Effective alliances take time
Western States Center has partnered with Basic Rights Oregon to support organizations in Oregon to adopt frameworks for LGBTQ rights and racial justice. RACE and Gender Justice Programs Director Kalpana Krishnamurthy shares how to build relationships across movements for social justice.
Tell me about yourself. How did you become an activist?
The root of my activism comes from my family. My parents emigrated from India in the late 1960s and they were the only folks that came to the U.S. So I was raised seeing the differences in my own life compared to the life of my family in India. A lot of my experience growing up was about giving back in India, learning how and why U.S. policy on agriculture was affecting our family that farmed land in India, and trying to put all the pieces together. My parents were also very clear with my brother and me about giving back; one of my Dad's favorite sayings was: "When you rise, you take your community with you."
But I got my start in organizing during the first Iraq war and in response to the Rodney King beating and L.A. riots in the early 1990s. When I went to college at the University of Oregon, I started doing work with environmental groups on campus and eventually drifted over to the campus women's center, student government and other progressive groups. After graduating, I knew that I wanted to keep organizing, so I found a job working with students and became a full-time organizer.
You currently head the Gender Justice Program and RACE Program at Western States Center, a Portland, Oregon-based organization that strengthens the capacity of progressive movement organizations and leaders in states throughout the West. What role has Western States Center played in the region and nationally?
Prior to our creation, progressive organizations and leaders were often working in isolation from one another, serving particular constituencies or advancing specific issues. Scattered across a broad geographic area, they lacked resources, appropriate training programs, and mechanisms to share intelligence, plan strategies and spread successes. For the past 20-plus years, Western States Center has been connecting Western activists, building a sense of shared values, honing strategies for building power, sharpening political analyses, and forging relationships and alliances with the broader movement for social, economic, racial and environmental justice.
In our RACE program, the Center was one of the key institutions pushing organizations to look at and think about racial justice. In a region of the country that is overwhelmingly white, the Center has long advocated that it's even more important to look at issues of race and racial equity. For many years we ran a "Dismantling Racism" project to help primarily white organizations understand their role, clarify their strategies and change their institutions to better reflect a commitment to racial justice.
Our "Dismantling Racism" tools are available online and are amongst the most downloaded free tools available for looking at racial justice issues within organizing groups.
Our Gender Justice Program is newer but has made some significant contributions to the region and to work nationally. The Gender Justice Program uses a movement-building approach to strengthen the capacity of organizations dedicated to LGBTQ equality, reproductive justice and family security. We want to support organizations that already work on these issuesbut we also want to bring new groups to the table. We have found that the Far Right often uses issues like abortion, LGBTQ equality and other "hot button issues" to divide our communities. From statewide ballot fights to local campaigns, many groups that work for gender justice find themselves on the defensive and isolated from the broader progressive community. Our goal in the Gender Justice program is to support groups on the front lines of these fights and help expand the number of organizations willing to talk about these social issues.
The RACE Program works with communities of color, including immigrants and refugees, and LGBTQ people of color. What are the racial justice issues facing LGBTQ communities of color, including immigrants?
On one level, the issues that affect all communities of colorracial profiling, health disparities, lack of decent immigration laws, inadequate servicesalso affect queer people of color. But simply expanding the audience to include queer people of color doesn't actually get to the ways in which queer people of color disproportionately bear the burdens of these problems. When we look at the general lack of services for communities of color, are we also looking at how agencies underserve queer people of color, don't have culturally competent staff, address homophobia in service providing environments, or receive adequate funding for outreach and service provision for LGBTQ people of color? In this climate of restricted state dollars, the programs that most serve people of color are at risk for being cutwhat will this mean for queer people of color in these communities that often bear a greater burden of the problem?
Looking at the issues only through this lens can also miss a significant barrier for LGBTQ communities of color in our region, which is the isolation and lack of infrastructure that organizations and networks face. Time and time again, queer folks of color in our region talk about the difficulty of being out in rural areas or small towns, the lack of networks or organizations led by and for queer people of color, and the difficulty in maintaining visibility for queer communities of color within the mainstream LGBTQ movement. These issues are also critical racial justice issuesthe visibility, sustainability and leadership of queer people of color and their organizations/networks can determine whether the issues and concerns of queer people of color are placed on the table in broader conversations about the LGBTQ movement.
You also head the Gender Justice Program at Western States Center and previously served as director of the Third Wave Foundation, a feminist, activist foundation that works nationally to support young women and transgender youth ages 15 to 30. What are some of the ways in which you've seen women and transgender people of color deal with injustice and improve their lives?
I've always thought that young women and trans folks of color were doing some of the most innovative and inspiring work to address the issues in their lives. At Third Wave we would get amazing grant applications from young women of color or trans people of color who were organizing for change in their communities, creating art and culture, and talking about issues that deeply affected their peers and community. What's exciting to me is the way that young women and trans people of color are coming up with solutionsit's new and fresh organizing, finding new solutions to old problems, and building new leaders in the work.
