Care and Connection as Resistance to State Violence and Surveillance

This year, we are commemorating International Sex Workers’ Day by sharing a personal essay from fellow sex worker organizers and close friends, Red Schulte and Alisha Walker. Told through personal narrative and reflecting on years of visits to Alisha that have been mediated by prison technologies, Red reveals the violent ways these technologies seek not only to disconnect sex workers from the outside world but how it’s also used to further punish them.

By Red Schulte and Alisha Walker
with contributions by Mihika Srivastava, Astraea Communications Program Officer
Image credit: Commissioned as a gift to the Support Ho(s)e Collective by Matilda Sabal, a pen pal and comrade of Alisha’s, this beautiful piece was created by Amira Lin

June 2, 2021

This year, the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice is commemorating International Sex Workers’ Day by sharing a personal essay from fellow sex worker organizers and close friends, Red Schulte and Alisha Walker. Red is a community organizer currently based in New York. They coordinate the Justice for Alisha Walker Defense Campaign and are a member of Survived & Punished NY, Hacking//Hustling, and the Support Ho(s)e Collective. Alisha is a 28 year old former sex working person originally from Akron, Ohio. She was criminalized for an act of self-defense when a regular client threatened her life and the life of a fellow worker in January 2014. 

Told through personal narrative and reflecting on years of visits to Alisha that have been mediated by prison technologies, Red reveals the violent ways these technologies seek not only to disconnect those on the inside from those on the outside but to further punish them. The piece illuminates how sex workers and political organizers (and most often, individuals at those intersections) are no strangers to attempted and successful stigmatization, infiltration, entrapment, criminalization, risk of arrest, jailing and/or incarceration, and the ways in which those experiences prepare them to creatively navigate these complex systems of surveillance as a form of resistance.

This piece is part of our ongoing political education and advocacy work to highlight the intersections of criminalization and surveillance, centering movement and organizers’ voices. This work began with our report, Technologies for Liberation: Toward Abolitionist Futures which launched in December of 2020. The report explores the ways in which queer, trans, Two-Spirit, Black, Indigenous, People of Color, and sex worker communities in the U.S. are disproportionately impacted by criminalization and surveillance, and highlights the powerful community-centered technologies and interdependent networks of care and solidarity they are building to fight back.

——

My entire friendship and comradeship with my fellow organizer Alisha Walker is mediated by prison technologies. Our knowing each other initially in this life was determined by state violence, and our friendship has been maintained in spite of it. The mutual care and love that we continue to foster and grow between us is routinely scrutinized, accessed, recorded, and used to further punish her while she’s incarcerated. We’ve been communicating and dis/connected, for over five years now. 

Alisha is an artist, inside organizer, criminalized survivor and former sex worker currently incarcerated at a state prison in central Illinois. She was sentenced to fifteen years for an act of self-defense, saving herself and a fellow sex worker from a violent attack on their lives while working. Alisha and I have used every available outlet for sanctioned communication: ConnectNetwork, JPay, Western Union, Securus Tech, GTL Network, the United States Postal Service, FreePrints, Amazon, etc. Each of these methods falls short, intentionally, of allowing for unfettered, authentic connection because of the prison gaze

Communication Technologies, Weaponized 

Prison technology is state violence. The same modes of sanctioned communication to “connect” people outside to those inside also exist to alienate, exploit, and disconnect. This dual communication experience is meted out through prohibitive costs, intentional obsolescence, scrutiny, surveillance, and censorship. 

I can never really shake the first time Alisha described the full body cavity search before our first video visit. That thought hadn’t actually occurred to me, that they’d force the same visitation protocols for a remote visit, but then again (like Mariame Kaba reminds us) prisons are sexual violence. The digital obstacles to video visiting are immense. Lost connections equal lost time and visits altogether—once I blew a fuse at my apartment, lost power, and had to use a personal hotspot to stay connected to Alisha; it shot my phone bill through the roof. Pixelated versions of ourselves greet one another each video visit. My beautiful friend is transfigured into small, disparate squares that jarringly jump on my computer screen. My partner and I were once almost banned from video visiting because of the t-shirts we were wearing: me something sleeveless and him an undershirt; the prison gaze creeps into your home. 

“They’re not just surveilling my body, but images and words and relationships too,” says Alisha. She has frequently alerted us to correctional officers’ name-dropping outside loved ones and comrades’ social media names and profiles, and mentioning things that they could only know if they were watching our online posts and clicking through to find out more about our other online personas. Another way this played out was as Alisha was building networks of care and social support inside: “They [the correctional officers] were watching my (and of course everyone’s) relationships inside to use against me, and when you get punished they find what hurts you most, they find the thing you need most and take it away.” 

Alisha has frequently noted the stressful impact of the rigid and ever-shifting policies the prison enacts against phone use, making it harder for those inside to reliably communicate and organize with loved ones. “Rigid policies since the pandemic began have shifted from no calls, to 15-20 minute enforced call times at various times during lockdown, to housing unit specific call days or times, to “odd and even” call days or nights, and of course everything is subject to the mood of the correctional officers on duty.” 

Alisha says, “Most of my mail gets sent back or is heavily censored or disappears due to retaliation from the correctional officers. Mostly we don’t have the kinds of pens, sharpened pencils and paper we need to correspond available when we shop [commissary]. Mail is so important to us, and it’s a terrible feeling to get your mail and see it torn open every time or to wonder how much mail is actually being kept from you.” 

Sex workers’ resilience in navigating systems of surveillance

Alisha and I are no strangers to creative modes of communication catalyzed by state surveillance. Outside political organizing and sex work can come with their respective experiences of attempted and successful stigmatization, infiltration, entrapment, criminalization, risk of arrest, jailing and/or incarceration. I learned early when I was becoming radicalized about the history of informants, watch lists, and raids on dissenters, community leaders, and movement people. I experience(d) first hand overt and covert attempts by state agents to disrupt and destroy movements and campaigns I was organizing amongst. Community organizers engaged in work that challenges or opposes state violence and unaffiliated radicals are accustomed to being vigilant about communication, actions, and identities because of the level of state surveillance. From these experiences I’ve developed gut checks, careful vetting of what I share, and with whom, and shared security culture with trusted comrades. I’ve translated much of learned personal and work safety protocols I use while organizing from those passed to me through sex working community. 

“I can’t speak freely, I’ve been locked up for 5 years, I’m forced to learn new ways to speak, I guess I’m institutionalized…” For Alisha, who is currently incarcerated, her relationships are not only mediated through technologies, but her communication has also been institutionalized, meaning that she has been forced to learn new ways of speaking and behaving in order to avoid retaliation and further punishment from correctional officers, prison counselors, and the administration in general. “I have a voice, but it’s not always my own voice,” Alisha says. 

Because of these overlapping shared lessons, experiences, and strategies for mitigating all the harms and dangers they can bring with them, Alisha and I were fire-tested and (un/fortunately) better prepared to creatively code our language and gut check when communicating and trust building—radical community organizers, formerly incarcerated activists, and sex working people taught us. That being said, the violent obstacles, frustrations, and impediments were (are) still many.

As the Astraea Foundation’s report, Technologies for Liberation: Toward Abolitionist Futures, finds, “Platform moderation, or the policing of a platform’s content, is a critical site where the criminalization of sex work intersects with threats to internet autonomy. The 2018 congressional bills FOSTA-SESTA further police sex work online and exacerbate existing platform policies and practices that censor online sex work and suppress digital organizing efforts, such as shadowbanning, content moderation, and deplatforming.” 

As sex workers, we are accustomed to our relationships being mediated by (surveillance) technologies, but that certainly does not engender a complacency with this violence. Whether the relationships be monetary or exchange-driven (i.e. between worker and client), social (in public or virtual space), marketing (between worker and potential clientele), romantic, or one of banking (between worker and financial institution), each of them is monitored and poised to be terminated by an algorithm, a new online content policy, a processing discrepancy, stigma fueled by rescue industry narratives and violent, discriminatory legislation, moral and social “policing,” and good old fashioned bodily harm, trauma, and incarceration. 

Imagining community care, technology support, and resourcing

When people are released from jails, detention centers, psychiatric wards, and prisons, there are immediate, extensive material, communal, and emotional needs that must be met. Some of the most basic immediate needs involve accessing and using technology—including: hardware, systems, and support. Not everyone on this side has access to computers, cell phones, social media platforms, government and organizational websites, knowledge of search engines (to name a few), but our chance of access are exponentially higher than those who are currently incarcerated, and still higher yet than those people newly discharged from the state’s cages. As such, we take our respective levels of access for granted, and do not fully realize the extent to which technology support must be amongst the basic necessities of those coming back into community, back home, or charting a new course/building a new place for themselves after incarceration.

