Milk Makeup x The Center: Joseph Davis is Paying it Forward
We’ve introduced you to The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center; now, meet one of its foremost members: Joseph Davis. If anyone at The Center personifies their mission of youth empowerment with near perfection, it’s him. A former Center attendee (his first encounter with the place was a somewhat involuntary introduction at the ripe age of 16), Davis now serves as its Youth Substance Use Engagement Specialist, guiding those who, just maybe, will one day follow in his footsteps.
Davis is just one of many success stories that The Center, led by Executive Director Glennda Testone, boasts. In light of these successes—both the ones already achieved, and the ones we’re still striving toward—The Center has teamed up with Milk Makeup to create one glowy AF Pride Glitter Stick, with 50 percent of the proceeds benefitting the space. It’s a sparkly, substantive move that Davis is more than happy to get behind; read his full story below.
If you could tell me about how you first heard about The Center—I know that you used to be in the youth program, so I’d love to start at the very beginning of your experience.
When I first got introduced to The Center, I was 16. Oh my god, this was so long ago! [Laughs] I was looking to feel included, looking for some community and some support. A good friend of mine was told me about The Center and was like, “Hey, we should go by The Center” and I had told my friend, “No, I don’t want to go there, I’m not ready,” and then what happened was, my friend tricked me into coming to The Center, which was interesting. He was like, “Let’s hang out after school,” and what happened was, we came to The Center and I was like, “Oh my god, I don’t know if I want to walk in here,” but when I walked in, the space felt really comfortable, really inclusive—it was very, very warm. It had that warm home feeling. In my head it was like, it’s not because it’s winter time—it’s literally because there is so much love in the space, that made it very warm for me to be in. I felt the support right away; the staff, as soon as you walked into the door, wanted to meet your needs. They were on point; they knew exactly what I wanted or what I was looking for, they knew exactly what direction to steer me in, and it was great.
Do you feel like that love and support that you found at The Center was missing in some other part of your life, and that’s why your friend wanted you to go there so bad?
Well, yes. At the time I was struggling with a lot of family issues. At the time, my father wasn’t in the picture, and he walked out due to the fact that I was LGBT.
Yeah, and so he sort of blamed my mom for me being LGBT, so he walked out of our lives. So, not feeling like I was supported in that way—like, my mom was very supportive but I felt like my dad could’ve been there and could’ve been in the picture. And then, in school I was feeling isolated; I was the LGBT one and then there was everybody else, right? It was like, bad things was happening back to back, and I didn’t feel like I belonged. So my friend, when he introduced me to The Center, he was like, “Well this is the space where I built my friendships.” So to know that he built some friendships here, and that I could do the same thing—it was amazing. Once I came here, I felt that love and support that was missing. When I walked into the space, I got that feeling of comfort, that feeling of belonging or being. That was amazing. That’s something that can’t be coming back, and it’s crazy cause the first time I came here, I literally came every. Single. Day. [Laughs] Because this was the place where all our friends met up, we hung out here—we hung out in the garden space. This was the place where we build community, literally.
That’s so cool. So how did you go from there to being on staff? Was it just a natural progression of your involvement?
