Women and People of Color Are at a Crossroads

Astraea Foundation Gala

“If there’s going to be a women’s movement that prioritizes the needs of lesbians and women of color, we’re going to have to fund it ourselves.” Those were the words uttered 40 years ago by a small group of multiracial, cross-class women as they sat around a kitchen table. It was in this moment, that they fiercely founded the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice.

Imagine that just a few years prior to the launch of Astraea in 1977, unmarried women were unable to apply for a credit card, serve on a jury in all 50 states, or attend an Ivy League institution. Women of color, though more represented in the workforce, had even fewer liberties. A handful of years later, as women began to inch toward financial independence, a group of determined women launched a foundation to fund civil rights work for two historically marginalized groups — women of color and lesbians. The audacity to create a “for us, by us” model of philanthropy in the '70s resonates to this day. We may think of historic fights for equality and access as linear, but the concept that lesbian and queer women, women of color and non-gender conforming individuals can be front and center in the march towards liberation instead of in the shadows, has not always been the case.

What we know to be true is that freedom is not free — it takes constant effort, vigilance, and, most importantly, resources.

The mission of Astraea and its practice of radical philanthropy is to move resources from where they are purposefully absent to where they are most needed. The founding mothers of Astraea knew this from the very beginning — offering their first grants at just $200-$1,000. They understood the significance of any amount of support provided to women of color and queer-led organizations would mean to activists who struggled to gain the attention of mainstream funders. In the 1970s (and often now) the barriers to entry to mainstream funders were systematically reinforced and too high for smaller, lesser-known, and women-led organizations.

At Astraea, we redistribute capital to ensure that the most innovative LGBTQI and people of color activists and artists have a fighting chance of success. For 40 years we have provided the seed funding for countless organizations. The founding mothers believed that even the smallest of gestures, when combined, could create, nurture and strengthen significant social change. They were right.

This year marks Astraea’s 40th year of fueling the change-makers on the frontlines resisting and combating anti-LGBTQI culture and policies. We have gone from offering grants of just a few hundred dollars to providing nearly $5 million in grants in 2017. These funds were distributed through 291 grants to 217 grantee partners in 67 countries and across 20 U.S. states. While the circumstances of women of color and lesbians may have improved over the past 40 years, there sadly remains too much that is unchanged.

LGBTQI activists around the world are still taking their lives in their own hands to live out and proud. Trans women of color are being murdered in this country at an alarming rate. LGBTQI immigrants are detained, abused and regularly miss-gendered in detention centers. According to Fast Company, there remain 17 states that over no protections as far as LGBT employment non-discrimination laws. These are just a handful of the issues that Astraea’s resources have been working aggressively to push back in recent years.

We have the power to leverage the resources necessary to shift the cultural and political landscapes required to not only protect the humanity of the LGBTQI community, but to uplift it. Forty years later, we continue to honor the legacy of our founding mothers’ uncompromising vision of equality and justice for all: We uphold their values of community empowerment, building movements and power across issues and across generations.

Today, Astraea continues to be the catalytic organization we were 40 years ago. For hundreds of organizations led by queer people of color, we are often the first grant maker ensuring that the organization’s activism can improve the lives of tens of thousands of people around the globe. And we’re not going anywhere. Over the next 40 years, I expect Astraea, our grantee partners and supporters will continue the fight for our physical and political autonomy and we as a collective of multiracial, multigendered, multigenerational lesbians and women of color will continue to forge the path towards justice. Specifically, there are several things that I hope will be realized before Astraea’s 80th anniversary:

Coming together. Our liberation movements will achieve far less if they remain silo-ed. Equality is beyond politics, beyond partisanship — in the U.S. we need to be committed to equality and our shared humanity as a widespread national value. This means, we cannot have a fight for LGBT rights without also committing ourselves to gender justice or without a commitment to comprehending and reconciling the purposeful function racism and economic inequity has played in shaping this country to date. This also means we need to recognize our place as citizens in the world. By recognizing our interdependence — issues like climate change or the decimation of natural resources as well as the treatment of women or the rise of restrictive regimes — are issues that impact all of us and require our collaboration across borders.

Openly discussing money and power. Astraea will continue to actively move funds to where they are most needed, but as a society we need to have very real and honest discussions about the intersection of money and power. If we are going to continue to work to bring to light systems of oppression, we also need to bring money and power into the light and stop talking about them in abstract ways.

Supporting local organizations. I am always so impressed with the ingenuity of grassroots organizations and their power to really advocate for local communities. I’d like to see these hyperlocal organizations empowered in all communities and for them to work with one another for our shared causes. If we’re going to tackle inequality and inequity, we need as many different voices at the table.

As June Jordan once said, “We are the ones we have been waiting for,” today, tomorrow, and always. Onward to the next 40!

J. BOB ALOTTA is the executive director of the Astraea Foundation. Follow Alotta on Twitter @jbobalotta.

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