Alisha and I have been organizing together with the Support Ho(s)e collective for almost five years now. Support Ho(s)e is a small collective of current and former sex workers and trusted accomplices seeking to build radical community for sex working people in Chicago and NYC. During this time we’ve both also become more involved with another sex work focused collective, Hacking//Hustling, which has given Alisha and I the space and resources to try and imagine what comprehensive “tech support” could look like post-incarceration. Together with Support Ho(s)e, we’ve co-created a compensated opportunity to experiment and explore direct tech resourcing by piloting the Formerly Incarcerated Worker Support Program, funded by Hacking//Hustling and envisioned by mine and Alisha’s experiences with dis/connected tech while she’s been inside.   

Upon Alisha’s release, this will be the first trial of the Hacking//Hustling Formerly Incarcerated Workers Support Program, naming Alisha as the first recipient. This program would span three to five months depending on the tailored needs of Alisha and her support crew. We intend to approach the program with the flexibility and understanding of post-release catch-up and also with an eye toward Disability Justice focused crip time. Post-release catch-up can mean a lot of things depending on how much time the state stole from someone—filling technology gaps, re-meeting friends and family, navigating a different sort of surveillance, taking time to explore adjustment and creating one’s own schedule, in brief, all that comes with absorbing the changes (or lack thereof) in the world on this side of the Wall. 

The Formerly Incarcerated Workers Support Program works with comrades, and organizations that can help us acquire free/funded technology-focused training, computers and phones, college level or vocational school courses, ensuring that at all times the majority of the funding goes directly to the recipient, helping them re-establish financial independence. The program will be in direct collaboration with the needs of those it supports. After an initial trial period, Alisha can do an exit interview and/or remain on as part of the core collective team to become a mentor themselves. 

The need for sustained support post-release cannot be overstated. Time and time again, when people are finally released from prison or jail stints, they have virtually no financial, technological, housing, or sustained community support. Basic needs, skill sharing and financial support must be made available to those folx establishing themselves after the violence of incarceration. We must also resource and build sustainable support programs that equip those of us on the outside (especially those who have been impacted by incarceration) to show up for those navigating life within and beyond prison/jail/detention. 

The Astraea Foundation’s report finds that work and programs such as the Hacking//Hustling Formerly Incarcerated Workers Support Program are critical to helping communities learn more about the dangers of carceral technologies and creating interdependent networks of care and solidarity that disrupt the state’s reliance on punishment and policing. Yet, this work is resource intensive and at present movements, organizers, and movement technologists face significant financial barriers to implementing and maintaining digital safety strategies and community-owned and centered technologies.

Community-centered harm reduction technologies have always been an answer. The mutual aid, creativity, and the creation of networks of interdependent care and solidarity in the face of criminalization, censorship, surveillance, and punishment has long been a way of life and organizing for marginalized groups such as queer, trans, undocumented, rural, migrant, Two-Spirit, Black, Indigenous, People of Color, and sex workers, survivors of gender violence (including online doxxing), and currently and formerly incarcerated people. These are the communities that have created community safety in the face of constant threats and danger, who have been forced into technological creativity. 

We invite you to listen and learn from these community members and unapologetic resource makers. Imagine a world where technology isn’t synonymous with violence and exploitation, and the prevention thereof. Invest in this work. Dream alongside us, and support our people to build the abolitionist technologies and community-centered networks and systems we need to live fully liberated lives free from surveillance and state violence. 

Learn More:

***

Read more blog posts on our Collective Care Blog!

Q&A with Sandy Nathan

We sat down with our Interim Executive Director, Sandy Nathan to discuss what her journey with Astraea has been like, how the organization has always been about shifting power to grassroots LGBTQIA movements and the legacy she is leaving behind for Astraea’s next leader.

  • Sandy, you have led Astraea through so much – a global pandemic, racial justice uprisings and internal transitions. What did this mean for you and Astraea and how did you shift your leadership to respond accordingly?

I was hired as Astraea’s Interim Executive Director by the Board of Directors in August 2019 for an initial nine month period. On average, it takes a board that period of time to recruit a new Executive Director. As Astraea’s Interim ED, I saw my role as helping the Board assess the actual state of the organization after the departure of its last ED so that there was a clear and shared vision of what the organization needed in its next permanent leader. 

As an Interim ED, my approach was always to assess organizational strengths and challenges, make recommendations to address those challenges, and steady the ship until a new permanent leader was recruited. As a seasoned executive leader with prior positions in government, national nonprofits and philanthropy, I consider myself adept as both an operational and strategic leader. Mind you, all my prior experiences had been in very traditional and patriarchal institutions and organizations. As a Black feminist, I have had very deep and personal experiences socially and politically in feminist settings and in and around social justice movements, but I had never worked directly in an explicitly lesbian feminist organization. So, the very first major shift was realizing that I no longer needed to compartmentalize myself in terms of my race and sexual identity, and for the first time in my professional life, be a truly integrated leader for Astraea. This was by no means an easy transition for me, as the actual state of the culture, systems and ways of being in the organization challenged my conventional sensibilities. But in reflecting on all the core values Astraea espoused – justice, integrity, liberation, intersectional feminism, collective care, and transformation – they deeply aligned with my personal values. This was the primary factor that made all the subsequent shifts even easier.

When the global pandemic hit, it was a major disruption as we were in the midst of engaging in meaningful work to build more alignment between the board and staff, addressing internal issues and building staff morale. What the pandemic accomplished for me and Astraea, however, was understanding how important it was to shift from an organizational change process to one of organizational transformation. The pandemic felt apocalyptic to me, everything that was normal was suddenly gone. Last year truly changed everything, including my prior theories, notions and approaches to leadership, which upon reflection, centered the needs of the organization rather than a focus on listening to staff needs and centering their care and well-being as the highest organizational priority. 

In addition to the pandemic, the racial justice uprisings that so dramatically spotlighted all the inequities and deeply rooted systems of oppression and white supremacy, simply made focusing on all the ways that I as a Black, queer, feminist leader needed to step up in that moment even more compelling. And of course, I had to deal with my own pain and anguish even as I constantly thought about all the ways that Astraea’s staff needed to be held through those moments.

  • You joined Astraea at a specific moment of leadership transition, can you chat about what transition leadership has allowed you to do that would not have been possible for a permanent leader?

Astraea was my third transitional leadership position. As a transitional leader I make three explicit commitments to the board: 1) that I will always be transparent, 2) that I will speak truth to power and not shrink back from having difficult conversations; and the most important one is 3) that I will not apply for the permanent position. With transitional leadership you have a very finite period of time in which to be impactful and make needed changes, so you must be laser focused on setting priorities, having clear expectations from the board and adhering to those. And if you are not in your integrity and decide you will throw your hat in the ring as the permanent Executive Director, there is a tendency to see yourself as constantly auditioning for the permanent role rather than being the most effective interim leader you can be. As I referenced earlier, I saw it as my role to stabilize the organization, refine fiscal and human resources systems and make key hires to build out the leadership team, and most importantly to identify the critical next steps that a new permanent leader needed to come in and prioritize. All this required taking on a critical view of the organization while at the same time, seeing all of its possibilities.

In many ways Astraea was not prepared for a new permanent leader and bringing in a transitional leader was a great strategic decision by the board. Taking the needed space to listen to staff and build authentic relationships with them and the board, conduct a robust organizational assessment and identify needed changes without the demands of heavy-duty fundraising and being externally focused really enabled me to concentrate on the needs of the organization at that time.

  • Your leadership has exemplified what it means to build policies and procedures that center care. When you joined many of us were burned out and collectively feeling exhausted. What are some of the ways you centered care and healing in your transitional leadership and why was that important for the next leader?

One of the real sources of pride for me in leading Astraea was how we were shifting the field of philanthropy by focusing on healing justice. I must recognize Cara Page as another Black queer feminist leader at Astraea who developed this incredible framework that identifies how we can holistically respond to and intervene on generational trauma and violence and bring collective practices to change the consequences of oppression. When I say that Astraea was leading the field – we were doing that with conference presentations, publications and in other tangible ways. What really struck me, however, was how we were not living the values of healing justice internally. The state of mind and bodies for many staff people at Astraea really underscored for me how important it was to center care. I made self- and collective care organizational priorities because of the extent of burn-out and exhaustion at Astraea. The average staff person was managing multiple roles and functions within the organization and it was simply not sustainable as the fall-out from that exhaustion impacted both individuals and the culture. I worked for months with the management team to develop work plans that focused on the most essential priorities. It was a challenging task because as smart and capable as the management team was, they hadn’t been supported in cultivating a practice of priority-setting but rather to take on more and more work.

