L. Michael Gipson seems to be a master of the 24-hour cycle period. An essayist and cultural critic, Gipson’s writing focuses on myriad topics such as race, health, and many aspects of the sociopolitical. Somehow amid a hectic schedule, the writer found some time to chat with us about his work as well as his written foreword in Tai Allen’s No Jewels. Below is a transcription of the conversation we had.
Flowered Concrete: L. Michael Gipson, we are more than thrilled to have you here checking in with us today. Welcome to concrete conversations.
L. Michael Gipson: Thank you, it’s my privilege.
Flowered Concrete: Your resume and bio speaks for itself. And because of that we have a lot to cover today. So If you don’t mind I’ll just jump write into it. You obviously have been very active throughout your career and I wanted to know what do people from the outside looking in label you as? When they first see you what career title are you usually appointed with?
L. Michael Gipson: I think it depends on in what walk of life they’ve met me. I think my talents have had me juggling three interconnected careers over the years. One, as a writer. Two, as an educator. And, three as an advocate. So, I think if you met me in my twenties, the label you would probably most place on me is “advocate” because I was physically very visible all the time in movement work. I think with the invention of social media and me getting older, that has morphed into being considered more of a writer as I'm physically less visible, but my words and behind the scenes deeds are still out there doing the work. Yet, all of that for me—the writing and teaching—are forms of advocacy. Even when I am writing fiction, while I’m not necessarily writing “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” there’s still this part of me that is wanting to share ideas and promoting a discourse that’s going to inspire people to think about things in a different way. So, to say that I don’t have an advocacy agenda even as a writer and that I’m writing “art for art’s sake” would be a lie. Everything is purposeful. Everything I do has a utility. Even though they might say writer or educator, you know, advocacy is still the driving force in my work.
Flowered Concrete: As a public health and youth advocate, you’ve spent the past twenty years working on HIV/AIDS and youth and community development programming on the local, state and national level. What got you into doing this kind of work and why does it specifically matter to you?
L. Michael Gipson: I come from people who serve. My family on both sides have been engaged in either service or the arts in some form. Even when they didn’t know that they were. (Laughs) Even on their working class, blue-collar jobs they still were engaged in acts of service and advocating for fairness. My own personal story of being displaced from my family and my home at age 16 after I came out of the closet as a gay kid and having to fend for myself and having to be out in the world for me was highly influential. I got to experience all the horrors. You name a horror and somehow someway it touched my life. Whether that be a father or stepfather on some type of chemical dependency or being a teen that was molested, having experienced multiple divorces, having a mentally challenged mother, being a part of the street life and engaging in criminal activity, it’s been an experience I’ve had. So, up to roughly age 19, there was definitely a sense of being part of nonstop interpersonal drama, trauma, and confusion that derived from being part of several marginalized classes. So, yeah, this is personal for me. I’m a lifelong advocate for those who’ve gone through, for the underdog as an underdog. I’ll probably be doing some form of protesting and advocating for those of us on the margins, trying to get people to learn about different issues that affect those they aren’t considering or don’t know until the day I die.
Flowered Concrete: One thing that kept popping up as I did my research on you was Faithwalk Enterprises, LLC. Can you possibly explain the work you do with it and describe what it is exactly?
L. Michael Gipson: Yeah, so Faithwalk LLC, is my boutique consulting firm for nonprofit and government institutions. It’s my way to both make a living as an entrepreneur, while also still giving back to my communities. I have never been under the impression that because I serve that I should be poor. (Laughs) And so, you know, for me it’s trying to balance how do I earn enough to live a comfortable life while still engaging in the work that matters most to me? Some of that comes from having the reach and experience of 23 years in various nonprofit, governmental and foundation sectors, and bringing that to the consulting and writing that I do for clients in the way a major firm would without the major firm sticker shock. Eighty percent of my clients are people of color organizations who are working with the most disenfranchised and marginalized communities on the ground, agencies who often cannot afford a major consulting firm to help them grow their work. Having been everything from an outreach worker to an Executive Director, even a grantmaker in the foundation and government realm, I know that nonprofit world from the ground up and inside out. So, my work with them ranges from executive coaching and leadership development to providing training for staff and writing the grants that enable them to prosper. So, that is Faithwalk, LLC. Since 1997 or so, I have off and on gone into working in the nonprofit or government sector and then come back out and worked for myself. It's liberating to know you don't have to be tied to someone else's job to earn a good living. I’ve been really blessed and privileged to live that story and have the freedom of that life.
