Photo of Rodney McKenzie Jr

Rodney McKenzie, Jr.

By Rodney McKenzie, Jr., Fetzer Institute Vice President of Ally Development

In the early 2000s, I ran ballot measure campaigns across the country to ensure that LGBTQ people couldn’t be fired or kicked out of their homes for being gay. In these campaigns, hundreds of us went door to door, telling neighbors and strangers our stories in hopes that they’d see us as human. These were hard conversations. Many of us had to confront our biggest fear: that we would be rejected because of who we knew ourselves to be. Yet, for many of us, sharing our stories with strangers and having them see us as fully human was a transformative act that healed hidden wounds—and changed our lives forever.

Through this experience, I learned that winning a campaign isn’t only determined by having enough votes. Winning was determined by the quality of relationships we had with volunteers, coalitions and the people who answered the doors we knocked on—people who were unlike us but would stand with us. I learned that people can be outrageously different from one another and still connect. People who live in the rural South can be friends with people in the big cities because they have something unspeakable in common. They have a shared humanity. Dynamic relationships based in this shared humanity are what I call transformative friendships.

Transformative friendships build bridges and do no harm. In these friendships, we see ourselves as connected, not separate from each other. Moving towards transformative friendships is our challenge within society at large—and also within philanthropy. 

As a leader in philanthropy and the vice president of Ally Development at Fetzer, I often find myself in meetings where I am the only Black gay man. I’m often asked to share my story so that others can gain insight and understanding. At best, this is framed as an opportunity to inspire; at worst it feels performative. One day, as I got onto a call, having shared my story three other times that day, I was feeling particularly frustrated that, once again, I would be the only one telling the details of my life. But behind my disappointment was anger and sadness because I believed that no one in this space of privilege would fully understand me. Because of this, when I told my story that day, I wasn’t extending an invitation to those listening to get to know me. Instead, I was locked in a belief that they would never know me. 

After I stopped talking, a man whom I had assumed to be white and privileged spoke up quickly with tears in his eyes. He said, “I get that,” and began talking about how he had been adopted as a child and how, all of his life, he had felt like an outsider. 

I remember having a moment of reckoning. In that interaction, I had used my story as a sword to protect myself—to show that I was special and different. I had used my story to show how I had been hurt and because there was a wound there, I was willing to wound another. I could have shut him down. I could have told him that his experience was not my experience. But by being vulnerable, this man had disarmed me. By being truly vulnerable, he had built a bridge towards me in that moment of pain—he had shown me that although he was unlike me, he was willing to stand with me. The little kid in me who felt alone met the little kid in him and we witnessed each other. 

What if the campaigns we need aren’t those that are issue focused, fought during election cycles? What if the most important campaign is based upon our ability to see our shared humanity? What if shared human flourishing, or love as a verb, is the singular most important campaign of our day? I left political campaigns—because it just wasn’t enough. I came to Fetzer to do something even more transformative. In this moment, I believe we have an opportunity to share our stories, and see each other, in hopes of winning the most important campaign of our times: the campaign for a shared humanity. 

I dare us, this week, to share our stories with someone as an invitation for change—not just in philanthropy but in our world. Share your story without expecting someone else to share theirs. Share your story as an invitation to others to see that you have been hurt, that you are human and that you are willing to share that hurt with someone who might just be hurt, too.

This piece originally appeared in the Council of Michigan Foundations annual report as part of a series featuring conversations and insights from leaders across our community of philanthropy. This curated collection of blogs and Q&As lifts up inspiring voices from changemakers who lead efforts in the areas of Equity, People, Practice and Policy, with equity at the center.

Rodney McKenzie, Jr., is Vice President of Ally Development at the Fetzer Institute.