Celebrating Black Leaders in Brooklyn: Spotlight on Uchechukwu Onwa
To celebrate this year's Black Philanthropy Month, we reached out to several Black leaders in our nonprofit community to learn about what inspires their work, local Black-led organizations they admire, and how the organizations they lead are working to achieve equity in our communities.
We spoke with Uchechukwu Onwa, Co-Director and Organizing Coordinator of Queer Detainee Empowerment Project (QDEP), a post-release support, detention center visitation, direct service, and community organizing project that works with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Queer, Two Spirit, Trans, Intersex, Gender Non-Conforming, and HIV+ (LGBTQIA* GNC TS) immigrant prisoners and their families currently in detention centers, those that have been recently released from detention centers, and those at risk at entering immigration detention in the Tri-State Area (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York). We are proudly partnering with QDEP through our Immigrant Rights Fund as they provide support, direct services, and community for LGBTQIA+ individuals currently in, recently released from, or at risk of entering immigration detention.
We thank Uchechukwu for his time, and for sharing his voice with our community. Read our full interview with Uchechukwu below.
Who is a leader in the Black community (past or present) who inspires you?
A leader who inspires me in the Black community is Martin Luther King Jr. — he inspired me from the day that I learned who he was. When I was still living in my home country I first heard the "I Have a Dream" speech. I didn’t know or understand the reason for that speech until I moved to the U.S. and started doing some research about it, and found out more about MLK’s life.
I learned my first real lesson on what racism was when I arrived in the United States in May 2017. My first-hand experience was being shackled by white U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers from the airport and being taken to an ICE detention center — with my nose and mouth covered as well. When the nurse at the detention facility asked them why they covered my nose and mouth, their response was: “He is coming from Africa and he could be coming with Ebola and other diseases.” I didn’t understand why the officer would make such comments or judge me solely based on ethnicity/origin.
After learning about Martin Luther King Jr. and hearing his "I Have a Dream" speech over and over while I was in detention, it really opened my eyes to the world that we live in. I was also able to understand that racism existed in the United States and how our ancestors have fought for us to get to where we are today — and from that moment on, I was destined to follow my heart, to continue to live my truth as a Black gay man, to always stand up for what I saw as right, even if I stood alone. MLK has been and always will be one of my role models.
What is one Black-led nonprofits that you admire?
I admire the Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project (BLMP) — it was the first Black, queer, and trans migrant-led organization that I came across in the United States, in early 2018 at the National LGBTQ Task Force's Creating Change Conference. At that conference, they allowed me to fully be me and to be vulnerable without judging me. One thing I admire about the organization is that they center Black leadership, and all the members identify as Black and as migrants. It is one of the spaces where I am allowed to freely be myself.
How do you work to achieve equity at the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project?
LGBTQIA+ immigrants often face unique challenges due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Some flee persecution in their home countries or have experienced discrimination and trauma in the United States, etc. While advocacy and legal services organizations are fighting and demanding justice for Black people, and fighting against policy proposals that affect Black people, the majority use a hetero-normative narrative to center their advocacy. While compelling, the focus of the mainstream narrative means that Black LGBTQIA+, GNC, and HIV+ migrants lack a voice to advocate for resources specific to their needs.
Our members at the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project — especially Black members — experience racism, anti-Blackness, housing insecurity and homelessness, misogyny, xenophobia, discrimination, lack of resources, the killing of Black trans people, transphobia, and more. In order to address these issues we launched a Political Education series to highlight the experiences of LGBTQ+ immigrants and ways we can work to challenge the system. Some of the topics we covered are "Incarceration and Capitalism," "Shifting the Narratives around Immigration,” “Black LGBTQI+ Migration,” “Trans Identity,'' “Decolonization,” etc.
Our leadership structure reflects our desire to center and organize across Black, queer and trans identities, and currently 70% of our board members identify as Black queer migrants. We have also joined forces with other Black trans organizers, and queer and trans immigrant-led organizations across New York City to organize multiple marches and protests to demand justice for all trans people murdered by police violence in the U.S., and to demand that the Biden administration prioritize and protect LGBTQ+ immigrants and asylum seekers. We have continued to center the voices of our members in our work and movement, most importantly the voices of our Black members, because we recognize the multiple oppressions that Black people face in the U.S.