Creating The Change, I Want to Be

Today, I have the pleasure of speaking with Antonio Driver, Executive Director of SpeakOut, a Washington DC-based nonprofit community engagement organization representing more than 6,000 same-gender-loving (SGL) men and women of color. Since its inception in 2017, SpeakOut has served as a safe space for creating meaningful connections across the LGBTQ+ community.

Antonio is a 33-year-old Flint Michigan born-DC resident. As you listen Antonio talk there’s no mistaking his passions lie in advocating for social change. He shared with us his muse for SpeakOut, why activism is so important to him, and the upcoming I AM Awards.

PrideIndex (PI): Welcome, Antonio. Tell us a little more about yourself.
Antonio Driver (AD): Thank you. It’s good to be here. I am Antonio Driver, from Flint, Michigan. I attended the University of Michigan for my undergrad degree in social work. I currently reside in DC.

(PI): There are three chapters of SpeakOut, correct?
(AD): Yes. We’re in the DC, operating throughout the DMV. (DC, Maryland, and Virginia.) I’m sorry, there are four chapters of SpeakOut. In addition to the DMV, we’re in Atlanta, Charlotte and Dallas.

(PI): How does one become a chapter? How does that work?
(AD): Well, you would go to our website at SpeakOutusa.org and click on contact us to request opening a chapter. Our directors would then interview the requesting team and determine if they would be a proper fit or whether that city or region is where we’re looking to invest or start our programming. Once a determination is made, and we agree that this is a go-ahead, we would then have our team go to that city, meet with that requesting team and support them in building the chapter out. Our team would assist in finding funding sources to support social activities for the new branch. We would also go over some strategic planning and national rules, create some ideas and work together to help them build their local board. That’s the gist of getting started.

(PI): Speaking of getting started, how did you get started? Where did you find your muse for SpeakOut?

(AD): Oh, my goodness. SpeakOut fell into my lap. When I moved to DC, I knew I wanted to do something like an online talk show. I had already been a part of several Facebook groups where many black queers had talked about relationships and different things like that. I was an administrator of a group called “Common Ties.” That group shut down shortly after I relocated to Washington, DC. I was like, you know what, I’ve been a part of a lot of these groups. I’ve administrated a few, so why not start one of my own. SpeakOut began simply as a Facebook group with about 300 members, and then it just grew from there.

Today, we’re at 8,000+ members. As we grew, we would plan meetup events and other events. That is what prompted me as well one of the new board members, who came to me saying, “I think we really have something here. I think that we need to organize and make it a little bit more official.” I filed all of the paperwork to become a nonprofit, got approved, and did nothing with it for a whole year and a half, maybe two years. The time came for my organization to renew our tax exemption with the Federal government. I thought, do I want to continue to pay these fees if we’re not utilizing this? I called a board member at the time and asked, “Do we leave, or do we stay?” They said, “Well, if I were you, I would keep it,” and that was that. At that moment, I was like, okay, we’ve got to keep it. Shortly after that, I updated everything got it where it needed to be. A guy who was a part of one of our social media groups came up to me at one of our social events and said, “I think SpeakOut needs to apply for some of these grants. In the state of Maryland and DC, you guys have everything that’s needed.” Although my background is in social work, I had never written a grant. I decided to give it a swing. I was part of a mentorship grant writing program in New York City, and I wrote the grant ten years later. I wrote a grant based on my work in New York City, and the state of Maryland immediately approved it, and we became funded. We have offerings for mentorship, HIV linkage to care, and testing. We’re working on some mental health projects right now, along with supportive housing in Baltimore. It all fell in my lap.

We have a staff of eleven identified somewhere on the spectrum of LGBTQIA+ and persons of color. My muse comes from my drive to want to see change. Coming out of Flint, Michigan, there weren’t that many resources or people to turn to as a black gay man to seek help on approaching my family, dating, or different things like that. As I’ve grown up wanting to be the change I didn’t have, I get gratification by helping others and being to others what I didn’t have. I think it’s my job to do better for the next generation behind me. Hopefully, the cycle will continue.

(PI): Why is activism so important to you?
(AD): I think that that’s how we build community. I think activism is the way. We need more of it, because we’re looking for a voice. Everyone’s looking for an agent to be heard. I think that often, especially when we talk about black queer experiences, we don’t feel like we have a voice, or we have a say in dark rooms that are quiet or segregated. Not to compare myself to Dr. Martin Luther King, but he had to step out and be the star then other people came and carried the torch. People who have come before me have stepped out in their perspective genres but have influenced me are Marsha P. Johnson, Paris Dupree, and Billy Porter. I’m not the first, there were others that came forth and made an impact on me when I came out. Some may not be here any longer, it is my job to take the torch to the next level.

(PI): Outstanding. That’s quite ambitious to want to take on that amount of stuff on your own. What drives you? Where do you get that ambition from?
(AD): I think it’s in my blood, it comes from my family. My father was a businessman; he ran his own trucking company. He had a lot of drivers that drove for him, and a lot of rental property. I don’t see success, but fulfillment, if that makes sense. I can succeed in my career, but success doesn’t equal dignity. I’m seeking satisfaction, and the more I see the community around me thriving and winning, the more I become fulfilled. I think I’ve become obsessed and addicted to fulfillment. I’ve become fulfilled with seeing others succeed and come out of their struggles in life. Personally, I came from the foster care system in Flint, Michigan. I have bounced around from home to home.

