A Pride Month Q&A With Cooke Alums Dee Baskin and Reg Ledesma
It’s been 53 years since the Stonewall uprising in New York City in June 1969, generally regarded as the beginning of the modern Pride movement in the United States. Pride Month is meant to celebrate LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, plus) identities, and also acts as a great time to learn about issues affecting the gay community. This month, the Cooke Foundation asks two Alums to reflect on what drew them to their respective career fields and, more broadly, their thoughts on Pride Month and issues that affect the LGBTQIA+ community not only during June, but all year round.
Cooke Alumna Dee Baskin (she/they), a 2004 Undergraduate Transfer Scholar and 2006 Graduate Scholar, is not only active in the Cooke Scholar community, but is also a strong advocate for justice and equality in many different spaces. They serve on the board of three different organizations that were created to advance equity in the arts, healthcare, and technology fields, and is the executive director of the Loan Repayment Assistance Program of Minnesota. She has contributed to many advocacy projects, including The Advocate magazine’s project on the bridge between faith and LGBTQIA+ communities.
Reg Ledesma (they/them), a 2009 Cooke Young Scholar, 2014 College Scholar, and 2019 Graduate Scholar, graduated in 2021 with an M.P.P. from Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy. After completing their degree, Reg started their career in health policy at IMPAQ International, which was integrated into the American Institutes for Research in 2022. Reg is passionate about equitable healthcare and policy for minority communities.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your job and what drew you to that career field?
Dee: Loan Repayment Assistance Program of Minnesota (LRAP Minnesota) was founded in 1991 through the joint efforts of students at Minnesota’s law schools, the Minnesota Justice Foundation, and the Minnesota State Bar Association to reduce the education debt burden experienced by legal aid attorneys. I am grateful for the forward-thinking founders because the student loan issues they were trying to address are even worse today.
In states like Minnesota, legal aid attorneys have the lowest salaries, by far, of all attorneys, even compared to public defenders and other colleagues working in public interest. Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Department of Education, nearly 71% of law students leave campus with student loan debt of around $138,500—higher than any other field besides medicine.
It’s nearly impossible to cover essential needs, save for the future, and pay hundreds of dollars in student loan payments every month on a legal aid salary. Which means many skilled and dedicated people will choose other areas of practice (or possibly won’t choose law at all with the price tag), which means fewer lawyers to serve low-income people.
LRAP Minnesota provides tax-free loan repayment assistance, as well as structure, for recipients to successfully reach Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). Getting to forgiveness is long and complicated. Prior to the most recent executive actions, only about 2% of all PSLF applications were approved. Because LRAP is designed to avoid the PSLF pitfalls, every recipient who has completed our program has achieved forgiveness.
I love leading an organization that allows people to choose careers they love and are good at — and where they can do good in the world — without worrying about salary.
Reg: My freshman year of college, I put in an application to intern at the multicultural office on campus and did not realize how pivotal that internship would be for me. During this internship, I was mentored by other queer Filipino-Americans who helped me embrace my queerness and also become more vocal about my undocumented status. One of these people was Kai Kai Mascareñas, one of the graduate student coordinators at the time, who advocated for minority students and welcomed everyone who came into the multicultural office. I learned by her example.
Throughout college, I was an active organizer around immigration, Asian-American and LGBTQ issues, and learned the most from building with community members actively impacted by discriminatory policies. In the classroom, I learned about Asian-American history for the first time, and the impact of Asian-American community organizing.
This took me to graduate school, where I stumbled into healthcare at the Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University and learned about inequitable health outcomes for minority communities because of the structural failures of the American healthcare system combined with everyday discriminatory policies. At my company IMPAQ (before it merged with American Institute for Research), I conducted research on how healthcare can be more trans-inclusive. The healthcare system is already so convoluted and intimidating; imagine what it is like for non-binary, trans, and gender expansive people! Going to a doctor can be anxiety-inducing for folks who are not cisgender, because of the lack of training and awareness of gender expansive people by healthcare staff. My research also looked at how healthcare plans discretely discriminate against minority communities. Currently, I am researching Afghan refugee resettlement efforts in the DC, Maryland, and Virginia area, through a trauma-informed lens.
Q: Through the years, what has the Cooke Scholar community meant to you?
Reg: The Cooke Scholar community is everywhere, and I love it! My childhood best friend, Anya, recently posted on their Instagram story about how their close friend Tarruck Wheeler received the 2022 Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship, so I responded and told her I had the same scholarship. I love how connected we all are, and how generous we all are with one another.