Flowered Concrete: I find it amazing that you’ve still found the time to be deeply immersed in writing. Do you mind sharing some of the publications you’ve written for and what you generally focus on in regards to themes and points of concern within your writing?
L. Michael Gipson: I am known in different writing sectors. I get bored (Laughs). From writing hard-hitting feature articles about rape in prison to celebrity profiles about Rashaan Patterson, Big Freedia, Avery*Sunshine, and Monifah Carter. I’ve got a long legacy of working in that world of journalism, particularly Black LGBTQ journalism. And, then in another space, in the Independent Soul Music Movement, I have been a critic starting in 2002 for Daniel Gray Kontar’s “Urban Dialect,” which eventually lead to writing and editing gigs with Creative Loafing Atlanta, BET Centric, and as an ongoing, decade-long critic for SoulTracks.com. Writing about this movement iteration of Black independent music maybe about five or six years after its resurgence has taken me to so many places and industry relationships that I wouldn’t have ever expected as a poor kid from Chicago’s South Side. Now I’m writing about these artists for their labels and managers. I’m writing their bios and liner notes for their CDs. I got to briefly manage replife and Marcell and The Truth. So, I got to experience that music industry world from a business perspective too. What’s lesser known, but just as important to me as my music industry work, is my fiction and personal narrative essays that have been published in several anthologies over the years. I’d like to do more of that and be more present in the literary arts scene. I have a collection of stories with Red Dirt Press and I’d love to finish the final edits of those and finally get that long-gestating work out there. That collection has been twenty years in the making, with the first story being written at age 19, but you know because I’ve been so busy, obviously, with all of these other endeavors that I have not always treated my fiction writing as well as I should.
Flowered Concrete: A few years back you were working on a short-story collection called Collisions: a Collection of Intersections. Is that still in the works at all or are you focusing on other potential projects?
L. Michael Gipson: So, that’s the short story collection, "Collisions: A Collection of Intersections." Red Dirt Press and I were right on the cusp of having it come out when I pulled back and shelved it, questioning whether or not the work was still relevant. So much has changed in society around Black gay men's lives, not to mention how much has changed with me since I wrote those stories that even my writing style and voice are dramatically different. I wasn't sure there was still an audience for this work set in another place and time. But, this year, I’ve made a commitment to finish the final edit on those pieces and let the public decide on whether or not the work is relevant and my younger voice is worthy.
Flowered Concrete: You earned a BFA in writing from Goddard College. What was that experience like? Moreover, how has it helped your writing overall since you write in various formats?
L. Michael Gipson: Goddard was incredible for me. They required for every assignment that you write a reflective essay about what you learned in your learning process from the assignment, how you feel about the information you’ve synthesized or work you developed, and what impact that information or work can have on the world. That kind of constant interrogation and self-questioning was tiring, but it refined my thinking and illuminated for me my own thoughts about the issues. Often times when I write something down, I’m struggling with considering both sides of an issue and I’m not totally sure how I feel or where I fall on the topic until I’m writing about it. A lot of my fiction writing is about questions that I’m struggling with and I’m working through the answers for me as I write. The idea that I don't have to know the answers from the gate and that the process of struggle with an idea is just as critical as having solutions is a result of the self-directed, highly introspective learning I received at Goddard. The level of accountability they required of me informs my work and advocacy and makes me proud to be a Goddard grad.
Flowered Concrete: Were you a big reader growing up? If so, what were some of your favorite books?
L. Michael Gipson: I was a tireless reader but unfortunately, I was a tired reader of trash. (Laughs) The only black author I was reading at the time was Maya Angelou. I remember reading everything by Maya Angelou. Tenth grade was when I started getting heavily into it. I would read three to five books a week. But yeah, as a kid I was a voracious reader and was targeted for it as a result.
Flowered Concrete: You wrote the foreword to Tai Allen's "No Jewels" chapbook. Why so? Did the topic and heaviness come from a very personal place? Did it relate to Tai's experience with molestation at a young age?
