Bentley Hudgins discovered a passion for community organizing as a college student. Now, the 2017 Mercer University graduate is involved in a number of roles that center around community activism.
Hudgins, who holds a philosophy degree, now lives in Atlanta and is a lead organizer at the New Georgia Project and a communications consultant for the Georgia American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).
Here are five things to know about Hudgins:
1. Hudgins is a civil rights activist.
Hudgins, who is nonbinary and prefers using gender-neutral pronouns, approaches their professional work in a three-fold manner: political strategy, community organizing and cultural organizing.
In their job with the New Georgia Project, a nonpartisan organization that focuses on voter registration and civic engagement, Hudgins does direct organizing in communities. They also preside over the Georgia Cares Campaign that focuses on health care, senior care and child care. In addition to contributing to the organization’s political strategy for the 2020 election cycle, Hudgins helped residents register to vote and request absentee ballots, as well as with direct aid like HIV and coronavirus testing and grocery assistance.
Hudgins also does communications work for the AFL-CIO, which has more than 200,000 active and retired members. The organization focuses on more than just negotiating pay but making sure workers are safe on the job and have a voice, Hudgins said. In addition, Hudgins often contributes guest articles to media outlets and has been featured in publications like Project Q and Georgia Voice.
“What I’m doing with my career in this particular moment in time is expanding the electorate by making sure that everyone is registered and engaged and voting in every election, and also looking at ways through that to engage people in issues they care about,” Hudgins said.
2. Service learning at Mercer primed Hudgins for the future.
Hudgins started out studying global health and switched majors a few times before settling on philosophy after taking an ethics class with Dr. Charlie Thomas. It was during the second half of college that Hudgins started to see how community activism could become a viable career.
“I knew the entire time I was at Mercer that I wanted to make the world a better place,” they said. “It took me a while to figure out exactly how I wanted to make that happen, and I’m still figuring that out, to be honest. I didn’t realize that all the service learning that we were doing at Mercer and all the things we were required to do in our classes was community organizing. I realized that all these things that I was doing in college were things that I wanted to do after college.”
Hudgins said their involvement in the Student Government Association (SGA) taught them skills in social media and website management as well as in politics. Holding down three jobs while being a full-time student showed them how to juggle multiple responsibilities simultaneously.
“Getting a Mercer philosophy degree primes you to work in politics,” Hudgins said. “Having a deep understanding of the ideal principles of American democracy and being able to readily talk about it, engage in discussions and critically understand the world around you is something that the philosophy department teaches you that nothing else at Mercer does. Those are things that still stick with me today.”
3. A hard chapter in Hudgins’ life led to a new purpose
Prior to senior year, a chain of events happened that changed the course of Hudgins’ life. They lost their grandfather as well as a close friend, had their hearing restored after being deaf their whole life, came out as queer, and were the victim of two assaults.
“I was self-destructive for a little bit,” Hudgins said. “When you’re balancing 18 different plates and stretch yourself to the limits, if anything messes up your balance, all of them come crashing down. I had one of those moments. My life was not together.”
Hudgins took a break from school, found the support they needed and returned to Mercer, and things started to turn around.
“I was given a second chance to go back and do something that matters to me,” they said.
It was around this time in 2016 that Hudgins organized a candlelight vigil in Macon following the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, in which 49 people were killed. About 300 people from the Mercer and Macon communities attended, far exceeding Hudgins’ expectations.
“I realized when we had that vigil that there is an aspect of community organizing that is healthy and moves people into action,” Hudgins said. “That period in my life, I hope no one ever has to experience that. One of the many reasons that I organize is I don’t want anyone to ever experience or feel like I have before.”
4. Hudgins is a mover and a shaker.
That vigil led Hudgins to get involved in many other initiatives, including several protests in the summer of 2016; the founding of the Macon Unity coalition and its annual March on Macon; and conversations with local officials that resulted in the passing of a Macon-Bibb County antidiscrimination ordinance this past November to protect employees.
Hudgins also did brand marketing for downtown Macon businesses while in college. After graduating, they did strategic communications consulting for democracy organizations in Washington, D.C., and canvassing for Rep. Bee Nguyen’s special election campaign. They held positions at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Georgia Budget Policy Institute before joining the team at the New Georgia Project.
Hudgins was awarded the Local Community Builder Award by Georgia Equality, named the Up & Coming LGBTQ+ Youth by Georgia Voice in the 2018 Best of Atlanta Awards, and was a finalist for Best Activist in the 2019 Best of Atlanta Awards. They were also accepted to the New Leaders Council in 2019.
5. Hudgins is ‘saving space for joy.’
Professionally, Hudgins is incredibly proud to be “a part of a really large constellation of people and organizations moving the state to reflect the will of the voters” and making strides in comprehensive civil rights.
“The past four years of us organizing around this issue has completely changed the face of Macon politics,” Hudgins said. “Today, queer students at Mercer feel more empowered to be themselves and come forward. I didn’t do this alone in the least, but being able to be a part of a group of people that shifted the culture to be more expressive and authentic is really amazing.”
Hudgins plans to continue to work toward maximizing their potential and expanding their role in the political infrastructure of Georgia. Personally, Hudgins also is proud to have come out as nonbinary and to be the person they are today. Amid their many responsibilities, “being happy and saving space for joy” are extremely important to Hudgins.
“Giving myself permission to live authentically and to show up authentically everywhere I go is really powerful,” Hudgins said. “I want to get to a point where I can personally do for other people in the same way that people showed up and supported me.”