As Imani Rupert-Gordon becomes executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, some would say she has a hard act to follow in Kate Kendell, who was at the helm of the organization for 22 years before stepping down in 2018.
But Rupert-Gordon and her associates at NCLR say they're looking at the situation in a different way -- that Kendell left a strong legacy for the new executive director to build on.
"Kate is an icon in our movement, and I am humbled and honored by following in her footsteps," says Rupert-Gordon, whose appointment was announced today. But the new ED, who describes herself as a longtime fan and supporter of NCLR, says she'll forge her own path at the organization.
For one thing, she is a social worker, not a lawyer, like Kendell and previous NCLR leaders, such as Roberta Achtenberg, who went on to serve in the Clinton and Obama administrations. Rupert-Gordon is currently executive director of Chicago-based Affinity Community Services, the nation's oldest social justice organization serving the needs of Black LGBTQ people with a particular focus on Black women.
Before that, she was director of Chicago's Broadway Youth Center, which serves LGBTQ young people experiencing homelessness and housing instability, and she has been a lecturer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she cofounded the Social Fiction Conference, which helps students dismantle biases and examine issues of social justice through science fiction, gaming, and fantasy. A California native, she moved to Chicago to attend the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, where she earned a master's degree in social work. She has a bachelor's degree in sociology from UC Santa Barbara.
She is also a woman of color. "As a queer Black cisgender woman, I will bring a unique perspective, but we will work as a team," she says of her plans for NCLR, a 42-year-old organization with a staff of 25.
"We are at an incredible time in the movement," she notes. "We're in a position to fundamentally shift the direction of the movement. It has to be a racial justice movement, it has to be an economic justice movement, it has to be a gender justice movement."
NCLR, she observes, has long been intersectional -- even though its name says "lesbian," it fights for the rights of all LGBTQ people, and across racial, class, and other lines, through litigation, public policy work, and educational outreach. It was the first LGBTQ legal organization founded by women. Over the past few years, under Kendell's leadership, its efforts have included successful court cases for marriage equality, the Born Perfect campaign to end conversion therapy, and ongoing litigation against Donald Trump's transgender military ban.
Rupert-Gordon plans to continue those efforts and infuse the whole LGBTQ movement with a passion for intersectionality. If anti-LGBTQ discrimination becomes a thing of the past, it won't help those who can't take advantage of opportunities because of poverty, racial bias, and other barriers, she notes, and she wants to change that. She's passionate as well about seeing that LGBTQ voices are included in discussions about immigration and citizenship, reproductive justice, and more.
"This is the work that I feel is worth doing," she says.
She has had connections to NCLR for some time -- her sister Maya Rupert, now managing Julian Castro's presidential campaign, once worked for the organization. Maya, who is straight, was drawn to work with NCLR because she wanted to make life better for her sister and other LGBTQ people, Rupert-Gordon says. But despite Rupert-Gordon's admiration for and connections to NCLR, she wasn't looking for a job there. It came and found her.
"I'm in a position that I love right now," she says. But to find a successor to Kendell, NCLR had hired an executive search firm with a focus on nonprofit organizations, Koya Leadership Partners. Rupert-Gordon was among the hundreds of candidates it reached out to, according to Felicia Medina and Emily Doskow, the cochairs of NCLR's Board of Directors. The field was eventually narrowed to three finalists, and the NCLR board and staff found that Rupert-Gordon was the clear choice, the cochairs say.
"Everyone was absolutely unanimous that she was the right person," Doskow says.
It helped that she wasn't daunted by the task of following Kendell, Medina says. "The people who rose to the top are the ones who are going to make their own path," she explains. But that wasn't all. "Many of us were moved emotionally" by Rupert-Gordon, she says. "It was because of her advocacy and response to certain challenges -- an emotional response to her results-oriented philosophy of leadership."
NCLR Legal Director Shannon Minter also expresses enthusiasm about the new executive director. "One of the characteristics of NCLR is that we have had many really formidable, powerful leaders, and each one has built on the legacy of the others," he says. "Part of the key is recognizing that it's important for the organization to respond to the times. It's not a competition. We're building on a lot of power and strength."
Of Rupert-Gordon, he says, "She has a deep and sophisticated understanding of the issues affecting our community. She has shown in her leadership that commitment to social justice isn't enough -- we have to build relationships."
"I love that she's so positive," Minter continues. "She's a builder, someone who sees the opportunities as well as the challenges in the movement. ... I think people will have high expectations, and I think they will be more than met."
After eight and a half years in Chicago, Rupert-Gordon will be relocating to San Francisco, where NCLR is headquartered. Her decision to attend graduate school in Chicago and then stay came partly out of a discussion with the woman who is now her wife, Derah Rupert-Gordon. Derah said she would follow Imani to a major city, as Derah works in advertising, and those cities are where the advertising jobs are. San Francisco will fit the bill too. The women have been together 10 years and have been married for five.
Imani's first day on the job at NCLR will be March 16. Cindy Myers has been serving as interim executive director since Kendell left; one of the criteria for the choice of interim ED was that they not be interested in the job on a permanent basis. Myers has provided capable and effective leadership, and the staff has performed equally well, Doskow says.
"The staff has not missed a beat," she says. "All the work has continued, and it's going to get stronger and more effective under Imani's leadership."