The pandemic honed our focus on self and collective care as an absolute imperative. When I saw how challenging it was to adhere to policy changes in response to the pandemic such as a 20-hour work week, I instituted an organizational pause for two weeks and encourage staff to take the time to rest, journal and reflect on all the ways in which they needed to show up differently for themselves, their loved ones and the work they were so passionately dedicated to at Astraea. I only wish I could have made the pause for 30 days, because that is widely recognized as the baseline period in which it takes to shift behaviors. But the organizational pause was highly effective in that it was at least a sanctioned period to step away from work, rest and heal. I am extremely grateful to Reverend angel Kyodo Williams who guided us spiritually into that pause and enabled us to reflect collectively after it ended so that we could all understand that self-care was a radical practice we needed to embody moving forward.

As we continue to deal externally with state-sanctioned violence and oppression not just in the U.S. but across the globe, it is critical for Astraea’s next leader to now lead an organization that is finally institutionalizing healing justice practices internally through self and collective care. This will be required if we are to continue to do our work effectively and best serve grassroots LGBTQI movements.

  • What have been some of your highlights over the past two years?

The major highlights for me over the past two years have been the depth of relationships I have had a chance to cultivate with Astraea’s staff, board members and our external stakeholders. Astraea’s staff, past and current, are some of the most creative, thoughtful and passionate folks I have ever had the pleasure to work with. The board of directors are all amazingly dedicated to Astraea and bring a true commitment to providing governance and strategic leadership in all the needed ways. I have been excited to see how they have enjoyed board/staff retreats, strategy sessions and joint learning opportunities. They care deeply about the organization and its staff and as is typical in many organizations, that alignment is not always apparent. And our institutional partners and donors have been wonderful to get to know. Their support to Astraea has enabled the organization to weather this transition as well as it can.

  • You have spoken about how Astraea has been a political “home” for you that is able to hold your identities as a black lesbian unicorn in philanthropy – can you tell us more about this and how this is part of Astraea’s vision to shift the nature of philanthropy?

I was in a conversation recently with someone from Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy and we were discussing the numerous challenges that BIPOC and LGBTQI individuals encounter working in the field. We do have to often shield our multiple identities and with every foundation and its culture, it is a calculation about what part of yourself you must leave at the door. As a very young feminist in the 80’s, I had heard about Astraea as this unique lesbian feminist foundation founded for and by a group of multiracial, cross-class women who came together to raise resources to fund their community. From its inception, Astraea was redefining philanthropy and “democratizing” it before we were using those words. You did not have to be a millionaire to give to Astraea, and it attracted other lesbians from all economic levels because it was in response to the lack of recognition there was at that time of our issues. Astraea was always about reimagining philanthropy and shifting power. So, for me to step into this role as a black feminist queer leader and be that touch stone and link back to our founding mothers has been truly transformational for me.

I also want to add that seeing the pain and suffering of BIPOC and LGBTQ communities as a result of the pandemic and the racial uprisings last year had a deep personal impact on me. As difficult as that time was, I cannot imagine what it would have meant to be anyplace other than Astraea, where my feelings and concerns were supported and uplifted.

  • What legacy are you leaving for the next leader of Astraea?

The first legacy that I hope to leave for Astraea’s next leader is to lead this organization with love, compassion and understanding that Astraea cannot be what the world needs it to be without continuing to center its staff at the heart of every key decision. She will have to be a people-centered and trusted leader because I feel that is what staff have become accustomed to. We are as strong as we are today because we have had to practice resilience. We have had to dig deep to bounce back from the obstacles of the past and we are recovering in the face of continued external challenges. At Astraea, we have come to know the difference between urgency and importance, and we have finally come to understand that there are no adverse consequences if we take some risks for us to create a solid and sustainable future. Most importantly to me as a transitional leader, is knowing with absolute confidence that we collectively have created a stronger Astraea than we were two years ago, thus we are now better able to serve our movements.

  • Do you have closing words for Astraea and the new leadership?

My closing words for Astraea are that I never imagined it possible to fall in love with an organization and its people, but that has been my experience. There has been something so unique to me about leading Astraea at this time that simply required giving of myself as a leader in ways I never had to step into. And each time I realized that we were creating momentum and shifting things internally, it was because we had developed relationships of trust and open communication. It was not always an easy journey and there were certainly disappointments along the way, however Astraea is an amazing organization and I know that the best is yet to come. I know without a doubt that I will continue to stay connected to Astraea and all the people within its ecosystem that I have come to care about deeply.

***

Read more blog posts on our Collective Care Blog!

On IDAHOBIT, a reminder to double-down in our support for LGBTQI communities globally

This year on IDAHOBIT, we recognize and honor the LGBTQI grassroots organizers, advocates, and artists who are fighting not just for equal rights and an end to discrimination and violence, but for dignity, joy, healing, and care.

May 17 marks the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexphobia, and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT). The annual event was created in 2004 to draw attention to the violence and discrimination experienced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex people and all other people with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities or expressions, and sex characteristics. 

This year on IDAHOBIT, we recognize and honor the LGBTQI grassroots organizers, advocates, and artists who are fighting not just for equal rights and an end to discrimination and violence, but for dignity, joy, healing, and care. We are living through a time marked by overwhelming grief: from a global pandemic that has disproportionately impacted the most marginalized around the world and legitimized states’ use of surveillance technology to crackdown on these communities; to the alarming rollbacks of queer and trans rights; to increased police violence against queer, trans, Two-Spirit, Black, Indigenous and People of Color communities; and a growing climate crisis. Yet through it all our movements are continuing to care for their people, fighting hate and discrimination through transformative policy and culture change, and building solidarity and resilience within and across communities.

  • In India, grantee partner Ondede filed for a public interest litigation (PIL) for COVID-19 relief measures for transgender communities. Subsequently, the Karnataka High Court directed the state government to supply free rations to transgender persons.

  • In Zambia, the Human Rights Commission invited grantee partner organization Transbantu to nominate a representative to sit on the Human Rights Commission Thematic Committee on Rights of Minority Groups. As part of their work on the Commission, Transbantu will provide inputs at the national level as to the discrimination faced by trans people.

  • In Fiji, which has recently been affected by natural disasters on top of the COVID-19 pandemic, grantee partner DIVA for Equality has provided feminist support and aid directly to over 15,000 Fijians living in urban poor, rural and maritime areas overall, in ways that are underlaid by ongoing accompaniment, advocacy, referrals, and direct service provision.

  • Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, Croatian grantee partner Zagreb Pride launched an online campaign against the government’s use of surveillance technology to track the movement of citizens, and succeeded in their efforts!

  • Grantee partner Mesahat played a critical role in national grassroots LGBTQ effort to change Sudan’s sodomy laws. In July 2020, as a result of grassroots advocacy efforts Sudan’s Sovereign Council made critical change to Article 148 of the penal code, abolishing the death penalty and flogging for same sex activities. However, with the imprisonment sentence increased from four to seven years, the work continues.

Make no mistake. The threats to our communities are greater than ever, as we witness the rise of authoritarian regimes around the world, the ongoing closing of civil society spaces, and the growing influence of far right anti-gender movements. Trans rights in particular are experiencing a “global recession” according to LGBT activists at Transgender Europe (TGEU) who say that governments are using the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to rollback trans rights while simultaneously religious, anti-gender, and trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF) groups continue their attacks on trans rights around the world. Here are just a few of the hostile contexts our LGBTQI communities are living under in the current moment:

  • In the United States, coordinated efforts by hate groups and right-wing elected officials have led to legislation targeting trans youth in 33 states. According to the National Black Justice Coalition, no other year on record has seen as many anti-trans pieces of legislation compared to 2021. A staggering 117 bills have been introduced in the current legislative session that target the transgender community. It’s the highest number the organization has recorded since it began tracking anti-LGBTQ legislation more than 15 years ago. Four states—Arkansas, Mississippi, South Dakota, and Tennessee—have already passed anti-trans bills or implemented parts of those bills through executive action. A new study by the Williams Institute finds that more than 45,000 transgender children are at risk of losing the health care they need amid this year’s record-breaking wave of anti-trans legislation.

