Robt Seda-Schreiber believes that open and respectful conversation is a key first step for building a more just society. He will share his experience as an activist, teacher, and community builder in a panel discussion on LGBTQI cultural competencies Wednesday, January 30, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice (BRCSJ) at 21 Wiggins Street, Princeton. For information visit www.rustincenter.org or call 609-273-1650.
Seda-Schreiber, BRCSJ’s founder and chief activist, will moderate the discussion, and will be joined by panelists Alex Aikens, program manager of HiTOPS, a sexual health education and support organization for teens, also located at 21 Wiggins Street; and Michele Mazakas, member of PFLAG/TNET-Princeton, which provides support and resources for parents, families, and allies united with the LGBTQI communities.
Panelists will discuss language and terms associated with the LGBTQI community (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, queer, intersex) and will cover definitions of sexual orientation and gender identity and how the two interact; changing our systems, policies and procedures to be inclusive and non-binary; how to be a good ally to the LGBTQI community; and more. More details about the discussion are available on the website of the Princeton Public Library, which co-sponsors the event: www.princetonlibrary.org.
Seda-Schreiber named BRCSJ after Bayard Rustin, an activist and the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, one of the largest nonviolent protests ever held in the United States. As a confidant of Martin Luther King Jr., he brought Gandhi’s protest techniques to the American civil rights movement and helped mold King into an international symbol of peace and nonviolence.
Despite these achievements, Rustin was silenced and almost forgotten, largely because he was an openly gay man who would not disavow who he was nor whom he loved. “This cannot and will not happen again,” says Seda-Schreiber, who refers to BRCSJ as a home base for communicating the message of acceptance, respect, and compassion.
The center offers mentoring, consulting, speaking engagements, business development, performing and visual arts direction, advocacy, writing services, and education for communities, schools, and the workplace. Starting in February, the center will be offering activities for adults and children including workshops, story hours, and fundraising events. A grand opening is planned for Saturday, March 2.
Seda-Schreiber learned about the importance of being accepted when he was 11 years old. “I think it was a real epiphany for me,” he says, speaking of a conversation his parents had after his grandfather died. “He was kind, big-hearted, and a wonderful man, but he was also a man of his times.” His son (Seda-Schreiber’s uncle), a gay man, felt he had to keep that fact a secret until his father died. It was only then that he was able to acknowledge who he was, says Seda-Schreiber.
“Conversations are how we open up and become better allies for one another,” he says. “Learning and understanding is the very foundation. We communicate by listening for the most part, but by sharing ourselves as well.” Asking questions in a respectful way with the intention to learn is the only way we grow, he says, and emphasizes that we need to be willing to ask hard questions, even if they cause us to feel uncomfortable.
Seda-Schreiber finds that people within a community share common experiences but also have individual experiences. We are all our own people, and we each represent ourselves even when we align ourselves with a particular community, he says. Each and every one of us is our own person.
“I want every individual, whether in a school, a workplace, or in everyday life, to feel safe, protected, and to feel loved,” he says. “If you fight for one group, you’re fighting for yourself. If one group moves a step forward, we all move forward because it allows the opportunity for all of us to be recognized and respected.”
Seda-Schreiber attributes his commitment to inclusion and justice to his parents, Steve and Barbara.
“I marched on Washington in the womb. My parents never formally talked to me about respect, and they never espoused support for one group or another. It was just in their behavior.
“Our home was the place where friends, family, and members of different communities could come and feel welcomed and safe. This was my foundation for creating a safe space. I’ve just continued that on a grand scale here,” he says.
When Seda-Schreiber was growing up, his father was a systems analyst for Nasdaq and worked in the World Trade Center. His mother was an office controller for the New York interior designer David Easton, and today she serves as the treasurer of BRCSJ. His father comes in to help out once a week, and he also volunteers at Home Front, where he tutors people studying for their GED. “My parents inspire me each and every day,” he says. “They are involved with everything that we do in large and small ways.”
Seda-Schreiber acknowledges his wife Cyndi, a public defender in Trenton, for showing him the value of perseverance and strength. He finds inspiration from Carol Watchler, BRCSJ’s community outreach coordinator, who has worked more than 25 years on sexual orientation and gender identity concerns. He is also supported by Kelsey Marziale, an intern from Rider University.
Seda-Schreiber holds a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers, where he studied psychology and women’s studies. He also studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York. He shortened his first name to “Robt” when he was signing his artwork.
Before becoming the chief activist at BRCSJ, Seda-Schreiber taught art at the Melvin H. Kreps Middle School in Hightstown, the school he had once attended as a student. There, he launched the Gay Straight Alliance, and in 2017, he received the Social Justice Activist Award from the National Education Association. After nearly 25 years of working in the school district, he realized it was time to expand his reach and opened the justice center.
Referring to himself as “a straight white guy,” Seda-Schreiber does not claim to speak in place of those he represents but to be a conduit, a bridge between communities.
“That’s how I see my role as chief activist at the center and for all the events that we hold within this space and all the outreach we do outside of this space,” he says. “I always wanted to bring voices to other places so we can be good allies and keep the conversation going and make the pace a little bit faster. It is an honor that I get to do this work every day.”
Seda-Schreiber sees himself as “a very lucky man.” The foundation of his work is rooted in respecting folks and working with other people to do the same. “There’s nothing better than that,” he says.