Sexual orientation, gender identity and race
From strengthening health care to overcoming age prejudice, to promoting racial and economic justice and cultivating straight allies, Arcus Foundation Executive Director Urvashi Vaid discusses how funders can affect the issues of today.
Tell me about the Arcus Foundation. How did the foundation come about?
The Arcus Foundation was founded in 2000 by Jon L. Stryker, an architect and philanthropist from Michigan, who believes deeply in social justice and a sustainable environment. Over the past nine years, the Foundation has donated more than $150 million to organizations working in several issue areas: the human rights of LGBT people, conservation and sanctuary for Great Apes, wildlife conservation, and support for local Michigan institutions. The Foundation currently has offices in Kalamazoo, Michigan; New York City and Cambridge, UK and employs 29 people.
What does the Arcus Foundation fund? What is its vision for the community?
The mission of the Arcus Foundation is to achieve social justice that is inclusive of sexual orientation, gender identity and race and to achieve conservation and respect for the world's great apes. We work in two major areas: the Arcus LGBT Rights Program and the Arcus Great Apes Program. The Foundation's vision for community is one built on values of respect, dignity, freedom of expression, participation and sustainability. The values of the Foundation are listed on the web site, as are the guiding principles for the work we do and the grants we have made.
Specifically, in the LGBT program, we fund groups working to advance LGBT human rights in Michigan, across the US and internationally, with a specific focus on Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where the struggle for human rights is particularly intense. We work for the civil, political, economic and moral equality of LGBT people, through projects that focus on Religion and Values and Racial Justice, Sexual Orientation and Gender identity.
In our other major program area, great apes conservation, we focus on conserving ape habitat by supporting projects that ensure economic development is consistent with conservation and environmental sustainability. We also support organizations that provide high quality sanctuary and care to captive chimps and apes, and projects that seek to advance knowledge, understanding and better treatment of apes. Much of this work is focused on projects in Africa and Southeast Asia that are being undertaken by a number of local and international environmental organizations, and also involves us in North America, where we are the largest supporter of sanctuaries for captive chimps and apes.
Arcus views its work on grantmaking and other activities through an intersectional lens, striving to understand how gender, race, economic status, sexuality, rights, the environment, governance and all sorts of institutions and systems inter-relate. Our approach is driven by partnerships with the groups we support, with colleague funders and with other institutional actors working on these issues. We believe in coalitions, in learning and self-reflection, and in being constructive, rather than esoteric or dogmatic.
For many grantmakers, the concept of "racial justice" remains elusive. What is racial justice to the Arcus Foundation? And why is it important to fund at the intersection of racial justice, sexual orientation and gender identity?
American history gives us a very clear picture of what racial prejudice looks like, but a much muddier picture of what racial justice looks like. Whether we look at health care disparities, infant mortality, educational access and equity, criminal justice issues, or employment and asset building, it is clear that race affects opportunity. Racial justice will be realized when the structural racial inequalities that are embedded in most American economic and social institutions no longer have a disproportional impact on the lives of people of color in this country.
Specifically within the context of the Arcus Foundation mission, working at the intersection of race, gender and sexuality has three key components. First, we seek to strengthen the power, voice and leadership of LGBT people of color who are working both inside and beyond the LGBT movement. Second, we want to strongly support our allies in communities of color, and in racial justice organizations who are challenging homophobia and transphobia. And third, we are committed to changing the agenda of the LGBT movement to insist that it be committed to racial justice and opportunity for all, regardless of race.
Our racial justice work extends to Michigan, nationally and internationally. We are working with churches to reach in to communities of color. And we are interested in supporting organizing that helps people to work together, across lines of race, economic status, gender and sexuality to achieve common goals.
You've been a major leader for LGBTQ rights over the years, heading organizations such as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force as well as founding the Policy Institute, the LGBT movement's premier think tank. As you reflect on the early years of the AIDS epidemic, to the major shifts and gains we've seen in LGBTQ rights across three decades, what are some successes that resonate?
