Staff Spotlight: Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen Teaches Current and Future Generations the Ways to Win

By Shane Stahl • August 3, 2018 • 1:14 pm

As Senior Director of Research and Training at Freedom For All Americans, Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen plays a key role in  training the next generation of LGBTQ activists. With many years of experience in the movement, Rodrigo has run countless phone banks, canvasses, and message trainings all in the name of advancing full equality for LGBTQ people. In addition to his work as an educator and facilitator, Rodrigo spearheaded FFAA’s leadership role on the Freedom New Hampshire campaign, which saw the state legislature vote to pass comprehensive nondiscrimination protections for transgender people, after nearly three years of work.

Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, Front Row, 2nd from L

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Tell us a bit about yourself (sort of a 60 second life story)

I was born and raised in Miami, and my mother and grandparents fled Cuba in sudden and life-altering circumstances. Yet they always persevered and found new ways to help create the world they believed in. Even though we didn’t always agree politically, I learned from them how advocate and how to stay resilient in tough times.  

How did you get involved in the movement for LGBTQ nondiscrimination?

I always knew I wanted to work towards social change. There are about a thousand different issues that need to be tackled, so when thinking about how to most effectively focus my energy, I realized that LGBTQ rights is where I could make the biggest impact. Being a transgender man myself, I could humanize transgender issues for people who think they’ve never met a trans person before.

L to R: Linds Jakows, Freedom New Hampshire campaign manager; Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen; Barbara Macleod, FNH communications consultant; Dan Pontoh, FNH community organizer; Kasey Suffredini, FFAA President of Strategy

Is there a particular moment you’ve experienced in your work that sticks with you? Why?

Part of my role at FFAA is to run a leadership development program called LGBT-U. We train people on essential activism skills for nondiscrimination campaigns. A moment where it all came together was when one of the graduates testified at a trans healthcare hearing. They said they never would have done that before, but now they had the confidence and skills to turn out. It was so gratifying to see them grow and take action on something so important.

What would you say to people who want to take action for LGBTQ equality? What are simple steps they can take?

One simple step is to speak with the people in your life about the discrimination LGBTQ people face. We know that voters are most likely to be persuaded by their own friends and family. Even if your family is already generally supportive, they may not know the full extent of the issue and therefore can peel away from us by Election Day. Speak with your friends and family because you’re probably the single most influential person to them, more than any campaign talking head.

L to R: Megan Clayton, FFAA Director of State Digital Campaigns; Hannah Willard, FFAA Assoc. Director of Campaign Communications; Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen

Why does nondiscrimination matter to you?

Nondiscrimination matters because it’s about your ability to just live your daily life. If you can’t put a roof over your head, if you can’t get a job to pay the bills, if you can’t go to the grocery store with your family, life gets pretty tough. No one wants to go through that, and no one wants their child to go through that either. That’s why we need nondiscrimination protections – so we can all be judged not for who we are, but for what we do.

Self-care is important in these fraught political times — what kind of self-care do you practice?

In tough political times like these, I try to keep an eye on the long-term vision. For example, we just won a nondiscrimination campaign in NH. But we won because we didn’t just seek to update policy, we sought to change hearts and minds. One of our volunteers was asked, “what’s your greatest source of support?” and they replied, “the Freedom NH activist community.” That shows that these campaigns are bigger than whatever happens today, tomorrow, or next year. They’re about changing the narrative of what it means to be LGBTQ in America and we can do that no matter who’s in the White House. Remembering the long-term vision gives us the hope to take action today so we can win tomorrow.

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