March 30, 2021
Tags: Anytown, Anytown Alumni, Community-Building, Inclusion, Representation,
Jordan T. Robinson (ANYTOWN 2008) helps people tell their stories through art.
Originally from New York but raised and anchored in Greensboro and Charlotte, Jordan studied media design at North Carolina A&T State University (NC A&T) and earned an M.A. in arts administration from Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD.)
Today, he’s an artist, emerging curator, and self-described “socialpreneur and A.I.D. to the community” (A.I.D. = Administrator, Illustrator, Designer.)
A few weeks ago, Jordan reconnected with NCCJ and spoke to us about two exhibits he’s worked on recently: The Soul of Brooklyn and Transparency.
Keep reading for information and links for both exhibits, a deeper discussion of Jordan’s experience working on Transparency as a cisgender man and what he’s learned about allyship, and highlights from his personal journey (notably, a transformative week at ANYTOWN when he was 17) of finding ways to apply his art expertise to connect people, foster empathy, and build community.
The Soul of Brooklyn
At its core, Jordan says, this exhibit “is about reviving the spirit of prosperity that existed in a historically Black neighborhood before it was destroyed by gentrification.”
The Soul of Brooklyn exhibit features the works of contemporary Black artists. It’s displayed at the Mecklenberg Investment Company (the first Black-own, Black-designed and Black-run company in the history of Charlotte) in the heart of the once-thriving, historically Black neighborhood of Brooklyn in Uptown Charlotte. Jordan co-curated the exhibition in partnership with SOZO gallery and The Brooklyn Collective. You can click here for a video tour of the Soul of Brooklyn exhibit.
Transparency centers the experiences of transgender people, seeking to “empower trans people by using the Arts as a platform for them to tell their individual, and collective, stories and regain their own agency.”
Jordan co-curated the Transparency project with Lara Americo, who is an artist, musician and transgender activist.
In 2020, Transparency became the first permanent collection at Guilford Green Foundation. The Foundation offered the physical space of their LGBTQ Center in Greensboro, where the physical Transparency exhibit is located.
Below, Jordan explains how ANYTOWN taught him about allyship and helped prepare him – as a cisgender man – to approach his work on Transparency more thoughtfully and respectfully.
People to People
But first, let’s rewind.
Jordan’s interest in exploring identity and different aspects of diversity began early in life and was shaped by some key experiences during his teen years.
At 14, he took part in a student travel program through People to People, an organization that works to “break cycles of fear and misunderstanding” by sending young Americans around the world to connect with their peers in other countries.
“The idea,” Jordan says, “was to send us out there to form friendships with people of that country, as we all get older and get into forms of leadership and power, that we could have better international relationships with each other. So I was fortunate to be part of that; I went to Greece, Italy and France.”
In addition to ANYTOWN, Jordan says People to People was the other major, formative experience he had “as far as talking about diversity and inclusion and understanding that racism isn’t just an American thing – that racism, colorism, sexism, it’s worldwide. That was a very eye-opening experience.”
ANYTOWN “set the foundations for me”
Jordan’s older brothers, Dexter and Myles, went to ANYTOWN before he did – and “Dexter talked about it a lot,” he remembers. When Jordan was looking for something interesting to do over the summer before his senior year of high school, his brothers and parents teamed up to send him to ANYTOWN.
Jordan calls attending ANYTOWN “a lifechanging experience.”
An aspect of the program that he found especially powerful, he says, were “these very open, honest moments of us sharing our hearts and our perspectives on things and seeing where people are coming from – and not necessarily excusing or justifying the arguments being made, but understanding how people are coming to the conclusions that they’re having. It set the foundations for me to really start thinking about diversity and inclusion. It set my thinking in a particular way for some things that happened afterwards.”
Jordan says he still reflects back on some key lessons he learned at ANYTOWN, such as:
- “Don’t ever take the stereotypes that you’re given, there is always more to the story. There’s more context.”
- “Even though we’re all human and we have a lot of relatable experiences, there are still some differences that need to get acknowledged and respected.”
- “Respect the complexity. I think that’s what’s missing in a lot of debates about policy.”
ANYTOWN helped Jordan to accept that “I don’t know all of it – I don’t know everything” and taught him to ask questions to learn more about others’ experiences and discover how he can become involved in issues that matter to him.
In everything he does, Jordan says, “I still give credit to ANYTOWN. The core things of: asking questions; listening more, talking less; we’re all relatable but our differences also need to be respected; and just taking a moment to see yourself in someone else’s shoes based on what they tell you. Those are the four roots I still rely on as I continue to figure out what it means to be an ally.”
Art for advocacy
Those seeds planted at ANYTOWN began to sprout during Jordan’s time at North Carolina A&T University, where he began to explore contemporary issues of identity and storytelling through art. While working on an exhibition about undocumented people during the 2012-13 school year, he saw how art could be a tool for advocacy.
In the mid-2010s, Jordan was disturbed by the rise in discriminatory rhetoric and policies targeting transgender people (notably North Carolina’s House Bill 2, also called the “bathroom bill.”)
He was particularly horrified, he says, by the videos he saw circulating on social media and YouTube that spread misinformation, such as labeling transgender and nonbinary people as predators, to sway public opinion away from supporting inclusive policies.
Those videos disturbed him, Jordan says, because they “reminded me of going to the Holocaust Museum in New York. There was a space there that had all these everyday items like coasters, ads, table games, entertainment – all kinds of stuff -that depicted Jewish people with these negative stereotypes. And as I was looking at it, I was trying to wrap my head around, like, what exactly got a whole country to co-sign the idea of what they did? It was so odd to me, but those propaganda items resonated with the videos I was watching about the bathrooms.”
