Building power for LGBTQ youth of color
FIERCE is a youth-led organization in New York City that moves lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) youth of color from isolation to action. Executive Director Rickke Mananzala talks about the general lack of resources, space spaces and political organizations that address the realities of youth living at the marginsand what this means for a national movement.
Tell me about yourself. How did you become an activist?
I started organizing in 2000 around issues that personally impacted me or my family members: LGBTQ, gender and racial justice issues, especially where those issues commonly come together. When I first started organizing, I noticed there were very few organizations that wanted to tackle all of these issues, so I would often have to choose what issue or identity-based problem I wanted to work on.
In 2004, I got the opportunity to work at FIERCE as an organizer and, for the first time, I got to experience an organization where bringing our whole selves to the table was expected and valued. I'm inspired by FIERCE members who fearlessly fight for our communities every day. I sometimes wonder how much different my teenage years would have been if FIERCE existed when I came out as queer and lost my family's support. Dealing with day-to-day survival issues in isolation is something no one should have to endure alone. More importantly, my work at FIERCE has affirmed how essential is to have organizations that are able to address the underlying reasons why so many LGBTQ youth of color are facing crisesin order to turn their isolation into action.
For several years, you've helped lead FIERCE, a New York City-based organization that builds the leadership and power of LGBTQ youth of color. What role does FIERCE play in the city and nationally?
Thankfully, there is an increasing number of organizations for LGBTQ youth in New York City and nationally. However, a large majority of those organizations are solely service or advocacy-based, leaving a noticeable gap in political organizations for LGBTQ youth. The absence of political organizations by and for LGBTQ youth of color equals the absence of new leaders and voices that are critical to the regeneration of the LGBTQ movement. The role FIERCE plays in New York City and nationally is providing both a model and the tools to help fill that gap.
What does it mean to "build power" among LGBTQ youth of color?
Building power starts with acknowledging how power operates in our society. When asking our members about the types of power they think exist, we typically land with two examples: power is based on having either (1) a lot of money behind you or (2) a lot of people behind you.
For LGBTQ youth of color, having a lot of money is far from a common shared experience, so we know in order to have power we need a lot of people to move the mission of FIERCE. Through our unique membership recruitment methods, we have been able to build a membership base that exceeds 1,200 LGBTQ youth of colora number we expect to continue growing. This represents the scale or our power.
The depth of our power is best captured through our leadership development programs. These programs develop our members in three primary leadership arenas: political education, organizing skills (we include grassroots fundraising as an organizing skill) and personal transformation. These programs ensure that our members are equipped with the political foundation and skills to meaningfully lead our work.
What are some of the daily challenges faced by transgender and gender non-conforming youth of color?
Our transgender and gender non-conforming (TGNC) members are facing discrimination and fear in most facets of their lives. Many of our members face family rejection or unsafe living situations and they seek out homeless shelters only to find there are very few homeless shelters that are safe to access. For the shelters that are safe (thankfully, there are some) for TGNC youth, they are severely underfunded and have wait-lists.
Finding living-wage, stable employment is also a huge challenge for our TGNC members. Young transgender women of color also face significant police profiling and harassment, which leads to high rates of incarceration where TGNC are met with severely transphobic juvenile detention/prison conditions.
Amidst these external challenges, our TGNC youth also face challenges within the LGBTQ community as well. In particular, TGNC issues are often de-prioritized and under-resourced and there is still a lot of work to be done to address transphobia within the LGBTQ movement.
FIERCE's organizing model has received acclaim from activists and grantmakers nationwide as a model that's both specific toand broader thanLGBTQ youth of color. Can you relate some of its main elements?
The three main elements of FIERCE's organizing model fall under building, exercising and sustaining our power. The programs we employ under each element are deeply interdependent. For example, building our power requires building a large membership base and a core of strong, well-equipped leaders in order to exercise the power we have through our youth-led policy campaigns. If we can't move a large number of youth to fight for issues that are important to them, we're falling short of our mission. If we don't emphasize leadership development, we run the risk of losing the membership-led nature of campaign, base-building and grassroots fundraising work. Lastly, sustaining our power recognizes that we need to have programs that help our membership address their immediate life challenges so they are able to remain active leaders in the organization and beyond. The combination of these elements has positioned FIERCE as a growing political force in New York City.
