Coates, 46, was adopted from Korea, grew up in the Midwest and has been a resident of the Philadelphia area since she was 16.
Aself-employed massage therapist, Coates was motivated to run for Traffic Court by friends who felt her progressive views would be a positive step for the court.
“I got a phone call from a friend of mine who had been talking with various leaders in the progressive community and they saw an opportunity, because of recent corruption within the court, for an open space for a progressive person to get one of the seats,” she said. “So it seemed like a great opportunity to get a person that comes from the community. It is important to have people in the LGBT community at all levels of government and use it as a way of building a progressive political movement in the city.”
A law degree is not required for Traffic Court judges, and Coates, who is running her first campaign, said she is qualified for the job.
Coates started her activism work with ACT UP Philadelphia and Grassroot Queers.
“At Grassroot Queers, we did queer-visibility actions around the area, which was campy and fun, but also meant to raise visibility of our community in the city. We did queer Christmas caroling and we did queer weddings on ice; we tried to make it fun,” she said.
During her time with both groups, Coates said she began to pay more attention to the media and the way it perceived the LGBT community.
“Over the years, my passion drove me towards community media work — the impact that the media had in terms of being able to voice the struggles and various issues. That was where I saw an opportunity,” she said. “I was involved with the campaign for public-access television. We wanted the community to have access to equipment, tools and training to make their own television programs.”
Until her campaign, Coates served on the board for Philadelphia Community Access Media, and she also founded Media Tank, a nonprofit media education and activist agency.
Coates has taken some time off from her days of activism to take on a newer role as a mother, which she said has shown her a new opportunity for organizing.
“I see parenting as a vast and untapped potential as an organizing frontier, in terms of teaching children acceptance and tolerance,” she said. “I wouldn’t say I have lost my deep commitment to the community, but just focused my attention in other areas.”
Coates said her campaign is going well despite her newcomer status.
“I got into this as a complete newbie and I am fortunate that I have had good, experienced people advising me — trying to build political support with friendly committee people and board leaders — and a big part of my campaign is really the grassroots community, which is the work I have really spent my life doing.”
Coates said she would be expected to bring her diverse background as an Asian-American bisexual woman to the bench.
“I think I have that perspective and freshness that is needed there. I bring an ability to be clean and fair in that respect and I’ve been involved with the social-justice movements for many years — the whole litany of racial justice, representation. That kind of awareness is important,” she said. “You have to know the different issues that the community is facing. I think because of that type of work, my heart and mission has always been to do good and work for improvement and make the world a better place.”
Sara Jacobson, co-chair of the endorsement committee of Liberty City LGBT Democratic Club, which recently endorsed Coates, said the organization was excited to back someone with her diversity and experience.
“The membership was enthusiastic about Inja Coates,” Jacobson said. “Not only is she bisexual, which adds an important perspective to the bench, but she also is a lifelong activist. People were excited at the prospect of having someone with her life experience and progressive values in Traffic Court.”
Coates said running as an out candidate will create even more awareness for the LGBT community.
“It is important for us to be visible wherever we are and that serves to normalize it and be more acceptable. We have come such a long way and part of that has been due to what has been played out in the media and entertainment media. I am glad to see that the tide is turning, especially in terms of political things, and that we can speak out and spread the acceptance is important.”
For more information, visit www.injacoates.wordpress.com.