Interview by Sylvie Lerner
Michael Stubbs is from Bermuda, born and raised. But he’s lived most of his life elsewhere, including significant time in New England, New York, London, Paris and LA, where he’s spent a good part of the past 20+ years. Michael originally came out to California to work in the film business. Michael and Bill Resnick married in 2014.
Bill’s a native Angeleno. He and Michael live in West Hollywood and part-time in Big Bear, CA, where Bill founded Big Bear Retreat Center a few years ago. Bill and his siblings manage a joint philanthropic fund and starting several years ago they wanted to focus specifically on equity in Black communities, so, together with their advisor Kaci Patterson and leaders of involved organizations, they started the Black Equity Initiative. That recently evolved into the Black Equity Collective. He is very proud to have been part of its founding. Bill is also a psychiatrist and mindfulness teacher.
Sylvie: What moment got you into social justice and what is one moment that has kept you going?
Michael: I can’t pinpoint a single specific moment that propelled me into social justice, so much as I can recall an awareness always growing up of my privilege — and my difference (and sameness). I also found joy in public service as exemplified by my father, who was a surgeon and elected Member of Parliament in Bermuda.
Not to gloss over Bermuda’s troubling history (or my own family’s involvement) in connection with the trans-Atlantic slave trade and racial injustice over the centuries, but I was blessed to grow up in an environment where my closest friends and neighbors were Black — as were my parents’ closest friends and colleagues (including two of my younger siblings’ God-parents). We had shared and aligned dreams with respect to mutual success and fulfillment.
The gross inequities with respect to segregated housing/neighborhoods, employment opportunities, access to capital, over-policing/mass-incarceration I have seen in America have always felt deeply troubling to me.
If there’s a single event that propelled me out of concerned awareness into action as an adult, I would credit that to Carol Biondi, who took me to visit a probation “camp” in the Malibu Hills one Saturday morning. To meet those kids — all of whom were Black or Brown, most of them foster children — and learn that not one of them in their 18–19 years of life growing up within 20 miles of where I live today had enjoyed a rewarding, supportive — non-punitive! — relationship with a white person really shocked my conscience. I gained a deep awareness of the realities of their existence and now I can’t turn away because I know I can actually do something about this.
Now, when I hear about this or that demonized population, specific people come to my mind: because I know people who were incarcerated (for a variety of reasons, sometimes trifling, sometimes serious, and in at least one case as a result of fabricated evidence procured by a crooked cop), who were sex workers, who were addicted to drugs, who entered/remained in this country without documentation, who were cast out for any number of reasons. And I know them to be fine people. Even among the finest people. And I am honored to call them my friends and collaborators.
There isn’t a single experience that spurs me on, only because there are so many that I lose track. Last year’s significant CDT-powered wins with Holly Mitchell and George Gascòn felt incredibly rewarding, but no more so than the experience of growing and learning with local community members (and befriending them) to secure those victories. Canvassing with our friend, Susan Burton, All of Us or None and Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People & Families Movement in Orlando to achieve victory for Florida’s Amendment 4 — the restoration of voting rights for formerly incarcerated people — was another standout moment from an earlier election cycle.
Bill: There aren’t specific moments that come to mind for me. Growing up without a lot of structural challenges in my life, fairly well off, I didn’t personally experience issues of discrimination until coming out. Feeling like an outsider as a gay person in a time when it was harder to be come out — and to be out — compared to how it is now, made me sensitive to groups and communities that didn’t have full access to rights. Even within that I was still in a privileged position, but feeling different made me more sensitive to larger issues. Also, coming from a family that believed in giving back (my mother was a school nurse and my father was always philanthropic), gave me a sense of how to be of service if you’re in a position where you can be. Later in adulthood I really began to understand how much inequity there still is in our country. Until more recently, I had only a vague sense of racism and its effects. In the last 10 years I’ve become even more aware.
Sylvie: How did you get involved in CDT, and what keeps you involved?
Michael: We met Ludovic [Blain, CDT’s Director], in DC at a Democracy Alliance convening several years ago. It was love at first conversation for me. We joined the DA in the hopes of changing our political strategy: essentially supporting people we know and/or candidates proposed by friends, then crossing our fingers and hoping for the best. And I would credit my newly informed political awareness to Ludovic and his guidance as well as the example modeled by CDT co-founders Quinn Delaney, Wayne Jordan and Steve Phillips, in particular. Especially important to us is the CDT approach of seeking guidance from the community — centering the community first and always — rather than imposing our own view. We’ve been members of CDT since 2017, and joined the board in 2020. There’s no turning back for us.
