.

CP: When you participate in events like this and share your experiences with young LGBT folk, what do you take away from it?

GW: The one thing that I always take away is the opportunity to learn about other peoples’ experiences. As someone who is very deeply committed to social justice, it’s about learning. I have to be part of the community that is listening and learning. Meeting folks will be interesting to me. I hope I become a bit more contemporary. I’ve been out of college now for about 20 years — there are new ideas, fresh one sabout how the world should operate. What’s your reality, how do I hear about that?

I’m also hoping to hear Joe’s speech.

CP: What do you think about Chicago?

GW: I grew up in Memphis. Chicago is a city that I have a great respect for. I always enjoy being there. I have some friends that I’m planning to see. I have another speaking opportunity at University of Chicago Law School. I am looking forward to being in Chicago.

Find out more about the Victory Fund and Out for Work Conference 2012.