People to Watch: Erin Upchurch

Andy Downing

Erin Upchurch has always been comfortable in front of a crowd.

It's a personality trait she can trace back through her bloodlines. During the Civil Rights movement, Upchurch's grandfather, Evan Spencer, used to travel around advocating for racial equality to audiences, and she still possesses a binder of his collected speeches. (“It's scary because some of them are still so relevant today,” she said.)

In more recent years, however, Upchurch, executive director of Kaleidoscope Youth Center, a LGBTQ+ nonprofit, has finally come to understand the full power of her voice.

“It's one thing to show up and speak, and another to realize that I can speak and impact things,” Upchurch said during a late July interview at Kaleidoscope's Downtown offices — a cozy, converted house comprising work spaces, communal areas, a well-stocked game room (complete with two copies of the board game Risk), a computer lab, a spaghetti-rich food pantry and more.

Upchurch credits this breakthrough to a series of recent events, including a failed run for a seat on the Columbus Board of Education in 2017, an experience she said left her feeling “completely stripped open.”

“After the election, I was doing this panel. It was for black girls, and my part was about body image,” said Upchurch, 40. “I shared a story, because I grew up in Hilliard, where it was mostly white kids … and I used to always try and make my lips smaller because I felt like everything about me was just big. As I demonstrated it to the audience that night, and I sat there with my mouth kind of [pursed] inward, I was like, ‘Oh, my God. My voice.' And it made me go back and think of all the times that I felt insecure about speaking up, or felt insecure about what I had to say. … It was this awareness of how I might shrink myself, or how others do. It's a continual negotiation, to be honest with you, of understanding the power and the responsibility and the vulnerability that comes with using your voice.”

Upchurch, who landed her position with Kaleidoscope in April, has long used her voice to advocate for underserved populations. Prior to taking her current post, she worked as the assistant clinical director of Netcare Corporation, a 24-hour mental health and substance abuse service center, and she's served on a number of agency boards, including TransOhio and the Ohio AIDS Coalition. Upchurch also teaches at the Ohio State University College of Social Work, and offers training and consulting for mental health providers focused on implicit bias disruption, in addition to mentoring youth — particularly those from groups that are not traditionally granted access to the halls of power.

“About a year and a half ago, I was talking to a mentor … and as we were talking she said, ‘Erin, everything you do is centered around belonging,'” Upchurch said. “I thought about it, and it is, because I want people to experience belonging. In elementary school, I was always drawn to the folks who didn't have friends, or who sat by themselves. … I never had the language for it, but now I understand that's what it's about, as well as the ways I can create those spaces and support folks in doing that.”

Growing up in Hilliard, Upchurch's parents, Marla and Shelton Spencer, worked to make their home a similarly safe space, sheltering their children as best they could from the types of racial hatred to which they were often subjected coming up in Southern Ohio. Regardless, Upchurch recalled one night when she was 9 years old, when family members discovered a cross burning on the lawn in front of their house.

“I remember the police being there, and I remember my dad grabbing a baseball bat and walking around the neighborhood. And I remember the cross in our garage for a little bit. The smell is still very fresh. ... And then it disappeared, and there was no other conversation about it,” Upchurch said. “I asked them as an adult, and they didn't have a reason for [not talking about the cross]. My parents, they had this desire for my sisters and I to have a different life, and to have access to things they didn't have access to. … I think they wanted to offer us something different.”

Upchurch takes similar inspiration from her teenage children, who inspired her school board run, among other pursuits. “I need the world to be safe enough for them,” said Upchurch, who didn't outright dismiss the idea of running for some type of office again in the future.

But even beyond her own family, Upchurch said she's drawn to searching out and fostering those traits that unite us as human beings, which is certain to be a central element in any future pursuits, no matter what shape they might take.

“Being able to honor the dignity in people is important to me,” she said. “I know we're all connected, and finding those connections is something I've always been interested in. It all fits together.”

Name: Erin Upchurch

Age: 40

Occupation: Social worker

Hometown: Hilliard, Ohio

Organization: Kaleidoscope Youth Center

Who do you look up to? My children (14 and 16). They embody courage, compassion, resiliency and unconditional love.

Twitter: @erinupchurch