Chess Avant-Garde is the head of global responsibility at LiveRamp and the co-founder of BlackRoad Collective. He worked in DEI for Niantic, PatientPop, and Broadway Dreams. Chess earned a degree from the University of Michigan.
CHESS AVANT-GARDE’S INTERVIEW
Tell us about your role as the Head of Global Responsibility at LiveRamp?
My name is Chess Avant-Garde. I’m the Head of Global Responsibility at LiveRamp. We look at Global Responsibility as a center of excellence, focusing on three pillars: Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), and Employee Experience. The correlation between these functions is undeniable. My personal experience as a Black, Jewish, Queer, First-Generation College Graduate from the Southside heavily informs how I put this work into practice. I’ve been committed to the journey since childhood, and I often forget to look up, smell the fresh air, and realize my and society’s progress.
On the flip side (based on my experience and network both virtually and in-person), when I look at the Diversity & Inclusion practitioners in the corporate world, I see people who look like me – People of Color and Culture. When I look at the Corporate Social Responsibility space, I see a majority of White women and some White men. When I realized this, I felt it was essential to bring my experience to a space that felt void of the most marginalized amongst us.
I realized that you are the founder of BlackRoad Collective. What is the inspiration behind that?
So, let me take you back to around third grade. Growing up, I struggled with reading and writing, but I excelled significantly in science and math. And I mean, it was night and day. I had tutors for reading and writing. And then, when it came to math and science, my teachers had me up teaching the class. I took a tremendous interest in environmental science. I won multiple science fairs as a kid. I have always loved being outdoors. One of my dream jobs as a kid was to be a paleontologist and work at the Smithsonian to do fossil research. That’s just the kind of kid that I was. So, you know, you take that you follow me into high school, where my academic mind exploded.
Then you become 14, 15 years old, and you develop an identity based on sociocultural norms. There were no Black paleontologists for me to see myself in. There were no Black outdoorsmen or Black earth scientists, but I had a lot of Black artists I saw myself in. So, I went to a performing arts high school and ended up getting into the arts and letting my outdoorsy environmental self wither away. That said, I am an artist through and through. I got my BFA in Acting at the University of Michigan and performed professionally in Theatre & Film after graduation. While in undergrad, I ended up living with one of my best friends from high school, Vincent Ford, the co-founder of BlackRoad Collective.
We found that the root of our peace came from being in the environment. We started to realize that both of us Black men, who traditionally would not be in the outdoor/environmental space, are coming at it from two different perspectives. One of us is a social impact and sustainability practitioner who hikes for fun; the other is a fisherman and farm-to-table chef. And so, we started to think, how can we build community in the outdoor and sustainability space across communities for marginalized people? And that’s really how BlackRoad Collective came to life.
It was formed based on being an organization and collective company for people who are environmentally cultured, conscious, and curious, with a heavy focus on marginalized people. So, we just had a fantastic trip to Michigan. Then we’re doing our next meet-up in Denver, Colorado, where we’re bringing Black and brown people from around the US together for three days in the mountains. We’ll do some outdoor exploration, hiking, go to a winery, go fishing, and have conversations about environmental justice and healing for Black and Brown folks in the outdoors.
I like the fact that there’s so much passion behind the BlackRoad Collective. Do you consider yourself to be a nerd?
So, that’s a fascinating question (laughs). I don’t think I’m a nerd. I think I’m scholarly. And so, I say that because when I was growing up, I was the kid who could sit with the “nerds” and have a center seat at the popular table. For instance, I won the science fair, was named homecoming king and got state-wide recognition for a theatre performance in the same year. That’s a perfect example of who I was and have always been, eclectic. The diversity of my experience and the vastness of my interests has always made me special. So, I don’t own the idea of being a nerd, but perhaps it’s both and?
I see that you came out recently as pansexual. There is a controversy around being pansexual and bisexual. Can you tell us the difference between pansexual and bisexual?
Well, I think at least in the way I understand my own identity, and I’ll speak within that context: it’s really about the individual. Gender expression, for me, doesn’t matter. Assigned gender at birth doesn’t matter. Trans women are women, trans men are men, and non-binary people are non-binary. When I say I am pansexual, I’m saying that I am open to relationships across the gender spectrum; it’s as simple as that.
There’s a lot of controversy around bisexuality and pansexual because the gender binary drives the former. When discussing bisexuality, people will likely be referring to men and women. When I think about the people I’ve dated, the people I’ve experienced romance with, it’s been the full diversity of the human experience.
Do pansexual people have different needs within the LGBTQ+ community?
Everybody has specific needs, especially considering the communities to which they belong. But I’ll also say it depends on who you’re surrounded by and what cultures and heritages you come from. Living at the intersection of Black, Queer, and Jewish and all the other identities I hold, I think the biggest thing I could express as my need is a cease to the inherent opposition that bisexual and pansexual men get. When I was growing up, even when people would come out as bisexual or pansexual, it was always, “Oh, you’re just gay, but you don’t want to say it” I’m from the South, and people in the South want clarity. They want lines. “You can be gay, but you can’t be bi,” or “you can be trans, but you can’t be genderfluid.” “Do you identify as Black, or are you White? Biracial doesn’t exist here”. Those are the kinds of things that I grew up hearing. So, it makes sense that I didn’t come into the understanding of my own identity until my mid to late twenties because that is just when I had the space to think outside of that social ecosystem.
But are the needs different? Yes, they’re different and contextual based on who you are. Another thing that I think is important to point out is that for people who are bi and pansexual, I think people often place identities onto us based on who we are involved with romantically. And so, I know plenty of bi/pan women who are part of families and friend groups that still see them as straight women because they’re dating the opposite gender. But that is not true. If you’re bi, you’re bi. If you’re pan, you’re pan regardless of who you’re dating.
Thank you for educating us today. So, what motivates you to do what you do daily?
I remember waking up one day and going about my life; it was a very ordinary day. I was listening to One Man Can Change the World by Big Sean, and I just cried tears of realization. I realized a decade and a half ago when I was looking for somebody in the world who owned their truth, had effective communication, wasn’t in the closet, owned the diversity of their experience, and was willing to sacrifice whatever they needed for their peace. That person was nowhere around for me as a kid.
Once I realized that I had become the hero I needed as a kid, it was enough to fuel the rest of my life. Once I realized I had become that person, that was the fuel, the motivation, and the impetus because you never know who you’re going to impact.
Your life and how you live are connected to somebody else’s liberation, whether you know it or not. And so, because I had become who I needed, I knew just by living in that authenticity, I was going to be somebody else’s hero, whether they told me that or not or whether or not I experienced that. I already know I am somebody’s hero and hope I am doing that person justice. The fact that I was able to own myself gets me out of bed every day. And if I did not have that realization, I don’t know if I would still be here today. And I don’t know if I would be where I am. But because that is true, I can get up every day and keep going.
Wow! Thank you so much for these words, Chess. You’re already my hero.