Amber Hikes was just a year into a new job in California when she watched President Barack Obama give his farewell address and felt his words pulling her back to Philadelphia.
“Change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it,” Obama said that night.
“I was sitting there crying watching the TV and I was like, ‘You know what? It’s time. It’s time to jump in,’ ” Hikes said.
Within three months, she’d applied for and gotten the $90,000-a-year job as the city’s director of LGBT affairs, a one-person office on the first floor of City Hall, where she officially started last week.
Hikes, 33, is a well-known community organizer in Philadelphia. She served on the William Way LGBT Community Center board, helped organize the Philadelphia Dyke March, and raised funds for the Attic Youth Center and the ACLU. She is a graduate of the Social Work program at the University of Pennsylvania, where she worked with the Upward Bound program, which helps low-income students in their transition to college. She directed Upward Bound at California State University-Long Beach before returning to Philadelphia.
Hikes takes the helm in the wake of a tumultuous stretch for the office. Her predecessor, Nellie Fitzpatrick, came under fire for what critics called a lackluster response to racism in the local LGBT community. The issue came to a head from reports of discriminatory policies aimed at keeping African Americans out of bars in the Gayborhood, an area in Center City centered around 13th Street. Fitzpatrick was booted from her post in February and is starting her own law practice.
“It’s not a secret of course that it’s a challenging time in our community,” Hikes said at a news conference with Mayor Kenney on Thursday, announcing her appointment. “We’re tired. People are angry, they’re sad, confused, and hurt, and these feelings are real. But I don’t want those feelings to hinder us from our progress.. . . For those of you who haven’t had a seat at the table, I say pull up a chair, because, in truth, we need all the voices in this conversation.”
Hikes said she wants to do more outreach in the form of forums on issues like challenges facing transgender women or homelessness in the LGBTQ community.
She said she never saw herself in government until President Trump was elected. Now she takes pride in her role as a young black queer woman in leadership.
“To be quite frank, it was really this past election and realizing that if we don’t have more people that look like me, and that have my experience, in places of government, making decisions, then we’re going to have people that have my exact opposite experience and don’t necessarily have my best interest at heart,” she said. “I can’t complain if I’m not going to be a part of the solution.”
Hikes will work with a 23-person LGBT Affairs Commission, also announced Thursday.
“Let’s be clear about racism and discrimination and prejudice,” Hikes said in her office Friday. “These are not issues that are exclusive to the LGBTQ community. We’re situated in America and America obviously has a very complicated and difficult history with racism and prejudice. We can’t distance and separate ourselves from the history of this country.”
There are small steps she hopes to take, though, like working with the Human Relations Commission, which this year mandated sensitivity training for bars in the Gayborhood.
And while targeting Center City is important, Hikes said, she wants to expand the office’s reach to all of the city’s neighborhoods with a particular focus on youth and transgender people.
Hikes, whose father was in the military, was born in Japan and moved with her family around the United States, settling for the longest stretch in Atlanta. She graduated from the University of Delaware and then came to Philadelphia for a master’s degree at Penn. She lives in Center City.
Hikes credits her success to her mother, Zenobia, a longtime college administrator, who was vice president of student affairs at Virginia Tech during the 2007 massacre. She died of heart complications in 2008.
“She was an incredible survivor. She’d been through a lot of challenging times, some domestic violence in her marriage and then three bouts of breast cancer," Hikes said. "She inspired so many people, and to be a fairly young black woman leading Virginia Tech ... it’s just compelling stuff.
“Whenever I get really sad about her passing, I realize how lucky I was to have such an incredible example for a mother. I’ve got to get her picture up soon.”