Any current project that embodies the themes of this toolkit?
The Racial Equity Toolkit offers concrete ways to explore and address the impact of racial disparities in the LGBTQ movement and how resources are allocated.
FIERCE's Our S.P.O.T. (Safe Place for Organizing Together) Campaign is calling for a 24-hour LGBTQ youth center on Pier 40 in the West Village waterfront. As a result of both rapid development in the neighborhood, and city development policies that support the privatization of public spaces, Pier 40 could become a place with high-end restaurants, private clubs, and mega-entertainment facilities. FIERCE is currently working to challenge the development logic that prioritizes profit-driven models that come at the expense of community uses that are desperately needed in the neighborhood.
Concretely, we are working to amend the 1998 New York State legislation that essentially handed public land over to private developers. Our proposed amendments would give the community, including LGBTQ youth of color, more power in determining appropriate uses on the pier and would prevent the future privatization of other piers.
Rather than just fighting for a LGBTQ youth center as a part of Pier 40's private development (which would be unlikely because it is not a profitable use), we decided we needed to address the structural barriers to why community uses are not valued as a part of Pier 40's development. This approach not only helps FIERCE and LGBTQ youth of color have more power, it also offers a model for more equitable development policies for other communities.
One issue that has recently captured the interest of a few major foundations relates to "leadership development" among LGBTQ people of color leaders in a movement where most LGBT state and national nonprofits are not led by people of color. How should funders address "leadership" questions among LGBTQ people of colorand others? And how should mainline LGBTQ groups address racial justice?
The absence of people of color in leadership at state or national LGBTQ organizations isn't because there is a shortage of LGBTQ people of color leaders; there are plenty of LGBTQ people of color whom I consider movement leaders.
People are typically drawn to people and organizations that reflect their values, passions and interests. As such, we often choose to work in organizations that prioritize issues that matter to us most, and most of those organizations are locally-based with the ability to have national impact. Local, people of color-led organizations are significantly under-resourced, yet this where some of the most innovative and impactful work is happening and where new LGBTQ people of color leaders are developing. I would encourage funders interested in supporting LGBTQ people color leaders to invest more in the local organizations they're based in.
Increasing people of color in the leadership of state and national organizations and addressing racial justice issues are two very different, but related, things. The first step I often see organizations take in addressing diversity issues is TO examine internal policies and encourage heavier recruitment among people color communities into their already existing work priorities.
These organizations may find greater success in increasing the number of people of color leaders by actively taking up new racial justice issues, with support from local organizations. For example, rather than working to increase outreach in people of color communities to plug them into their already existing policy fights (e.g. gay marriage, hate crimes, etc.), they could collaborate with local organizations on policy campaigns that address local and national immigration, prisons and policing issues.
Finally, what advice would you give to a grantmaker who's interested in exploring funding to LGBTQ communities of color?
Funders and organizers alike are constantly searching for how we can have the greatest impact. Kalpana Krishnamurthy, RACE and Gender Justice Programs Director at the Western States Center and Racial Equity Toolkit Advisory Committee member, offers a helpful perspective as a starting point for exploring how we achieve our greatest impact: By focusing our work at the margins, our victories will always capture those at the center. If our starting point is working at the center (e.g. people with greater political, economic, and social access), our victories will always leave out those who have the most to lose. The answer is simple: grantmakers should support organizations working at the margins: local, people of color-led organizations that focus on racial, economic and gender justice organizing.
Rickke Mananzala, Executive Director, FIERCE (New York, NY)
Rickke Mananzala served as Campaign Coordinator and then Co-Director of FIERCE for almost four years until he became Executive Director in January 2008. As a former New Voices Fellow at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, he worked to develop methods for legal work to increase support for organizing efforts in transgender communities. Rickke currently serves on the National Steering Committee of the Right to the City Alliance as the New York City regional representative. He also served on the Board of the Third Wave Foundation for five years where he helped to improve grant-making strategies to support young women and transgender youth&151;led community organizing work.
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