  • In India where a devastating second wave of COVID-19 has swept the country, trans communities continue to be disproportionately impacted. When the pandemic first hit India in early 2020, trans communities overwhelmingly lost access to livelihood, food, shelter, and healthcare. Trans community members and trans-led organizations also noted that trans communities were left out of the relief package announced by the government in March 2020. Now, as the situation grows more dire, with infections and deaths on the rise and ongoing lockdowns, trans communities have once again been left without critical safety nets, and access to basic provisions and safe housing.

  • In Ghana, outcry from religious groups, politicians, and anti-LGBTQ rights organizations earlier this year forced the temporary closure of the country’s first LGBT+ community center. The situation deteriorated into a witch hunt of LGBTQ people with many hiding out in their homes or seeking shelter elsewhere after harassment from their own communities. Last year, as a result of major lobbying from far-right Christian groups, the Ghanain government banned the Pan Africa conference of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans Association while in 2019, the World Congress of Families, the Global Christian anti-LGBTI lobby hosted their summit in the country. In Ghana, same sex activities are punishable with up to three years imprisonment.

The global anti-gender and far-right movements have built and funded a network across different religions and bridging secular and religious divides. If we want to end homophobia, biphobia, intersexphobia, and transphobia and systemic discrimination against our communities, we must bring the kind of committed funding and support to our movements that far-right, fascist groups have brought to anti-gender movements. 

This is precisely our mandate as Astraea, a feminist funder of the LGBTQI grassroots for over 44 years. Our unique vantage point puts us at the nexus of the very communities most under attack – LGBTQI communities, People of Color, ethnic and religious minorities, Indigenous people, and women. We exist to shift power to these very communities, particularly those whose voices are most often silenced, but who as the most impacted, are best suited to make lasting change. We do this by providing funding that is necessarily flexible, that is nimble, and that is long-term – funding that is responsive to the needs and priorities of our movements, so that they can care for their communities. 

Until we are all free, none of us are free. Our collective liberation is dependent on protecting, nurturing, listening, supporting and sustaining the radical LGBTQI grassroots visions of the future – ones that are rooted in self-determination, radical love, accountability, collective care, right relationship with the earth, and with each other. That is the resilient, joyful future we have a responsibility to support. Join Us.

To read our additional stories, visit our Collective Care Blog here

How LBQ groups are leading the way in changing culture and caring for their communities

As Astraea, we are proud that nearly 40% of our grantee partners identify as LBQ-specific groups. LBQ groups work intersectionally and choose not to be constrained by artificial issue “silos” that can limit work across movements and issues.

LBQ activism is young and growing all over the world. According to Astraea and Mama Cash’s 2020 report, Vibrant Yet Under-Resourced: The State of Lesbian, Bisexual, and Queer Movements, 89% of LBQ groups have been founded in the last twenty years. These vibrant groups are determinedly doing their work with intense commitment and very little money, often in quite harsh and repressive circumstances. In their organizing across diverse movements, they are improving the lives of LBQ people while advancing multiple social justice causes.

They are, however, also struggling. LBQ groups are under-resourced and under-staffed, and they have weak safety nets. 40% of groups have an annual budget of less than $5,000 and one-third receive no external funding. Today, only 8% of the total $560 million in LGBTI funding can be identified as LBQ-specific, according to the latest Global Resources Report. LBQ groups organize intersectionally but are typically funded through narrowly defined portfolios. They envision creating long-term structural and systemic change, but are principally funded with short-term, often project-based grants.

As Astraea, we are proud that nearly 40% of our grantee partners identify as LBQ-specific groups. LBQ groups work intersectionally and choose not to be constrained by artificial issue “silos” that can limit work across movements and issues. More than half of LBQ groups identify with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans movements and women’s rights movements because their lives sit at the intersection of both. They also identify with broader movements and issues such as sexual and reproductive health and rights (45%), the right to healthcare (32%), HIV and AIDS (30%), rights of intersex people (29%), young people’s rights (26%), and sex workers’ rights (20%), among others. Here are some examples of the LBQ-led organizing we are so honored to support:

  • Aireana (Paraguay): Aireana Grupo por los Derechos de las Lesbianas was established as a lesbian feminist group in 2003. They are concerned not just with lesbian liberation or the ‘LBQ collective’, but with the liberation of all oppressed peoples, including trans people, other sexual and gender dissidents, cis-straight women, and all those who are economically and racially oppressed. Their intersectional approach is embodied in the visible presence of their drums band which performs in other movements’ demonstrations, such as those led by peasants or by the families of victims of institutional violence and in their leadership of a multi-stakeholder coalition, including people with disabilities, Indigenous and rural peoples, and migrants, among others, that led to the Anti-Discrimination Bill in Paraguay. Aireana works at many different levels ranging from political advocacy to running a hotline for those in crisis. However, they view their cultural change work—projects like their theatre group or drums band—as having the greatest and most lasting impact.

  • Mesahat (Egypt and Sudan): Since its founding in 2015, Mesahat Foundation for Sexual and Gender Diversity has emerged as a critical support for LBQ people in the Nile Valley area (Egypt and Sudan). Activists created Mesahat to elevate the concerns of LBQ people and respond to the ongoing threats, discrimination, and violence they face. Mesahat uses a three-pronged approach to improve the lives of LBQ people in Egypt and Sudan: 1) building the capacity of queer youth leaders, 2) providing holistic security, including personal safety through protection and sheltering, tools and awareness on digital security, and self-care and psychologcial well-being, and 3) compiling queer oral history that captures the life experiences of queer people in Egypt and Sudan. This past year, Mesahat launched its campaign #NotEnough to spark a conversation around the recent reforms to the Sudanese Criminal Code and its impact on the status of Sudanese women and individuals of sexual and gender diversity in Sudan. The campaign also presented recommendations and demands for improving the living situation for women and queer communities in Sudan.

  • Queer Sista Platform (Armenia): Queer Sista Platform was formally founded in 2019 and is led by and for queer women in Armenia, where LGBTI communities continue to face widespread discrimination and hostility from the public and the state. The organization’s programming is currently focused in the areas of healing and well-being, and community organizing. In 2020, Queer Sista Platform re-opened their “Queer Home” space, as part of their work to create more safe, inclusive spaces of LBQ womxn in Armenia. The Queer Home serves as a critical community organizing and community building space, and will be a central hub for the organization to hold meetings, trainings, self-care and well-being workshops, and more. The space will also serve as a temporary shelter for those facing homophobia-fueled violence, discrimination, and homelessness. Another achievement for the organization in the past year has been the organization of their “Queer Camps” which center wellbeing and collective care and build community and solidarity. In the next year, they hope to keep up the operation of their healing community space as well as the organization of camps, if possible, given the pandemic.

By providing more and better quality funding to LBQ-led groups, donors can unleash the power of LBQ groups to secure transformative change in their communities. Given rising conservatism, nationalisms, and fundamentalisms around the world, and the importance of building and supporting strong movements to fight back, funding grassroots LBQ groups who are working intersectionally and addressing some of the most pressing challenges facing our world is a smart and underutilized strategy that will enable all donors to support and advance progressive political organizing around the globe.

For more, read our full 2020 report, Vibrant Yet Under-Resourced: The State of Lesbian, Bisexual, and Queer Movements at fundlbq.org

The Importance of Philanthropic Advocacy: A Conversation with Iimay Ho

We sat down with our Former Board Co-Chair and current chair of the Executive Director Search Committee Iimay Ho to discuss what the last year has been like and where Astraea is headed in 2021 and beyond. 

For 44 years Astraea has been the leading exclusively LGBTQI, global feminist funder. When COVID-19 hit, Astraea, like many organizations, needed to quickly pivot to meet the needs of the moment both internally and externally. We asked ourselves: What does it look like to create spaciousness and center staff wellness and sustainability in the midst of a global pandemic? How do we meet the needs of grantees who are struggling to remain open and grappling with the various impacts of the pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted marginalized communities? Former Astraea Board Co-Chair and current chair of the Executive Director Search Committee Iimay Ho discusses what the last year has been like and where Astraea is headed in 2021 and beyond. 

Q: 2020 has been described by some as a “visionary year” in that the collective eyes have been ‘opened’ to the far reaching extent of systemic injustice; from racism and transphobia to climate collapse. How do you think Astraea has been positioned to meet this extraordinary moment?

