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AFFINITY TURNS 10
by Amy Wooten
As Affinity glides through its tenth year, the organization raises the bar.
Affinity is a South Side grassroots non-for-profit serving Chicagos Black lesbian and bisexual women. The group strives to provide visibility, empowerment and leadership for Black lesbians, and meet the communitys needs. It provides economic empowerment workshops, social justice and health justice initiatives, advocacy work and social networking events. Looking ahead, Affinity board members plan to fine-tune their focus to better serve their community.
The agency even raised the bar for its annual Jazz n July event. Held at Park West, 322 W. Armitage, Affinity celebrated its anniversary of serving the Black lesbian and bisexual womens community. Singer Terisa Griffin and comic Karen Williams entertained July 30, plus there was food, dancing and DJs.
“We are forcing ourselves to take another step forward,” said board vice president Gaylon Topps Alcarez. “Even by having it at Park West. It’s just pushing ourselves a little bit more.”
Affinity is a social service agency that provides a wide range of programs for the Black lesbian and bisexual women community such as outreach, health initiatives, youth and social services, a drumming circle and singles nights. Singles groups serve as a way of decreasing isolation, while drumming circles and open mic nights act as a forum for Black lesbians self-expression. Drop-in discussions are available for young women and other groups, and Affinity is part of a coalition of women, healthcare providers and community leaders that address health needs in the community. Affinity is also committed to the advocacy of Black lesbians internationally, nationally and citywide. It takes a stance against violence, hate crimes and war, and promotes creativity and inclusiveness.
Over the course of a year, Affinity serves close to 1,000 constituents–or women they serve on a consistent basis–through its programming.
The first meeting was in November of 1994, according to co-founder and board president Chris Smith. Smith joined the steering committee, which started meeting January of 1995. The organization applied for its first grant in October of that year, and was awarded its first grant January 1996. Affinity was born out of discussions among Black gays and lesbians on the South Side about forming a community center to service their needs. ”They felt like the North Side was catered to white, gay males so they wanted to form their own thing,” said Alcarez, who joined in June of 1997. The group did a needs assessment survey, and as the work progressed, the men disappeared from the table. “The mission became to provide a safe space for Black lesbian and bisexual women,” she continued.
”Virtually nothing that existed here today was there then,” Smith said.
Much has changed since Affinity was simply discussions held in the homes of the men and women who gave birth to the idea, such as co-founder and returning board member Lisa Marie Pickens. Affinity went from being a collective group of women to a legit non-profit agency. Smith said the group has made all the necessary changes to be a strong, responsible part of the community that people can depend on.
”We went from a steering committee with this pie-in-the-sky idea to an organization that for its size, has developed really strong allies over the years,” she said.
One thing that hasn’t changed, said Pickens, is the need for the organization. “I believe that the need existed then for an Affinity, and I think the need continues to be there for an organization like Affinity,” said Pickens, who returned to Affinity after a break to help the organization set its new agenda around advocacy and building community partnerships, Smith said. The group is working on building coalitions within and outside the community to provide information to its constituents and gain access to healthcare issues. Although much of its current work focuses on networking opportunities, the organization wants to continue to increase its exposure and provide ways to combat isolation. Affinity also wants to continue its efforts in strengthening its constituents’ economic situations by providing information, as well as career and education workshops.
As she returns, Pickens said she would like to see the group she helped form be more geared towards advocacy. “I think there is absolutely a need for the voice of Black women to be involved in those types of discussions, so I think there’s always going to be a need for the types of services that Affinity provides,” she said, adding Affinity is “in the very best place” to push forward with its health initiatives and other goals.
Call ( 773 ) 324-0377. Or see www.affinity95.org .