Gay City News Highlights FIERCE!, Astraea’s 30th Celebration

Published on May 22, 2008

“We’re more likely to be remembered by the presence of monuments than by the presence of our people.” Rickke Mananzala, the executive director of FIERCE, shared those words from his colleague Glo Ross, the group’s lead organizer, as the two sat with a reporter late one evening this week in their West 24th Street offices.

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In Feting FIERCE, Astraea Bolsters a New Generation

“We’re more likely to be remembered by the presence of monuments than by the presence of our people.”

Rickke Mananzala, the executive director of FIERCE, shared those words from his colleague Glo Ross, the group’s lead organizer, as the two sat with a reporter late one evening this week in their West 24th Street offices.

FIERCE, the Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals For Community Empowerment, since 2000 has advocated for LGBT, two-spirit, and questioning youth of color, 13-24, for whom the West Village remains a valued public space, one that is safe and offers them the freedom and social interactions often missing from the neighborhoods where they live. This past Saturday, May 17, FIERCE was among three honorees at the 30th anniversary dinner of the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, held at Midtown’s Prince George Ballroom.

Astraea fills a unique niche in the world of queer philanthropy and social action. It is the only foundation solely dedicated to support the social justice activities of LGBT organizations, as well as those serving intersex people, both domestically and abroad. Its mission statement charts the group’s aims as including “social, racial, and economic justice” – a scope often given lip service by the organized LGBT community, but less frequently backed up by dollars.

In fact, Astraea points to findings from the group Funders for Lesbian and Gay Issues to quantify the big picture. In a study released this past January, that group reported that the total share of US foundation support going to LGBT issues in 2006 remained constant at its recent levels – only 0.1 percent of the total. Of that dollar amount, which is roughly $65 million, less than nine percent expressly targeted communities of color.

In the developing world, also known as the Global South and East, Astraea funds more LGBT groups than any other foundation and is the second largest dollar contributor to such organizations.

Given Astraea’s mission and record, FIERCE’s co-honorees Saturday evening were appropriate – the Johannesburg-based Coalition of African Lesbians, the first group to bring together organizations working on behalf of queer women in 11 nations on that continent, and Marta Drury, a lesbian philanthropist in California who works on issues facing women and children and has served as an advisor to Astraea.

According to Mananzala, Astraea has been a funder of FIERCE for five of its eight years of existence; in each of three of the last five it has given the group $50,000, making it one of the group’s largest supporters of a budget that now stands at $535,000. Mananzala explained that much of its foundation support comes from youth-focused funders; LGBT and people of color-oriented foundations each often conclude that FIERCE’s work falls more into the other’s bailiwick.

“It sounds like a cliché,” he said, “but Astraea gets it.”

FIERCE gained notice early in its life as an adamant and spirited defender of LGBTQ youth of color, consistently backed in public by dozens, sometimes hundreds drawn from that constituency. During the past eight years, long-simmering tensions between the increasingly gentrified West Village population and queer youth who for decades saw the neighborhood and the riverfront as home came to a boil. Neighborhood groups, often made up of cranky, even hostile residents added to the pressure on youths who already felt put upon by law enforcement’s heavy hand.

FIERCE turned out large crowds demanding their right to public space, and the group was unafraid to be vocal in criticizing abuse at the hands of police.

But it soon proved itself shrewd and adept at working the maze of governmental bodies that have a hand in governing the policing of public space, and the Hudson River Park in particular. By 2006, as Community Board 2 and the Hudson River Park Trust finalized plans regarding closing times for the pier at Christopher Street, FIERCE was very much a player.

Though the group did not achieve its goal of keeping the pier open until 4 a.m., rather than 1 a.m., it forestalled a proposal that youth exiting the park after a certain hour be required to travel up to 14th Street. Some residents had pressed for that change to keep young LGBT people out of the neighborhood’s residential heart late at night. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn also brokered a deal to have the Door, a youth services agency, provide an outreach worker on the pier seven days a week to offer youths referrals for housing or jobs counseling.

More recently, FIERCE was a key component of the Pier 40 Working Group that successfully beat back a proposal for a massive commercial development on the much larger pier several blocks south of Christopher Street, between Leroy and Charlton. Dubbed “Vegas on the Hudson” by critics, the plan was to be anchored by a permanent home for Cirque du Soleil. Soccer moms and other residents quickly voiced outrage at the loss of valuable recreational and other community space.

For FIERCE, several issues drew them to the fight. Ross said that early in the public debate on the proposal, one official warned her, “You know the first thing they’re going to do if they build Vegas on the Hudson.” The answer, the group concluded, was that the developer would put pressure once again on the youth congregating up at Christopher Street, with the aim of making sure that they steered clear of Pier 40.