Iimay Ho: Astraea, ever since its founding as a multi-racial, cross-class intersectional lesbian feminist organization, has always prioritized funding those most directly impacted to create the solutions that we needed. When I think about last year–it revealed who had been doing the work all along on racial justice, combating anti-Black racism specifically, and creating transformative change. Suddenly there was a reckoning and we saw all the corporate statements about Black Lives Matter or the apologies, especially from white institutions suddenly taking account of the harm or complicity. It exposed who hadn’t done their work and who hadn’t been accountable, or reflective about their work from a social justice lens. At Astraea, we had already been having a lot of these conversations but we also needed to double down internally.

Q: Astraea it seems has always been “doing the work”, right?

Iimay Ho: For over 4 decades Astraea has had that lens and has funded the grassroots LGBTQI movements and BIPOC-led work here in the U.S. and internationally. I think it speaks to the deep work that’s been done in the past that there doesn’t actually have to be a huge pivot of, “Oh, suddenly, now we have to think about racial justice”, as it’s already just been so integrated in Astraea’s work. That doesn’t mean that there’s not work for us as an institution to tackle, and always change and grow, and sharpen our own analysis, but I think it’s more about a deepening and a reaffirmation that the approach; for example, Astraea’s radical intersectional funding approach of no strings attached, multi-year general operating support has always been and is still needed now.

Q: How then does Astraea share its approach and funding philosophy beyond the organization, to reach those who may not yet have embedded racial justice into their work as an ongoing practice?

Iimay Ho:  I think that’s where I really appreciate that philanthropic advocacy is actually one of the core pillars of Astraea’s work. Of course, there’s a grantmaking side, but Astraea always positioned itself as a funder that’s organizing other foundations and funders. Through being an intermediary we can take some more restricted dollars and channel them through Astraea and turn those into general operating support and actually fund grassroots organizations that many larger private institutions aren’t able to because they don’t have a relationship with, or don’t understand the field. Astraea also amplifies those voices of the people on the frontlines, and then through reporting, communications, and our own storytelling, also helps shift other grantmakers’ perspectives, who in turn see the value and the impact of Astraea’s advocacy strategy.

Q: Astraea is an extraordinary organization, it holds such a complex space. Knowing that you are in the midst of searching for a new Executive Director, what kind of person do you think is needed to lead Astraea in these challenging times?

Iimay Ho: Astraea needs someone who has experience helping organizations transform, scale and build infrastructure, an excellent manager who can inspire senior leadership teams and the organization at large, a skilled facilitator, listener and collaborator. That kind of internal capacity building is really critical. We’re looking for someone with all that complexity and nuance who can bring together lots of different voices and help articulate what the shared vision is. 

Q: Finally, What do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing Astraea as we head into this unknown future, understanding the gravity of the kind of the moment we are living in? 

Iimay Ho: There is a real need to take the time and the space to invest in our infrastructure. And as a 44 year-old organization, we have been reviewing our systems and operations structures to meet this moment. We have grown very rapidly in the last five to eight years from about $5m to become a $20m organization and we haven’t necessarily scaled up the infrastructure needed in order to lean into our global, multi-million dollar grantmaking, since our founding as a grassroots funder. We’re addressing all of that now. It’s definitely a challenge and I think it feels difficult to turn towards the internal work when there’s so much external urgency, and that is the critical balance we’re committed to. But I also think that taking the time now to really be thoughtful about our strategic plan is critical.  

We’re strengthening and leaning into the team’s shared analysis of Astraea’s values, and deepening Astraea’s commitments to anti-oppression work, and addressing anti-Black racism and transphobia internally and externally. We’re looking at how the staff and teams live the values in a way that supports the external work, as well as supports the continued distribution of money to the LGBTQI frontlines. It’s definitely a mix of both the culture and the structure if we are to be stewards of collective queer liberation. 

A Pandemic Year in Reflection

A year into the coronavirus pandemic, we caught up with our Interim Executive Director, Sandy Nathan to reflect on how our lives both within and outside of Astraea, have transformed in a profound manner.

Q & A with Interim Executive Director Sandy Nathan

Q: It has been over a year now since the world was rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic and  what a wild year it has been. How are you doing, both personally and how is Astraea doing as an organization?

Sandy Nathan: Yes, in many ways, it feels that it’s been much more than a year since the pandemic hit. On a deeper level, we have crossed a real chasm and we have entered into what I feel is an era of profound transformation. The pandemic has drawn attention to  the stark inequities in healthcare, racial justice and economics. The underlying story here is that we cannot go back to the way that we were! We are facing competing tensions: this desire to go back to some sense of normalcy, and given all of these inequities, the deeper understanding that we cannot; that we have to advance our energies towards creating a world that works for all of us. And so that shift in the awareness and urgency around dismantling the structures of white supremacy has been the most colossal universal gift.

And by that I don’t mean to minimize in any way the profound suffering that has come as a result of the pandemic, the profound loss of life, the calling out of all the horrific, white supremacist actions that have just called attention to the fact that we can’t bury this stuff any longer. We’re living two separate realities: One that says, “We’ve got to hold on to the way things were, at any risk.” And the other says, “Okay, we need to be about creating a new world and we need to shift all our might towards that vision of collective liberation.”

Q: In birth there’s always a tremendous amount of pain. I’m wondering, how does Astraea, an organization filled with actual people, with feelings, emotions, thoughts, and who are experiencing an immense transformation of their own navigate through such a profound shift?

Sandy Nathan: The first thing that’s critical to any shift is awareness of the need to shift. At Astraea, we have had a deep sense of the need for organizational shifts and cultural shifts for quite some time. When I joined Astraea, I felt like I stepped into this amazing, wildly creative feminist womb. And I just kind of curled up inside of it, because in many ways it was the first time that I felt completely comfortable to just bring my full self as a Black lesbian to an organization.

It was really easy for me to identify with Astraea and the radical, bold and visionary feminist ways. But it also required a lot of nurturing, as there were some historic harms that had not been fully addressed, something that I am learning has been true for so many progressive feminist social justice organizations operating in philanthropy. The pandemic really exacerbated those harms, and emphasized the need for healing. Unaddressed harm and trauma combined with the inability for folks to be together, and added to that the sudden uncertainty folks were facing in their day-to-day lives, you can really understand how challenging it was to fully address those underlying cultural issues that we have begun to hold and nurture within Astraea.

As leaders within the organization, we struggled initially with all the ways in which we needed to recalibrate, so that we were engaging staff and supporting them, and most importantly, making sure that in spite of all the things that we were confronted with, that we were focused on the mission of Astraea. Simultaneously, we had our best year ever of fundraising and we had our largest grant-making year last year – we gave nearly $6 million to our grantee partners around the world. In many ways, we rallied, we stepped up, and we transcended all of the obstacles that we were facing on a day-to-day basis to meet our mission and mandate of standing behind our incredible grantee partners and movements.

Q: Why do you think that that is? Why do you think that in the midst of so much panic, so much uncertainty, that people were betting on Astraea? 

Sandy Nathan: There were a number of factors leading to that, leading with the passion and the commitment of Astraea staff who have really shown up to do the work required of them to shift and transform into an organization that holds reflection, healing, conversation and liberation at its core. As it relates to our grantmaking, our staff have deep relationships with our grantees, and when the pandemic hit, those relationships helped us to understand that the most powerful thing we could do in the moment was to be Astraea, listen to the needs of grantees and get resources to those movements on the ground. We raised over $1 million via our COVID-19 Collective Care Response, an organization-wide initiative with the aim of bolstering our grantee partners as they care for their communities and confront the pandemic’s ongoing impacts across the globe. 

We also adapted our Spring grantmaking strategy to meet the moment and moved additional flexible resources to grantee partners in the U.S. and globally. LGBTQI communities across the globe were not only suffering themselves as a result of the pandemic, but were also being harmed by ongoing state-sanctioned violence, surveillance, and discrimination as a result of the pandemic, with many governments using COVID-19 as an excuse to suppress rights. It was critical that Astraea was able to be nimble and responsive to these needs.

Q: What is your vision for Astraea as we navigate through 2021? 

Sandy Nathan: My vision and hope for Astraea in this year is that we take the time to do the internal work we need to strengthen ourselves for the long-haul in every regard. We have already gotten much of that work off the ground: we are shoring up and building our infrastructure by investing in critical operational improvements, we are – in spite of this pandemic – finding all the virtual ways that we can to safely connect with one another as both colleagues and human beings, and we’re tending to our organizational structure and capacity. We have made key hires, redefined our strategic priorities, centered anti-oppression and anti-racism work to strengthen our organizational culture, and encouraged staff sustainability through structured organizational pauses. We’re building an organization that finally is right sized to its level of growth in revenue. I think that is only going to lead to a much more sustainable organization in the long haul.

