“We’re able to create representation and say we’re here, we matter, and we’re present, and for people who aren’t part of the community to see that we have a voice and we are going to represent ourselves."
-Stephanie Mills, Program Director at Hudson Pride Center
Stephanie Mills is the Director of Programs for Hudson Pride Center. Since joining the HPC team in 2011, she has maintained an active role on the Hudson County Alliance to End Homelessness committee, Hudson County HIV/AIDS Planning Council, Jersey City AIDS Task Force, Partners In Prevention’s Board of Trustees, and has contributed tremendous efforts to creating safer spaces throughout Hudson County for our LGBTQ+ community. She was born and raised in Paterson, NJ and is an alumna of William Paterson University.
Among Stephanie’s proudest moments are: becoming a parent, receiving the “Member of Excellence '' award (Americorps) and being featured in the Business Equality Magazine (Top 40 under 40 LGBTQ+ Leaders). Her overall goal is to empower members of the LGBTQ+ community to become leaders and cultivate self-sufficiency.
Stephanie on why it’s important to achieve policies in New Jersey that welcome and support immigrants to become rooted economically, politically and socially within the state…
As always, if not, we're going to see worse situations. As a nation, if we don't give folks things that they need to survive, we're going to have an apocalypse, which is where we're headed. Folks who are here and found a way to be here- I don't think we should punish them for finding their way. If you want to keep things safer, you have to give people access to things like healthcare, housing, great medical and mental health counseling, all of these things so that they can create a stable, independent, healthy lifestyle. If not, we're going to keep dealing with things like this pandemic. We have all these things happening and we can't find the answers and we can't contain it, but if people were able to live comfortably, we wouldn't have to worry about it. So I think it's important to make policies to fight for folks who are immigrants because they're here, and they need to be protected too. We all want human rights, so let's just give folks exactly that. We’re born into that. Otherwise, we're just going to be dealing with pandemic after pandemic. We had the HIV epidemic, COVID, the LGBTQ+ movement, and I'm Black, so I don't know if that's an epidemic or pandemic in itself. You have to give people what they need to be good, because if not, they're all going to be bad.
Who Stephanie is, what she does, and why she does it…
My name is Stephanie Mills, my pronouns are she/her, and I’m the Director of Programs at Hudson Pride Center. With that role I get to oversee our outreach initiatives, our social platforms that allow our folks to interact with peers about issues that they’re facing in their community, and to really celebrate their diversity. I also oversee staff, so I’m responsible for scheduling and making sure that we’re really represented in different arenas, so you’ll see us at different community centers, participating in community events, you’ll see us in medical facilities, or schools, you know we’re really everywhere that there’s a sense of community. We’re just trying to create safer spaces.
I first started with HPC in 2011. My goal was different then- I engaged directly with our youth and young adults with that program, and it was super empowering to lead a program where I saw myself plenty of times. When I first saw the position available, it was sent to me and I was like “Wow this is literally me!”, you know. I get to be paid for being LGBTQ+ and for supporting youth that have gone through challenges that I’ve been through when I was younger when I didn’t have this platform or resources. I was very proud to even apply for the position, and I ended up being awarded it. It really made me want to go super hard and make sure that the youth understood that they had a space and organization that was behind them. We needed the Youth Connect Program to represent them, and to do that, we needed them in the forefront. They were very much involved with program planning, and giving us ideas that they wanted to see happen or where we should go for outreach. So I do it because if not me or someone else in the community, who else is going to take on this role? I feel like I’m obligated to work to create safer spaces and support our youth with the tools to take on leadership roles, because one day I’m not going to be at HPC and we would love to have someone who was a Youth Connect member be considered to take on this position. That’s why I do it. To make sure that our community has a voice.
Stephanie on some of Hudson Pride Centers’ recent successes, current campaigns, and initiatives…
This might take a little while, we have a whole lot happening at Hudson Pride. So we’re grant funded to do specific things, one of them being outreach. For one particular program, it’s designed for folks specifically living with HIV, so we go out to the community, find folks who are eligible, enroll them, and help them get linked to medical care and stay adherent to their medication. With COVID-19 we’ve been utilizing other platforms to engage with folks that we normally wouldn’t see at Hudson Pride. When I say that I mean that we had an open mic for our Lez Fest group, the lesbian, bisexual, and queer identifying people. It was virtual, so we saw that we had folks from Africa and Canada, and we thought “Why have we never done this before?” We had access to areas that weren’t even on our radar. Overall, I think our success is from community leaders, our supporters, and our members in addition to the staff, board and volunteers. HPC really is a community, and everyone has a role to play for us to be successful, and that’s why I think we are- we have amazing staff leaders who are dedicated to similar visions. We’re all about creating safer spaces, and we’re all like superheroes! Everyone has their own superpower and attribute that they bring to HPC to make us so awesome. So we have all these amazing folks who are dedicated to creating a safer space for our community come together and commit to specific outreach and PrEP programs, taking on event planning and social support with the program, along with a magnificent board who can hear you and utilize their network and privilege to uplift you.
I talked to you a little about Lez Fest, we also have Youth Connect, which is a program tailored for youth and young adults ages 13-24. We have SAGE for our seasoned LGBTQ+ community, Beyond the Binary, which is for the Trans and Non-Binary communities, and it’s so important to highlight those specific groups because it’s a platform for those communities to come together with their peers who they may not see in person. Although we have a presence in Hudson County and Jersey City, when it comes down to it, we don’t always get to see each other that much. For Beyond the Binary, we have had voice coaches come in and talk about that process, we’ve had medical providers that have offered reassignment surgeries and talk about the process and what is needed, so it helps folks prepare for that journey so that they have less barriers.
