By Peter Jenkins
“My first experience with advocacy would have been my freshmen year protesting the Family Research Council on campus,” said activist Joseph Coco. “One of their members was having a meeting at the Faculty Club and I joined with other LGBTQ folks near the street to picket and protest his presence on campus. It was my very first time doing something of this sort so I was shaking the entire time and really nervous.” This is how local community organizer Joseph Coco began his journey to being an advocate for minority communities.
Team Blackout Fest, the organization that Coco is affiliated with, is one of many organizations in Baton Rouge fighting for causes and looking for volunteers. Over the past few years, BR has seen a steady increase in the number of activist causes promoted within the city limits, whether it be a push to pass a fairness ordinance through the Metro Council or if it is a march in solidarity with the protesters in Baltimore. But as active as it is here in BR, Coco says there needs to be more – much more. He described the people of Baton Rouge as stagnant when it comes to activism and organizing, and urges locals to connect with one another and to find their passion.
“There’s all these things you can actually partake in, that you probably thought you couldn’t before, he said. “Some of these things include marches, protests, and meetings of local groups that have recently formed.”
Coco helped organize the Baltimore Solidarity Rally recently held in Baton Rouge, and is currently working on organizing an event called Blackout Black Canvas, which aims to “display the Black experience through an intersectional and varied lens.”
Thomas Allen Merrill, an organizer for Baton Rouge Pride Inc., says that advocacy comes in many forms, whether the organizing is education, art, protest, petition, or community events. But most important is to understand it’s not the “how,” but the “why.”
“Everybody should find a way to be active in the community,” they said. “If we don’t advocate for ourselves…who are we expecting to do it?”
Merrill discussed their annual event, Pridefest, which drew a crowd of about 6,000 last year, the largest pride event of the year in Louisiana. He described the event as “Pride with a purpose” and believes this event has improved the attitudes toward LGBTQ people in the Baton Rouge area.
Chancelier Xero Skidmore is the Executive Director of, Forward Arts Inc., a local organization which empowers local youth to compose and perform poetry. His organization hosts an annual event called Slam Camp for teens, aged 13 to 19, and is scheduled this year in June. Skidmore talked about how being involved in the arts helped tether him to the community from childhood to now, which is why he organizes in the area.
“Through focusing on writing we get to become better communicators in everyday conversation,” he said.
Coco, Skidmore, and Merill are only three of the movers and shakers in Baton Rouge activist community. While often times their missions are not seemingly intertwined, each of them agree that their desire for human dignity and respect intersects with their respective projects. One of, if not the most prominent thread, throughout each of these projects revolves around the concern that there is always more work to be done and that there is always space for new people to join the cause.
For more information or to get involved, follow Baton Rouge Organizing, Forward Arts, Baton Rouge Pride Inc. (to name a few) on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.