Q: How do you think that the internal work that you’ve been able to undertake has either shifted or expanded Astraea’s feminist philosophy and how the organization sees itself? 

Sandy Nathan: It is our uniqueness that excites, that drives the funding support to the organization. It’s our uniqueness that attracts passionate radical staff within the organization, so we continue to be that. This interim period has enabled us to be that much more deeply transformational. A fundamental critical shift that has started to happen within Astraea is that we are really moving from doing to being. We have made a profound shift in that regard, from “let’s just focus on the work,” to “let’s internalize our feminist, anti-racist, social justice oriented values and philosophy within every part of who we are, and so let’s internalize that within everything that we do as a public foundation.”

How Do We Redistribute Money and Power in Philanthropy? A conversation with Kerry-Jo Ford Lyn, Deputy Executive Director

In this interview we spoke with Kerry-Jo to explore the power dynamics inherent in philanthropy and how we as a feminist funder must work to break those down in order to uplift and center the voices, work, and priorities of our LBTQI grantee partners.

On trust-building, and navigating internal and external power dynamics in philanthropy so that we can more radically be in the service of LBTQI grassroots movements around the world 

We are thrilled to announce that Kerry-Jo Ford Lyn has been promoted to the newly created role of Astraea Deputy Executive Director. Many of you know Kerry-Jo from her previous role stewarding Astraea’s Global LGBTI Human Rights Initiative with USAID, Sida and Global Affairs Canada. In this interview we spoke with Kerry-Jo to explore the power dynamics inherent in philanthropy and how we as a feminist funder must work to break those down in order to uplift and center the voices, work, and priorities of our LBTQI grantee partners. We also take an internal look at how trust building and anti-oppression work is being threaded through the entire fabric of Astraea as an organization. A leader on staff since she joined in 2015, Kerry-Jo is a strategic systems thinker with impeccable skills in organizational management. She will play an essential role leading Astraea through this time of reinvention and reimagining.  Join us in warmly welcoming her to this new role and please read some of her reflections in the interview below. 

—-

Question: As a person working in philanthropy, you have said that money is a necessary evil. What do you mean by this?

Kerry-Jo: It’s a great question, and so layered. Systemically, philanthropy is premised on and emerges from a capitalist system, which means that money is intentionally disproportionately distributed and consolidated in the largely white owning class, the State and indeed Foundations, especially private philanthropy so there are always communities that will get less of it. And that’s true with LGBTI communities and with communities of color, and worse at the intersections of those communities. 

Where Astraea fits is that it’s our mission to create alternative flows of capital from where it’s been intentionally placed, to where it needs to shift. We create pathways of raising and redistributing that money, which means we’re also doing the work of redistributing that power. Fortunately, one of Astraea’s superpowers has been the authenticity of the relationship that we’ve built over time with LGBTQI grassroots grantee partners, and in ensuring consistently that we grant that money without any conditions. And so, by giving money consistently as core support, we’re not passing down any of the conditionality that we typically get from larger institutions and philanthropic mechanisms – essentially we alchemize the red-tape and open up the flows of money to where they need to be. We’ve consistently had to make the case for ‘better quality money’, money that is unconditional and used according to the needs identified by groups on the frontlines fighting for collective liberation.

Question: Can you say a bit more about “better quality money”? 

Kerry-Jo: Better quality money is money that is as flexible as possible. Money without conditions and that also includes reporting conditions. So, at Astraea we have had to take on as much reporting as is necessary without passing that on to our grantees. We really see it as our responsibility as a conduit, to take on as much of the burden of problematic money and problematic power dynamics as possible so that our grantee partners don’t have to.

In my portfolio for instance, I’ve been responsible for negotiating and navigating the nuance of government funding, and I think government funding has historically been extremely problematic, because it necessarily comes with the conditions and standard provisos that are imperial, colonized, and designed to monitor and control social justice movements. It typically has been horrible.

Question: What have you been able to do to make government funding less problematic and more flexible?

Kerry-Jo: We’ve been able to reformulate government money so that it aligns with the kind of feminist principles of funding that we have consistently applied, which is multi-annual, core support, and flexible funding. The government funding that we have as it relates to USAID, is for core organizational support, which is extremely important and was actually a non-negotiable in establishing our partnership. And we have, over time, reduced the reporting burden on our grantee partners. We’ve also done things like reduce the visibility and exposure to risk to our partners by ensuring that we never disclose their names, which is especially important when you consider many of our partners live and work in countries hostile to LGBTI communities. So even if they get direct funding from our government partners, we ensure that their names are never disclosed in public documents or reporting documents to the funder, specifically the US government. And that’s been a reflection of true partnership.

Question: Why is it important to ensure that the names of grantees are not disclosed?

Kerry-Jo: The important thing is to ensure that our funders are able to achieve their objectives while we achieve ours through supporting our partners, that there is mutuality and partnership. So, if we provide our funders with  the information and the stories of impact needed to fulfil their mission and objectives, then the name of the grantee partner becomes less important. This actually reduces very real risk to our LGBTI partners. One of the phenomenal ways that we’ve been able to negotiate also is to have a ‘branding and marking’ waiver. We recognize that for most of the countries that we grant in, there is a complicated history related to US politics, and so being associated with government funding is a sensitive issue that might actually result in increased harms for our LGBTI partners on the ground. Providing funding in this way, without conditions or requirements around branding and public acknowledgment then truly represents a more authentic model of support that more appropriately (re)focuses the attention on the issues facing LGBTI communities, their priorities, their needs, and is definitely not about giving credit or kudos to funders themselves.  

It’s important for Astraea to consistently play the role of a responsible feminist intermediary by reducing the burden on our grantee partners, by making sure that they have the most flexible funding possible, and that we are actually resourcing according to what they need as opposed to what a donor might think they need.

Question: What kind of feedback do you get from grantee partners about the way that you have centered the giving? 

Kerry-Jo: Consistently, the feedback that we get is that Astraea is the least burdensome of funders in terms of reporting, and that we are one funder who really understands what it means to prioritize their work, their issues, and the solutions they themselves have identified. 

Question: What advice would you have for or what direction would you say that other philanthropic spaces should set up? 

Kerry-Jo: When I first came into Astraea, one of the things that was apparent is that we didn’t realize how much negotiating power and leverage we actually had. We were the ones who had this amazing and trust-based relationship with hundreds of grantee partners across the world. Not the larger funders who were making the grants to Astraea. And those relationships are at the heart of our work and a huge point of leverage. I think that it’s important for organizations to recognize when they have more leverage than they do and exercise that for the benefits of movements. 

Being able to negotiate and use your leverage with funders also means that you need to resource yourselves with the expertise to do so, and you need to build the capacity internally and dedicate that capacity to our fundraising teams, to our people who have the experience with particular funders.

Question: Internally, while you’re trying to do the best for the grantees, how do you do that and then not overburden and overwork yourselves? 

Kerry-Jo: It’s definitely a struggle, because at the core of it, we all do this work because we have such a deep commitment to our grantee partners and to the movements, and we struggle on a daily basis to find a balance between doing the necessary work for our partners, and then taking time, and setting boundaries, and creating spaciousness in our own work plans. And that’s a struggle any organization goes through, especially as we’re going through a pandemic. The need to evaluate the pace at which we operate increased during the pandemic and it is really the remit of leadership to be able to set the course for our staff and the organization to slow down. And what that involves is having frank, honest conversations with funders, to be extremely realistic with them about what is possible and what needs to shift for us to continue to do our work sustainably.

Question: What are your hopes for Astraea this year? What are you most hoping for comes out of 2021, with the way that Astraea is shaping itself up? 

Kerry-Jo: I have so many hopes for Astraea, to be honest. One big hope is that for those who remain committed to Astraea to remember the most essential parts of what makes Astraea great, and why it’s so necessary to have Astraea in this moment, and in this movement. When we ground ourselves in those fundamental things and trust a process, that is a huge hope. Quite frankly, we have been with faced quite a lot over these last few years, as individuals and as an organization – we’re at a point of exhaustion in the face of a global pandemic, racial uprisings, many of our own transitions internally, losing that human interaction in the office, when we travel and with our grantee partners – it fosters a lot of disconnection and fatigue. And trust is in short supply so we’re also trying to find ways to refocus on building psychological safety for our staff. My hope would be, as we are entering what can be an exciting phase of new leadership, new energy, unpacking old ways, reflecting on how we are positioned in philanthropy, dismantling some things, and reinventing others, that we also stay grounded and centered in what has made Astraea great, learn to trust ourselves in pursuing that, and trust each other in pursuing that together, in service of our LGBTI communities across the world.

