Focusing on solutions
To reduce racial inequities, homophobia and transphobia, social change leaders must move beyond forming tactical alliances to building authentic relationshipsand we must pose solutions with emotional arguments. Applied Research Center Executive Director Rinku Sen tells us why and how.
Tell me about yourself. How did you become an activist and a writer?
In college I became radicalized and discovered organizing. I participated in organizing efforts to oppose racial violence and then around sexual violence. I knew that I wanted to continue this work when I left college. For the next 15 years I was an organizer and eventually the co-director, with Francis Calpotura, of the Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO) in Oakland, California. By the end of my time at CTWO, I decided that I wanted to be more involved in thinking and moving new ideas into society, so I decided to get my masters in Journalism.
You currently serve as the executive director of the Applied Research Center (ARC), a national organization that investigates the hidden racial consequences of public policy initiatives and develops new frameworks to resolve racially charged debates. What role has ARC played nationally?
ARC gets tools out into the community by publishing work that generates solutions to racial inequity and helps to frame the political and cultural discourse on race. ARC focuses both on racial issues that are lived (cultural) and legislated (political)and understands that both are crucial to making long-lasting sustainable change.
What are some of the Applied Research Center's current projects?
We are currently very excited about three projects that ARC is producing.
Our green equity tool kitwhich we are producing with Green For Allwill provide a set of race and gender equity criteria that can be used to assess and improve new green jobs programs and proposals to give poor people access. These tools can be used by communities, public officials, administrators, reporters and university research institutes.
We are also currently spending much of our time expanding our media reach and developing new products; these include lots of original reporting. Our next big story takes a transnational look at families that have been separated by criminal deportations.
We take a narrative approach to racial issuesthat is, we lead with stories, not data. In the past we have written about many issues that affect people of color, including a cover story on the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy featuring soldier Dan Choi, a West Point graduate who came out publicly on Rachel Maddow's show.
Finally, we are undertaking a national study of the racial justice movement to understand how sexual liberation is positioned within racial justice. We will be interviewing dozens of racial justice leaders, and reviewing the political positions of prominent local and national racial justice organizations, to identify the potential capacity of the movement to move sexual liberation, including orientation, preference and gender issues.
This toolkit is exploring how funders can better promote racial equity in this country among LGBTQ communities. Through your work over the years, how have you seen racial, economic and gender inequities affect LGBTQ people of color?
LGBT people of color are subject to the same patterns of racism as other people of color, including lower income, less access to high quality education and vulnerability to police and community violence, which is either ignored, legitimized or sanctioned.
While this is all true, it is surprising to see how often stories about queers are written in a non-racial way. In fact, when we read about transgender violence or gender violence, we often have to dig for information about the race of the victim. People of color organizations are the best at identifying and naming race when there are cases of harassment; but their information often doesn't make it into the mainstream press. In this way, you don't get a sense of race being a large part of queer movement issues.
You recently co-authored a book, The Accidental American, which provides a critique of U.S. immigration policy and offers arguments for a more humane immigration and global labor system. Is there a specific lesson that you think can be shared about immigration policy and how it has been racialized?
The immigration debates have been framed by racism-producing linguistic and visual codes. That is, when a visual of a brown-skinned person always accompanies the word "illegal," people begin to make an association and attach themselves to a political position. The Right Wing is very good at forcing this issueby insisting that journalists use this particular word or they won't grant interviews. The pairing of criminality and brown skinned people has been a campaign of the Right for at least a decade. This paradigm, of course, also applies to queer people of color immigrants.
One of the lessons I have learned is that we cannot let the Right frame this without a fight back. And the fight back has to be emotionally engaging. We need to re-humanize people who are immigrants, regardless of status. As a progressive movement we often think that we can compensate an emotional and psychological attack with rationality, and facts and figures. We can't. I think that the queer movements around racial equity also need to take heed.
Another lesson is that we cannot generate urgency and action if we are too focused on the problem and not on the solution. Endless suffering is not news and doesn't create a sense of urgency. And even if it can fix an immediate problem, it is not a sustainable approach to solving social problems.
And how do LGBTQ issues intersect with immigration?
First, through issues of family reunification. However, often immigration policy does not recognize non-traditional families, such as queer families. It also presupposes that queer immigrants have good relationships with families who would be willing to sponsor them. It doesn't address the racial and homophobic dynamics at play in queer immigrants' lives.
