Poet and Go-To Guy

BY CHRISTOPHER MURRAY | A few weeks ago, an organization dedicated to encouraging financial support for the queer community released a groundbreaking report on the work done by LGBT people of color institutions, how they see their efforts, and how they survive.

The report was penned by Robert Espinoza, who is the director of research and communications at Funders for Lesbian and Gay Issues. Espinoza, 31, has developed a strong national voice in the philanthropic world on issues related to queer people and people of color. In his work, he has also pressed grant-making organizations to think generally about how to share power and become more inclusive.

Helping fund queer people of color groups, musing on superheroes

The former communications director for the Denver Service Employees International Union local, Espinoza was appointed by that city's mayor to the Public Safety Review Commission in 2002 and was on the founding staff of the communication department at the Gill Foundation, a philanthropic organization that supports LGBT and HIV/AIDS initiatives. He serves on the Queer Youth Fund of the Liberty Hill Foundation in Los Angeles and for four years was one of six panel members of the OUT Fund, at New York's Funding Exchange.

A published poet, Espinoza recently moved to Brooklyn's Sunset Park and is working on a series of poems about superheroes.

CHRISTOPHER MURRAY: What does Funders for Lesbian and Gay Issues do?

ROBERT ESPINOZA: We work with foundations around the country to support their institutional giving to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer [LGBTQ] organizations. We produce research reports on foundation giving to lesbian and gay communities, and we bring together funders from around the country to collaborate and to strengthen each other's giving. The goal is to spur more foundation dollars to our various communities, notably groups working on racial, economic, and gender justice.

CM: Why was the new report on LGBTQ people of color organizations undertaken?

RE: We wanted to understand how to better support groups led by and for LGBTQ people of color, many of which work at the local level and are more obscure to mainline foundations. The report helped identify about 84 autonomous LGBTQ people of color groups across the country, spanning 20 states, plus DC and Puerto Rico. This report also helps launch our Racial Equity Campaign, a multi-year effort to increase foundation giving for racial equity among our communities.

CM: What were the major findings?

RE: We found that most of these groups represent a pretty diverse spectrum of racial/ethnic populations and are generally local, based in urban or mixed settings, rely largely on volunteers, and survive on small annual budgets, typically raised through community events and individual donors. Also, few of these groups rely on foundations for support. In fact, our research shows that of the roughly $65 million that US foundations gave to LGBTQ causes in 2006, only nine percent went to LGBTQ communities of color.

CM: Were there any surprises?

RE: One notable finding is that these groups have shaped their organizations to address economic inequities and poverty, which isn't surprising given how entwined race and class are in this country and around the world. For example, we found that 35 percent explicitly work with poor and low-income people and many of them work on a range of socioeconomic issues such as immigration, the criminal justice system, employment, housing, and so on. When we support an autonomous LGBTQ people of color infrastructure, we're also helping people of color deal with economic injustice and all its ugly by-products.

CM: Since LGBTQ people of color organizations have largely functioned without much governmental or philanthropic support, how will they grow and should they become more mainstreamed?

RE: Many of these groups could benefit simply from multi-year, general support grants, allowing them the breathing room they need to strengthen their infrastructure and become more resilient. Others have remarked how they also want technical assistance. Our grant-maker challenge is to not assume that because a group is small or doesn't reflect the traditional structure of larger organizations, that it can't handle a grant or that it's fragile and ineffective.

For me, mainstream speaks to the ways in which an organization understands power and its relationship to the mainline institutions that govern our country. Many groups often grow in size, budget, and programming and, in order to sustain this growth, or to meet the mainstream values of its larger donors, take on a character that becomes less about building a strong base of community members and then holding those same institutions accountable. Do these larger groups continue to operate in clear, principled ways that reflect our communities and not the narrow interests of the governing elite? I think our own organizations are a microcosm of a much broader democratic tension among money, politics, and civic engagement.

CM: As a Latino gay man, how do you understand the intersections of your various identities?

RE: I see them as a source of strength and understanding. Growing up queer and working class in a Mexican immigrant family taught me a lot about the insidiousness of racism, classism, and homophobia, as well as how interrelated they are in everyday life. I came of age in a mostly Latino, Southwestern town in southern Colorado yet was tracked through the public school system in advanced courses with mostly white students. Many of my family members struggled financially and held deeply embedded homophobic attitudes about queer people. And the more I've moved within policy circles, or now in philanthropy, I'm reminded how few progressive queer people of color are represented as decision-makers.

Popular discourse prefers simplicity when it comes to identity. You see this in the Hillary/Barack debate, where the public insists on debating which side has it worse, erasing all of us who live multiple identities, or forgetting how the right [wing] targets many of us in multiple ways. Our political movements have to recognize that we share the same opponents and that we live complex, multifaceted lives.

CM: What do you think are some of the biggest challenges for gay people of color in their individual lives and as different groups?

RE: I think we face ignorance, hostility, and discrimination, across our various identities, in all parts of our lives – our homes, our jobs, on the street, and in legislation. Yet so often the “solutions” that policy makers devise or the programs that practitioners create assume that a one-fits-all remedy will suffice, as if all LGBTQ people experience inequities in the exact same ways. Many LGBTQ people of color groups are making up for the void in our movements that has left unaddressed the cultural specificity of our needs.

CM: What would you like to change about the LGBTQ community?

RE: In activist circles, I'm disappointed by the ways in which mainline, often national, LGBTQ organizations have crafted policy agendas that minimize the racial, economic, and gender dimensions of our rights. You can advocate for relationship recognition and nondiscrimination laws without turning the other way on policy questions of race or economics. I want a queer movement that speaks out on labor rights, or against the war, or for transgender inclusion, without believing that such stances distract from its goals.

CM: Why do you write poems about superheroes?

RE: I like the creative tension of comic icons and everyday life. I'm fascinated by thinking about how our culture makes sense of extraordinary people, and what superhero means in a world ravaged by war, poverty, global warming, etc.

CM: What's going on in Sunset Park these days?

RE: Typically, they involve quiet evenings and weekends. It's a great neighborhood and comforting to be back in a largely Mexican environment.

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