I Am Black Everyday: A Reflection on Black History Month

We’re at a crucial tipping point. LBTQI, Black, Brown, Indigenous, and immigrant communities are fighting to survive at the hands of white supremacy. And these are the very communities securing a liberatory vision for the future. We pledge each and every day to fight and fund the movement our foremothers and forefathers began. These are our foundations, the legacy on which we build to ensure Black liberation, and indeed the liberation of all peoples and the healing of our planet.

Astraea’s blog, Collective Care Blog: Building the Power & Resilience of LBTQI Movements Now & for the Long Haulis Astraea’s response to the global COVID-19 pandemic. As a feminist LBTQI funder, we believe it is our responsibility to shed light on the ways our communities are particularly impacted by the crisis, share insights around the criticality of healing justice and collective care, as well as the ways in which we’re digging deep to keep shifting power to the grassroots in meaningful and sustainable ways.

Article by Sandy Nathan As Black History Month draws to a close, I have been reflecting on what it means to carry our celebrations of Blackness and Black history beyond the month of February. America has been trying since 1915 to highlight the contributions of Black folks to the history of America. I value that for sure. But there is something about all the recent sentiment about “Black history is American history” that is insufficient. For far too long America has denied the contributions, innovation and brilliance of Black America. While we have designated February—the shortest month of the year—to the recognition of Black history, upon closer examination you recognize that it is extraordinarily whitewashed. America’s idea of Black history would have us believe that Black Americans were slaves, then Rosa Parks sat down, and King had a dream—the end. Our history is so much more than what this month reduces it to each and every year. What we need isn’t siloed months that check a box, but rather true integration. During the month of February, it seems America has some form of amnesia to the experiences of Black Americans as well as the treatment of our leaders who are consistently lifted up during this period. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a common figure whose quotes and speeches fly high during this month with little conversation about just how radical of a thinker he was—so radical in fact he was on the FBI’s most watched list and lamented by the very politicians that take to social media today to feign their appreciation for his work to create Black liberation. Yet, over 50 years later the same principles Dr. King fought for still remain a dream—like a living wage, racial equity and an end to police brutality and white domestic terrorism. For over 40 years Astraea has stood in solidarity with Black movements and communities in the United States. We stand united in our grief, anger, and outrage at every instance of police brutality and of innocent Black lives lost. What became abundantly clear in 2020 is that these acts of violence against Black people are not isolated incidents but part of a much larger and coordinated strategy to enforce white supremacy at the expense of Black life. We must work to condemn the racism, discrimination, policing, transphobia, and state violence that would have Black people erased. This means not only fighting for the equity that is deserved; but lifting up the humanity of the Black community everyday, not just when it is convenient during the month of February. We can’t continue to have institutions and corporations ‘perform’ anti-Black racism by posting quotes on their social platforms for 28 days while refusing to acknowledge the ongoing structural racism the rest of the year and commit to deep acts of reparation. We’re at a crucial tipping point. LBTQI, Black, Brown, Indigenous, and immigrant communities are fighting to survive at the hands of white supremacy. And these are the very communities securing a liberatory vision for the future. As a queer feminist funder based in the United States, we owe our existence to the civil and human rights activism of the Black, Indigenous, People of Color, trans, and queer movements that have come before us. We are reminded in this month, like every month, that we are not free until Black people are free. We are not free until all of our BIPOC folks are free. At Astraea we will not silo our celebration of Blackness and the fight for liberation to one month. We pledge each and every day to fight and fund the movement our foremothers and forefathers began. These are our foundations, the legacy on which we build to ensure Black liberation, and indeed the liberation of all peoples and the healing of our planet.

Can Radical Philanthropy be the Answer to Our Multiple Pandemics?

In this time of profound transition and challenge, philanthropy needs to reckon with how we can truly shift power, to a place of respect, listening, honoring, and supporting the visions and organizing of our grantees. They are the architects of our collective liberation. As a foundation committed to abolition it is incumbent upon us to work in concert with our grantees and create a flow that is centered around their self-determination.

Astraea’s blog, Collective Care Blog: Building the Power & Resilience of LBTQI Movements Now & for the Long Haulis Astraea’s response to the global COVID-19 pandemic. As a feminist LBTQI funder, we believe it is our responsibility to shed light on the ways our communities are particularly impacted by the crisis, share insights around the criticality of healing justice and collective care, as well as the ways in which we’re digging deep to keep shifting power to the grassroots in meaningful and sustainable ways.

It’s been almost a year now (and over a year in some countries) since the world as we have known it has been forced to pivot, and a global pandemic has taken hold of every aspect of our lives. In the last year, we have been challenged to slow down and to rethink our ways of being, moving, and doing, in order to protect ourselves, and the health of our communities. Yet, while each one of us on the planet has been touched by the pandemic, we know that some communities around the world – those who are most marginalized and most targeted by all forms of discrimination and violence – have been hit the hardest, and continue to feel the deepest impacts and reverberations of this deadly pandemic. These are the very communities that Astraea has been working to support tirelessly over our 42 years of existence – LBTQI, Black, Brown, migrant, indigenous, feminist communities working to create transformative change at the grassroots. At the core of the issues we are battling is an unjust and extractive economic system that is steeped in white supremacy–the belief that white folks should always be on the top and a struggle class made up largely of BIPOC should be at the bottom. Economic insecurity is nothing new and yet many act shocked by the outcomes of an unbalanced capitalistic system that has created the heinous racial wealth gap that we are witnessing play out in real time as we see those that are required to risk their lives to put food on their tables and others that are able to shelter in place.

We know Astraea’s grantee partners – the LBTQI organizers on the frontlines – are often the most marginalized in our communities; yet they are the ones charting the path through this, the transformative vision for our collective liberation. In order to support our grantees during this difficult time Astraea launched the COVID-19 Collective Care Response. Grounded in Feminist Funding Principles and Healing Justice framework, our response aims to bolster our grantee partners now and for the long haul as they care for their communities and confront the pandemic’s impacts across the globe. We recognize that a diverse range of strategies are needed to meet this moment and our support for our partners must be just as flexible as they need to be. Policy change and holding the line on attempts at regression remain important, but as survival comes even more to the forefront, we must also center holistic well-being and community care in direct relationship to what our grantee partners and their communities are experiencing. Pandemic response policies are intersecting with LBTQI communities’ well-being in an urgent way.

We know from our four plus decades of work how economic and social inequities have impacted LBTQI communities. We are still at a place in the U.S. where Black transgender women are being murdered at an unprecedented rate and where people can be fired from their jobs for being queer. This hostility is not just focused in the U.S. as we know that trans communities around the world are disproportionately impacted by violence and economic instability. Even in the midst of a pandemic we watched as George Floyd was robbed of his life as the knee of an unjust system pressed on him unbothered by the display of depravity. Ex-Officer Derek Chauvin who murdered George Floyd in broad daylight is emblematic of a system that has been squeezing the life out of marginalized communities for as long as we can remember.

It was this confluence of trauma that has us at Astraea thinking about what our role is as radical, queer, feminist philanthropists at this critical time in our world’s story.

What we have always known to be true is that we are an anomaly. Astraea exists in a landscape of philanthropy that looks very much like U.S. Senate—white, male and deeply paternalistic.  While philanthropy is crucial to help move forward programs and organizations that are on the frontlines fighting inequity, it is set up in a way that the people who are charged with doing the work often have little autonomy over it. In reality we at Astraea have worked counter to the norms of traditional philanthropy since our inception over forty-two years ago. Astraea’s roots are in movements. Our founding mothers came together as lesbians and women of color precisely to resource our own movements from within, recognizing the critical leadership role lesbians and women of color played in all social justice movements of the time.

As a public foundation that raises every dollar we spend, we are dedicated to working in partnership with our grantees not as overseers. As a funder, our primary role is to move resources to our grantee partners in a way that demonstrates our deepest commitment to support those who have the voice and power to tear down systems of oppression and create transformative change. And that has always been by providing long-term, flexible funding that allows grantees to set their own agendas and use resources to respond to their evolving needs and priorities. We have always given our partners who are doing work on the ground the autonomy they deserve. That is not new for Astraea. This is why when the pandemic hit, we were more dedicated than ever to providing the long term general operating funds that organizations needed in order to keep their doors open. 2020 was Astraea’s biggest grantmaking year yet – we gave nearly $6 million to our grantee partners around the world. Our donors and supporters were critical in making this happen; because of them we raised and granted nearly $1 million as part of our COVID-19 Collective Care Response and were able to increase grant amounts to several of our grantee partners who were particularly hard hit by the pandemic. We work to create systems for our grantees that unburden them from the restrictions and hoops that traditional philanthropy sets up as a false way to assess accountability.

