Roasted and Toasted at Astraea
Lesbian Foundation distributes grants, creates networks.
By Erline Andrews
Activist powerhouse Katherine Acey, looking cool and chic in a many-colored striped suit, smiles as she talks about being roasted next week.
“I’m looking forward to it,” says Acey, seated in the conference room at the Manhattan headquarters of the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, the grant-distributing organization she’s headed for two decades.
She was, in fact, its first paid employee when the organization changed from being staffed entirely of volunteers. At that time, she’d been working unpaid with Astraea for four years.
Next week Astraea will thank Acey for leadership. The event–set to take place Oct. 10 in New York City–will take an unusual format. There will be the expected accolades, yes. But there’ll be digs too. The event has been dubbed a roast and toast.
”I love the idea of a roast,” says Acey, ”because I love humor, and I think it’s very important that we keep a sense of humor doing this work.”
It doesn’t seem that Acey has to worry about maintaining her composure while enduring the barbs.
A community activist and volunteer since her youth, Acey, 57, has built of an impressive cache of goodwill and respect through the myriad organizations she’s worked and been otherwise affiliated with.
The lesbian community, and indeed how lesbians are viewed in the world, has changed dramatically since 1987. “Katherine Acey’s phenomenal leadership and commitment to social justice has been a key part of that change,” writes Marjorie Hill, PhD, the CEO of the Gay Mens Health Crisis, in one of many tributes posted on Astraea’s Web site in anticipation of the roast and toast.
Acey, who grew up in Utica, N.Y., the older of two daughters in a Lebanese-American household, came to Astraea after many years on what she called the planning and developing side of activism. She’d worked with another foundation–the North Star Fund–for five years before becoming Astraea’s executive director.
She values the ability to affect many different organizations at once, she says, particularly groups from communities that would find it difficult to get help otherwise.
“Social change happens at many different levels and requires many different strategies; it requires the participation of many different people,” Acey says. ”Many of our groups are building a base and trying to promote policy reform.”
The Astraea Foundation, named for the Greek goddess of justice, was founded in 1977 to address the specific needs of lesbians, particularly lesbians of color. Its reach has since spread to LGBT advocacy groups around the world, and it boasts of being the only foundation solely dedicated to funding LGBTI organizations in the U.S. and internationally. It distributed more than $1.9 million in grants so far this year, including a portion dedicated to lesbian writers that were the first of their kind when Astraea started them in 1990.
Among Astraea’s beneficiaries are the Jamaican gay rights collective J-Flag, the Palestinian lesbian group Aswat, and the Virginia-based Appalachian Women’s Alliance.
Besides distributing money, Astraea provides a platform for groups to learn from each other through regular retreats and other gatherings and Astraea’s newsletters and annual reports.
“We’re able to communicate with each other and share best practices because of the kind of support Astraea was able to give us,” says Andrea Densham, the interim executive director of the National Lesbian Health Organization, another Astraea grantee. ”We were able to develop a network and to make lesbian health a national discourse in a way that just simply wasn’t possible if we all were struggling alone. Astraea gave us a megaphone as it were.”
Much of the growth in Astraea’s influence and grant-making ability happened under Acey’s direction.
Gathering donations and support is difficult for any organization; it’s particularly difficult for one assisting a population still so misunderstood and even ignored in much of the world, including the United States. But in the past two decades Acey’s observed a shifting of attitudes and the evolution of an environment more receptive to the work she’s doing, a change brought about partly through the operation of organizations helped by Astraea.
“They have many challenges, but they’re flourishing,” Acey says of Astraea’s grantees. (This year the foundation gave financial assistance to 181 organizations in 39 countries.) “They’re working in communities, but they’re also having national and, in some cases, international impact.”
One of the pleasures of her job, she says, has been seeing LGBT movements emerge in places where previously they had been unimaginable.
“I feel privileged,” she says, “to be in this work for so many years.”
Toast and Roast of Katherine Acey, 6:30–9:30 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 10, The 1199 Conference Center, 330 W. 42nd St. For information, visit their web site at Astraeafoundation.org