Serena Sebring credits her activism to Durham.
She participated in her first "street protest" during the lacrosse scandal at Duke, where she was earning a Ph.D. in sociology. She first felt she had grown into an organizer during a campaign to stop Amendment 1, which prohibited same-sex marriage in North Carolina before it was overturned in 2014.
Now, as a regional organizer with Southerners on New Ground, the mother of three is helping to launch a campaign to reform (and ultimately end) money bail, foster queer and trans leadership across North Carolina, and connect thirteen states across the Southeast in SONG's intersectional, queer liberation movement.
"I love the Bull City," she says. "I really enjoy the ways that history and culture and art and activism blend so seamlessly here in the scrappiness of this city."
Sebring, forty, was born in Boston to a psychologist mother and father who worked on housing issues with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. She moved to Durham in 2005, just before allegations broke that members of Duke's lacrosse team had raped a black woman at a party. (They were later cleared of the charges.)
"For me, as a person new to the community but also someone who was the only black woman in my department at Duke and as a survivor of sexual violence, it became necessary to develop a community of support and a way to make meaning of all that swirling around us at the time," Sebring says.
The passage of Amendment 1 in 2012 was also a pivotal moment in her career. Sebring had recently come out as lesbian and set out to have one-on-one conversations about how the law would affect her and her family. It was during this time that she became an active member of SONG, which was founded in Durham twenty-five years ago by three black and three white lesbian women.
"As an LGBTQ organization, people oftentimes expect us to be working on issues that are particular to LGBTQ people," she says. "What we know about liberation is that we can't be free until our cousins, our aunties, our children who may or may not share our identities in terms of gender and sexuality are also free. We also know that as LGBTQ people of color and black people that we have to be attuned to issues of white supremacy and antiblackness in order for our membership to get free, for ourselves to get free."
Recently, much of her time has gone to the campaign to end pretrial incarceration. SONG locally (in concert with events elsewhere in the country) bailed out fourteen black mothers on Mother's Day and another nine to mark Black August. She and others are still working to support those women by helping them secure housing, mental health care, and rides, as well as by attending their court appearances. Of the original fourteen, six have had their cases dismissed.
"I can't say enough how much this work has not just excited me but moved me, to be part of people getting free who have been held in cages for reasons that are not in line with our collective belief in innocence until guilt is proven," she says.
Sebring has also been supporting Defend Durham, a movement that grew from the August 14 toppling of a Confederate monument downtown. She wasn't there when demonstrators tore down the statue, but she helped organize a mass turn-in at the jail where about sixty people showed up to take shared responsibility. In action, she exudes a grounded mix of clarity, gratitude, and zeal.
"Since that all went down, I've been calling Durham the city where the statues fall and the people stand up," she says. "I think it was beautiful, both the response of people to come out to the jail to turn themselves in and the response of people across the country."
Throughout the demonstrations, she has worked alongside her twenty-one-year-old daughter, Courtney, who is cochairwoman of Black Youth Project 100's Durham chapter.
"To watch her leadership grow, to watch her find her voice and her political home is one of the greatest joys of mothering that I've had," she says.
As a queer woman of color, Sebring says the causes central to SONG's mission not only affect her but also her kids. ("This isn't the world I want to leave them," she says). This creates a sense of urgency that makes it hard to put work down and also informs who she is as an activist and a mother. Dinner-table conversation is about dance classes and demonstrating.
"I hope what they see from me is both an ability to actually change things that are unjust and an ability to speak up for what you know to be true and for people who are like you," she says. "I think mothering has also taught me humility and patience and finding a way when sometimes it seems there isn't a way."
It makes her proud that queer activists have been a driving force of the Defend Durham movement, stepping into a legacy that includes the demonstrations that broke out after police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay club in New York City, in 1969.
"What queer organizing and resistance has taught us time and time again—from Stonewall through ACT UP and resistance to AIDS policies that were killing our people on through today—is the sense that we are unapologetic and unafraid to put bodies on the line and to take action," Sebring says. "To not just talk about it but to be about it."