Talking Points Episode 27: Rainbow Railroad’s Executive Director Kimahli Powell
In honor of International Pride month and Stonewall 50, Talking Points is focused on LGBTQI travel this June. As the world leads up to International Pride in New York City on June 30, 2019, this special episode features an organization that TPG has proudly supported for years: Rainbow Railroad.
As a global nonprofit organization, Rainbow Railroad protects and provides aid to LGBTQI individuals residing in countries where homosexuality is a crime and are facing persecution. Kimahli Powell, Rainbow Railroad’s Executive Director, joins Brian Kelly in conversation and shares the details behind his organization’s mission and life saving work. Powell explains how R.R. identifies individual cases, the costs it takes and the challenges that come along the way in helping LGBTQI refugees seek asylum.
In 2018, Rainbow Railroad received 1,300 requests for help. Since the beginning of 2019, they have already received more than 1,500. The cost to pull one person out of life-threatening situations can as much as $10,000.
“The people that we help don’t necessarily have access to a birth certificate; then they have to get a passport, need to get luggage, need to be in safe houses before they travel. All of these pieces are what we pay for.”
You can join TPG in supporting Rainbow Railroad by donating to our current Prizeo campaign. By donating, you’ll be entered for chance to 1 million Chase Ultimate Rewards points and have your Trip of a Lifetime planned by TPG.
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Brian Kelly: Welcome back to Talking Points, I’m Brian Kelly, The Points Guy. This week, we are going to talk about an organization that is helping save lives around the world. You know, I’m extremely fortunate that I’m able to be a proudly out entrepreneur who’s able to travel the world to most countries, thanks to my privilege of having a US passport and frequent flyer miles and the resources to do it, but through these travels, my eyes have been opened to many realities that I never thought were happening.
Brian Kelly: I know several years ago when I was reading The New York Times and hearing about LGBT concentration camps, gay people being rounded up, tortured, and killed just for being who they are, and I remember wanting to stick my head in the sand, and deny that that couldn’t possibly be happening, not in this day and age. Soon after that article, a friend told me about Rainbow Railroad, an amazing organization that’s on the ground helping LGBTQ people around the world, who are at risk of persecution, jail or even death.
Brian Kelly: Much like the Underground Railroad, they have a network of people who are working their best to get people to safety and if there’s one thing that I know, travel has changed my life, travel has the power to save lives as well. So I wanted to be a part in helping physically get LGBTQ refugees to safety and over the last several years, we’ve teamed up with Rainbow Railroad. We’ve done frequent-flyer-mile drives, we’ve done Prizeo campaigns, and we are in the middle of our biggest one yet, and here to talk all about Rainbow Railroad is Kimahli Powell, their executive director. Kimahli, thank you so much for joining us today.
Kimahli Powell: Thanks so much for having me.
Brian Kelly: So can you just explain what Rainbow Railroad is to those listeners who may not know?
Kimahli Powell: Sure. Rainbow Railroad is a not-for-profit charity that focuses on helping LGBT people facing persecution find safety. So what we do is we get requests from all around the world from people who are facing life-threatening situations just because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and we work with them to find a pathway to safety where they can live their authentic selves.
Brian Kelly: I know I heard about you guys several years ago. I was reading The New York Times and hearing all about the crisis in Chechnya. What’s going on on the ground in Chechnya and what is Rainbow Railroad doing?
Kimahli Powell: Yeah. Chechnya was a real example of the alarming trend of mass detentions of people who are part of the LGBTQ community, and in that case, what we had was a state-sponsored campaign to basically round up primarily gay and bisexual men, but women were affected as well — people, detain them, torture them, and then really coerced them into giving more names of individuals in order to keep things going.
Kimahli Powell: So there were over 200-people-plus who were detained over a short period of time a couple of years ago and some were murdered as well. Unfortunately, there’s been a wave of new detentions just recently, and what we did, we were concerned like you were when you read about what was happening, but we found out that we were uniquely positioned, because of the work that we did, to identify individuals who managed to flee Chechnya to Russia, work with our partners on the ground to provide them temporary safe houses and then move them to other countries like Canada, and to your viewers, it was directly because of your support, and the support of viewers who raised miles that we were able to use those resources to actually move people to safety.
Brian Kelly: Yeah, and that was a really cool campaign, and to be very clear to people listening, you can donate your Amex points or Aeroplan miles, you can transfer Amex to Aeroplan, and then Rainbow Railroad is one of the official charities. We have a whole landing page on The Points Guy/Rainbow Railroad, if you want to help donate miles, but these miles actually go into an Aeroplan account where you guys book the flights to get people to safety, right, Kimahli?
