This is the first in a four-part series that will profile black and African American Howard County leaders in celebration of Black History Month.
Jumel Howard’s journey to activism began in Zhucheng, outside the Shandong province in China.
It was 2016 and Howard was teaching English in the Asian nation when a Chinese national approached him and said, “Don’t you feel much safer over here than you would back in America?”
Howard, who identifies as African American, didn’t know why but felt solace in the man’s question. He answered truthfully when he replied “yes.”
“You just felt it was a safer environment to just ‘be,’ and I can’t really put words to it because it was just a feeling, not really something sensible that I could put my finger on. But it was something I felt,” the 24-year-old Howard said in an interview.
After almost a year in China, Howard was upset and disappointed with what he was hearing about the U.S., particularly surrounding the 2016 election.
“Why would I allow myself to feel safe and comfortable here when the place that I came from is slowly turning into something I don’t recognize?” Howard said. “So I realized I needed to come back and I did.”
When Howard returned to his native Columbia, where he attended Guilford Elementary and Oakland Mills Middle and High schools, he went in search of ways to get involved in his Howard County community.
“I personally wanted to make sure [the community] stayed as welcoming and inclusive as I remembered it being and I figured, in my mind, the only way to do that is to step in where I see those types of gaps,” he said.
Finding PFLAG and a love of activism
Howard began a search for volunteer opportunities in the county. He visited VolunteerHoward.org, a website that matches volunteers with volunteer opportunities in the community.
One of the first organizations to respond to him was Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG, a nonprofit organization that unites allies with people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer.
Susan Garner, a Columbia resident and then president of the Columbia-Howard County chapter of PFLAG, responded to that initial message and brought Howard on board.
“I was immediately ready to hop on Sue’s bandwagon and see where we could go,” Howard said.
Garner said she vividly remembers the first time she met Howard, calling his energy “electrifying.”
“His energy and his interest in contributing to the LGBT cause to support kids, parents and raise the consciousness of Howard County in terms of the needs just surprised me,” Garner said. “For someone so young to be so on target and so willing to give time and energy.”
PFLAG was a jumping-off point for Howard’s activism.
“Now that I’m part of the organization, I see how much value it provides to people’s lives, how much of a difference that having these resources can be for people, especially when it comes to parents and gender-creative or transgender children, that they know there are these types of resources are there,” Howard said.
“Being able to connect people to them is the best part about it.”
Since joining the countywide effort, Howard has become involved with nearly a dozen county and state committees, coalitions or organizations, including Howard County Pride, Columbia Association Millennial Advisory Committee, Howard County Young Democrats Sexual and Gender Minority Caucus, Maryland State Democratic LGBTQ Diversity Leadership Council and PRIDE Center of Maryland.
Garner now said she sees Howard as a potential future governor of Maryland.
Growing up Howard
Howard is a third-generation graduate of Guilford Elementary and has roots deep in the Columbia area.
He describes his years growing up in a diverse area as feeling part of the community.
“Because my family has lived in Howard County for a very long time, I know about some of the more diverse communities because I grew up in them,” he said. “A lot of times, people will move in and they won’t know that there are African American communities that predate the county itself, or they don’t know there is more of a history to [the county] than Columbia.”
Howard said his roots meant he understood how those communities intersected and how the ones he works with now intersect, too.
Max Crownover, a Columbia resident and the current president of the county PFLAG, said that’s what Howard’s best at: understanding the tendencies to put people in boxes and pushing back against those instincts.
“He definitely has made an impact across numerous demographic groups as an activist, as a supporter in a lot of different ways, across demographics of sexual orientation, gender identity, people of color, the whole socioeconomic spectrum,” Crownover said.
“I like being involved. It’s a matter of making sure equity, inclusion, tolerance and diversity are things that are embraced by the community that I live in, the community I call home, the community that my family has helped build over the past several generations,” Howard said.
Howard now works at Maryland Legal Aid as a paralegal and plans to continue his studies at University Maryland Global Campus in the fall, calling his work as a paralegal “a much-needed service.”
“These are extremely underrepresented people,” Howard said. “In many cases, they have nowhere else to go to get the assistance that they need.”
Katie Quinn, Howard’s eighth grade history teacher at Oakland Mills Middle, said Howard’s leadership potential was instantly clear to her.
“As a teacher, there are always a few students every year who are touched with something extra, and Jumel was one of those students,” she said.
Quinn pointed to Howard’s high school involvement in student government as to what gave him the voice he has today.
“I’m not surprised he’s become the leader he has. It’s a teacher’s dream to see one of their students achieve what they are capable of achieving,” Quinn said. “I think he’s just getting started. We’re going to see a lot more of Jumel Howard.”
Bringing PRIDE to Howard County
In 2017, Howard began efforts to bring the first Pride festival to Howard County, frequently calling the event his “brainchild.”
The Howard County Pride group spent a year organizing and fundraising before launching the inaugural event that attracted 10,000 people in June 2019.
“[The] hardest part is getting all the pieces together,” he said, pieces that included live music, drag performances, games, food and more.
Howard currently is deep amid piles of emails and phone calls organizing and fundraising for this year’s Pride event. He said it will be easier to organize than last year’s, but he’s focused on making sure it goes off without a hitch.
The group is finalizing a June date for this year’s event and locking in financial contributions to make the event possible again this year. The festival will switch locations this year from Centennial Park to Merriweather Park in downtown Columbia, and Howard is looking to include a pathway parade.
His target goal for attendance for 2020 is 15,000.
“Part of the reason why I’m so big on Pride and making sure that the LGBTQ community has a voice as well [is] because people should know that the diversity exists and know that you’re not just moving into a silently tolerant place, but a place where you can loudly be yourself and be accepted,” he said.
On Black History Month
For Howard, Black History Month is all about celebrating intersectionality, where people and groups from different races, classes and genders overlap and find common ground.
“I’m not just black; I’m also gay; I’m also a student; I’m also a resident of Howard County. You are so many different things rather than just being that one box that you’re in,” Howard said.
“It is significant that, as a black man, I’m 24 years old and I have the level of influence that I do. It’s also significant as a black gay man that I have the honor of being the person that brought Pride to Howard County and the honor of leading this process year after year.”
Howard said this intersectionality is possible because of the previous generation of black men and women who fought for equality.
“Where previous generations had to link arms and march on Washington, they accomplished so much to the point where I can shoot an email to somebody in the county administration [and] have a meeting set up within the next week,” he said. “I don’t have to fight as hard as people in the previous generation.”
Even though he doesn’t have as difficult a battle, Howard said he still has to fight to make sure the equity that has been demanded and granted is maintained.
“I feel as though my role at this point is to make [the previous generation] proud by constantly being somebody who younger generations can look up to, somebody who is constantly working to make sure that the community, that [the previous generation], made so great stays great and gets better. So that it’s easier for them to come up [and] do even more than I could do.”
Howard also said seeing the first African American county executive in the county, Calvin Ball, inspired him.
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“Maybe that could be me one day,” Howard said.