Environmental Maverick

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This tireless public servant, educator and activist is working to improve the city’s environment. Rodney Ahart has reconciled the diverse communities that he belongs to by living his life without fear.

Let your parents be your parents, regardless of how old you are. If your mother wants to do your laundry when you’re at home as a thirty-something adult, then let her do it because it gives her pleasure. This bit of advice, one of Rodney Ahart’s “Rodneyisms,” stuck with me. Ahart, who has given back to the community in myriad ways and overcame the loss of both his parents before the age of 40, has a deep desire to be a father, which is one of the biggest gives. For him, it’s the perfect denouement of his own journey toward full self- awareness, self-acceptance and self-love.

His desire to serve the public has propelled him to positions of leadership and advocacy that have garnered widespread commendation. And yet, only recently has he come into his own in terms of feeling comfortable with every aspect of his personality and being able to fully integrate them. He’s one of those rare people whose selflessness is matched by his boundless enthusiasm for his work and his open-hearted personality.

The seed for the man Ahart has become was, in many ways, planted early on by something his father told him at the age of 16. “One thing that my dad said to me, ‘don’t expect me to praise you for doing the right thing. That’s to be expected. But if you do something to better the life of someone similar to yourself, that not only deserves my praise but it also deserves my help.’ ”

3-2Growing up in east Austin as the son of a police officer, this third-generation Austinite has taken his father’s words to heart. At times, however, the outward markers of his success–having spearheaded the city’s citizen-driven smoke-free ballot initiative while working at the American Cancer Society–have masked his internal struggle to reconcile his strong Christian faith with his sexual orientation.

“When I grew up, it was difficult for me because I never really had any African-American gay role model who I could look up to and be like, yes!” said Ahart. “I look at my life and the challenges that I’ve had, and I’ve always wanted to make things better.”

His community involvements have ranged from the large-scale (former vice chair of the city of Austin Environmental Board; former board member of Zach Scott Theatre) to the equally important smaller-scale (volunteer with Literacy Austin and greeter at Ebenezer Baptist church). Ahart juggled all of this while he was the American cancer Society’s governmental relations director. A top performer with all the trappings of success–a great job, nice clothes, a car, a house and a network of associates–he wasn’t prepared for what happened in August of 2009. After seven years, he was laid off. Ahart was devastated and humbled.

“I had an insatiable hunger to look good on paper,” Ahart admitted. “I knew in that moment that the organization I’d given my life to could live without me. It forced me to look at my life with fresh eyes and I questioned everything.”

The layoff prompted a journey of self-awareness and renewal that continued in the months that followed.

Ahart realized that he was not his job, the car he drove, the home he lived in or the social position he’d attained. “So, with all the faith I could muster, I rededicated my life to following God’s will and not my own,” he said “I put my life back in his hands.”

East Austin Bona Fides

“My dad was a super hero to me,” he said. Ahart’s police officer father, who drove a three-wheeled motorcycle, carried a gun and wore the navy-blue uniform with pride, walked Ahart and his fraternal twin brother, Reginald to school each morning. Each night when he went to bed and in the morning when he woke up, Ahart was excited about his walk to school. “I was in awe and so proud of him.”

Reginald and Ahart have always shared a strong bond. Growing up, they did what young boys do: horsed around, got their share of bruises and even clashed at times. “My twin brother and I are really close,” Ahart said. “He was my best friend. We shared a bedroom and dressed alike until junior high.”

As their teenage years progressed, they develop He individual styles. While Reginald sported a mohawk, played in a techno band and wore black, Ahart dressed more like Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air with polo shirts, khakis and Cole Haans. “Reginald was his own person and marched to his own drum,” Ahart said. “I’ve always admired my twin for his strength, individuality and creativity.”

His mother, a teacher, attended Huston-Tillotson University, where she met her future husband. After getting married, they moved to Austin (she’d been living in Gonzales, which is where she grew up) and she taught a bit more before becoming a full-time mom. His parents instilled the values of giving back and community service at an early age, and they taught him about unconditional love.