L. Michael Gipson: Well, first, Tai Allen and I have been brothers for more than a decade now, back when MySpace was a thing. (Laughs). So, if he asks most anything of me, within reason, he gets it. And, knowing how high his standards are, I was honored he invited me to write the foreword for what is one of his most personal works. I also wrote it as a fellow survivor of rape, though mine was once as a teen by a man and was not a prolonged campaign of terror by a woman in the way Tai's experience was. So, yes, it is personal too. When one out of six men will have been raped in his lifetime, I'm invested in us having a national conversation about the vulnerability of boys and teens to sexual predators, both men and women predators. Tai being who he is: an Alpha male, a 6'5-6'6 athlete, a masculine artist, a respected community activist, a reformed womanizer, and a man's man, he brings a certain kind of social capital to this conversation among other straight men that forces them to pay attention and doesn't easily allow them to dismiss this abuse as something to be celebrated or ignored or something that happened to someone because they're considered "soft" as a form of victim blaming, but something that must be seriously contended with that could happen to any male's body. Tai's transparency and willingness to be vulnerable here opens the door for other male survivors who've been victims to own their experience without shame and begin their healing too. To be a part of that is an awesome, awesome privilege. Lastly, anytime I can be part of bridging the gulf between Black gay and straight men to foster brotherhood by illustrating an example of men of different paths working together for a common good, I'm there.
Flowered Concrete: What kind of advice would you give to youth that would like to be sufficient with time? How can they go about exploring multiple avenues in hopes of reaching success or does this really matter at the end of the day?
L. Michael Gipson: I think, if you’re young, try everything. Especially, if you’re under thirty and afraid of "it." Challenge yourself to do whatever "it" is anyway because your interests and passions will naturally narrow over time to reveal your true purpose. I was writing everywhere, an activist on multiple issues, a national trainer, a youth program developer, and modeling for art classes and social marketing campaigns in my twenties. I never said no to anything, to any opportunity that would expand me and reveal to me my ultimate purpose for being here. As you age, there are activities that you were involved in that will eventually fall off, people that will fall off too, and what is the most important to you becomes clear. That came from first saying “yes” and then deciding over the journey whether or not I liked being a part of something or not, certain scenes or not. If you would have asked me in my early twenties, I wouldn’t have been able to give you an answer on why I am here on this planet, but over time I figured out what my purpose was through the work and now I live it. So, I say to fearlessly say “yes” to everything and over time your purpose and that “no” based on interest, not fear will come organically through experience.
Flowered Concrete: What else do you have going on that we forgot to mention or what would you like for us to be aware of going forward in regards to you work?
L. Michael Gipson: “Indie Soul Journeys” is the name of the docu-series that I’m the Co-Producer and Lead Writer on for 3919 Filmworks Productions. The pilot got its premiere last December as a film short on the film festival circuit. The team, led by Director John Jointer, and I are planning a launch through a PBS affiliate either in the Fall of 2017 or the winter of 2018. That’s still being worked out based on production funding, but we’ve got the green light already for the platform from PBS. At this point, it will be a half-hour docu-series chronicling independent R&B, Soul, and Acid Jazz artists in the framework of an “Unsung” or a VH1 “Behind The Music,” but with a “how I got over” testimonial aspect to it. I’m really invested in sharing with struggling people the narrative tools for how to get through a trial and overcome a circumstance. Even though the overlay is about these talented, indie artists’ music journey and to spotlight their work, the core of the series is how did you get over this valley? So that other folk can find the inspiration or the path to get over their valleys too.
Flowered Concrete: For those who are interested, where can they find you online?
L. Michael Gipson: I am a Facebook junkie. I over-post. (Laughs) L. Michael Gipson, with a P as in Paul. Other than that, I don’t do a lot around the other social media platforms. So, the best way to connect with me is on Facebook or Twitter. I also have a personally curated all music podcast to share my love of independent and adult contemporary soul with listeners through my “LMG Soul Eclectics” show and you can find that on iTunes and Podomatic. I’m about 20 shows in on that quarterly podcast, so subscribe and share!
Flowered Concrete: L. Michael Gibson, we thank you for spending time and sharing some jewels with us today.
L. Michael Gipson: Thank you for having me. (Laughs)
Bio: An award-winning writer and advocate, L. Michael Gipson has worked in journalism, public health, and youth development for 23 years. Throughout, Michael has conducted research and written grants, articles, fact sheets, and issue briefs for major nonprofits. He has facilitated over 100 skills building trainings for over 60 health departments, education agencies, and grassroots CBOs. Michael is also the co-founder of the Beyond Identities Community Center, a multi-focused youth drop-in center that has served the needs of over 3000 youth since 2004. He’s currently the founder of Urban (W)rites, a project-based partnership with the University of Michigan Prison Creative Arts Project to teach the formerly incarcerated creative writing and entrepreneurship skills. Gipson holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Writing degree from Goddard College and a Master of Science in Education Media Design & Technology degree from Full Sail University. He works and resides in Detroit, MI while also managing clients from all over the country.
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Kevin Anglade is the founder and publisher of Flowered Concrete. Founded in 2012, he plans to bridge the gap between the African-American communities throughout the nation with hopes of reinvigorating a passion for literature.