For HPC, we now have Trans specific services. We previously didn’t have grant funds for Hormone Replacement Therapy, but after hearing our community and having an amazing leader like our Executive director, Liz, meet with the mayor and county folks and tell them that this is what we needed, we were able to secure small amounts of money to help folks who can’t afford to pay out of pocket when it comes to things like HRT, name change, or gender marking change. We know how valuable that is for folks to have, to have their documents align with their presentation. Again, it’s eliminating some of those barriers. The evolution of HPC has been really successful with leaders and our granters, we’re able to discuss the trends in what we’re seeing so we can request for different funding. HPC has been in existence since 1993, practically 30 years ago. The needs that we started out with in 1993 are different now. Now we’re able to communicate with our granters and community and say “This is what we’re seeing. X amount of LGBTQ+ people are dealing with homelessness. We need to have a LGBTQ+ shelter here” We just had an adult prom fundraiser this past Friday, and it was so phenomenal to be in a space with political leaders, college university reps, high school staff and just party together. Usually we’re working on something LGBTQ+ related, but to be in a space where we can really get to know them on a different level is awesome. We had young adults who aged out of Youth Connect who were able to come, and it was phenomenal to introduce those same youth in our programs to folks who made sure we had what we needed for those programs.
What Pride month means to Stephanie, personally and by being a part of Hudson Pride Center…
This is a great question! Pride has a couple of layers here. First and foremost, Pride is awareness. We’re able to create representation and say we’re here, we matter, and we’re present, and for people who aren’t part of the community to see that we have a voice and we are going to represent ourselves. So that first layer is just to say that we exist. The second layer is for us to celebrate! Celebrate the progress that we have made and celebrate our community leaders who are working hard to create a safer space to make the changes that we want to see happen. And last, definitely advocacy. We still have barriers that are placed in front of us that we have to demolish, so it continues on with the advocacy to make that change. So Pride for me is a combination of all three, its representation, celebration, and advocacy, all of that meshed into one. Pride means community needs. Folks who share that LGBTQ+ identity, who can relate to each other on some level, coming together saying “I see you, I’m here for you, I support you, we’re in this together”. So I think Pride for me is definitely community.
What continues to be a large misconception of the queer community and what can we do to address it?
I think a large misconception when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community is that to be any letter in the acronym means that you have to look a certain way or fit a certain mold. If I had to dig into it a little bit deeper, and I’ll use myself as an example (I’ve talked to my relatives a lot about Pride and they feel comfortable asking me questions that they may not ask someone else), I have a relative who always expresses to me that he sees lesbian women a certain way, and that’s because of his experience with or meeting lesbians. So because of his experience with those particular women, he based his outlook on the whole community, so at times I have to reel him in and remind him, “I know you had that experience but they don’t speak for all of us, they speak for a small part of that particular community” Another misconception is that we have some agenda to convert people to LGBTQ+, and that goes to show that people don’t understand how it works being LGBTQ+. Like, you can’t convert someone! When we fight for our rights, people who aren’t LBGTQ+ are like, “We feel like you’re trying to take over”. And we’re like, “No, we just want you to stop killing us and stop having laws that prevent us from having the same things that you’re able to have!” Another misconception: All gay men are not going to have HIV in their lifetime. Not only gay men live with HIV. We need to break down the stigma around that, and attach facts to it. And last but not least, Black Trans women. We know that Black Trans women face the most violence. I wanted to put that out there because we need to do a better job of protecting our Black Trans folks. I don’t know if that ties to the question, but I definitely wanted to put that out because I’m not sure which stigma contributes the most to the violence that comes upon Black Trans women, but I hope it stops, so note to the public: Stop killing our Black Trans women.
How is the struggle for queer liberation linked to the fight for racial justice? What can we learn from both movements?
It’s linked by just the fact that we’re fighting for equality. When you look at race, gender identity, sexual orientation, it all comes back to identity factors. These are the attributes of my identity. So when I think of the way that I'm fighting for humanity as a Black person, I'm also fighting for humanity as a non straight person. So they are linked because I'm fighting for human rights on different levels- my ethnicity, my heritage, the way I identify, the way I present to people. I’m fighting for humanity twice- squared even-, which makes this super hard. There's even a dual conflict with the intersection of being Black and being LGBTQ+, because now when I go into spaces that are exclusively black, I'm fighting for my LGBTQ+ identity to be heard and seen and respected. When I'm in spaces that are exclusively LGBTQ+, I'm fighting for my cultural identity to be seen, heard and respected. So the fight is the same, it's just two different- Or now that I'm thinking about it, is there really a difference? I don't know. They're both identity factors so I don't know if there's a huge difference. One is linked to my lineage, and one is linked to how I identify. So if there is a difference, one battle I was born into- the race battle. I was born Black. It's not like I came out and said I identify as Black. While I feel like I was born into the LGBTQ+ identity, I had to come out. One struggle I was born into, and the other one, I voiced my identity and it makes it another struggle right there.
Stephanie’s favorite pastimes and joys in these current turbulent times…
I love going outside and being near big bodies of water. I'm from Paterson, New Jersey, and luckily we have the Great Falls there, so I love just looking out into the water. I love going to Atlantic City and hanging out by the beach. I went to Asbury about a week and a half ago. I love being by the water where I can lose thought, and just letting my thoughts flow, but still not having a whole bunch at the same time. Just like a way to relax. I love looking at stars at night by the beach, that's really dope. I think it does something to my soul, and it's different from everyday city life. Of course, spending time with my kid, my princess! Her name is Kennedy, pronouns she/her. She's six, and going to be seven in October. Just her personality- she’s able to make me smile with a joke, and she loves knock knock jokes.
Learn more about Hudson Pride Center here!