Sitting in a former Nashua firehouse, Jordan Thompson is fanning the flames of change.
For the first time in decades, there was a city-ordained Black History Month celebration. And Thompson, by request of the mayor’s office, organized the program.
Last fall, he ran for the state Legislature. He curated Nashua’s first Juneteenth celebration last summer. And this week, the 20-year-old will join President Barack Obama as one of 22 young men and adults chosen to attend MBK Rising! in Oakland, Calif., a two-day summit dedicated to celebrating My Brother’s Keeper, the Obama initiative started five years ago to encourage and empower young boys of color.
For a former foster kid, a young man dealing with the intersections of blackness, queerness, and masculinity, a once self-described hot mess of Beyoncé and Lady Gaga obsessions, Thompson still finds his rise a little unbelievable.
“I would have never imagined I would be doing this work or have access to these kinds of opportunities 10 years ago, or even five years ago,” he says. “It is an honor, and I am excited to build on my leadership abilities and learn from other people.”
Thompson became an MBK volunteer last year when he pitched and organized the city’s first Juneteenth (June 19) celebration commemorating the end of slavery in America. The event was held at the Arlington Street Community Center, a onetime firehouse turned town hub as part of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative.
Mayor Jim Donchess and his chief of staff, Kimberly Kleiner, took note of his leadership skills and encouraged Thompson to apply for a slot at the MBK Rising! conference.
“It’s not often that you find a young man who is willing to drive conversations in the community and find solutions to the issues,” says Kleiner, who will attend MBK Rising! with Thompson. “He’s been active in the Young Democrats, he ran for office, and we thought it would be good for him to see what other youth are doing throughout their communities. He has the passion and drive to lead.”
For Thompson, going to the MBK summit is as much about Nashua as it is himself. In 2016, New Hampshire was the last state to join Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative to promote racial equity and amplify young men of color. It’s also one of the whitest — 94 percent — states in America.
But Thompson says it’s more diverse than people realize, and there’s a dedication to building community.
“Nashua is a progressive city working toward the inclusion for all, and I want to represent that,” he says. “So much of the work I do now is because I realized people have a desire to learn about different cultures in some capacity. They are happy to learn and to come together.”
He wasn’t always this optimistic. His mother died when he was a baby. His father sent him to live with his grandmother when he was 11 after years of on-again, off-again family turmoil. Thompson acted out. He was out of control. And he went into foster care at 12 and aged out at 18.
At school, he was often the only black and openly gay kid in class.
“I didn’t have a real place, and it was weird,” he says. “I was a mess. I was a powder keg. I was in and out of suspension. I was angry.”
But almost failing freshman year of high school opened his eyes to what he wanted: a chance.
He started studying after school and picking up online classes and tutorials. Not only did he turn things around, by junior year he was a member of Air Force J-ROTC and eventually became captain before realizing the lack of acceptance for the LGBTQ+ community made it a bad fit.
“I needed the structure, the sense of community, the values and integrity,” he says of J-ROTC. “But I hadn’t paid much attention to the issues of being black and LGBTQ+, and that environment made me more aware of who I was and the national conversation.”
As he started to consume more history and news surrounding trans rights and police brutality, he wanted to take action. He wasn’t yet sure how.
With the encouragement of a social worker, he got involved with the National Foster Youth Institute, which works to improve the lives of foster kids through policy and networking.
He went to Washington, D.C., spent a day shadowing New Hampshire congresswoman Annie Kuster, and learned he had power.
“I was never involved before,” he says. “I suppose growing up in an environment where I saw the worst of society’s ability to provide for people, where I saw so many kids who were in foster care specifically because the state had failed them or their parents had trouble with opioid abuse and no concrete path of recovery, I think growing up in that melting pot of a mess, I was able to realize there’s so much I could be doing and so many people out there who need help.”
So Thompson dove into politics. By the time he graduated from high school in 2016, he was working on Hillary Clinton’s campaign and was an active member of Black Lives Matter, raising awareness of the inequities of the justice system.
Thompson tweeted: “Why haven’t you paid your respects to those lost in the terrorist attack in Portland?”
It brought him a strange kind of fame and unwanted attention from white nationalists.
“I was known as this kid who got blocked by the president, and I was getting trolled, and it was taking a toll on my mental health. But I had more to offer my community.”
Later that year, at 18, he ran for office as a moderator in his ward.
“I very decisively lost that race,” he admits. “I was not prepared, no one took me seriously, and I was kind of devastated, but I used it as a steppingstone to learn and run again.”
He gained more knowledge, got more involved with Nashua Young Democrats, and announced his candidacy for the New Hampshire House of Representatives last May. And this time, there was an outpouring of support. He lost in the September primary, but by a narrow margin.
“I was knocking on doors; I was talking about the issues like minimum wage and college tuition. And I was one of the few black men running for state rep in New Hampshire and one of the youngest in history. I had a plan. I came up short about 30 votes.”
But he didn’t quit. He credits his grandma, Gloria Timmons, founder of the Nashua chapter of the NAACP and a longtime community worker, for his dedication.
“I know deep in my heart I wouldn’t be able to do anything I am doing without black history, without learning about my family, and where I come from, without my grandmother and the sacrifices people made, so I am able to do what I do and be a proud black queer person.”
When he’s not working his day job as a barista in Nashua, he’s doing child advocacy work as a regional coordinator for the National Foster Youth Institute. He hasn’t given up on the possibility of hopping financial hurdles to go to college. But his heart is always beating for Nashua as his plans for the Black History Month celebration come together.
“He’s a deep thinker and a caring young man,” state Senator Melanie Levesque, a Nashua Democrat, says. “I met him during the Juneteenth ceremony, and it struck me that this young man would be so passionate about celebrating black history, and we need young people like him to carry on the mantle.”
And in an old Nashua firehouse, he figures out how to keep the fire of freedom aflame.Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @sincerelyjenee.