You know, no it didn’t happen like that. [Laughs] What happened was, when I first got here, I knew that there were youth leaders in the space, and I didn’t know what that meant. Just to see the roles that they were in and to see how they were supportive to me, I wanted to be that for someone else. I kept telling myself, “I’m gonna be that. That’s who I wanna be.” So, I met one young person who was a youth leader, and I asked them, “How do I get to be where you are?” And it was like just, “You have to participate in internships and follow the ground rules” and things like that, and I was like “Okay, well maybe I could do that! That seems a bit easy.” [Laughs] But it went from being just that, to me just really genuinely being involved in everything that happens at The Center. Like, being involved in internship opportunities, even volunteering—sometimes I would just volunteer. And it’s because I genuinely wanted to help, right? I wanted to support my peers, I wanted to help the space grow. What happened was, at the time, there was a thing called “Foster Care Project” and I used to have some experience in foster care. I didn’t want to talk about that part of my life at first. I was like, “I don’t want to talk about it, I don’t want anybody to know about it,” but then I started to feel like if I’m not talking about it, then it might be other young people who’s not talking about it, and we need to have these conversations about what’s happening to young folks in foster care, especially LGBT folks. So, at the time, I got introduced to the Foster Care Project, so that was the internship I did, and I was so dedicated and I worked tirelessly around learning the training and training staff—like, as a young person, I was training the actual staff on LGBT policy. And that was empowering to me, so I did that for a while, and I was like, “You know what? This is what I want to do, this is the road I want to go down.” Then this position sort of popped up out of nowhere. [Laughs] The position was an Advisor position for the Foster Care Project. It sort of popped up, and for some reason, it spoke to me. I felt like I had all of the qualifications that I needed. I was like, these are all—this is for me! Like, somebody wrote this for me! So I applied for it and at first, I thought that I wasn’t gonna get it. I was like, “Oh my god, I’m just gonna apply, I don’t know if I’m gonna get it, I might not get it, blah blah blah.” [Laughs] The crazy part about it is I got hired, and I literally cried. Because it was a dream to be a staff. I was crying because I was so happy to be a part of the movement in a more leadership capacity. Being a part of the movement and being a young person as a part of the movement—sometimes you feel like you are limited to the fight. But when you are somebody in such a leadership role, you feel like you are contributing to the fight. There’s a different type of thing that you’re putting in to make sure that people are living happy lives. So once that happened, then I told myself, working with people in foster care, I’ve noticed that a lot of drugs and alcohol have been coming up in a lot of their stories. So, I told was like, “Oh my God this is not okay,” if I deserve to live happy and healthy, then young people deserve to live happy and healthy. So I said, “I need to do something about this. I can’t let this go unnoticed.” So I applied for this position that I’m in now, the engagement position, and that allowed me not only to be a full-time staff, but also for me to work with young people and make sure that they live happy and healthy lives and thrive in adulthood.
So what is that experience like, just being on the other side of the equation and being able to give back?
It’s incredible. Because with my young people all the time, I use this mantra: “Nothing about us without us.” And the reason why I use that is because it’s about our young people right? Like, our young people’s voices will never go unnoticed with us, you know? We value youth’s voice, and I think that being able to give back to my young people who are coming in now has been such an amazing experience. It has been my life. [Laughs] It has been something I do every single day. Even when I go home, I think about new strategies on how to engage young folks, I think about what ways we can work better as a team of staff, and making sure that young people’s needs are met. I’m always on top of what we’re doing to make sure that young people are being heard and wanted and feeling safe and supported. So it has been amazing and I definitely love this work. I love working with young people—I think that young people need this time of support in order for them to thrive and live happy.
Yeah. And I mean, young people are the future.
Yeah! And it’s all about making that platform for them. One thing that I love so much is—once I got hired here and seen all the great work I’ve done—they created a trend for it. Like, young people have an opportunity to be staff. So, there’s another young person who got hired—there’s a few young people who got hired here at The Center, who are now on the other side of the fence who are fighting a great fight now, as well. Which I think is pretty awesome, to have that—it’s empowering to have that. We created this trend making sure that young people not only that they are helping us with the fight, but they are leadership in this fight of social justice.
That’s amazing. Do you have any particularly memorable moments or favorite memories from your work with The Center.?
Yeah. I have a few. [Laughs] My first memorable moment in working at The Center—I think it was a young person came up to me with a card. And I didn’t know what it was, so it was a card and they were like, “Oh this is for you.” And I was like, “Okay!” you know, whatever. I open the card and there’s a stone inside of it, and it says that this stone represents the energy that you bring to all of us. And I loved that. I got teary-eyed, I got goose pumps. I was like, “Oh my God.” And this is because this young person was struggling with their substance use and some other things, and being the first contact person for them, or being the person to engage them in programs and services and the follow-up—because that is a thing that I love to do is follow up with young folks and making sure they are living happy, healthy, and staying sober. I think that making people feel like they’re being fully supported has been something natural. And being somebody authentic has been natural. So that’s one experience that really touched me. I think another experience that I love at The Center is when other organizations call up and ask to partner or ask for us to come in and support them in what they’re doing. Because, that shows that we are willing to fight the fight as a whole community and not by ourselves. I think that’s the powerful thing—people are always us like, “Hey, can you come in and do this or that.” And that kind of shows that we are all moving in the same direction and that’s very powerful too. So those are two great experiences that I have.
