Learning to LEAD

'Not Settling for Neglect'

By ANDREA POTEET

DETROIT -

Six weeks changed Marlin Colyer's life. The 29-year-old Chicago native, who moved to Detroit in December, has a lot of big plans for changing the world. He'd like to mentor LGBT youth and eventually earn a degree in psychology, turning his love of helping people with their problems into a career.

After graduating from KICK's first Learn, Educate, Advocate and Drive (LEAD) program in May, he said he has the tools to make those dreams come true.

"It's almost like a starter kit for activists," Colyer says. "I learned a lot about the issues that might concern LGBT people here in Michigan."

Since obtaining that "starter kit," Colyer, a Chicago native, hasn't strayed far from KICK; he started work as their project coordinator last month.

"I'm still kind of learning the ropes," Colyer says. "Everything is so big. It's so enormous and there's so much to learn. I have a thirst for knowledge so I'm just trying to gather everything that I can right now and see where it takes me."

As he chats in a dimly lit Midtown restaurant, he discusses his new job, which is taking him to the Internet, where he's promoting KICK, an agency for LGBT African Americans, and its annual Hotter than July event, at a furious pace.

"I would get hired for one our biggest events," he says with an exaggerated sigh. "I'm kind of thrown to the wolves on this one, but I'm hitting the ground running."

For Colyer, KICK is another in a string of jobs that in some way revolve around his passion, helping people. In Chicago, he dabbled in marketing, presented products in a grocery store and went to school for massage therapy.

Before moving to Detroit, Colyer had hit a string of bad luck. Out of work in Chicago, he had to drop out of community college after a year because he could no longer afford his tuition. His partner of two years, Henry Martin, was moving back to his hometown of Detroit to be closer to his family. Colyer said he followed him to keep the relationship going and because he needed a fresh start.

"I had a period where I was kind of down on my luck," Colyer says. "I couldn't find any work, so just having a change and being able to come somewhere else and saying 'let me start over here and see where it takes me' was kind of my push to come to Detroit."

Power Mapping

So far, the move has paid off. Through KICK, Colyer said he has learned tools, such as "Power Mapping," in which participants "map" strategies to get to the top, and networking that will help in his ultimate goal, mentoring LGBT youth.

"Being in an LGBT community, we're kind of put down a lot," Colyer says. "I don't want anything in the generation beneath me to feel like they are anything less than magnificent. I want them to know that they don't have to settle for neglect. They don't have to settle for discrimination or anything like that. There's so much at our fingertips, and nothing is impossible."

In the program, Colyer and 10 other LGBT young adults met on six Saturdays to discuss LGBT activism, rights and social justice and learn techniques to help them make changes in their community.

"It was learning who's on your side, who's not on your side and how do you get everyone to a happy medium to get your cause pushed to the top and kind of seen through," Colyer says.

Colyer said the conversations were often so interesting, the four-hour sessions flew by before he realized it.

"It never seemed like there was enough time," Colyer says. "It was an amazing program, I love it to death. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life."

But the opportunity may never have happened for Colyer had he not logged into Facebook.

Shortly after moving to Detroit, Colyer, who was then working at the Somerset Macys, was invited via Facebook in February to Kick's winter tea party, its quarterly fundraising event. There, he met KICK Executive Director Curtis Lipscomb.

"We just kind of had a conversation," Colyer says. "Curtis has this divine ability to pull things out of you. He's talking to me and engaging me and gathering my interest and he thought I would be a good fit for the LEAD program. I went to the orientation, and the rest is history."

Through the program, Colyer gained more than tools for social change; he also gained a mentor in Lipscomb, whom he credits with helping to prepare him to take a leadership roll.

"Curtis has kind of taken Marlin and put him on his head," Colyer says. "I'm more accustomed to playing the background, but ...Curtis kind of showed me 'Hey, you need to be in the front and pull other people just like you out, and the rest of the community together."

And to Colyer's surprise, his chance for an out-front role would come before he left the LEAD class. His classmates unanimously voted that he should give the class' graduation speech. He said he was so inspired by the class and by his classmates that he finished writing the speech in 15 minutes.

"I remember thinking to myself 'I've come to learn this whole new group of people, we've literally become a family over the six weeks and what do I want to say that I can speak for them, for the community and also pay homage and give respect to the people who helped us get to this point," Colyer said.

Lipscomb said Colyer's role as a former LEAD student will help him connect with the incoming class.

"He brings a peer-to-peer advantage to the work," Lipscomb said. "He brings insight on how today's movement works."

Paying It Forward

Colyer hopes to hand down all the lessons he learned next fall. His experience with LEAD will come full-circle when he works as a facilitator for the fall LEAD program.

Colyer's passion in LGBT causes started early. Though he's known he was gay since childhood, he came out when he was 16 and said that made him start to pay attention to the adverse treatment some of his peers were getting.

"When you're 16, you're kind of oblivious to things like gay bashing or thinking that if I go get a job there might be a problem for me just being who I am," Colyer said. "Watching all those things progress as I got older and becoming more aware of the problems that are out there for me for an issue that's so small as sexual orientation, it really made me passionate about it. I really feel that when it boils down to it, it really shouldn't be about gay rights because to me they are human rights. We all deserve the right to be human. It's a shame that in the society we live in everything has to be so cut and dry, everyone has to have a label, we have to fit in this box. When it all boils down to it, we all bleed the same color blood."

His activism was also sparked by his 10-year involvement in the Chicago-area ballroom community, in which he acts as a master of ceremonies for LGBT balls and walk-offs.

"It kind of feeds into the whole mindset of people who have been, and not all of us, rejected by society, from our families, from our homes," Colyer says. "We come together as families and nurture each other's talents."

For the Chicago native, the move to Detroit has brought surprises as well as opportunities. Though he has not experienced it firsthand, Colyer said he was outraged to learn that in Michigan people can be fired for being gay or being perceived to be gay and that hate crimes directed at LGBT people are often "brushed off" by the police.

"That's amazing to me, to come from a place where it's kind of tolerated, and I use that term loosely, and come somewhere where it's totally different, its like opposite ends of a card," Colyer says.

Though he's not sure where his love of helping people, especially those in the LGBT community, will take him, he says he is sure whatever he does will he will be to make a positive difference.

"I want to be recognized for being part of the movement," Colyer says. "That's a really big one for me. It doesn't even have to be one of those things where you put me in books or something like that. I just want the opportunity for people to look back and say 'Marlin was one of those that was there for us through thick and thin, that helped us to get past discrimination and bring us together as a community.'"

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