By Aaron Walton
Originally published on Advocate.com July 15 2013 3:00 AM ET
During the height of the civil rights movement, humanitarian and activist Bayard Rustin said, "We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers."
It wasn't until 1985 that I came to understand that "community" had to include the workplace. My life as a gay African-American changed dramatically the minute I "manned up" and unapologetically accepted who I was in the wake of the example that Rustin had set for so many of us.
While I had been out with friends, family and many colleagues since the 1980s, I stubbornly but comfortably lived in a straw house otherwise known as "who I really am isn't relevant in the workplace." What I now realize is that who I really am does factor into the work that I do, because there needs to be honesty and truth in the work you produce if you want it to have any lasting meaning.
Rustin's legacy reminds us that the marginalization of race and sexual identity serves only as an impediment to allowing the power of big ideas to flourish. A magnificent thought leader, Rustin's contributions were critical to the success of both the civil rights and gay rights movements in America.
What I have learned from Rustin is to never wait for permission to change the world for the better. In a year that has seen many triumphs for gay black Americans, I have refocused my efforts on the core principle that fueled Rustin's passion for equality and compassion in both our professional and personal lives.
The transformative leadership that Rustin displayed during what is arguably one of the most important transitional periods in American history did more than help lay the intellectual groundwork for the civil rights movement. He literally put people in buses and organized bag lunches for seminal events, including the March on Washington in 1963. He did so after three years of sad exile from the movement, knowing that his avowed homosexuality was something that many blacks within the movement were uncomfortable with‚ — and felt was a liability to the cause. Rustin sat uncomfortably silent during a time when we all needed to hear his voice and message pulsing in our ear like the bass drum in a marching band.
Rather than rest on his laurels, he intensified his work on behalf of gay rights in the 1970s and 1980s. A year before his death in 1987, he gave a speech that boldly asserted that gay people were fast replacing blacks as the barometer for social change, concluding: "The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people."
While his accomplishments and ideas may not show up in any business school classes, the impact of his leadership has provided me with a roadmap that has informed my approach to problem solving and the creation of an agency that faces the world the way we want the world to face us.
I realize this might seem antithetical to the business community, but as leaders, we have a responsibility to clear a path for the best ideas to rise to the surface. No big idea is a good idea if it excludes a segment of the population, doesn't address their specific needs, or fails to recognize the contributions they have made to the larger global community.
It's hard to imagine that standing up for things as fundamental as dignity, compassion, and equal access would have made Rustin a troublesome human being. It's even harder to imagine that to this day there are those in the business community who knowingly or unknowingly deny others these basic rights.
In the spirit of Bayard Rustin, we've added new language to our recruiting ads: "Only angelic troublemakers need apply."
Aaron Walton is co-founder of Walton Isaacson, a full service advertising and marketing agency.
More In This Series
Black, LGBT, American: A Search for Sanctuaries
Don Lemon: A Sense of Otherness
Wanda Sykes: On Being Real
Laverne Cox: Threat or Threatened
Twiggy Garcon: Ballroom at 14
Doug Spearman: Breaking the Code
Janora McDuffie: My Obligation
Aaron Walton: Angelic Troublemakers
Editor's Letter: Black and LGBT in America