Kimahli Powell: That’s correct. That’s correct. It was remarkable just how the donation of points could literally help save someone’s life.
Brian Kelly: Yeah. You know, I was invited to Toronto — what was it? — last summer and I got a chance to actually meet with a lot of the people that we’ve saved from Chechnya, and their stories are heartbreaking, even talking with some people with scars across their face from being beaten. So we’ve been able to help a number of people, which is amazing, but the situation is still pretty bad on the ground there?
Kimahli Powell: Yeah, unfortunately. You know, I often think while we celebrate those who we are able to help, my thoughts are usually towards those we have not yet helped, and the result of the original purge was that people were deep in hiding after those first waves of arrests in fear of being exposed, and that continues, and the unfortunate reality is that the LGBTQ community is often used as easy targets when politics get tough.
Kimahli Powell: You see it in the US, as well, and that’s not different in Chechnya, except that the biggest difference is that people are actually tortured and killed, and you know, Rainbow Railroad exists because there are 70-plus countries that criminalize same-sex intimacy and those laws endanger people. It basically gives a license to governments, to the police force, to communities to target this community, and the result is people losing their lives, and so we step in to provide a lifeline to those who are facing life and death circumstances.
Brian Kelly: Some organizations do advocacy to change laws or to change people’s opinions. Rainbow Railroad exists to get people to safety.
Kimahli Powell: That’s absolutely correct. We stand in solidarity with the people who are doing the great work to change hearts, minds and laws and policies, but we realize that there needs to be immediate-risk solutions for people who are facing life-threatening situations.
Brian Kelly: So Chechnya is certainly a problem. I also got the ability to go to Jamaica with you and “60 Minutes” and the situation on the ground there, I was shocked at what’s going on in Jamaica, and I think a lot of people who visit Jamaica had no idea of the sort of brutality that goes on against the LGBT community there. Can you give us a quick overview of what’s happening in Jamaica and what Rainbow Railroad is doing to help?
Kimahli Powell: Absolutely. I know it’s surprising. Jamaica is a paradise, it’s an escape for people who want to enjoy the sand and the beaches and the music, and that’s always been true. But what’s also true is that Jamaica has the most amount of churches per capita anywhere in the world and homophobia is deeply embedded in the culture, and so what you see outside of the wonderful tourist spots is a culture where people are really hunted down because of their sexual orientation or gender identity,
Brian Kelly: Especially the trans community, right?
Kimahli Powell: And the trans community, that’s correct. Many of the individuals that you met were people who identified as transgender but could not actually live their lives as their authentic selves because they would get killed, and so what you saw were people living in homelessness, living in the fringes, people, victims of acid attacks, really because all it takes is someone to identify someone on the street and say that they are gay for a mob to encircle them and their lives be threatened.
Brian Kelly: And then the police never really follow up with these killings, right? Their justice is for the LGBT community is basically nonexistent?
Kimahli Powell: The police are sometimes the perpetrators of violence. What do you do? We heard stories of people going to the police only to get kicked out, to say that what they’re doing is a sin or crime. So when the only people you’re supposed to turn to for protection turn you away, what else are you supposed to do?
Brian Kelly: Yeah, I think the biggest takeaway for me on that trip was I went to the gullies where people living under bridges — like I mean, you talk about people ostracized from their communities. My first reaction was, “We should boycott Jamaica. Until Jamaica changes their laws and protections, we shouldn’t be giving them our tourism dollars,” and I know a lot of gay travelers who have money won’t support places that are really horrible to LGBT community.
Brian Kelly: What I learned on that trip, and in talking to the people most impacted by this brutality, is that by boycotting the hotels, the hotels are actually the best places for LGBT people to work … An economy that depends on tourism like Jamaica, if there’s a mass boycott, that it actually makes conditions worse on the ground.
Brian Kelly: So, that was really illuminating for me, and recently with Brunei and their horrible new anti-gay death-by-punishment, there is a notion to boycott the Dorchester Hotel Group, so that it puts pressure on the sultan who owns that hotel group. I still go back and forth because the power of the wallet is something that we see in the US being very impactful.
Brian Kelly: You know, when you hit people in their wallet — who are hateful, they — it’s a way of combatting when you don’t have a lot of other resources, but on the other end, it does negatively impact the people you’re trying to help. What are your thoughts on that, Kimahli?
