Stimulus: 1) (physiology), something external that influences an activity. 2) something that incites to action or exertion or quickens action, feeling, thought, etc.
Make that “stimulating” and you have PGN’s conversation with Amber Hikes. The 27-year-old Hikes is one of the women behind the popular Stimulus and Arouse parties that have been inciting people to mix, mingle and be merry at the monthly events. We sat down to learn a little more about the up-and-coming community leader.
PGN: Where are you originally from? AH: I’m from Atlanta by way of Louisiana and Japan. My dad was in the military, so I was born in Okinawa, then moved to Hawaii, then Louisiana and Atlanta before my parents got divorced and we settled in Delaware.
PGN: What were you like as a kid? AH: In high school, I was kind of awkward. We moved to Fayetteville, Atlanta, and it was a very conservative area. Fayetteville was in the news for protesting the removal of the Confederate flag. It was a tense time for the few black students, and I was withdrawn and rebellious at the same time. I was a band nerd on one hand and dating bad boys on the other.
PGN: What instrument did you play? AH: Clarinet. And drums in jazz band. We won top marching band in the state of Georgia and got to play for the opening ceremony at the Sydney Olympics. I got to see Cathy Freeman light the torch!
PGN: Tell me about the family. AH: My dad is retired now, but still does work for the military as a civilian and my mother worked in education. Not too many people know this, but it was an abusive situation, and we escaped when I was about 10, literally leaving in the middle of the night and not letting him know where we were for a number of years out of fear for our lives. We settled in Delaware and my mother got a job in admissions at the University of Delaware and worked her way up to assistant vice president of Student Affairs at U of D, then Spellman University and, finally, the University of Virginia Tech.
PGN: A good childhood memory? AH: We moved to Delaware in the winter of ’96, the year we had the huge blizzard. We were Southern girls, so we had no idea how to shovel and didn’t have any equipment. It took us the better part of a day to shovel our small driveway, but it was fun and we were incredibly proud of ourselves. We took a picture and, when my mom went to Spellman, I framed it and wrote, “3 women did this!” because it was the first time we accomplished something together after leaving my father.
PGN: Any notable relatives? AH: My mother, who’s been on Larry King and several other shows, mainly speaking for the school after the shooting tragedy at Virginia Tech, and my uncle was U.S. ambassador to Botswana and Nigeria.
PGN: So, I’m looking at your résumé and see you have a bachelor of arts cum laude in English with a minor in psychology from the University of Delaware and graduated with a GPA of 4.0, and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania. Did you get your drive from your mom? AH: Absolutely, for her to be on the run with two small children and a mother with Alzheimer’s and still manage to get her doctorate was inspiring. She really taught me that no matter what life throws at you, you can always find a way out of adversity. And there’s always someone who has it worse than you, so count your blessings, suck it up and keep going!
PGN: Do you have a relationship with your dad now? AH: I do, now. I’m told that as men age, their testosterone levels drop and they become more docile, and that’s certainly the case with him. He’s really come around and become a sweet man and good father.
PGN: Best moment in school? AH: I always knew I wanted to go to an Ivy League school, so getting accepted into Penn was a great moment and, to top it off, I received a full scholarship and they only give out one of those a year in my field. I was very proud.
PGN: You were a residential coordinator/advisor: What were some of the things you had to deal with? AH: As an RA with undergrads at Delaware, it was mostly telling people to turn their music down or consoling someone after a break-up. At the graduate level, I figured it would be easy, but was shocked by the number of suicide attempts we had to deal with. It’s such a high-pressure environment and a lot of people had difficulty handling it. You had high-achieving people used to being the smartest ones suddenly in a place where everyone is a high achiever and the competition gets fierce. There were a lot of mental-health issues, but I was surprised at how many people thought that suicide was the way out. It was really unfortunate.
PGN: At Delaware, you also did trainings with students and staff about sexuality, discrimination and reproductive health. Were you surprised at how much they knew or didn’t know? AH: A little of both. I was given special-interest housing, which was fun. I had everything from the eco-housing, which were the environmentally concerned students, to the MLK community, which were predominantly the black students, to the LGBT students, and between those groups we had random white freshmen interspersed where they could find room for them! It was challenging, like an episode of “The Real World” come to life. But it all came together, kids from the cornfields of Nebraska dining with the MLK kids, who in turn did programming with the LGBT kids. Everyone worked as one. It was encouraging and inspiring.