I’m sure you have thousands!
Oh, I do. I could go on and on! [Laughs] I could go on and on and on.
[Laughs] And I hear that you also founded SNAP while you were doing all of this? How did that all come about?
Oh, so I founded SNAP when I was 16! [Laughs]
Oh my goodness.
Literally, the first year I came here. So, I was in this internship when I first came here. It was called PLL, and at the time it was called EYES, but they’re the same thing. Back then our program was called the Yes Program, so I was working at the entertainment desk. The goal was to get the message about HIV and AIDS out to our peers by using events and verbal tactics. It was a great internship. Doing that internship, I got introduced to vogueing. I kept telling myself, once I got introduced to vogueing, because we threw a ball, and I was like, “Oh my god, I wanna vogue, I wanna do it, this is something that I love. I feel free, I feel alive, I just wanna do it!” So, at the time we had a dance group ran by me and another young person, cause I really loved to dance. I started the dance group with another young person—we had help from a former staff member who was here, Raul. He’s such a great person. So, he helped us run a dance group here and he taught us, in the dance group, how to vogue. From there, we were like, “We need to star a group, we’re just vogueing, freestyle vogueing.” And we literally for a whole week were trying to think of a name, the whole time. And I messaged him through email saying like, hey, “What about SNAP?” And he was like “Yessss.” Because when someone will be dropping to the floor, we call that a dip, so every time somebody dips, we snap. So that’s why we called in SNAP. So once we founded SNAP, SNAP has been meeting ever since. It has been 10 years. 10 long years. But it feels like we just started this yesterday. [Laughs] So many people have been a part of the SNAP program and it has made such a positive impact on young people. There’s some young people who have been part of the snap program who are now dancers, entertainers, they are touring with people like Rihanna.
Yeah, and they’re vogueing for them and touring for them. So it’s really interesting to see how snap has graduated so many young people into being out in the world and doing many things, which I think is really awesome.
Yeah. And do you guys perform?
So we do have a dance troop that’s a part of SNAP, and they perform which is really awesome.
Well, we’ll come out and see you guys if you have vogueing shows!
Yeah, definitely! That would be awesome. We usually throw a ball once a year, but our dance troop right now I think are going to be putting on a show at the end of the summer.
Amazing. Well, my last question is just, as far as the future of The Center and its impact on the city, what is your vision for that and for your program?
My hope for The Center as a whole is that people who are disconnected get connected. I think that my dream for The Center is that it becomes the temple for social justice, and community organizing. The reason why I say that is because, in what’s going on in our world right now, the ones who are disconnected from The Center are scared and don’t know where to turn to. And The Center will be the place that they can turn to for support and services and community, right? And also for organizations who don’t know where to start, when it comes down to the fight. They can start here; they can start with us. The goal is that we have to be able to stand together, and I always go by that—strength in numbers. The more numbers we show to our legislative—and the president and officials—the more we show that we are not going down without a fight, you know? And that we need to stand tall. It goes back to that Glennda saying, “At pride, we are all little sparks of glitter, we shine bright. But we’re not afraid to shine when it’s dark.” I think that that’s the thing. In our world right now, it’s a bit dim, and we are still shining, we’re still going, we’re still fighting, and we are able to collaborate and connect people and make people be a part of our fight, or our road to equality and justice. I think that’s something I would love to see The Center do, if it could be that temple for community and social justice. And I would love for SNAP to continue to work and be a part of The Center forever. [Laughs] And allowing young people to be able to come here and use it as an outlet, especially in our world that is discriminatory of sexual orientation and gender identity, that young people will feel like the need to be like, “Hey, this is a place where I can go and not feel like I’m being judged or discriminated against.” And those are for the disconnected young people. So I definitely think that for the ones who are disconnected, for them to get connected, I think that’s something I would love to see happen. I would love to see us be the monument. I want The Center to be the place in New York City where everybody can come and get support and services and build community. I would love to see that. Because I think that right now, there’s a lot of faults in the system. But to be a space where everybody could come, that would be extraordinary.
Featured video courtesy of Milk Makeup
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