Kimahli Powell: I think the best way to start, as a starting point, is always start by getting advice from people on the ground because it might change from country to country, and pressure is important, and pressure can work, but it’s not necessarily always the best tactic for reasons that you expressed in Jamaica are certainly true.
Kimahli Powell: You know, I had the fortune to meet George and Amal Clooney just recently as they are launching a new initiative for their foundation and are considering supporting Rainbow Railroad, and what he said to me was because he was one of the people who were pushing the boycott. And he said, you know, his strategy was talking with activists in Indonesia, which is a neighbor of Brunei, and said, you know, that not only will it get the attention of the sultan, but also be preventative for Indonesia. And it made me think about the situation a little bit differently. It was a strategy that was thought out. I think we have a visceral, and I feel it …
Brian Kelly: Oh what? So, that if Indonesia depends so much on tourism, that if they enact similar strict laws that there will be hell to pay?
Kimahli Powell: Exactly, and I get the visceral response to want to boycott, to want to change. When Russia’s anti-propaganda law came up in 2013, people wanted to stop drinking Stoli, and I think ultimately, there are pressure points that are necessary in order to act as sticks to these governments.
Kimahli Powell: The question is, which ones will not harm people on the ground and I think there is a balancing point. One example is, and we’re seeing more and more, where visas are being revoked for these individuals who like to travel, who like to go to places like America, and we’re saying, “No, you’re not welcome here because of what you’re doing,” and so it’s finding what strategies work. I always say be cautious with boycotts — not don’t do them ever, but understand why we’re doing them and what the effect will be.
Brian Kelly: OK. Let’s take a quick pause right now, and hear from our sponsors. So, the actual work on the ground — how do you determine who is really an LGBTQ refugee? What is your network like on the ground to vet that the people that you’re trying to help are the ones who are actually getting assistance?
Kimahli Powell: That’s a great question. It’s tough. We have received now, 1200 requests since January 2019, just this year alone. So it’s a lot of people from over 40 countries reaching out for help. When there’s so many different requests, how do we filter which ones are real priorities? And we look at a number of factors.
Kimahli Powell: To the heart of your question, we rely on partnerships in all the countries that we work. We’re a small organization, we don’t have the resources and the capacity to have staff in all the countries we work, and so the partnerships are really crucial, human rights defenders who are volunteering with us to identify the individuals, to help verify their cases of persecution and then really let us know the degree of urgency.
Kimahli Powell: When you have only so limited resources, there are people who manage to live within the countries of origin and then there are people who are facing life-and-death situations, and that’s what we’re trying to weed out. I always want to make it really clear that we are not saying in all instances that relocation is the answer.
Kimahli Powell: Our goal is the goal of many, that everyone should live in the country of their birth, and many of the people who reach out to us definitely say, “I would rather just stay home.” Our job is to really focus on prioritizing the cases that are life-threatening and we do it with our partnerships.
Kimahli Powell: We identify, we tease out to make sure it’s an authentic story of persecution, and then we get them prepared for travel, and as we said earlier, the most important piece is that we pay for the travel.
Brian Kelly: You know, we donate points, and there’s ways to donate points, but there’s still so many costs that you need money to work on. Now, I’ve visited your offices in Toronto. You guys run a tight ship, you’re part of a coworking facility. I know you keep your costs down.
Brian Kelly: Tell us the evolution of Rainbow Railroad. Last year for my birthday, we were able to raise $200,000 through our Prizeo campaign. What did you guys do with that money, and for people who want to donate, can you explain the sort of cost structure that you guys have, and how much of the money donated actually goes toward saving lives?
Kimahli Powell: Absolutely. Points are always effective, and they definitely help, but we’re now helping an average of 200 people a year and so cash is required, and it costs roughly $10,000 to work through one case, the majority of which are travel costs. It’s not business-class travel. It’s just that their routes are really complicated for some of these individuals that we’re trying to get to their final destinations, in order to facilitate a successful asylum claim. And so we are working on very complex travel, and then of course, providing resources for the person to get ready for travel.
Kimahli Powell: You got to understand, Brian, the people that we help don’t necessarily have access to a birth certificate, then they have to get a passport, need to get luggage, need to be in safe houses before they travel. All of these pieces are what we pay for. Sometimes we’re facilitating costs for what we call, “agents,” or support people in country, and then we give very limited post-travel support.
Kimahli Powell: We’re not a settlement agency. We depend on partners to help with the integration process, but we have a responsibility to ensure that individuals have some degree of resources once they arrive in their country, and all of that totals to roughly, again, $10,000 per case. We keep our operations really lean as you said, and so the vast majority of our operating budget is around direct travel.
