Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice – Speaking Truth to Power For All

by Sue Fajgier

Don’t be misled by the rainbow flag outside the 12 Stockton Street, Princeton, New Jersey home of the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice. The Center certainly is a place for those who feel marginalized by their identity or who they love – but it is so much more than that. It is a safe-space; it is an educational bridge between communities and it is a place for activism for all who desire social change.

Meet Brother Outsider

Founded in 2018, the Center is named for civil rights leader and activist, Bayard Rustin. Born in 1912, Rustin was Chief Architect of the March on Washington, inspiration behind the Freedom Rides, brought non-violence to the civil rights movement after going to India to study with Gandhi and trusted advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King. Rustin was all but lost to history and edited out from the most pivotal moments because he was an openly queer Black man. The Center was named in his honor to ensure that no one is ever left behind again or marginalized because of who they love or indeed who they are.

Teaching Acceptance

The Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice was a natural evolution for their Chief Activist, Robt Martin Seda-Schreiber. Born in Brooklyn, he grew up in Central New Jersey and was an art teacher in East Windsor for almost twenty-five years. It was during his tenure teaching at the Melvin H. Kreps Middle School that Seda-Schreiber saw a need that wasn’t being addressed in the classrooms. A student came to him and shared his loneliness and isolation. Seda-Schreiber went on, with the help of fellow teachers and inspiration from students, to forge the very first Gay Straight Alliance in a middle school in New Jersey.

Seda-Schreiber continued teaching and was honored with New Jersey’s State Champion of Equality Award, served as a Fulbright Scholar to Japan, received two Senate Proclamations and was named NEA’s Social Justice Activist of the Year. He shared with me that when he was in Boston keynoting a conference on social and racial justice, it dawned on him that the work he was born to do may be larger than the universe of teaching in a middle school. He says, “My life was always heading in that direction – that moment just crystalized it.”

Nature or Nurture?

Social justice is in Seda-Schreiber’s DNA. Born to parents with a social conscience, he had his own March on Washington in utero. Named “Robert Martin” – for a Kennedy and a King, speaking out for the disenfranchised was probably always his destiny. Unlike most of us, Seda-Schreiber grew up knowing exactly who Bayard Rustin was. So, when it came time to name the safe-space and community center he was looking to create, honoring Rustin was a natural. Seda-Schreiber reached out to Rustin’s lifelong partner, Walter Naegle, for permission to use the name. It was to Seda-Schreiber’s joy and delight that not only did Naegle give permission for the use of Rustin’s name, he has become a valued member of the Center serving as BRCSJ Board Member Emeritus. Naegle even gifted the Center a walking stick that was bequeathed to Bayard during his trip to Zimbabwe as he worked through Africa trying to establish free and fair elections for all. Seda-Schreiber would not have used Rustin’s name without consent, but his level of support and belief in the mission of the Center has been a true blessing.

Safe Space Host Frank Mahood and Chief Activist Robt Seda-Schreiber stand with Bayard Rustin | Photography by Sue Fajgier

Programming Diversity

The Programs offered by the Center are as diverse as the folks who walk through the doors. Inspired by the good done by the Black Panther Party Free Food Program, they offer a Welcoming the Community Breakfast the first Friday of each month. Breakfast is served – free and open to the public from 8 – 10 a.m. It is this spirit of “welcome and community” that permeates the air here.

The Queer Youth Brigade is a collective that works on programming and special events. It is driven by the young members who represent across the spectrum. Although Seda-Schreiber is the Chief Activist, he is quick to point out, “Here at the Center we don’t speak for anyone, we speak with everyone. You can’t ever assume to represent anyone, you need to amplify the voices within the communities you want to serve and listen to what they need so you can be of best service.” The Trans Justice Collective is another group at the Center providing community care, a safe space, action and advocacy headed by their Minister for Queer Liberation, Reverend Alia Shinbrough. One of the key tenets at the Center is “there must be direct action tied to programs and events.” In keeping with this spirit, the Center created a Trans Healthcare Roadmap available to all to help navigate their personal journeys.

Reading the Rainbow

The Defenders of the Right to Read initiative is also a natural fit here. Organized by the award-winning BRCSJ Librarian-in-Residence Martha Hickson, the Center supports the NJASL and other organizations fighting to protect our right to read whatever we want and Robt himself helped to inspire Senator Andrew Zwicker in his proposal of new legislation to fight book banning and censorship. The Center also has an extraordinary in-house library with over 2,000 books for all ages beyond what you may find in your local library.

Photography by BRCSJ Community Member

It’s About the Quiet Part

The Traveling Social Justice Show is an interesting feature. The Center is available for consulting, speakers, activism and programs offering education and advocacy. They offer support to the LGBTQIA community, but so many other marginalized individuals as well such as immigrants, seniors and the economically disadvantaged. They offer hope and encouragement to anyone who feels isolated and not seen. Schools, companies and private organizations have all taken advantage of these services. When I tried to quantify how many Seda-Schreiber thought they had helped or put some metrics around the good work the Center does, he had to stop me. The nature of their work is sensitive and some of the best stories have to be confidential. “It’s a challenge,” he explained, “and not having metrics hurts us in applying for grants, but it can’t be helped.” The very nature of the good work they do requires a high level of discretion and sensitivity. “The quiet part is really the most impactful and the most meaningful,” said Seda-Schreiber.

Multiplying Impact

The Birth Justice and Reproductive Rights Program is one of the newest at the Center and is currently described as “gestating (pun intended).” The goals for this program include a full-service doula who can train others to bring this important service back to their own communities and address the disparities in birth outcomes based on race. Last year when the formula shortage took parents by surprise, the Center jumped in with a distribution program.