As Jordan learned more about trans people and the challenges they face, he found himself asking, “What can I do to help? How can I use my skills and my platform to make a difference?”
He started working on Transparency in 2017, not long after an executive order banning transgender troops in the U.S. armed forces.
“I didn’t know anything about transgender people really until I started this project,” Jordan admits. “Before that I just knew like, ‘some folks don’t identify with the gender assigned to their sex’ – that was all I knew. I didn’t know the issues they go through, the social problems and policies that affect them, until – well, until the bathroom debates and all of this propaganda labeling trans people as mentally ill, or as predators.”
Before beginning to work the art piece of the project, Jordan knew that he needed to make sure he had some foundational knowledge. “I thought back to ANYTOWN,” he says, “and just one of the biggest things I learned there, which is to always ask questions and to listen – to listen more than talk. So I spoke to people in the trans community about what I was doing, that there was going to be a show, and asking how they felt about it – because I’m not trans and I want to help. But I don’t know how to help outside of art, marching, and donations, so I was trying to use my background in the arts as a main platform and figuring out how this can be of service – and if not, how can it be?”
One lesson he quickly learned was that a project focused on telling transgender people’s stories needed more than the participation of trans artists: to be truly representative, the Transparency project needed trans people in leadership.
Jordan accepted this feedback, and Transparency soon gained a trans co-curator. “I met Lara Americo and we became friends as we worked on the project together – we’re still working on some parts of it.”
Today, Transparency is an ongoing project that’s larger than the exhibit at Guilford Green Foundation’s LGBTQ Center. Jordan explains, “There’s a part of the exhibit where people can tell their stories and those stories are kept on my site like a library. I’m currently working on the catalog to help educate viewers – and on ways to find funding to help pay folks for their work.”
When Jordan approached working on the Transparency project, he drew on his identity as a Black man and his own experiences with allyship.
“Growing up,” he said, “I never fully trusted my allies. As young as 4th grade, when I was learning about race and racial tensions, it was nice to have white friends who would stand up for me when someone called me the n-word or said something off-color. But as I got older, I just became more skeptical and more suspicious – like ‘what are your real intentions’ and ‘it’s nice, but what are you doing this for – what do you get out of it?’ I was very skeptical.”
Keeping in mind his own apprehension about would-be allies, Jordan says he was very aware that “working with the transgender community, I took that same role of an ally wanting to be helpful. But I did not expect to be trusted – I’m a cisgender man! Of course I was getting met with skepticism.”
An outcome that Jordan didn’t expect was that his work on Transparency and his efforts to be an authentic ally for trans people would help him navigate his experiences with the people who want to be allies for him, as a Black man– but it has.
“Doing this work is helping me soften the walls I had put up for allies on my behalf. So now with a renewed heart and new vigor, now I’m really interested in how we can further cultivate this environment of support for one another regardless of our backgrounds – but while also acknowledging our differences.”
“Check your intentions.”
Jordan says that one of the key things he’s learned about being an ally and doing advocacy work on behalf of people whose identities differ from his is to regularly check his intentions – and then to make those intentions “very clear” to himself and others.
“When I was working with Transparency,” he says, “I would ask myself every single day, ‘Why are you doing this? What are you getting out of this, if anything? What are you really trying to do right now?’ And I have to have that honest moment with myself.
“There are many different reasons I’m doing this work, including the professional angle. I’m an emerging curator and I didn’t want to wait for someone to give me an opportunity, so I’m making an opportunity.” At the same time, “on a selfless angle, I know I need to do something. Because I know if someone attacked me for being Black or bisexual, I’d want someone else to step in and be like ‘actually no, that’s not the case and here’s why.’”
Jordan continues, “So I have to stop regularly and really assess, what am I operating in when I’m going to these talks or support groups or meeting up with trans friends? Am I really being there and present to be a person? Or is there another agenda? Or both? I need to accept what my intentions are – and if I don’t like them, I need to change them. And if I feel that my intentions are OK, well there it is. But either way I need to make my intentions known.”
“To truly love your neighbor, go learn about them”
Ultimately, Jordan says that his biggest personal drive throughout his life, from what he learned at ANYTOWN to what he’s learned with Transparency project and in his own spiritual journey, boils down to “two major rules” that guide him:
- Love God or love the divine with all your heart and spirit.
- Love your neighbor as yourself.
He says, “I meditate on those and the biggest thing to me is, how can you love somebody who you don’t know – who you don’t make an effort to know – or who you make an assumption that you know? So to truly love your neighbor, go learn about them. Then you can empathize and move forward.”
Resources for Transgender People
GLAAD – Transgender Resources
Guilford Green Foundation: LGBTQ-Friendly Business and Community Resource Guide
It Gets Better Project – You Are Not Alone
The Trevor Project – Resources: Trevor Support Center
Resources for Families & Allies
Human Rights Campaign – Transgender Children & Youth: Understanding the Basics
National Center for Transgender Equality – Supporting the Transgender People in Your Life: A Guide to Being a Good Ally
PFLAG – Our Trans Loved Ones
Trevor Project: A Guide to Being an Ally to Transgender and Nonbinary Youth
What’s YOUR story?
Did you go to ANYTOWN when you were in high school? We’d love to reconnect and hear about what you’re up to these days. Email us and let’s talk!