My parents struggled, and my mom struggled with drugs. I was on my own since I was 16-years old. Even though I was still a child, I was forced to grow up. By the time I was 16, I knew what I didn’t want to do, I knew what I didn’t want to be like, and I found a way to pull myself out of that. I had help along the way. So, when I see younger, Black gay men like me and who are struggling, I can empathize and relate. Sometimes in those moments, when I was going through something or felt like I was homeless or didn’t have anybody, it would have been great to know that there was a person or organization that I could go to and get the support that I needed. There are many organizations around that cater to one area, HIV and AIDS, but that might not be the struggle at that time. Maybe we can get someone support with issues around coming out and when parents don’t understand one’s sexuality. That is part of the drive, which is part of my purpose. To just be there, and maybe that’s why I’ve been given my life’s storyline.

(PI): I looked on Facebook and some other social media platforms, and I came across an interview you conducted. Can we talk about that?
(AD): Yes. That was the start of SpeakOut. It was never supposed to be an actual organization. It was supposed to be a show where we sat down and had conversations about relationships or other stuff. I loved watching Oprah growing up, Terrance J also had significant influence over me. With the interviews we were supposed to talk with authors, singers and stuff like that. There’s not a lot of outlets that put a spotlight on what us Black LGBTQ people go through; I’m going to capture this; and tell our stories. I’m going to spread it around to the community as much as possible. This is what jump started what we’re doing today.

(PI): I received a save the date flyer for your upcoming event in April. Can you speak about that?
(AD): Yes. It is our first SpeakOut Awards Black Tie gala. It is a fundraiser for our organization. It takes place here in Washington, DC, on April 30. It’s part of a weekend of events. There will be a Friday night welcome party. On Saturday during the day, we’ll have TED Talks from different people from the community talking about what’s going on in their lives. There will be a health fair with health and wellness issues, along with entrepreneurs who have been very successful in business. Then there’s the actual “I AM Awards,” where we’re honoring 11 individuals who have done remarkable things for the community or supported our community over the years. It’s just about acknowledgment. It will take place at the Hamilton Hotel Washington DC. Vivica A. Fox is one of the hosts, which is exciting, and we have some performers as well, but I can’t say those right now until we’ve officially signed the contract. It’s going to be a great event. It is our first one. DC doesn’t have anything happening like that here. I know there are events like that in Chicago and Atlanta, but I think it’s about time for DC to do that. My organization wants to acknowledge people, not just in DC but from around the country. Actually, a lot of our honorees aren’t from DC. It’s going to be our annual signature event.

(PI): Who are some of the honorees or awardees that you plan to honor?

(AD): Marissa Miller, lead organizer of the first National Trans Visibility March on DC in 2019, is getting the Trailblazer Award. George M. Johnson, author of “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” will receive the Literary Award. Dashaun Wesley, host of the show “Legendary,” will receive the Legacy Award. Abdur- Raheem Briggs, CEO of Project Briggs, is getting the Icon Award. The Gay Professional Men of Color (GPMC), which does excellent work mentoring young black gay men, will receive the Vanguard Award. Twiggy Pucci Garçon, who was a choreographer on the television show “Pose,” will be receiving the Humanitarian Award. Those are just a few of the honorees.

(PI): Is this a free event or paid ticketed event?
(AD): Yes, it is. A few of the weekend events, like the dating events, panel discussions, and Ted Talks, are all free, but the actual awards dinner is admission-based and ticketed. That information can be found on our website at speakoutusa.org/events/.

(PI): What are your long-term goals for SpeakOut or for yourself?
(AD): The long-term goal for SpeakOut is to become a one-stop-shop organization for Black Gay and Queer people. I want to be the place where you come if you need career support, or if you’re coming to DC, and looking to find a job, we’re here to do that. We’re here to help you with your healthcare, supportive housing needs or if you need help in finding the financing to start a business. The goal is to be that one-stop-shop. I think many organizations do great work with providing whatever services. Our most vital key is that we have relationships with the community so that you’re not just a case that we’re working on. We will have relationships with our clients outside and beyond the organization. That is our goal.

(PI): 20 years from now, I will run into a 53-year-old Antonio Driver. I will reference this conversation we’re having now, and hopefully; we will have met within those 20 years. But what do you believe you will have achieved at that point?
(AD): Well, at that point, I will say we’ve done everything that we planned to do. We have 10 organizations; in 10 different locations and we’re just planning to continue to impact the community. The SpeakOut I AM Awards Gala is still honoring people who aren’t getting the acknowledgment on a powerful platform. We’re continuing to be that voice in other people’s lives, sometimes we’re the mother or father in someone’s life who is struggling. Once again, as I said, I get gratification I get gratification and fulfillment from helping others. 20 years from now, I see myself fulfilled with what I’ve done.

 Vivica A Fox along with J’Lamar Nichols as the Host of SpeakOut ”I AM” Awards April 30, 2022, right in the Heart of Downtown Washington, DC at The Hamilton Hotel. Click here to make reservations.

Click The “I AM” Awards | Speak Out (speakoutusa.org) for more information.