Amber Hikes just started her new job on Monday, but Philadelphia’s new director of the Office of LGBT Affairs is already a symbol of change.
“As a queer black woman in this city and doing the work that I have — not just because of my identity, but also because of my relationships with our organizations and people who are also doing this work in the city — I think that I’m uniquely situated and perfect for this position,” Hikes told NBC Out.
The 33-year-old replaces former director Helen Fitzpatrick, who resigned after growing anger at perceived inaction over racism within the “Gayborhood,” Philadelphia’s popular gay neighborhood, capitulated into protests in 2016. Social justice groups were furious over a video that surfaced showing the owner of a popular gay bar using the N-word. The situation resulted in the city releasing a report with recommendations for addressing racism, sexism and transphobia in the LGBTQ community.
“I knew that it was happening,” Hikes said about racism in the Gayborhood, “but I was really surprised to see how folks — both people of color and white allies — galvanized and organized together to make change for our own community.”
Though she grew up in Atlanta, Hikes said Philadelphia is where she became an adult. She moved to the city in 2006 to get a master’s degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania. Hikes ran the Upward Bound Program, a federally-funded college prep program for low-income, first-generation high school students, at the University of Pennsylvania for seven years. She most recently directed the same program at California State University since 2015 before returning to Philadelphia to take on her current role. But it was her time counseling LGBTQ teenagers nearly 10 years ago as an intern at Philadelphia’s Attic Youth Center that opened her eyes to her true passion.
“It was [my] first time sitting down with these LGBT youth and realizing the kind of difference you can make and how much need there was in my own community,” she said.
Hikes said she soon realized many of the city’s LGBTQ teenagers who came from communities of color were being ticketed and harassed by police for hanging out near gay bars, even though they were not doing anything illegal. The situation reflected a national trend: According to a 2015 study from the Williams Institute, police harassment and discrimination is greatest for LGBTQ people of color, transgender persons, and youth.
“It made me feel incredibly impotent and just very frustrated — frustrated that I didn’t realize it was as persistent of an issue that it was,” she said. Hikes later worked with a local attorney and Equality Pennsylvania on the Youth Law Project, a program that connected LGBTQ youth with the support and resources they needed to combat discrimination.
“I was understanding pretty early on for me and for them that their experiences were going to be different — they were going to move through the world and they were going to need additional resources to help them navigate that,” Hikes said.
Hikes, who has sat on the boards of several Philadelphia LGBTQ organizations, is applying her experiences to her new role in City Hall. She said she’s committed to focusing on transparency, communication and the visibility of the Office of LGBT Affairs.
“Here in Philadelphia we have a lot of people of color who don’t necessarily feel like their voices have been heard and that they have not been represented as well as they’d like,” Hikes said. “I’m not speaking specifically about the Office of LGBT affairs — I’m talking about all throughout government, throughout the city. We really need to elevate those voices.”
Hikes said the reality that she will finally make those voices heard sank in on Monday when she went over a long list of government officials she will be working with.
“The reality that not only was it a requirement for me to talk to them, but it was going to be a requirement for them to talk to me — and that I finally after all these years have an opportunity to affect real change,” she said.
The City of Brotherly Love has come a long way in embracing its LGBTQ citizens, according to Hikes. “We are one of the cities that’s really leading in terms of LGBT rights and being a safe and affirming environment for LGBT citizens,” Hikes said.
Hikes said she is motivated knowing every single day she has an opportunity to change the lives of LGBTQ Philadelphians — something she hopes will inspire change in other communities, as well.
“I hope it helps to inspire other folks who are doing that community work [to] understand that it’s all building blocks and that we’re all affecting change in our areas,” Hikes said. “When we bring that together, that’s what really creates this community and makes us the wonderful, beautiful city that we are.”
OutFront is a weekly NBC Out series profiling LGBTQ people who are making a positive difference in the community.