BRCSJ Chief Activist Robt Seda-Schreiber

The Center also has branched out and created Partner Centers, collaborating with ONE Archives Foundation  in California and the Akron Aids Collaborative in Ohio among other burgeoning relationships across the country. In extending their geographic reach they are able to assist more folk who dwell along the margins and bring them into a greater community. In-house, they are able to offer covid or monkeypox vaccinations and HIV testing, and provide housing referrals, group mental health and substance abuse counseling, job training and free food programs.

Our Past Informs Our Present

When you look at the stately old Princeton home that houses the Center it’s almost easy to forget what it took to get this far. Frank Mahood, Co-Founder of the Gay People of Princeton in 1972 and current Safe-Space Host, is both a gifted graphic designer and artist and valuable resource on the history of gay Princeton. If you want to hear about that glorious first Gay Dance in 1973 – stop by on a Monday morning and talk with Frank. If you want to speak with someone who exudes empathy, compassion and kindness – see Frank. “People just need a place that’s concerned about them, “he told me. “It’s really just that simple.”

The biggest challenge in opening the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice was “people don’t always understand how we are connected; they have difficulty expanding their minds or opening their hearts. Our struggles aren’t all the same, but we have more similarities than differences” Seda-Schreiber told me. Lately, however, both Seda-Schreiber and Mahood agree, things are looking up. “I look to the young people,” said Mahood. Faced with the pandemic of Covid and the epidemic of systemic racism it uncovered along with the uprising over the murder of George Floyd and the resulting public outrage, Seda-Schreiber feels it is part of a longer journey, both nationally and culturally, “folks are starting to come to the realization of us coming together as a greater community. People are beginning to understand and embrace intersectionality as an essential pathway for us all to move forward together.”

Robt Seda-Schreiber & Frank Mahood outside the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice | Photography by Sue Fajgier

Our Present Informs Our Future

June is Pride Month, so I asked Seda-Schreiber what the Center needs most now to further their mission? The answer was: time, talent and treasure (as he shared the wisdom of Community Outreach Coordinator Carol Watchler)! Bring your ideas for programs, shine a light on communities that are in need or forgotten, in other words – what do YOU think needs to be addressed to make the world a better place? The Center is currently seeking allies, advocates, and co-conspirators, feel free to apply here.

Party Like It’s 1999

We all read the news and we all are aware that in certain parts of the country our fellow humans are under attack for simply living their own true lives. I came to the Center to learn about the struggles, challenges and achievements of the Gay Rights Movement. I discovered, as I hope you did, that what is going on here is so much more than gender and sexuality. On Saturday, June 17 over 4,000 folks gathered in the historic Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood of Princeton to march, dance and celebrate Pride Month. This was the fifth year for this celebration and it has grown to be an event the community looks forward to eagerly every year. Local musician Olive Joseph began the festivities with the queer national anthem, “I Will Survive,” after an introduction by Mike Hot-Pence.

Robt Seda-Schreiber & Frank Mahood prepare for Princeton Pride Parade 2023 | Photography by Sue Fajgier

Co-Grand Marshall Alan Muraoka, from Sesame Street said, “I hope that by being at Princeton Pride that everyone knows that they and their families are welcome and loved by their Sesame Street family.” Rebekah Bruesehoff, BRCSJ Pride Flag Bearer and inspirational trans youth activist, explained that, “these opportunities to gather as a community are everything now. We need solidarity. We need hope. And that’s what being together in such a beautiful, joy-filled way gives us.” Also joining in the days festivities notable celebrities and dignitaries in attendance included; Congressperson Andy Kim, Senator Andrew Zwicker, Princeton Mayor Freda, Bayard Rustin’s partner Walter Naegle, Transgender hero Gavin Grimm, first openly gay Mayor of Maplewood Dean Dafis, and Drag Queens Miss Stonewall Inn, Cissy Walker and Carrie Dragshaw.

Congressperson Andy Kim | Photography by BRCSJ Community Member

I Have a Dream

We’ve come a long way baby, but there’s still far to go. ” Empathy is one of the greatest features in an organizer’s toolbox,” Seda-Schreiber told me. And empathy exists in abundance here. “We are so much stronger when we move forward together. When we see and hear each other, recognize and respect each other; create community together and simply enough, love each other.” Seda-Schreiber clearly understands what the work is here. In 2023 Seda-Schreiber was honored with the Russ Berrie Foundation Making a Difference Award, as an openly queer person, embracing his bisexuality later in life, the acknowledgement was particularly moving.  “The irony in my work as Chief Activist is that the real goal is to put myself out of a job – to create a community, a society, a world wherein safe-spaces no longer need to exist.” We are all with you on that Robt, but until that day we are lucky to have you and the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice speaking, as your founder so rightly named it, “truth to power.”

Alan Muroka | Photography by BRCSJ Community Member

About the Author/s

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Sue graduated from Rutgers University with a B.A. in English back when you could still get a degree for reading great literature. She spent nearly 40 years working in the Sales & Marketing field with companies ranging from non-profits to small businesses to Fortune 100 Corporations. Most recently retired after nearly 20 years with S & P Global, she is now free to pursue her true passions for hiking, writing and photography. Sue was born and raised in New York State. As a New Jersey transplant, her passion for the special blend of culture and nature that is uniquely Jersey is what Sue loves to share with the world. She has one grown son that she is insanely proud of. Her husband of many decades is an amazing partner both in life and hiking. When not out exploring, Sue is most likely at home reading a novel with her dog.

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1 comment

gralion torile August 12, 2023 - 12:15 am

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