The LGBT movement had three major successes: cultural visibility through the creation of more space for people to live "out-of-the-closet" lives; political access for our movement, achieved largely through the breakthrough HIV/AIDS policy work we did in the late 1980's and throughout the 1990's and 2000's; and legal and political equality at the state level, which has accelerated in the past decade to the point where more than 50 percent of Americans live in states where there are nondiscrimination protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Cultural visibility is, however, not enough, and the marriage equality fights demonstrate that our battleground is on the contested terrain of morality. The new frontier for LGBT people is that we are asserting our fundamental moral equality, as forcefully as we have long asserted our legal and political equality. This is why the work inside religious denominations and institutions is so important to every LGBT person, regardless of our faith background. The dismissal of homosexuality as somehow less "good," closed off to access to the divine, or "immoral," is what we must transform as we go forward.
Political access is not the same as political accountability. Too many political leaders praise us to our face and harm us behind our backs. They must be held more accountable and that can only happen when we have more political power, are better organized at the state and local level, and have stronger and more committed candidates. Both major political parties are flawed when it comes to LGBT rights, although one has been more supportive than the other in its statements and platforms. But both major parties, and most progressive parties, either appease the Right wing or fall short of a powerful and full embrace of the human rights of LGBT people. Political power must continue to be a goal of LGBT people and of our movement.
Finally, the point about advances at the state level cannot be underscored strongly enough. LGBT rights at the national level will come easily once there is a critical mass of states that have guaranteed them. We are approaching critical mass on nondiscrimination (with 18 states having such laws); however we have a long way to go on all the issues on our agenda. State-level work is central to the future of the LGBT communitywe need to be able to live openly not just in New York City, but also in Birmingham, Alabama, in Jackson, Mississippi and in College Station, Texas.
And what are LGBTQ issues that still need significant support?
I believe there are four critical issues facing the LGBT movement that need much more attention. The first is health care. We experience multiple health emergencies and we must give far greater attention to them, and not assume that they are being taken care of by someone elsebecause they are not. The high levels of HIV/AIDS in our communities, including among young men of color, the high level of cancer among lesbians (and childless women in general), securing health insurance coverage for our partners and families, securing coverage for transgender health needs, addressing the high rates of drug and alcohol use caused by internalized shame and homophobia, the high rates of youth suicide, high incidence of violencethese and more are health emergencies we face.
The second set of critical issues has to do with the interaction of prejudice with age. LGBT people, young and old, experience enormous problems that arise from our unique challenges as an underserved and stigmatized minority. It is interesting to see the parallel, yet unique, issues experienced by old and young LGBT folks. For example, housing is a critical challenge for youth; the estimates of homelessness among LGBT youth and trans youth in particular are off the charts. And securing affordable and appropriate housing is also a different kind of challenge for old LGBT people. Access to social services and care providers who are aware of the unique issues that being gay or transgender brings to being young and to being old is a shared challenge across the ages. The need for training of service providers, of education of allies, for funding for servicesare all also vital.
A third set of issues that need significant support are the needs of people in our communities who are economically struggling: people who are poor, on public support systems, SSI, Medicare, unemployed people who have lost their jobs and are underemployed, independent LGBT artists, LGBT small business owners, LGBT people working in the trades, and so on. There are many different levels of economic ability in our communities and it would be good for our movement to see that complexity and to advocate more actively for the interests of poor and working poor people, as well as for middle class folks. This will require us to make alliance with groups working on poverty reduction, on economic development and on job training and development, not arenas where the LGBT movement has traditionally made alliances.
Finally, I see a set of issues that need to be addressed regarding coalitions with straight allies. I especially think that racial justice work needs to be undertaken much more often through coalitions with non-gay allies. Whether the issue is immigration, or criminal justice reform, or education reform, we need to be at the table as openly gay people working with our straight allies to interject LGBT people's needs and voices into the policy-making mix.
In your award-winning book from 1994, Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay & Lesbian Liberation, you critique the strategies of "multiculturalism" and "diversity training" to address racial injustice in our movements and beyond. You write: "An additional problem with these strategies of multiculturalism and diversity training is that they concentrate on reform of the process of decision-making within gay and lesbian organizations, not on their programs, policies, politics, or actions....In reality, whether change takes place depends on what people are put into place, what networks they bring to the table, and what kind of power they are able to wield." Almost 15 years later, have philanthropic and LGBT leaders remained preoccupied with multiculturalism tactics? Where can LGBTQ organizations shift their programs, policies, politics, or actions to address racial injustice?
