Q & A / Harper S. E. Bishop
Doing whatever it takes
Bishop is currently director of movement building for PUSH
Photo by Stephen Gabris
Name: Harper S. E. Bishop
Current title: Deputy director of movement building at People Untited for Sustainable Housing (PUSH)
As a basketball player at Houghton College, Harper Bishop lost an athletic scholarship when he was outed as queer to a hidebound administration. Bishop, now thirty-four, was galvanized into activism. “I learned that solidarity lies with others who are marginalized and oppressed,” says Bishop, who identifies as trans and references his past with the initials that stand for his birth name, Sarah Elizabeth. A political science major in college who’d planned on becoming a missionary, the East Aurora native soon veered into a slightly different mission, working to bring equity and economic justice to the larger community. He was executive director of Buffalo First, promoting a strong local economy; served as legislative assistant to the late Delaware District Council Member Michael J. LoCurto; worked for the Coalition for Economic Justice; and was director of equitable development for Open Buffalo. This year, he joined PUSH as deputy director of movement building. He is married to Jennifer Connor, cofounder of Justice for Migrant Families WNY and a teacher at the International Institute.
You’ve been agitating and organizing for a long time. What’s the best part of your work?
Connecting community—building power alongside residents to make changes in their community, and our community as a whole. Training youth in this work is important. And I have seen change. What’s hard is holding a long-term vision of what can be, and will be, for generations to come. We always say this is legacy work!
So you may not see all the hoped-for change in your lifetime. What keeps you motivated?
I believe in the intrinsic value and dignity of every individual. The awakening I had in college was the realization that the world is safe for some, but not for those who are marginalized.
What keeps you sane?
Self-care is really important for people who are fighting systems of oppression all day, every day. My wife Jennifer and I have made a commitment to having dinner together three to four times a week. We value our connection to nature, and also love to travel.
Tell us something about yourself that might surprise people.
I really love cheesy pop music and really bad romantic comedies. I can quote every line in every Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen movie. My sister and I loved to dance to NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys—it was one way for us to bond; she was ultra-feminine and I was a real tomboy.
What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever done?
Helping to oust Carl Paladino from the school board. I was part of a group of anti-Paladino demonstrators that shut down some board meetings; finally, we heard that the state education commissioner was removing him. Friends who agreed with me on the issues had said to forget it, he was too entrenched, too powerful—it would be impossible to oust him. Well, this is why we do what we do. What is the job of an organizer but to make the impossible possible?
My maternal grandmother used to say, “You work for God, not for man,” meaning you work for the greater good, not self-aggrandizement. I also adhere to the opposite of the idea that hurt people hurt people; that is, healed people heal people. And that is our work, to heal ourselves, our people, and our communities.