Elijah McKinnon is an artist and activist you need to know. Photo: DeLovie Kwagala
Elijah McKinnon is an artist and activist you need to know. Photo: DeLovie Kwagala

Elijah McKinnon (they/them/their) is definitely marching to the beat of their own drummer—and many people are benefiting from this individual’s vision.

McKinnon—who describes themself as a BlaQ, nonbinary #queerdragon—is an artivist (artist/activist) and entrepreneur who, in 2015, co-founded (and is executive director of) OTV | Open Television in Chicago with Dr. Aymar Jean Christian. OTV is an “online and city-based platform for intersectional television, film and video art,” according to its website. It aims “to amplify voices that have been marginalized for centuries in the United States and globally to build empathy and equity in our society.”

However, this isn’t McKinnon’s only endeavor/achievement. A former Windy City Times 30 Under 30 honoree, they, among other things, became the founder and director of People Who Care, Inc., their independent consultancy and studio practice; and was a recipient of the prestigious New Leaders of Chicago award by the Field Foundation of Illinois and MacArthur Foundation in 2020.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Windy City Times: I know that language is constantly evolving, and I noticed that you describe yourself as “BlaQ” and a #queerdragon.” Is [the former] in reference to “Black queer,” or is there even more to it? 

Elijah McKinnon: Yes! [Smiles] It means “Black queer” and it provides an expansiveness for “Black.” There’s not only one way to be Black and I feel the intersections of my Black and queer identities are what allow me to understand both and how they work together.

I started using “#queerdragon” back in university about 10 years ago. A lot of people don’t know this, but I enjoy sci-fi and Black speculative fiction. Dragons are mythical creatures that, historically, are protectors and guardians and I feel that I’m a healer/protector/guardian of all things anchored in queer legacy. Don’t get too close or you might get burned! [Smiles]

WCT: You mentioned intersectionality. What do you feel it’s like to be Black and LGBTQ+ in today’s America?

EM: I think the world is deeply nuanced and challenging to exist in any identity in this current landscape. It becomes increasingly challenging to be Black and queer and nonbinary in these conditions that we live in because the world is in a constant state of catching up to language, feelings and information. For me, it’s challenging—but I believe those challenges present such great opportunities for us all to expand. To be Black, queer and nonbinary is a truly revolutionary act of deeply understanding myself, my values, and my position in the world to deliver purpose and meaning. It’s a vehicle to a whole other world that I get to be a part of and help build.

Elijah McKinnon takes being a role model very seriously. Photo by DeLovie Kwagala

WCT: And you’re becoming an activist and role model in the process.

EM: The world has made me a role model. [Smiles] I believe that the passions and commitments that I have to mobilizing ideas, sharing resources and cultivating opportunities for intersectional people to thrive have called me to pursue this work. I didn’t find this work; the work found me. That can be true of any individual in any industry. 

I consider leadership to be ordained. I’m very wary of people who elect themselves to be leaders or visionaries. I believe that those positions come with a lot of responsibility and require investment from the people who are directly impacted by that work. To me, it’s about showing up, doing the fucking work and going home. And I have a really great life outside of what the world sees, and that’s sacred and beautiful.

WCT: Let’s jump to OTV. I know that we’re making our way out of the COVID pandemic but how did that affect OTV?

EM: People around the world have had to adapt the best way they know how and, for OTV, we were extremely privileged to be a resource to organizations and to already be experimenting in the digital/online live space. So the pandemic really invited us to create space for expansiveness in a world that felt restricted and confined in a variety of ways. 

What was really beautiful about that process for us—although it was also quite challenging—was that we were able to cultivate a sense of joy through enduring the pandemic. I’m not sure we would’ve been able to do that if we already hadn’t been playing in that space. We experienced our first livestream in 2016 through a collaboration with [art center] Mana Contemporary and The Propeller Fund; the year after that, we hosted a livestream with the Museum of Contemporary Art. In 2020—through funders and resources—we launched our own app, which provided us a really great opportunity to reach people in a way we hadn’t been able to before.

WCT: Regarding OTV, how exactly does it work regarding submissions, for example? There’s a wide variety of items but there are guidelines, I assume. Also, please talk about OTV’s mission.

EM: OTV began as a platform to make television more artistic, open and sustainable. Our framework is feminist, anti-racist and inclusive; it focuses on individuals who live at the intersections of multiple identities that are constantly marginalized by markets, industry and society. We wanted to see what stories exist and why they’re not given the [proper] platform.

Over the years and through many different iterations, we’ve become a nonprofit streaming platform and a media incubator for intersectional storytelling. I think what really differentiates us from a lot of people/organizations/initiatives in the TV/film landscape is that we really center artists and their creative visions as anchors; we support them in various ways, such as nurturing their careers. We want the next generation of intersectional storytellers to dream, create and thrive—on their own terms.

We have cultivated a pipeline for people who have completed projects that need distribution. We have rolling submissions; people share their information on our website and our development/production team reviews the content. What’s wild is that we used to actively ask for content; now, so many people from around the world have discovered our platform—mostly through other artists, which is really beautiful.

In terms of guidelines, there are none; we take an anti-capitalist approach. There are eligibility criteria that we must adhere to for our values. The core pieces are that the work needs to be developed by an intersectional creator and/or the content needs to be framed through an intersectional lens. 

Behind the scenes, our marketing and production teams work really hard to cultivate an annual slate of programs that speaks to the world around us.

WCT: What is your advice to the next generation of intersectional storytellers regarding entering the business or being part of the larger narrative?

EM: I think my advice to all types of storytellers/creators would be to get close to yourself in a way that may feel uncomfortable. I think the world is dominated by media, and media has a way of documenting and archiving and exploiting a particular perspective that is not the full story. We need to understand what we want, deserve and dream of—that will help them actualize their dreams and goals in a way that feel tangible and accessible. 

Spend as much time as you can trying to understand the parts of yourself that are being developed and cultivated when no one is watching. There are times you need to be fearless, and times when you need to be vulnerable and soft.

WCT: Is there anything you wanted to say in conclusion?

EM: OTV is and always will be a platform that prioritizes artistic vitality. It’s important for us to know that this organization, which is approaching its 10th anniversary, was built on the backs of Black, queer, nonbinary, trans people. That’s where our work begins and ends. Anything in between there has been an immense gift for us.

This series is made possible by Comcast Corporation.