Arts & Life, Features

Higgins gets involved

As students poured into the Multicultural Center at last semester’s end-of-the-year debriefing for some free Panda Express, many stop and talk to a recognizable face: Assistant Director of Multicultural Affairs Jon Higgins.

He and co-assistant director Christian Lozano greeted visitors at their holiday dinner, where students gathered to unwind and share one last time before the finals stretch.

“He always makes us laugh,” Lozano said. Sometimes you just need that when you’re always working, and things are serious.”

Higgins has been in the position since August of 2015 and has already made an impact at Cal State Long Beach.

“Jon, you can tell, is super passionate about his work and about helping the student body and marginalized communities,” student assistant at the Office of Multicultural Affairs Kaylee Ioane.  “Working with him is motivating, personally he makes we want to be more active in our community issues and social issues.”

Much of the Office of Multicultural Affairs’ programing is stemmed from his initiative. Higgins said he likes to offer programs with a strong theory-to-practice concept, like presentations of knowledge and advice for working through struggles, and information about the LGBT community and members’ identity-related experiences.

“I tend to be very hardcore in relation to that idea of, how do we get folks to understand other walks of different lives?” Higgins said. “How can we provide more of an insight into the intersection of experiences that our students have?”

After an incident last semester that involved a white male student displaying a knife to a black female student during class, there were issues of trust between students and the faculty that handled it – specifically, campus police. Higgins said this influenced him to assure people don’t feel silenced this academic year.

“I’m going to do as much as I can to make sure that I’m providing spaces and room for students to come into a space and feel like their voices and their experiences matter,” Higgins said.

To that end, Higgins started a group last year called “What’s the Tea?,” a closed space for queer people of color every Tuesday in the LGBT Resource Center, which evolved into him working closely with [Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies] and other LGBT faculty and staff. This all led to Higgins teaching a women’s studies course last year that focused around queer theory, which includes both readings of queer texts and the theorisation of “queerness” itself.

“I kind of infused a lot of that with content and concepts related to queer people of color issues,” he said. “So we learned a lot about Bayard Rustin, we learned a lot about Audre Lorde, we learned a lot about misogynoir.”

As an administrator, he extended national coming out day into the full month of “OUTober” and started the month with event relating to suicide, as suicide statistics are highest amongst LGBT individuals. This segued into a project he had wanted to do called “Coming Out Monologues.”

“How do folks talk about their own coming out? I feel like folks will ask sometimes ‘tell me more about your coming out story,’ but it’s never done in a way that actually centers the voice of the queer individual,” Higgins said. “It’s always done from kind of a tokenized place.”

As a queer man of color himself, Higgins is passionate about the representation of himself and others who’ve had similar experiences.

“OUTober was a really big month for me,” he said. “It was the first time on this campus that we’ve centered a month of programing around LGBTQ people specifically, even intersecting LGBTQ conversations for people of color.”

By creating the programing he’s made at CSULB and at his previous position as a housing area coordinator at Cal State San Bernardino, he has extended an olive branch to others like himself who grew up feeling underrepresented.

“In my very early ages of coming out, especially about 10 or 11, ‘The RuPaul Show’ was on television,” Higgins said. “He was the only black man I knew that looked like me, that sounded like me, that walked like me, that talked like me.”

He said his “rude awakening” was when he came out in college and realized his experience as a queer person of color would always be different from the experience of a white, queer individual due to his identity not only as a non-heterosexual person but also as a black man.

CSUSB didn’t have programs geared specifically for queer people of color, like the ones he’s initiated at CSULB. So, when he became a faculty member there he strived to correct that imbalance.

In his five years at CSUSB he started the LGBT campus climate committee, lavender graduation, and a Conference Q summit. He said other faculty would come to him exclaiming their gratitude for his initiatives, but no one ever came up with program ideas of their own.

“It was always me being the one going, ‘Why is the inequality here?’” Higgins said.

He approaches that issue not only in his personal life and professional life as an administrator, but also as a blogger, a writer for The Root — one of the leading black-culture online magazine and as a speaker at both local and national forums.

“I’ve utilized that as my total platform and how do we have conversations about racial issues and queer issues and how do we merge those together to open up that can that basically says being queer and black is not as easy as people contend it to be,” Higgins said.

Higgins said that his is a story of resilience, and one of his favorite anecdotes is, “The hood raised me but education saved me.”

He grew up in a single-parent home, and his mom worked two to three jobs when he was growing up. He worked three jobs himself to get through his undergraduate, two jobs to get his master’s and worked full time while earning his doctorate.

“The struggle has always been real for me, but I’ve ultimately learned a lot from that struggle,” Higgins said. “I don’t like my story to be framed as ‘Oh he made it, he’s queer and he’s black and he made it and he’s so great.’ No, don’t frame my story like that. Frame it from this place of, ‘no matter what I’ve been through I’ve always been able to overcome.’”

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