You recently partnered with Basic Rights Oregon, a statewide LGBTQ organization, to strengthen the ability of LGBTQ organizations and racial justice organizations to serve as movement allies for one another. How did this project begin?
Oregon has a long history of anti-gay ballot measures. Through five statewide and more than 25 local anti-LGBT ballot measures, the Far Right has long used Oregon to assess public resonance with anti-equality policies, test messages and build infrastructure and power. From the first ballot initiative in 1988, anti-gay forces have consistently used race to divide the electorate and give moderate white voters an excuse for their discrimination. From framing LGBTQ rights with the same "special rights" language they used to attack affirmative action to having people of color act as spokespeoplethe Far Right all too often succeeded in dividing communities.
Basic Rights Oregon (BRO) is the primary advocacy, education and political organization dedicated to ending discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the state. In 2004, after voters approved a statewide ballot initiative banning same sex marriage, BRO had an honest internal conversation about how the campaign had played out, and what it might need to do in order to build deeper and longer term relationships with communities of color and queer communities of color. In some ways, it was Oregon's Prop 8 momenta chance to pause, reflect and decide to take a different direction in the work.
Based on this internal commitment to addressing racial justice, in 2005, the Center and BRO began a multi-year partnership to proactively address racial justice and LGBTQ equality in Oregon. This coordinated program has aimed to transform the culture, leadership and mission of BRO, while strengthening the ability of allied people of color organizations to play a leadership role in LGBTQ equality and gender justice work.
What are some early lessons from this initiative?
First, I don't think we can stress enough just how important peer-to-peer relationship building is in this process. People have to know and trust each other in order to move this work forward successfully, so creating the spaces where organizers can develop their relationships with one another is critical.
Second, people need practical tools to work on those aspects of their decision making, organizational culture, etc. that stand in the way of becoming effective allies. Providing those tools, as well as the technical assistance and financial support to implement necessary changes, are also vital components for success.
Lastly, analysis and training are only a lead-up to the action steps that organizations finally take. Organizations committed to racial justice or to being allies to the struggle for immigrant rights need to put their organizational resources on the linethrough donating staff time, helping to fundraise, and mobilizing their own base in support of racial justice, immigrant rights or LGBTQ equality.
The questions that this project is addressinghow racial justice groups implement an LGBTQ lens and how LGBTQ issues integrate a racial justice framework, as a way of making our movements strongerhas become a key concern for many activists and funders nationwide. In fact, we're seeing its missed potential in lost policy battles all over the country. What would you share about this project that would help move this conversation among grantmakers?
In all of our work around racial justice, we have learned a really key (and quite simple) lesson: there has to an organizational commitment to transformation and buy-in from the leadership.
For some groups, the phase of building internal buy-in for using a racial justice lens in the organization takes years of internal conversation, education and persistence by staff or leaders. If racial justice or LGBTQ equality get seen as "add-ons" to the organization, than they are frequently the first thing to get cut when budgets get tight, staff turn over, or major political battles confront our organizations.
This work also takes time. It can't work if you suddenly realize in the middle of a campaign that you've got a problem, and try to "fix" it overnight. These are deep issues that need to be addressed outside of the pressure-cooker climate of campaigns, and on their own terms.
Finally, what advice would you give to a grantmaker who's interested in exploring funding to LGBTQ communities of color?
I know for many funders one answer is to increase funding to groups by and for people of color, built on the idea that if we can strengthen these groups they can play a more significant role in guiding and leading conversations the movement should be having.
I would ask funders to have sensible and realistic expectations for 'scaling up' queer people of color organizations. Groups by and for LGBTQ people of color have existed for many years in our region, but have only recently gotten significant or steady fundingand there's a process for scaling up organizations that takes time.
Groups of color that have been meeting for years as social support spaces play a critical role, and these communities will need time to ramp up, decide if they want to be in the more political movement conversations, and if there's leadership and broad-based interest in moving in those directions.
After years of chronic underfunding, it's not fair or healthy to assume that every people of color organization of network is going to decide to work on marriage, ballot measures, or policy change in the next one to two grant cycles. I would advise patience to funders, to think of their investments in queer people of color groups and networks as ones that can pay off in the short term but will bear their greatest fruit in the five to 10-year timeframe.
Kalpana Krishnamurthy, Race & Gender Justice Programs Director, Western States Center (Portland, OR)
Kalpana Krishnamurthy is the RACE and Gender Justice Programs Director at Western States Center in Portland, Oregon. Western States Center is a regional organization that supports and strengthens community based groups working for progressive social change in the Pacific Northwest. From 2002-2005, she was the Director of the Third Wave Foundation, which works nationally to support and strengthen the next generation of young women and transgender activists. She is also an Advisory Board Member of the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity.
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