Brian Kelly: Got it, and let’s just talk about you, Kimahli. So, how did you become the executive director of such an incredible organization?
Kimahli Powell: (laughter) I don’t know.
Brian Kelly: Have you always been passionate about this?
Kimahli Powell: Yeah.
Brian Kelly: What’s been your career progression?
Kimahli Powell: You know, I started my career with an idea that I’d work in government, and I very quickly realized that that is not what I wanted to do, and so I turned to the not-for-profit sector, and particularly working on health and social justice. I realized as a gay black man who was born in Canada but from the Jamaican diaspora, how (I think normal) but abnormal my circumstance was, and the reality of many Jamaicans, right?
Kimahli Powell: So for me, and you, just as someone that managed to find solace as an out person, it’s not really a factor in my life, as is someone from the Jamaican diaspora, it’s something that I didn’t realize comes with a huge degree of privilege, and I think that’s what led me toward working on health and social justice is because I had a family that accepted me when I came out, which is not normal for many Jamaicans, and you saw first-hand the opposite, people getting targeted.
Kimahli Powell: Because that’s what my passion has been, I’ve been working in the HIV sector for much of my career, LGBTQ issues. When I was approached to take on Rainbow Railroad, I was working with an organization that was challenging Jamaica’s anti-sodomy law. So, this was just very close to my heart, and it was also really a great opportunity to take an organization that was growing.
Kimahli Powell: We’re an example of what happens when the community rallies together. One hundred percent of our funds is from the community. We currently do not receive any government sources, and so that’s really motivating for me to be able to have helped build a movement that is fueled by people like you and all of the viewers who donated to you, your campaigns. Isn’t it a wonderful symbol of what happens when we all rally together?
Brian Kelly: It is, and I’m so excited. This year, we have launched a campaign, I want to set the goals high, so my goal is to raise $1 million for Rainbow Railroad. You can visit Prizeo.com/savelives, and we are also going to be doing a ton of other flash sweeps, as we call them, with other celebrities to raise awareness around this because, as we are so fortunate to be able to celebrate 50 years of Pride this summer in New York, and especially in the US, how much we’ve accomplished.
Brian Kelly: Yes, there’s still a lot to do. I think it’s very important that we all realize that many people around the world don’t have those same abilities. So Kimahli, I want to thank you for doing all of the hard work that you do. How do you stay optimistic? In your line of work where you’re dealing with such desperate situations, and what keeps you optimistic?
Kimahli Powell: The ultimate driver of why I do this work is probably the same reason why you support the work and why so many other people have donated. It’s the tangible result of knowing that someone, who is facing a life-threatening situation, is now safe in a new home, and every time I hear that story, or have the remarkable opportunity to meet someone that was affected by that, that makes it all worthwhile, and then that drives me to keep going. And so to everyone who might contribute to this campaign, know that that small investment will actually help save someone’s life.
Brian Kelly: Yeah. I have to say at the dinner with the people from Chechnya that we helped get asylum, sitting down, and hearing their stories, and I remember one person telling me, “Brian, I can’t tell you the feeling.” Because they’re stressed up, going through immigration, they don’t know if they’re going to get pulled away, denied boarding from the airline. There’s so many different hurdles even once they get that final go-ahead, and he started to choke up, and he just said, “The minute that the wheels took off, and I was no longer on Russian soil …” He’s like, “I just started sobbing on the plane.” And I get chills thinking about it now, and so many times we can complain about travel …
Brian Kelly: It really puts in perspective that travel is much more than just vacations or pushing ourselves. Travel can save lives and that’s why I love what you guys are doing, and I’m also really excited to have on our Pride parade. If you’re in New York City, we will be marching. We have a 747-themed float. Our theme is Equality Airlines, and we’re bringing in partnership with Rainbow Railroad, first-time Pride attendees, and once again, if you want to help save lives, donate to our campaign, Prizeo.com/savelives.
Brian Kelly: Kimahli, once again, you are an inspiration to me personally. You make me excited to do what we do, and to be able to use this platform to truly make a difference in people’s lives. So, thank you.
Kimahli Powell: No, thank you for all that you’ve done to support this work. This has been a great partnership, and thank you for having me.
Brian Kelly: That’s all for this episode of Talking Points. A huge thank you to Kimahli Powell and Rainbow Railroad and all the work they’re doing to help save lives around the world, and also, thank you to my amazing team, Christie Matsui, Caroline Schagrin, and Margaret Kelley. You guys are podcast rockstars.
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