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Astraea Reaches Out to Chicago Lesbians
by Marie-Jo Proulx
On June 16, 2005, Chicago’s lesbian community welcomed Katherine Acey, executive director of Astraea, the country’s largest lesbian-focused philanthropic organization. The house party, held in Kathy Valdiserri’s North Side home, brought together more than 50 women to meet Acey and listen to her up-beat presentation. Jessica Halem, executive director of the Lesbian Community Cancer Project ( LCCP ) , and also chair of the event, introduced Acey.
Astraea was created by a small group of independent women in 1977 to support an array of organizations advocating for the awareness, protection, and promotion of LGBT and minority womens rights. Today, under the name Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, it has a staff of 13, a demographically diverse board of directors, and dedicated volunteers all over the U.S. In 2004, through a system of four different panels, Astraea redistributed $1 million of the $2.5 million it raised to grantees in 24 states and 25 countries.
This year, Affinity Community Services, Beyondmedia, LCCP, and the Literary Exchange were Chicagos local recipients. The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network ( SLDN ) , Disabled Queers In Action ( DQIA ) , Paris Press, and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network ( GLSEN ) were among the many national organizations who obtained Astraea funding. Notable international grantees include Jamaicas J-FLAG and Thailands Youth AIDS Prevention Project. European, Middle Eastern, and South American groups also benefit from Astraeas financial support.
In a recent trip to India, Acey met up with the women of CREA, a grantee-partner in Delhi that relies entirely on private donations. ”It’s an institute that really covers the history, the policies, sexuality across the board. In terms of the work being done there, I think that in some ways, India is ahead of us. Both in theoretical framework and on the ground,” she said, clearly impressed.
Asked to name a couple of organizations of which she is especially proud, Acey, who has been at the helm of Astraea for the past 18 years, first mentioned the Appalachian Women’s Alliance. The Virginia-based grassroots coalition is made up of low-income and working women organized in circles to counter homophobia, economic injustice, and violence against women. The fact that all the circles ( young women, African American, lesbian ) exist under one umbrella organization and that they are integrating their work is major, especially for a part of the U.S. where there is a lot of poverty, Acey pointed out. In last year’s presidential elections, the Appalachian Womens Alliance sprang into action and got the highest voter turnout for the region. They received a $5,000 grant to continue its outreach to women in isolated areas.
Another source of Aceys admiration is Patlatonalli, Mexicos oldest human-rights group advocating for Guadalajara’s LGBT community. With the recent publication of Tengo Una Tia Que No Es Monjita ( I Have an Aunt Who Is Not a Dear Little Nun ) , an illustrated children’s book about a young girl who has a lesbian aunt, Patlatonalli is striving to educate Mexicans about LGBT issues and relationships. ”They have worked so hard for so many years within the schools and university system. You can go to the library in Guadalajara and you cannot find anything on lesbians or queer folks. So it’s a huge success to put out this book,” Acey said. The $10,000 Astraea grant will help Patlatonalli develop a project called All Families Are Sacred.
Astraea prefers the term member to donor because of the spirit of involvement it implies. ”We really think of the people who give money as having a stake in the organization and in the groups we are supporting,” Acey explained. “Overall in this country, the average for giving is around 2.5, 2.3 percent of income. Also, we know from reports that are taken every year that the people who give the highest percentage of their income are the poorest. And a lot of that goes to religious institutions,” she added.
Acey sees part of Astraea’s mission as educating the overlapping women communities about philanthropy. According to her, it is only by creating momentum and supporting movement building that significant social change can be affected. In the current conservative climate where government funding for social programs and services is under constant threat, Acey said it was her guess that left-leaning people who can give do try to contribute more. But citing the issue of same-sex marriage, she illustrated the gigantic resources gap between the right and the left. While conservatives raised $205 million to fund their campaign against equal marriage, the LGBT community and its allies only managed $21 million. The numbers served as an eloquent closing argument.
After Acey’s talk, UIC scholar and activist Beth Ritchie along with her partner Cathy Cohen announced a leadership circle challenge, promising to match any additional donation of up to $1,000 made on the night. The initiative proved an attractive incentive as many women took out their checkbook and filled out more donor cards on their way out.
For more information on Astraea, see www.astraeafoundation.org