Second, the HIV ban [which bars many HIV-positive foreign nationals and travelers from entering the U.S. on a short-term visa or for applying for permanent residence].
Third, the asylum path to immigration. Often the definitions of "danger" don't include gender violence. Until recently, gender violence was seen as a "social issue" and other forms of torture and violence were seen as political violence that justified providing asylum.
I think that the queer movement should be strong players not only in these areas, but in all aspects of immigration struggles. There is a need for authentic relationships, not just tactical alliances.
What role should racial justice organizations play in supporting LGBTQ communities of color?
Racial justice organizations should play an active role in building people of color activity in the sexual liberation movement. We should facilitate challenges to homo and trans phobia in our communities of color by taking on campaigns, facilitating discussions, developing materials and tools and by building relationships. Further, it is on us, the racial justice organizations, to include LGBTQ people and issues in the larger racial justice agenda to a higher degree.
Finally, it is important for racial justice organizations to articulate an expansive and modernized definition of "civil rights," one that respectfully embraces the legacy of blacks in the U.S. and the Civil Rights Movement of the 50's and 60'sand that articulates an extension of the frame that can apply to LGBTQ folks, immigrants etc, without using language indicating that Black Civil Rights have been achieved and is only important historically.
If the LGBT movement (or anyone, including women, immigrants, etc) is going to use civil rights frames, it has to do so thoughtfully and in a nuanced way.
It is important that one does not conflate all civil rights issues and movements as being the samethey are not. Rather, all issues of inequity live on a continuum and need to be addressed as such.
A few years ago, ARC studied how much the philanthropic sector provided communities of color and, most recently, worked with the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity to develop and apply a racial justice grantmaking assessment to two foundations. What is the relationship between American philanthropy and communities of color?
When we began looking at U.S. foundations, we found that most, even those who have spent lots of time and energy on race, still use a diversityrather than an equitylens in their grantmaking. We have developed tools and materials to help funders move from a diversity frame to one that reflects a commitment to racial equity. That can only happen after they've actually developed that commitment internally, of course.
We also found that many foundations often think that they are being clear about their commitment to racial justice when in fact they are often vague and inconsistent in their use of language. Many use issue proxies (i.e. poverty) or demographic proxies (specific neighborhoods, the south side etc.,) in their grant guidelines and are not explicit about racial justice outcomes.
When foundations are not clear, they get weak proposals and they end up with a weak funding portfolio with unclear racial outcomes, i.e. no actual reduction of racial disparities in health, income, education and so on.
What are some successesin our society, in our political movements, in the mediathat you'd like to see in your lifetime?
I don't often think about questions like this, but if I were to answer honestly, I would hope to see racial impact become a standard part of all policy making. I would also like to see a reduction of homophobia in the communities to which I am closest. I look forward to finding unexpected allies in communities of color for support and action on queer issues.
Finally, what advice would you give to a grantmaker who's interested in exploring funding to LGBTQ communities of color?
Based on my work with foundations, I would offer the following advice:
Develop clear definitions to guide your work
Make sure that everyone in the foundation understands and uses this language consistently.
Talk through the elements of your grantmaking with people in the field. That is, talk to current and potential grantees, folks who are studying race, community leaders, etc. to understand the field better and for guidance in developing grantmaking guidelines.
Develop evaluation guidelines, again with people in the field, to measure your racial equity impact. The Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity is currently designing, with the help of racial justice movement folks, tools that will help foundations to assess their racial equity impacts.
Rinku Sen, Executive Director, Applied Research Center (New York, NY)
Rinku Sen is the President and Executive Director of the Applied Research Center (ARC) and Publisher of ColorLines magazine. She also has significant experience in philanthropy, as Vice Chair of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, and an Advisory Committee Board member of the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity. Rinku has written extensively about immigration, community organizing and women's lives for a wide variety of publications including The Huffington Post, Jack and Jill Politics, The San Francisco Chronicle, Forbes.com, AlterNet, Tompaine.com, and Racewire, the ColorLines' blog. Her latest book, The Accidental American: Immigration and Citizenship in the Age of Globalization (Berrett-Koehler) won the Nautilus Book Award Silver Medal.
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