“Black queer men can’t wait for anyone else to save us”: An interview with MOBI founder DaShawn Usher
In today’s social climate, it is understandable that the fear of persistent anti-queer and anti-Black violence might cast a shadow over Black queer communities. Underneath this cloud of fear, however, the Mobilizing Our Brothers Initiative (MOBI) has gathered a group of Black queer individuals in New York City to fearlessly confront the issues facing us, through organizing, education, and community empowerment.
MOBI is a series of curated “social connectivity” events for and by Black gay and queer men and non-women to find their holistic selves. The initiative consists of MOBItalks, a three-part personal and professional development series in Harlem, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, and MOBIfest, a four-day citywide festival in May 2018 that plans to “give voice to the convergence of interactive arts, film, fashion, and music in Black, queer culture.”
Founded by DaShawn Usher, the initiative is funded by the New York City Department of Health, and further aims to promote health and wellness. As a feature of the MOBItalks speaker series, I am extremely excited about this project and its vision, and so I spoke with Usher to learn more about what is to come.
Hari: How did you come up with this idea, and why is MOBI so necessary now?
Dashawn: Mobilizing Our Brothers Initiative (MOBI) actually was initialized after a failed grant attempt. Two years ago, I had an idea around bringing Black gay and queer men together in a different type of space. I wanted to build a supportive community and network that increased the visibility of Black gay and queer men beyond the traditional stereotypes we’ve been accustomed to.
Initially, that “community” was going to exist online and have a call to action from social media personalities that had large followings. After not receiving the grant that would have started MOBI, I kept the name and idea and continued to think about how could it be relevant today.
Toward the beginning of 2017, there was another grant opportunity that was centered around events for Black gay men in New York city and that was when I knew it was time to revisit the concept of MOBI.
The need for MOBI is based on the lack of actual social connectivity in spaces Black gay and queer men have to convene in.
By creating spaces that tap into our full lives we can begin to connect, support, and build our community and the people in it.
H: That name is striking—”Mobilizing Our Brothers Initiative”. In what direction are folks being mobilized toward?
D: The direction that we are aiming Black gay and queer men towards with MOBI is seeing their holistic selves. That includes all the aspects we don’t tend to focus on like personal and professional development, health beyond HIV and sexual health, and a supportive network that recognizes the importance of everyone that has been brave enough to be their authentic selves.
With MOBI we are aiming to bring together and address as many intersectionalities we have in our community for Black gay and queer men regardless of age, education, social class and gender expression.
H: In this current political climate, you could say that the rights of LGBTQ people are being rolled back at accelerated speeds, but one could hardly argue that Black LGBTQ people weren’t already experiencing various social crises.
In what ways do you think the work has changed for Black LGBTQ organizations like MOBI after January 2017, and in what ways did it stay the same?
D: There are very few Black LGBTQ organizations that exist currently. After January 2017, in this political climate, it’s important to note that they need our support now even more.
A lot of Black LGBTQ organizations were forced to close their doors due to lack of diversified funding, a sole focus on just HIV, and/or internal and external problems. The organizations that have remained in existence have adapted to changing climates and had to work beyond their original mission.
This administration’s lack of support and accountability around several issues like social justice, health, equity, and quite frankly not giving a damn about Black people regardless of LGBTQ affiliation is not new.
Having worked and volunteered with various organizations to advance the lives and health of Black gay men, I’m actually glad MOBI didn’t come into fruition until this year. It’s a reminder that we have a lot of work to do and we can’t wait for anyone to come in and save our communities or fix our problems.
Leading with passion, purpose, and an understanding of what the issues are puts us at a good vantage point to address those things head on. Resiliency has existed in our culture and in those Black LGBTQ organizations and it’s what will keep us going. I believe we have a lot of the pieces to bridge the gaps in our community, but we must work in a collaborative fashion to achieve success. Realizing that success is not based on another Black LGBTQ organization or initiative failing. We shouldn’t aim to have a monopoly on Black LGBTQ issues because we can’t do it alone and honestly will need each other to do our respective parts.