“I had a cousin in our family who was gay and who was–not transgender, but he preferred to dress as a woman–my mother would bring him clothes and shoes from Austin and she’d make it a point to visit him,” Ahart said, noting that his cousin lived in a small, rural town. “My mom’s actions toward my cousin was yet another demonstration of her unconditional love for people. She accepted people as they were, and it taught me to be more accepting of others.”

Nevertheless, Ahart was keenly aware that his sexual orientation–something he realized at an early age–didn’t exactly gel with his Southern Baptist upbringing. Southern Baptists sometimes follow a strict adherence to a no-dancing, no-drinking lifestyle, and Ahart felt that he had to check his sexuality at the door. It hurt to hear the pastor say intolerant things about gay people. Despite that, Ebenezer Baptist church on east 10th Street is all that Ahart has known and it’s where he feels most in touch with his spirituality. “It boiled down to one thing: God created me. I’m a creation and manifestation of God,” Ahart said. “Not embracing that part of who I am is denying a major part of my creation. Instead of looking at that as something that’s a cross to bear, it’s actually a blessing.”

Ahart doesn’t wish to force his beliefs on anyone else. “I don’t go to church to prove a point or try to change people’s minds,” he said. “I can’t control anybody, but I can live my life the way that I feel is the most productive and the most meaningful. It’s not so much the place; it’s really about the personal relationship.”

In addition to his faith, Ahart is committed to family. Maintaining strong, meaningful relationships with family members can involve emotional minefields. But we all ultimately desire our parents’ acceptance. For Ahart–unlike many young people navigating the transition into adulthood–spending time with his parents was cool. While attending Texas A&M (a presidential achievement scholar, he graduated with his bachelor’s degree in political science), he’d return home on the weekends and his father would share stories of family lore: his dad was a former pickup boxer, a railroad worker on the Missouri Kansas line, a strong supporter of Ronald Reagan and he served in World War ii.

“I hung out with my parents,” Ahart said, laughing. “That sounds kind of dorky, but I did.”

All of this quality time with his parents paved the way for what was, in retrospect, a fairly painless process. Although he always recognized he was different, nothing coalesced until Ahart was in high school and he felt a much stronger connection to his guy friends. The butterflies in his stomach and the sense of excitement he felt on his first date with a guy (during his first year out of Texas A&M) was all the confirmation he needed. “It was excitement and fear all rolled into one and I’d never felt that way before,” Ahart said. “I felt all of me just come alive.”

On New Year’s Eve about 20 year’s ago, Ahart said a prayer of thanks for the previous year and read a passage from 2 Timothy 1:7 that said, “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” After meditating on that verse, Ahart was no longer afraid to reveal his sexual orientation to his family. He repeated the phrase over and over again as he fell asleep.

The next morning, after the black-eyed peas had been consumed and the resolutions aired, Ahart calmly gave a short speech. When he finished, his mother got up, threw her arms around him to give him a big hug, and he cried like a baby. “My mom said, ‘you are precious and perfect, Rodney. I want you to be happy. Be happy.’ She embraced me with such power, with one of those hugs that goes beyond the physical. It touched my soul,” said Ahart. “I know that’s such a struggle for our community because you hear so much from society that you’re less than or something is wrong with you. That day marked the beginning of a new journey and a long healing process for me.”

Unfortunately, Ahart’s father had already succumbed in his long battle with lung cancer at that point. However, Ahart believes that he already knew about his son’s sexual orientation. Their final conversation, at Seton hospital while his dad was recuperating from a medical procedure, was telling. “My dad told me, ‘I know that I did not say it very much, but I want you to know that I love you. I’m proud of you. Be proud of who you are.’ ”

Health Advocate

Having to bury his father, who died at the age of 69, was part of the catalyst for Ahart’s campaign to make public places (including bars and restaurants) smoke free in Austin during his tenure as government relations director at the American Cancer Society. His father began smoking at the age of 13 and fortified his habit while serving overseas during World War II. As a child, Ahart would hide his dad’s cigarettes, knowing the harm that was being done to his health. “This painful experience led to my passion for tobacco education and prevention,” he said.