Bill: The big thing for us is feeling like it’s an effective use of our funding and our energy. We want to get more people involved. It’s really smart. There are smart people involved, not only on staff, but the other members as well. It’s really helpful to have Tim focused on Southern California. For example, he just convened a group of LA leaders together at our Big Bear Retreat Center, to meet and work together on common goals for the region. I made it available, for sure, but Tim took that and ran with it, and it was successful! Most days, I’m contacted by a politician that I don’t know, who is looking to raise money. Because I’m part of CDT, which has a clear vision and vets candidates comprehensively, I know who I’m focused on. Otherwise, it would be impossible for me to keep up. CDT feels like a collaborative effort.
Sylvie: In your opinion, what are some pressing LGBTQ issues in CA? How far have we come and where do we still have to go in CA?
Michael: Frankly, I am not sufficiently focused on LGBTQ issues in California today to name what remains to be achieved from a singular perspective. Certainly here — as elsewhere in the country and around the world — intersectional challenges prevail. And, unfortunately, LGBTQ membership seems to further magnify the negative disproportionate marginalization associated with systems of oppression in connection with race, gender and/or socio-economic status.
California has our first gay statewide office-holder: Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara, and already had our first openly gay and lesbian State Assembly Speakers, and first lesbian State Senate leader. We also have a California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus. And, of course, we have a transgender Republican candidate running for governor. However we want not just demographic diversity, but progressive people from marginalized communities in positions of power. Through our work with CDT we see that progressive Black, Latinx and AAPI LGBT candidates, especially women, face a steep climb to win elections or make it into positions of leadership. Most of the women of color LGBT candidates CDT has supported have lost.
And just this week we were reminded of those dynamics with two examples from the Central Valley — Kingsburg City Councilmember Jewel Hurtado faces a recall because she pushed her city to recognize LGBTQ Pride Month, and the mayor of CA’s 5th largest city — Fresno — needed to be heavily lobbied just to fly the rainbow flag at City Hall. We also saw in 2020 CDT-endorsed State Senate candate Abigail Media in the Inland Empire faced homophobic slurs from the Democratic woman running against her who received the majority of support from established liberal political players. Those are all examples of what we need to, and are, changing here in CA.
Bill: Right now, I’m not as focused on LBTQ issues in CA as I have been in the past. I was on the board of what was the LA Gay and Lesbian Center, now the LA LGBT Center, one of the largest gay organizations in the country. I also served on the board of In the Life, which produced a regular LGBT television newsmagazine that aired on PBS stations. I think we’ve made a lot of progress legally, like the passage of federal Marriage Equality. We still need to pass the Equality Act, and I am supporting some efforts around that on the federal level. The reason I supported In the Life was because it’s important to change the hearts and minds of folks around LGBTQ ssues. You may have all of the legal protections and still not feel safe coming out to your community. That’s what made the difference in legalizing marriage. For years, all of these organizations (Lambda Legal, ACLU, GLAD, NCLR) were doing great work in terms of legal protections — but often the legal victory would be won in court only to be overturned at the ballot box because we didn’t have the support of enough people. It’s been a process, but if you think about it, LGBT rights have come a lot further in a shorter period of time than any other group that’s been working for their rights. Part of my perspective is the need to maintain and expand those protections for LGBTQ folks — and also work toward equity for other groups.
Sylvie: You fund and work on key issues in CA, domestically and abroad. Can you tell us about them, and why you are inspired to work on them?
Bill: One of my biggest philanthropic investments to date has been in changing “social norms” around LGBT issues in East Africa, starting in Kenya. It’s an idea I came up with in partnership with American Jewish World Service, where I’m a trustee. The program director and I thought we could be impactful by focusing not only on the legal protections, but alongside that, changing the social stature. Also, in addition to the Black Equity Initiative, we’re working with folks who do programming with incarcerated communities, and also formerly incarcerated folks. We’re doing that work already. We’re also researching how we can be effective funders with indigenous communities in Southern CA, specifically focused from the Central Coast to the Southern border.
Sylvie: How do you see CDT helping you get CA where it needs to go?
Michael: CDT helps donors like us understand what a rigorous long term approach to political change looks like, what it takes, and how to stick with it. It took CDT more than a decade to help move San Diego, and now that county is thriving. There’s been success in the Inland Empire and Orange County, too. Through CDT we want to move California, and especially our hometown of LA, down the progressive path centering low-income communities of color.
Bill: My ultimate vision is for the people who represent the people of California to be representative of the people of California. It’s time, and it’s starting to happen. It’s one thing to elect smart progressive people, in particular people of different racial, ethnic, gender, and orientation backgrounds, but I also count on CDT to hold those officials accountable. Not just for passing legislation or a budget, but for effective progressive governance. It’s not enough to have people with shared political values, we have to have operating effectiveness. For example, LA is supposed to be “very progressive,” we have a potential progressive electoral majority, but the LA County Supervisors don’t work together to progressively govern — not in any kind of effective way. I want to see an end to the levels of poverty and especially childhood poverty we have in the state and a serious improvement in most people’s lives.. That’s what will make me feel like it’s actually working.