In this time of profound transition and challenge, philanthropy needs to reckon with how we can truly shift power, to a place of respect, listening, honoring, and supporting the visions and organizing of our grantees. They are the architects of our collective liberation. As a foundation committed to abolition it is incumbent upon us to work in concert with our grantees and create a flow that is centered around their self-determination. That is what we mean when we use the term radical. As simple and essential as the thought that all people should live free and uninhibited is, in this philanthropic context it is also a radical thought to directly and overtly place power in the hands of movements. This is what we work for, this is how we queer philanthropy and it is also the commitment we are always striving towards.

“Fund Like You Want a Future We Can All Thrive In”: A Conversation with donors Eileen and Leo Farbman

We sat down with new Astraea donors Eileen and Leo Farbman of the Kolibri Foundation to learn more about their approach to giving, why they prioritize long-term and trust-based funding, and what led them to connect and partner with us.

As Astraea, we are incredibly grateful to be able to partner with a community of donor activists here in the United States and around the world. Our partnerships with our donors are built around shared values, alignment, and trust. Our donors are people with whom we have critical and honest conversations about how collective care can mean moving resources to where they are most needed and putting the least administrative burdens on our grantee partners while doing so. These relationships with donors are based in a shared sense that our movements are creating the futures we all need to thrive – and to do so, they need the resources to lean into their visions for lasting change. Together with our donors, we work to redistribute wealth and shift power for grassroots LBTQI movements working for racial, gender, and economic justice around the globe.

Mother and son duo Eileen and Leo Farbman of the Kolibri Foundation are some of Astraea’s newer donors, with our partnership beginning in early 2020. Their generous donation helped seed Astraea’s Collective Care Response, which recognizes that the repercussions of the pandemic are going to stay with us for a long time to come, and that the communities Astraea exists to support – LBTQI, Black, indigenous, Brown, migrant, poor and working class – will continue to be those hardest hit by COVID-19 while also being on the frontlines of pandemic response. Astraea aims to bolster our grantee partners now and for the long haul as they care for their communities and confront the pandemic’s impacts across the globe. 

We sat down with Eileen and Leo to learn more about their approach to giving, why they prioritize long-term and trust-based funding, and what led them to connect and partner with us. Check out the video above for highlights from our interview, or read more about our conversation below. 

Eileen & Leo would like to thank Cara Page, Thenjiwe McHarris and Lorraine Ramirez, who have been offering guidance in the process to set up the Kolibri Foundation and its grantmaking. 

Join Us: Find out more about how you can become an Astraea major donor!

On the focus of their giving: 

Eileen Farbman: We’ve really decided to take our focus to working at the intersections of racial and gender justice. To support movement building and to take our time to listen and learn and really carefully figure out the best model of granting that would work, really taking trust-building seriously and humbling ourselves and being transparent along with some movement leaders that are helping us to make Kolibri the foundation that I’ve always dreamed of having.

On what drives their giving:

Eileen: Money is only part of it for me, it’s really the trust-building, and if the grantees are up to it, the relationship-building that really excites me and being able to support those that we grant beyond just the funding that’s really exciting for me. For the past 30 years, I’ve been in philanthropy, I’ve worked with domestic violence and human trafficking survivors and throughout all of that time, I’ve seen lots of system stacked against women, women of color, disproportionately against black and brown women, and men for that matter, and I’ve always seen white leadership on top and not necessarily helping these systems get to those closest to the ground that needed it and sometimes making things very complicated. I’d really like to continue to fund the areas that I funded but really shift to helping those movements work more fluidly and more seamlessly.

Leo Farbman: I was working at the intersection of family law and incarceration, so working really with family separation and education. So when this foundation and this opportunity was lifted up as possible, I was really excited to jump on it and really take it seriously, and figure out how my work and my values could be utilized in this project. And fortunately, my folks were down with that. So we’ve been on the journey of: how do we get in line with this movement and how do we support the leadership of those closest to the issue, and understanding that our decisions and our things that we think are right are inherently filled with blind spots. How do we de-center ourselves, but still step into our power and say, “this is where we’re gonna move money.” 

On how they were inspired to connect and partner with Astraea:

Leo: I’ve organized with Resource Generation and being around movement spaces and activist spaces, I really saw how much respect and trust they were showing to Astraea. When we think about our positionality and the way we’re moving money, a big value of ours is to have a chunk of our granting going to organizations that are in relationship with those closest to the issue, and people who are re-granting and are in the field and building relationships. And knowing that we want to give directly to on-the-ground organizations as well, and we’re figuring out how to do that. 

But a big value of ours also is to step up and say, “Astraea is out there doing this, has been doing it and will continue to do it.” This is the type of organization that needs to be seeded for the present and the future. 

Eileen: I would just add: the part about granting when we did at the crisis moment for COVID was, we really just wanted to just meet the moment. Although we’re relying on the movement leaders to help us decide how we’re gonna grant, we decided, look we have to move some money, we can’t just sit here. We’re not waiting, worrying about the stock market or anything. We just really trusted in your leadership that you have a community, you have a LGBTQI community that we’re not positioned to reach out to in the ways that you are, we’re not gonna get funding to the people that really need funding, the people that are really struggling. 

On trust-based and long-term giving:

Eileen: The trust-based philanthropy or the trust-based giving is something that I’ve just always believed in, which is just sort of giving to general operating expenses. Partially because I’ve been on the development side as well as on the social work side. I know what that’s like to kind of have to jump through those hoops, and I just don’t believe it’s valuable to anybody, and it just puts a burden that’s completely unnecessary. Funding with no strings attached …we’ve never regretted it. And multi-grant commitments is really part of that. 

It helps for your stability, it helps basically for your infrastructure, and obviously it helps for your budget planning as well, just the concrete truth answer. And it really helps you to keep your kind of ecosystem that you have built in having a security that you wouldn’t necessarily have if we were giving a short-term gift. So that’s really what our goal is, and why we think it’s so important. 

Leo: I think that’s something that I think we’ve, as a foundation and a family, been able to say like, we need to fund those closest to the issue and then build a relationship…and go from there. It takes conversation but it also can’t be like, “let’s be on four calls and then maybe we’ll give money later.” That’s not building trust, that’s actually just stringing organizations along. 

On grappling with the power and privilege inherent in philanthropic giving:

Eileen: Yeah we’re very humble to the fact that there’s power and privilege and an imbalance when it comes to philanthropy, it’s inherent. We have to be humble and we have to be transparent, and we have to be accountable because there is a built-in imbalance in power and privilege that we have to acknowledge.

Leo: We are excited and walking through what it means to be in relationship around deciding what the foundation is going to look like. It’s a step further back than just grantmaking, it’s like, what’s the make up of the board? What do the investments look like? How do we want to grant? We’re definitely very much in an iterative place of what that looks like. 

On engaging in donor organizing as part of collective care:

Leo: Yeah, I think in this donor-philanthropist space, I think it’s engaging with our people in this world, the philanthropists, donors, people who just have access and a similar class background, white folks, for us Jewish folks, and engaging them in these conversations, continuing to be able to speak about it from our place, and why we care and implicate ourselves in the work, which I think is so important, and will they be committed over the long-term to engage in those conversations and challenge people, and help people move along. Because I think the closer people get to movement work, the more exciting it is and the more understandable it is. So I think it’s like bringing people in and within those conversations, getting people to move money. 

On why you should join us in fueling LGBTQI movements for racial, gender, and economic justice:

Leo: I think now is an absolutely crucial time to step up and fund Astraea and look at their track record and trust in what they’ve been doing since the mid ’70s: supporting those closest to the issue and the LGBTQI communities across the world. I think it’s clear to all of us that this is a historical and important inflection moment, so fund like you want a future that we can all thrive in.

***

Astraea’s blog, Collective Care Blog: Building the Power & Resilience of LBTQI Movements Now & for the Long Haulis Astraea’s response to the global COVID-19 pandemic. As a feminist LBTQI funder, we believe it is our responsibility to shed light on the ways our communities are particularly impacted by the crisis, share insights around the criticality of healing justice and collective care, as well as the ways in which we’re digging deep to keep shifting power to the grassroots in meaningful and sustainable ways.

Want to read more from our Collective Care Blog? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to stay up-to-date on the latest posts!