Creativity that Builds Community

Most of us will never face the dilemma Joshua Mackey ’13 faced in fall 2023 — reunion or red carpet?

“It was more than just the red carpet,” Mackey explained. “I’d been invited to be a judge in the short films category at NewFest, a film festival in New York dedicated to highlighting LGBTQ+ films. It was scheduled the same night as my ten-year reunion at Lenoir-Rhyne, which I helped plan. I didn’t make the decision lightly, but I had to be at the festival — it was just such a great honor, and I got it because people were actually reading my work.”

Joshua Mackey

Currently, most of Mackey’s work appears in the digital magazine Into, a publication that describes itself as “a space for the queer community to talk openly about our lives, passions, struggles and ideas.” In April 2022, Mackey joined the Into staff as an assistant editor after spending two years building an extensive freelance portfolio writing commentary and analysis about popular culture as well as political and social issues.

“I’m still finding new ways in which I can express myself. I’m lucky because I can also help others be able to express themselves too — which is just as important to me,” said Mackey. “With any job, it helps if you can make it your own, so I try to do that for myself and also show both my colleagues and my readers how to find that value for themselves.”

Becoming a Bear

Growing up in Shelby, North Carolina, and traveling frequently to visit family in New Jersey, Mackey embraced his creativity from an early age with full encouragement from his parents.

“I was a very reserved child, and art was the one thing that allowed for me to express myself freely, so my parents put me into different activities and camps — visual arts, band, chorus, theatre, writing.”

Influence from his grandparents moved Mackey’s focus toward reading and writing.

“My grandparents ran a print shop at the Jersey Shore, and they would make notebooks for me, and then I learned how to work on the printing jobs — notebooks, programs and whatnot — and just seeing those finished products gave me a taste of interest in writing,” Mackey recalled. “Then both my grandmothers made me an avid reader. I loved the book "Harriet the Spy" because who doesn’t like to be an observer? So, I like to think all those pieces converged to inspire my career trajectory now.”

A group of students smile for a photo
Mackey shares community with members of the Nu Generation Choir.

By the time Mackey got to high school, his confidence had grown considerably, but he was planning to enroll at a large state university when his mom urged him to apply to Lenoir-Rhyne. She had seen a brochure for LR and thought it might be a good fit for her son.

“Ultimately what brought me to LR was funding — I got a lot of scholarships — but I had only been to Hickory twice in my life. I was skeptical, even when I signed on to come here, but by the time I got through orientation, it was home,” Mackey shared. “I truly believe of all the schools I could have gone to, LR was the best choice, the best experience, hands down.”

Even though they were enthusiastic about him attending Lenoir-Rhyne, Mackey’s parents cautioned him against overextending himself with activities and coursework in his first year — advice he gleefully ignored.

“There was so much happening on campus, I had to check it out,” he explained. “I had a scholarship for band and A Cappella Choir. Then I heard the Nu Generation Gospel Choir perform, and I had to join. Through Nu Generation I met members of the Black Student Alliance (BSA), so I had to join that too. It became a snowball effect.”

Rosa Reyes, left, and Joshua Mackey, right, smile while being crowned Homecoming king and queen
Walking with best friend Rosa Reyes '13, Mackey was Homecoming King in 2012.

Mackey went on to join Theta Xi fraternity and then became a resident assistant (RA). He also worked as a Bear of Distinction (BoD) for the Office of Admission and as an assistant in the library. He joined the Student Government Association (SGA) and served as secretary and vice president. He was also named Homecoming King and Spring Fling King during his senior year.

“As a Black, queer student, the organizations I joined helped me find and build a community for myself at LR,” Mackey observed. “I wanted to be in a space where we weren’t just together to pursue our academics, but where we could support each other through the college experience. I think that’s something that still drives me as a writer. I’m still helping build those safe spaces of support and community, just in a different form.”

Start spreading the news

One member of the community Mackey found at Lenoir-Rhyne would have the most profound effect on his future — his husband Clifton Garmon ’13.

“We met on the first day, moving day. He was just as involved on campus as I was, if not more so,” Mackey shared. “We got to do a lot of great work together in SGA and BSA. We made great friends we’re still in contact with today, and we have all these core memories of LR together that we’ve brought with us.”

Clifton Garmon, left, and Josh Mackey, right.
Mackey (R) with husband Clifton Garmon '13 (L).

The couple brought those memories and their love for LR and each other with them when they moved to New York City after graduation. Garmon pursued a master of social work (MSW) at Columbia University. He convinced Mackey, who had majored in management, that graduate school would be good for him as well.

“I liked New York University, so I applied to the graduate programs in music business and in human resources because those both fit my academic background. I was accepted to the HR program, so that was where I enrolled,” said Mackey.

After completing his graduate program, Mackey spent several years working in human resources, first as an ADP contractor for Goldman Sachs, then at NBC. While he liked working in HR, it didn’t feel like the perfect fit, so Mackey then pivoted to higher education by accepting a position as assistant director of residential and student life at the Columbia School of Professional Studies.

“It was a whole journey. When I moved to New York, I was going to grad school with plans to work in human resources. Then I moved into higher education and thought now my life is higher ed,” Mackey said. “I’ve always had a tendency to dive into things full force, but I’ve been learning how my job is part of my existence but it’s not my whole existence. I leaned heavily on all my experiences — from being an RA at LR to my work in HR — while working at Columbia. It was a multifaceted position, but I still didn’t feel like I was growing the way I wanted to.”

So, Mackey turned back to the creative outlet that had brought him so much joy since childhood and started writing poetry to process his thoughts and feelings.

“It evolved into me writing articles, and I got involved with a website called Blavity, which is a Black-centered tech company. I submitted an op-ed, not expecting it to be published, about former NBA star Dwyane Wade supporting his daughter, who is trans. 

"It meant something to me to see a Black straight cis [identifying with gender assigned at birth] father loving his queer child, and I knew it meant something for other Black queer people to see that as well,” Mackey shared. “Then it got published, and I thought ‘Oh! People care about my writing. That’s wild.’”

Mackey went on to publish several more pieces with Blavity and expanded his work to the pop-culture websites Nerdist and Geeks of Color.

Joshua Mackey

“I started talking about Marvel, how Black representation is there, how queer representation is there. Then I started talking about representation in cartoons,” he said. “I got to interview some really interesting people. It was surreal. There was one morning, it was 6 a.m., and I was interviewing Antonio Banderas from my living room.”

As Mackey’s portfolio grew, he took on copywriting work and other projects that allowed him to move into freelance writing as a profession. He completed studies at the Poynter Institute to refine his craft. Then his work caught the attention of editors at INTO and its parent company Q. Digital.

“As an assistant editor, I’m part of the team that ensures we’re making a mark on Gen Z and millennial LGBTQ+ readers, but also that we’re appealing to anyone who feels marginalized — we’re here to amplify those voices and give them a platform,” said Mackey.

Since finding and sharing his voice, Mackey has reflected on where he has been and how all his work and study up to this point continue to affect what he does day to day.

“I’ve been fortunate to have so many opportunities, but I hope others can look at my example and see how specific degrees or experiences don’t have to limit those opportunities,” he said. “You use what you know in ways you don’t always expect.”

Mackey is also looking to his future as a writer, thinking he may want to branch into more creative endeavors in fiction or nonfiction.

“Writing has always represented freedom for me. When I was young and super shy and reserved, I used writing as a way to be able to say what I wanted to without the fear of others looking at me or judging me,” he shared. “Writing is also a way to create community. When you share a favorite author or have a conversation over a story or article, you’re forming connections, creating community at that point in time.”

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