More fundamental, however, was FIERCE’s philosophy about public space in the city.

“Social infrastructure is under attack,” Mananzala explained, noting that FIERCE is perhaps the only LGBT youth organization in the country fighting against “gentrification and displacement” and on behalf of “the cultural preservation of our people.” That last term Mananzala uses in a geographical sense – the right of people to remain in the public spaces that have cultural meaning in their lives.

For FIERCE, Vegas on the Hudson was one more encroachment of gentrification and private ownership over open spaces in the city. And the pier also presented an opportunity – for carving out a corner for an LGBT center serving the health, artistic, economic, and political needs of the youth who migrate to the Hudson River, one that could potentially stay open 24 hours a day. Plans for such a facility were endorsed by the Pier 40 Working Group.

“It was amazing to be standing at this huge rally and have a Little Leaguer’s father saying that we need to create space for an LGBT center and have the crowd cheer,” Mananzala recalled, and then, referring to the defeated proposal, added, “The project was a scary prospect, but it allowed us to form unlikely alliances. Now we are feeling more a part of the fabric of the community.”

But FIERCE’s story cannot be framed solely as a journey from the streets to the table. The group remains committed to fundamental social change, one based in challenging the powers that be. It has been present at anti-war rallies during the past five years, including the massive outpouring at the Republican National Convention in 2004, and it was part of recent protests over the acquittal of police officers charged in the shooting death of Sean Bell in Queens.

FIERCE was also outspoken in defense of seven young lesbians from Newark convicted last year for assault in a 2006 brawl in front of IFC Film Center with a man they said came on to them in a hostile, abusive, and aggressive way. The four women who did not plead guilty could face more than ten years in prison.

Even before the jury came back, the women had been convicted in the press – the Post termed them “killer lesbians” and even the Times used the menacing phrase “avowed lesbians” in describing them. Amidst a public climate that quickly turned against the women, FIERCE has stood with them, helping their families plan appeals.

Does the group fear that mainstream LGBT groups might be put off by perceptions that FIERCE is too radical?

“I would just flip it and say we’re trying to be seen as responsive,” Mananzala said. “We’re less concerned with being seen as radical than how we’re seen by our community.” He noted that the impetus for founding FIERCE came out of the protests against the 1999 police killing of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant, in a hail of bullets in the Bronx.

FIERCE’s responsiveness to its community is seen nowhere more than in its commitment to leadership development. The group runs an internship program that provides five-week trainings to youths interested in learning the ropes of community organizing. With a stipend for the interns, in-house meals while they’re in the office, and subway fare, the group commits $30,000 annually to the effort, which currently boasts its largest class – 16 young people

John Blasco, a gay 19-year-old who lives on the Lower East Side with his mother and is finishing up high school this August, has been involved in FIERCE for the past year, and is one of the current interns. He works as an HIV peer educator at the Ryan-NENA Community Health Center in his neighborhood and was eager to enter the internship program. He sees the internship as a way to build his “skills,” but also to engage his new-found passion for “organizing” – both in his health work and on the core issues FIERCE tackles.

Blasco’s ties to FIERCE are multi-dimensional. At the Thursday “Let’s Politic” meetings, he first encountered the concept of transphobia and is also able to talk to others about the West Village woman who repeatedly harangues him for encouraging more gay kids to go to the piers with his HIV outreach work. FIERCE Fridays have been occasions for a Halloween party and for a karaoke night. On one Friday evening, Blasco brought 15 of his friends.

The internship program Blasco is now completing is no simple classroom exercise.

“We integrate our internship program into our work, into our outreach,” Ross explained. “They are leading our Pier 40 effort. Internships make us effective and sustainable.”

It was only by doing, in fact, that Ross and Mananzala grew into the skills they employ to run FIERCE.

“I learned how to raise funds and about financial management,” Mananzala explained. “And about organizing. We have built a culture around leadership development.”

When Joo-Hyun Kang – an activist who has worked with Astraea and was the first executive director of the Audre Lorde Project, Brooklyn’s community center for queer people of color – presented FIERCE with its award Saturday evening, the group’s commitment to developing leaders for the movement was the first strength she mentioned.

FIERCE’s effectiveness was not far behind in Kang’s praise.

Katherine Acey, who last fall celebrated 20 years at Astraea’s helm, reflected at the evening’s conclusion about the excellence, the effectiveness her group looks for in it grantees.

“You are the people who will not accommodate an unjust reality,” she said.