Dee: When I first became a Scholar in 2004, the Foundation Staff and the Scholar community were tiny. I’ve been so proud to see the growth over the last decade and a half. And I also sometimes feel like a grandparent telling “when I was your age” stories to the new folks.
Overall, being a Cooke Scholar has made me a better human. Since I never had to worry about student loan debt, I’ve been free to dedicate my life to service. In fact, one of the nonprofit boards I’m on is thanks to a Cookie connection. I’m also a member of the Foundation’s BIPOC Working Group and will be helping with Scholars Weekend again this year.
I also receive a lot from the Scholar community. When the COVID-19 pandemic started, a fellow Cookie sewed me the first masks I ever had. And left them at my doorstep, for free. Another Cookie came from out of state and joined me at a Twin Cities Pride Festival. I’ve been to several celebrations of Uncle Jack’s birthday and have engaged with so many wonderful people.
If I came from a wealthy background, I would probably take for granted the capacity to give and to be given to at this level. But because I know what life was like before, I recognize the importance of this community and am so happy to be part of it.
Q: What does Pride Month mean to you? Pride in general?
Dee: Pride month has a particular energy. There are so many people finding joy this time of year—the joy of living, the joy of belonging, the joy of being. But there’s sorrow too. Discriminatory legislation doesn’t take the month off. Hate crimes don’t take the month off. Barriers to health care don’t take the month off. And it is further complicated by companies sponsoring Pride events and selling Pride-themed merch, while simultaneously supporting policies and people that harm LGBTQIA+ folks. Pride Month for me is an exercise in holding both/and. I hope to become better at it as I grow older.
This is separate from the idea of Pride in general. Something amazing happens when someone embraces love, freedom, and wholeness exactly where they are—when they don’t question who they are or whether they belong in this world. What happens is, they live a full life. Nothing stops them. And we all benefit from that beautiful life. That’s the pride, the energy, I wish for every LGBTQIA+ person. All 12 months of the year.
Reg: Pride Month for me is a reflection of our community’s history of resistance. I think of the 1969 Stonewall Riots. I think of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian rights group in the United States. The Mattachine Society. Pauli Murray.
Q: What issues affecting the LGBTQIA+ community are you passionate about?
Reg: Healthcare access. Gender inclusive bathrooms. LGBT history being taught in schools.
Dee: I’m passionate about any issues that keep members of the LGBTQIA+ community from living their best life. Including societal harms that affect everyone but fall disproportionately on marginalized folks—wealth inequality; employment discrimination; housing discrimination; lack of comprehensive sex education; dating and relationship violence; barriers to mental, physical, and reproductive health care; and so many others.
Specific to the community, my biggest concern is the hyper-focus on transgender humans. It’s frightening to empower someone (by law or otherwise) to demonize another person based on appearance. It’s like we didn’t learn a lesson yet from last time.
Q: Are there any resources you’d like to share with the LGBTQIA+ community?
Dee: Trans Tech Social has free membership and a free summit each year, encouraging safe and supportive employment opportunities and networking for transgender and nonbinary folks interested in tech. Our Gay History in 50 States is the most comprehensive book/e-book and curriculum guide for LGBTQIA+ history that I’ve seen. I didn’t learn any of this in school, so it’s been inspiring for me to learn how we’ve impacted every state in this country.
Q: Do you have any LGBTQIA+ role models you look up to?
Dee: I learn a lot from very accomplished people in my life:
Amy Sample Ward, the CEO of NTEN. One of my favorite things about Amy is their skill in expressing emotions genuinely. Which can be missing in CEOs/directors who feel it’s unprofessional to show emotions in public. Because of Amy, I strive to be more authentic with my emotions as a leader.
Erin Keyes, Assistant Dean of Students at the University of Minnesota Law School. Erin is the reason I chose University of Minnesota and the reason why I stayed, even when I questioned if this was the place and profession for me. More importantly, since graduating, I’ve run into her at various volunteer events. Her caring for people isn’t just some job she does between 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. It’s just who she is. I really admire Erin for that and try to be that comfort and care for others too.
The founders of Rootsprings Co-op. These six people came together to create a retreat space centering LGBTQ and BIPOC artists, activists, healers, and community. They committed years of their lives to manifest something that so many others only dreamed about. It’s a reminder to me to not give up on my biggest goals. They’ve also taught me how deep rest and connection with sacred land is revolutionary.