Progressive community organizer and LGBT activist Sally Kohn is smart, outspoken, and instantly likable. She’s also clearly not afraid of a challenge, having signed on as a commenter with the right-wing Fox News Network early this year. Kohn was kind enough to take some time to talk with us about activism, the future of the LGBT movement, and what progressives may not understand about conservatives.
All photographs by Paul Takeuchi
AfterEllen.com: So you’ve been working as a community organizer since you were 12, is that right?
Sally Kohn: [Laughs] You know, gee, if you do that math. No, since college. Since college, actually. And I can credit my community organizing career to the infamous political lesbian Urvashi Vaid. Suffice it to say I think it goes toward sisterhood and mentorship.
I was in college, and I was interning – first I actually interned for The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), where I had some fantastic mentors there as well, but literally I was interning at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and Urvashi Vaid – her phenomenal book (which, if people haven’t read it, they should) Virtual Equality had just been published. And she had left her luggage in one of my coworker’s cars. And I was dispatched with Urvashi Vaid to go get her luggage.
And I thought I’d just hit the jackpot. I was like, “Really? This is the big time for me.” I was just – I was gushing, I was speechless for the first and only time in my life. I was falling over myself with excitement. And I went and I got her luggage and she made an offhand remark about how this colleague, who I won’t mention lest she be embarrassed, had the messiest office of any human being on the planet. It was abysmal. And Urvashi sort of offhandedly put this challenge to me to organize her office, and, of course you know, Urvashi Vaid told me to do it, so of course I’m going to do it!
So I then make it my life’s mission to organize this woman’s mess of an office over the summer. I think I made a modest dent, but that’s not the point. Somehow Urvashi was impressed. Somehow she translated my “awesome office organizing skills” to political organizing skills, and that was that. She proposed a project for us to work on together, and she has remained my primary mentor and colleague and one of my closest friends since then — who got me into all this.
It goes to show, I think, what a difference it can make when you pass on your inspiration and power and encouragement to someone else.
AE: What did your community organizing work involve?
SK: The essence of community organizing, and especially the groups that I worked with, groups like the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, was to build the capacity of grassroots organizations around the country to be more than the sum of their parts. To be better individual groups and then to work together to achieve state and national, sometimes international, change. I had the privilege of getting to spend almost 15 years helping those groups do a better job of knocking on doors and turning out volunteers, to do a better job of framing and messaging their ideas in ways that would resonate, to do a better job of honing their short-term goals into a long-term political vision for change. So that was sort of the nut of the piece that I did. And the metaphor is it’s all a small piece of a larger whole.
AE: It seems like your career was always heading in that direction – you have a joint degree in legal studies and public administration and you’ve worked with the Center for Community Change and the Third Wave Foundation – how did you slide into commentary and punditry?
SK: I’ve got to look up the etymology of “pundit.” It’s a great word.
AE: It is.
SK: So those who know me would say that I was never far away from — I’m not sure. Is punditry pontificating? But certainly they’re in the same family. They’re both “p” words. And anyone who knows me would never have been surprised that I would end up pontificating. At first glance, there are fundamental differences between the world of community organizing and the world of media insofar as if you’re an organizer, you’re very much behind the scenes. Your whole work is about bringing voice and visibility to others – helping them find their voices, helping them speak out and pontificate about their own lives and their own opinions. And when I took a step away from my last role in the organizing support world, I was — it was completely random, Ali.
I was giving a speech at a conference, and, again, another woman who became a very important mentor, Geraldine Laybourne, came up to me after the speech and said “We have to get you on television.” And I was completely taken aback and shocked and blew her off. And to her credit, she was tenacious and had a vision and she pursued me, and said “No, you’re going to get training, you’re going to do this, you’re going to do that. You’re going to be good at this.”
And what she also did was help me understand that there really wasn’t that big a difference. I mean on the face of it, it seemed like organizing and being a pundit were worlds apart, but at the end of the day, you’re fundamentally doing the same thing: You’re bringing information to people. Helping people be informed so that they can take action in their lives.