The Smoke-Free Austin initiative–which put the ban on the ballot in 2005–tested Ahart’s resolve and was his biggest achievement at the ACS. Although it is now looked upon with favor by most city residents, at the time there was controversy, and Ahart described the overall experience as being full of ups and downs.

Ahart managed a signature collection process in which 40,000 signatures were gathered over a three-month time period. He formed the Onward Austin Coalition with 15 community organizations (including the American Lung Association and the Travis County Medical Society) and a 19-member steering committee (including people like Marcia Ball and Lance Armstrong). He formulated a strategic plan to mobilize voters by raising $300,000 for grass roots, direct mail, print and radio campaigns. He also served as the media spokesperson, conducting more than 57 interviews with local and national radio, print and television outlets.

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“At the time I didn’t realize,” Ahart said. “You make public places smoke free, that impacts people who are trying to quit smoking and it can prevent people from ever starting to smoke.”

His hard work earned him a number of honors, including the Austin Business Journal’s Health Care Hero Award and an Austin Under 40 Award in the medical category in 2008. Even so, Ahart never slowed down the pace of his giving. Another organization he chose to commit to is Austin’s chapter of the Human Rights Campaign. The HRC is the largest organization working for LGBT civil rights in the country, with more than 750,000 members nationwide. For his part, Ahart is a two-time former co-chair of Austin’s HRC Gala dinner and a Federal club member. He also spoke movingly about his own path to acceptance at the diner event in October, which was meant to recruit younger LGBT people into the organization’s fold. Ahart’s nonprofit work, combined with his professional pursuits, has allowed him to unite the three core facets of his personality: his African-American heritage, his sexual orientation and his Christian faith.

Positive Force

The union of those facets, and Ahart’s ability to move past the pain of losing his parents, was prompted by a soul-searching weekend retreat that he attended in February of 2010. The retreat allowed Ahart to delve deep into his fears, to fully embrace them and to tap into the built-up sadness over the death of his parents.

“I learned without a doubt that my freedom was on the other side of all that sadness and anger,” Ahart said. “The one relationship that needed my full attention was my relationship with myself and my maker.”

Shortly thereafter, he resigned from several of the boards he’d been serving on, joined a weekly non-denominational fellowship group, signed up for voice lessons and enrolled in an improv class.

One of the best ways to impact positive change, according to Ahart, is via public policy. “When you look at the civil Rights movement, one law can impact a nation,” he said. “Laws really do get at justice and equality–their true intent, originally, was for that. When I worked at the capitol, I had the opportunity to be a part of legislation that changed things.”

Ahart credited Rep. Helen Giddings (district 109) with giving him his first break. After he dropped off his resume

At the capitol at the suggestion of a customer (Ahart was working in the men’s department at J.C. Penney), Giddings was on her way to Dallas but met with Ahart to discuss his future. “She really took a chance on me and invested in my development and growth,” said Ahart, noting that he was hired shortly thereafter.

He served for two years as the chief of staff for State Representative Dawnna Dukes, who represents the people of the district where Ahart grew up (district 46). In this role, he promoted and organized a range of high-impact programs, including the Martin Luther king Jr. Boulevard cleanup.

While working in the Texas House of Representatives in 1997, Ahart met Richard Garcia. They worked side by side and developed a strong friendship. “It’s not often that I have met another person in the world where I immediately felt safe and free to be who I am, but who also challenged me to share the best of who I am,” said Garcia, who studied social psychology and law at UT-Austin.

Through his own self-work, Ahart has helped others deal with their dark moments. “There’s a time in all of our lives when we experience an event so painful that we transcend our greatest fear of dying and consider the possibility that no longer being alive might be less painful,” said Garcia, with- out specifying what he was going through. “We drove around Austin that night and Rodney just listened. The unconditional love he expressed to me that evening enabled me to re-find my center and feel a sense of peace again. I was and always will be truly grateful.”