H: In response to what some see as a limitation to the way we try to address issues along the gender binary, there has been a significant push to “queer” our conversations around sexuality in recent times. In MOBI, what is the place of queer non-women (non-binary, genderqueer, agender, intersex) and trans men?
When I thought about what MOBI would look like, I knew it couldn’t just focus on Black gay men because that leaves out a pivotal section of our brothers that don’t identify as “gay.” While I was introduced to the concept of queer a long time ago, I didn’t fully understand it until I had dinner with a Black queer man. Listening to him speak and conceptualize Black queer identity, I finally got it.
When I wrote the concept for MOBI, I was very intentional with including other identities into the fold. While the first series of events focus on gay and queer identities, we are planning future events that are intentionally inclusive of non-binary, genderqueer, agender, Intersex, and trans men.
H: Tell us more about the three-part personal and professional development series this fall in NYC, and the MOBIfest early next year. Who is involved, and what can we expect?
D: MOBItalks, is the first series of events that will be a three-part personal and professional development series for Black gay and queer men in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Harlem. MOBItalks will take place over the course of three Saturdays starting on September 23rd and will be run again on October 7th and 21st. We are aiming to bring together health and wellness for our attendees through powerful talks, professional headshots, and an interactive marketplace.
The concept behind MOBItalks was to create a space for our brothers to connect and have conversations about the path to success across various industries while being a Black gay or queer man. We want our attendees to know what that journey looks like since we’ve never really had discussions about what is it like to be a professional Black gay or queer man and what are the challenges being yourself in the industries our speakers are in.
While each talk will feature different speakers, we have 5 themes for MOBItalks that will be in all three series: Sexuality, Identity, Creative Expression, Self-Care, and Development.
When selecting speakers, we wanted it to be people with pretty diverse backgrounds so we can highlight different areas within our community. Some of the confirmed speakers for MOBItalks include Karamo Brown, Emil Wilbekin, Rico Pruitt, David Bridgeforth, Hari Ziyad (you), Ty Hunter, Jay Boogie, and Patrik-Ian Polk.
Our MOBI Ambassador and Talent Manager, Julian Walker, will co-host MOBItalks with me. I remember the discussion around including Rico Pruitt on the talks and I really pushed for him to be a speaker because I felt like his story would be unique to the dynamics of MOBItalks. Rico has a huge following and influence like our other speakers and I thought that was important to feature during the series.
When Rico called me to discuss MOBI, it affirmed that the right choice was made and he’s excited for people to know him beyond the massive sex symbol he’s become. Karamo Brown and Emil Wilbekin have been super supportive of the initiative, which still shocks me since these are the men I admired growing up and are staples in our community. We have a couple of other speakers who are pending but the final announcements will come out soon.
MOBIfest, is a four-day citywide festival set for May 2018 that gives voice to the convergence of interactive arts, film, fashion, and music in Black queer culture. Each day will showcase Black queer excellence in one of the respective industries. It’s a celebration of our efforts to those thriving industries. You can expect an elevated Black queer experience that brings together our communities for free.
We plan of linking people to various health services where they can gain admission by testing, screening, or visiting service providers in their neighborhoods to promote available health services for our attendees
H: This is the NYC launch. What are your plans for other cities and states, and what do you hope for the organization over the next couple of years?
I’m confident that the NYC launch will be a success. Within the first two months, we’ve garnered a pretty good following and had a pre-launch party in July that really affirmed that we are on the right track.
My personal goal is to be able to replicate MOBI across the country, especially in cities in the South. I went to college in Tennessee and that’s where my community organizing and planning work began in 2007 with Dwayne Jenkins and Nashville Black Pride. There’s an opportunity for MOBI to connect brothers across the country and continue to build that supportive network.
I hope that our programming can happen in other cities in partnership with existing organizations or that we are contracted to create similar events. My future goal for MOBI is to expand our programming efforts beyond New York City and have traveling series of events across the country. We’d like to build and secure capital to keep the initiative going so this year’s task will be to build a diverse funding portfolio so that we aren’t dependent on just one source of funding.