PGN: Jumping to your internship with Equality Advocates Pennsylvania: What did you do there? AH: I worked with a wonderful attorney who provided legal services for youth in Pennsylvania who were having issues at school or at their jobs — kids who were being ostracized or harassed, not just by students, but by teachers or administrators. She would go into the schools and say, “If you don’t protect and take care of this student, we will sue you.” A lot of times, that’s all it took to make them pay attention to the problem. I was struck by how much the young people had to deal with. Also, a lot of people don’t realize that, in the state of Pennsylvania, you can be fired simply for being gay.
PGN: And when did you come out? AH: In my freshman year of college. I knew before that, but didn’t really acknowledge it. As I mentioned, I dated all the wrong guys in high school and then in college actually became serious with one guy and got engaged. Then I met a woman who was an RA — [laughs] not mine, I don’t have an authority complex — and we really hit it off. She was the first openly gay person I knew and the first person I spoke to about my feelings. I broke it off with my fiancé, which was a mutual thing by that time, and she and I dated for a while. I didn’t come out to my mother as much as she pulled me out of the closet. I brought a woman home and, though I didn’t introduce her as my girlfriend, she was obviously gay and my mother put two and two together. A few months later, she got me on the phone and wouldn’t let me off until I came clean. I think she’d taken time to do some research first before getting me to come out to her. I told her I was bisexual, which I still identify as, even though I haven’t been a practicing bisexual for nine years! It was wonderful: She used my coming-out to help her be a better administrator with the LGBT students she worked with, helping the GSAs become stronger and addressing the homophobia on campus. That’s the kind of person she was.
PGN: And your sister? AH: She’s my biggest ally. She was actually upset that I came out to my mother before her!
PGN: What’s your role with Stimulus? AH: I’m one of the co-founders and co-producers. I’m responsible for the majority of the marketing — Facebook, emails, etc. My business partner, Morgan Levine, and I also do the venue negotiations and hire and manage staff. I also have been responsible for editing all our pictures, which is a pretty big deal for us. We’re known for having a really diverse crowd and we make sure our images reflect that. People come from all over, from New York to California to Canada, because they’ve never seen such a mix of people in one spot.
PGN: So do you have to personally audition the dancers? AH: Yes, I have a very difficult job watching attractive women doing intricate moves, hiring shot girls ...
PGN: Where was the first event? AH: It was at Stir and started as a little fundraiser for the Dyke March. It was supposed to be a one-time thing and we had so many people, we outgrew the venue on the first night. It was cool because Morgan knew a lot of people and I knew a lot of people and we both knew so many different people that it brought an interesting mix together. It was so amazing, we decided to do it again and got the space at Marathon, where we’ve been for two years. By the way, I had my first date with my partner, Samantha, at that first event!
PGN: I like the fact that Stimulus tries to give back to the community. AH: Yes, we raise money with the Arouse parties for a lot of great organizations like The Attic Youth Center, MANNA, Elements, BEBASHI, etc. We also have a community-service initiative, Stimulus Gives Back, where we help with community service, clean-ups or planting flowers, something to give back each month. There are a lot of women who may not want to come to a party, but they still want to go out and meet other people and help out in the community, so that’s a part of us too.
PGN: Were you involved with the Dyke March from the start? AH: Oh no, but I’m proud to be an organizer for the last three years and the chair of the performers and speaker committee. We’re really looking forward to another great march with more diversity than ever this June. We might even have a new route this year! PGN: What did you want to be when you grew up? AH: A lawyer, mainly because that’s what everyone told me I should be, and I always wanted to work in education, though not necessarily as a teacher.
PGN: Any nicknames? AH: Peach, because I’m from Georgia.
PGN: And finally, your current job is director of the Upward Bound Program at Penn. What’s great about your program? AH: It’s a federally funded program to help get underrepresented high-school students into college. We work with seven different schools, primarily in the West Philadelphia area. We do tutoring and mentoring and try to close the gap that exists in so many inner-city schools so that students can perform up to the same standards and expectations as their suburban counterparts. The thing that I like about the program is that a lot of scholarships are geared for high-achieving students, the “cream of the crop,” who would probably get into college anyway, but this one reaches out to all students. We work with students with academic need, those with 2.0 to even 1.0, and help them get up to working on a college level. It’s hard work, but it’s so rewarding.
PGN: You must be appalled at the current attacks on the teaching profession. AH: It’s just so awful. Everyone is so scared: They’re actually talking about shutting down the Department of Education. It’s insane. I’m not worried about us, but even the fact that they would bring it up is ludicrous. The last thing we should be doing right now is trying to bring down the education system. It’s scary, but we just keep fighting and doing the work that we can while we’re able to do it. n