From the Kitchen Table to the Global Table: Astraea Celebrates 40 Years

BY MICHELLE E. BROWN

J. Bob Alotta, executive director at the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice

Around a kitchen table in New York back in 1977 a group of women decided that if there was going to be a women's movement that prioritized the needs of lesbians and women of color they would have to fund it themselves. These phenomenal women were described as "a cross-class, multi-racial group of women activists."

From these quiet beginnings the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, one of the first women's foundations in the world, was formed with the belief "that even the smallest of gestures, when combined, could create, nurture and strengthen significant social change."

On Nov. 13 the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice celebrated 40 years of lesbian feminist activism, but this time it wasn't around a kitchen table. The gala was held at New York's Angel Orensanz Foundation and honored leaders from across the four decades whose commitment, passion, and work inspire others and meaningfully advance LGBTQI justice in communities in this country and around the world.

Under the leadership of Executive Director Emerita Katherine Acey, the foundation established the nation's first Lesbian Writers Fund in 1990, created the International Fund for Sexual Minorities in 1996 and in 2006 launched the U.S. Movement Building Initiative to support people of color-led LGBTQ organizations to collectively build their power and voice.

In 2017, the Acey Social Justice Feminist Award was established to honor lesbian and trans women of color over the age of 62 who have made significant but under-recognized contributions to LGBTQI movements and often have unmet financial needs as they age.

An accomplished filmmaker with a track record of leading exponential organizational growth and capacity building to visionary management, J. Bob Alotta took the seat at the head of the table following Acey's tenure as executive director of the Astraea Foundation in 2011.

The "table" had grown since its beginnings in 1977 to include work supporting grassroots activists in over half of the world supporting countless struggles and successes in human rights for the LGBTQI community.

Did she know she would become a human rights globe trotter when she took on the role of executive director?

"I mean I don't think I understood at all what I was about to get into in any way shape or form but certainly not around travel" said Alotta in an interview earlier this year. "I'm on the road, I don't know probably 60 percent of the time maybe more and I do travel all over the world. You know my second week on the job I was in Kenya at this amazing conference of East African LGBTQI activists called Changing Faces/Changing Spaces. That was honestly my second week. And I realized in my first week that my passport had expired. And so, I had to rush and get that taken care of. It was like the first thing I almost did wrong on the job - not having an active passport - but I can assure you now I have the problem of running out of pages."

We laughed about Alotta's request for some "Woo!" before each flight from her Facebook community. It's not like she's afraid of flying but she explained, "The 'Woo' - well it really helps me. I'm like I can't, this flight can't go down. If like all these people are really invested in this being a smooth flight. I do you know honestly believe in the power of the congregation very much. So, it settles my spirit a little bit to know folks have my back when I'm taking off."

In celebrating its 40 years Astraea acknowledges that it has become a "multi-gendered, multi-racial, multi-identity organization" but it continues to honor the legacy of its founding mothers.

"I've been on many different continents and in many different countries meeting with LGBTQI folks. And while our conditions might be different, our cultures might be different without question the common thread or a common thread - there are many - is the incredible resilience and innovation that happens in and from our LGBTQI communities," said Alotta adding, "You know I think that there's this idea that innovation is the providence of some white men in Silicon Valley. That's the most absurd idea in the world! We know that innovation lives in communities of color; that women are constantly being innovative; that there are more people being innovative people who need to be creative about creating their right livelihood to be in the place that they know themselves to be even if it isn't always easy. That's where innovation is born and that's where creativity lies. And I see that over and over again.

"We've tried to really build work around and think about how to build strategies around that innovation. How do we foster it? We talk a lot about sustainability strategy and all of those things. And to me one of the greatest ways to ensure that we're building successful strategies and sustainable environments for us all, is to is to harness and bolster the innovation that's happening inside of our communities."

A public foundation, Astraea raises funds every year for its grant making activities. Its website says its impact has been "from Missoula, Montana to Cape Town, South Africa" and it's probably safe to add in many, many places along the way where over the past four decades the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice has devoted over $31,000,000 to grassroots activists here and across the globe.

Strengthening and supporting LGBTQI groups that promote racial, economic and gender justice in the U.S. and worldwide with flexible general support grants ranging from $5,000 to $30,000 per year. "We really do fund nascent and emerging groups," said Alotta. "Like often Astraea will be the first grant to an up and coming organization but we really stay with folks over time."

From that kitchen table to today's global table, the work goes on. Congratulations Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice for your 40 years working for racial, economic and gender justice.

The archived interview of Astraea Foundation's Executive Director, J. Bob Alotta is available on the "Collections by Michelle Brown" podcast on Blog Talk Radio, ITunes, Stitcher or SoundCloud.

Michelle E. Brown is a public speaker, activist and author. Her weekly podcast "Collections by Michelle Brown" airs every Thursday at 7 p.m. and can be heard on Blog Talk Radio, ITunes, Stitcher and SoundCloud. Follow her on Facebook at "Collections by Michelle Brown."
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