Frankly, I think it is worse than when I raised the concern 15 years ago. Today, I am not sure I see the kind of commitment to diversity that we saw organizations express years ago. Some of our organizations have significant racial diversity on their staffs and boards. Other groups are far less successful. There is no excuse for weak racial and gender diversity, because there is huge amount of talent in the world and in our communities!
More recently, I think the work of Funders for LGBTQ Issues, Arcus and others in the LGBT movement to raise issue of racial equity has begun to increase the conversation again. But the fact remains that in most cities LGBT activists have too few meaningful relationships with their progressive counterparts of color (both LGBT and straight) in the same city or town and that LGBT organizations remain outsiders to the struggle for racial justice. We must change this dynamic.
The Arcus Foundation recently launched a program to advance LGBT human rights at the international level. For funders interested in global issues, what's the argument for supporting LGBT communities in other regions of the world?
We started our international LGBT grantmaking program in 2007, making about $1 million in grants that year to groups working around the world. In 2009, we will award $3 million in new grants. This relatively small level of support already makes Arcus one of the largest funders of global LGBT human rights. That is a sad statement. We must have many more donorsindividuals, foundations, corporations, governmentsengaging the international work.
Why? Because it is a matter of life and death in many parts of the world. LGBT people are literally executed for being gay in seven countries. We experience extraordinary levels of violence, torture, government supported and private persecution. Our being is still criminalized in more than 80 countries. And our ability to create families, and build lives of meaning that make a positive contribution to our nations, is inhibited.
The amazing truth is that there are movements in each region of the world, in each nation, and in so many local communities that are taking up the very challenging fight for full human rights. Over the next few years, Arcus seeks to widen the number of allies forcefully engaged in advancing the human rights of LGBT people. We seek to increase funding globally by a significant level. And we seek to strengthen the movements engaged in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia in particularthree regions we have prioritized because of the low level of resources they are currently receiving.
What are some successesin our society, in our political movements, in the mediathat you'd like to see in your lifetime?
I started doing LGBT organizing in late 1979 and the changes I have seen since then are astounding, so I feel very hopeful about the power of our diverse and persistent social movement! The changes are also quite unpredictable. I mean, I could not have predicted marriage in Massachusetts, much less Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, etc.
The changes I most hope for in the coming years is a recognition of the full moral equality of LGBT people. By that I mean that we are no longer defamed and denigrated as being sinful or immoral, because we are not. I also look forward to a movement that is truly welcoming of and powered by a very diverse leadership by race, gender, and age. The current generation of youth, 20-year-olds and 30-year-olds are my leaders and where I hope to increasingly turn to for inspiration and ideas.
Finally, what advice would you give to a grantmaker who's interested in exploring funding to LGBTQ communities of color?
Use the materials already created by Funders for LGBTQ Issues and others (including the NGLTF Policy Institute's reports and a recently released report by the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance) to familiarize yourself with the field and begin to set your own goals and priorities.
Get out and visit organizations that interest you to learn about the priority needs of LGBT people of color. There is a lot of local work taking place that could benefit from your support!
Speak to the funders that are already invested in these communities, like Arcus, Astraea and many of the local LGBT funders.
Attend Creating Change and participate in the all-day institutes on race. Do all of this right away and begin as soon as possible to get money into the field.
There are a number of national efforts Arcus is funding that show great potential; and there are even more local groups that have been around awhile doing important work in their communities.
Experiment and assess your impact. Adjust your strategies when necessary.
If we are to build a sustainable movement of LGBT people of color, we will need as many funders as possible supporting its growth and development. We look forward to working with you and partnering.
Urvashi Vaid, Executive Director, Arcus Foundation (New York, NY)
Urvashi Vaid is Executive Director of the Arcus Foundation, a private grantmaking foundation that supports lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) human rights and conservation of the world's great apes, with offices in Kalamazoo, Mich., New York City and Cambridge, UK. Widely recognized for her work as a gay rights activist and leader, Urvashi is an attorney and community organizer who has worked in the LGBT movement for more than two decades. Previous to her role at Arcus, she served as the Deputy Director of the Governance and Civil Society Unit of the Ford Foundation's Peace and Social Justice Program, and was affiliated for many years with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in various leadership roles.
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