Part of what makes Austin unique in terms of its diversity, according to Ahart, is that unlike other cities, there is no Castro or Montrose. “Gays and lesbians live everywhere, and I really think that’s a statement about this city, and it’s beautiful.”

Being the president of the Windsor Park Neighborhood Association drove this point home, especially when the yard of the month was announced by the group and the winners were frequently gay couples. “It totally made sense. I’d always laugh, because they’d be like, ‘yeah, we moved in a month ago.’ And their yard was completely manicured.”

Beyond matters of aesthetics, Ahart explained that many LGBT residents are uniquely suited to serve the city and give back. “In a lot of ways, the LGBT community is the conscious- ness of this city,” Ahart said, noting that many nonprofits are headed up or led by LGBT people. The possible reasons for this–having worked to gain acceptance or having experienced injustice on a personal level–are numerous.

“The Bible is full of examples of how God calls men and women from the margins of society to bring about change and usher in justice,” he said. “One of the gifts that I think God gives to the LGBT community is that level of commitment and the ability to really want to make things better.”

Beautiful Future

As a student at Pearce Junior high School, Ahart would stroll past the cute 1950s house on Briarcliff Boulevard that he now calls home. Back then, the traffic light hadn’t been installed and the intersection was a four-way stop. More than four years ago, he found the modest house and wanted to put in an offer. However, there was already another contract pending so Ahart let go of the idea and assumed he would not be living there. In July of 2006, he was looking at properties online and the house popped up as being available.

Spending time with himself–whether through prayer or meditation or reading or cooking–is keeping Ahart grounded. The music he’s listening to, lately the soul-nourishing sound of India. Arie, speaks to where he is right now–feeling open-hearted and ready for what’s next. His prayer and meditation, and the connection he made to his own self-growth, allowed all of his relationships to improve.

Lisa Russell-Fife met Ahart through a weekly book study group. They immediately connected on the level of the group’s purpose, which is to deepen participants’ conscious contact with their faith. Russell-Fife, a mortgage broker-turned-nursing student, described Ahart as a loving, intelligent, honest man of integrity. “Rodney dove into the self-reflection exercise with purpose,” she said. “When he completed it, he felt light and free, having seen and accepted himself honestly. I was very proud of his courage.”

5-3“There’s two things I’d like to be called eventually,” Ahart said, noting that he’s come to fully accept his own strengths and weaknesses only recently. “One is husband and the other one is dad. I hope one day to be married and adopt kids. That just warms my heart.”

Does he see himself ever running for public office or sharing his insights in some other way?

Ahart took out a photograph of himself at the age of 6 or 7, decked out in a blazer, bow tie and slacks and wearing a glittery gold crown, having been chosen as the Master of Sims elementary School while in the first grade. Ahart smiled, noting that he was class president in the sixth grade and that he’s run for office twice (for Austin community college’s board of trustees) but lost both times. “I’m waiting for a direction on it,” he said. “I realize that God uses us where we are and so I try to be open.”

Keep Austin Beautiful will continue to play an active role in citywide sustainability initiatives and practices–and to truly continue to be a leader in changing what Ahart has called Austin’s “beauty disparity.” “I’d always notice: Why is it so different once we cross I-35? I would like to see our organization help provide some of the necessary resources and support the community’s desire to beautify their areas,” Ahart said. “I’d like to see us be a leader–we already are–working on the disparities in the city.”

As the conversation was winding down, Ahart said he hoped his story would have a larger impact on younger LGBT people. “I think of that junior high kid, grasping for some kind of role model who would let me know that I’m okay. I hope there will be people in that situation that I was in who could pick up this magazine and say, ‘Look at this. This guy is similar to me. And I’m precious and I’m perfect. If that is one thing that happens as a result, then it is all worth it.”

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