Meet The Black Queer And Trans Women Making History With Radical Approaches Toward Nonprofit Work
According to the United Nations, “Advancing gender equality is one of the greatest global challenges of the 21st century.” For this year’s International Women’s Day, their conversation toward action began with a sobering statement: “Without gender equality today, a sustainable future, and an equal future, remains beyond our reach.”
Based on research recently released by the Ms. Foundation, as reported by Philanthropy Women, although women of color (WOC) often reflect the most influential and important roles in grassroots organizations, they tend to receive the least amount of funding. In 2017, financial data revealed that of the $66.9 billion given, only 0.5% was made available to Women and girls of color (WGOC), with 4.2% of that reported as a direct benefit to Black Women and girls.
“People invest in what they value,” started Joanne N. Smith, Founding President, and CEO of Girls for Gender Equity (GGE), as we discussed some of her work’s greatest challenges. “It’s clear demonstration when 0.5% of philanthropy invests in girls and women of color that this is not what society values.” Nakisha M. Lewis, a peer in Smith’s nonprofit leadership community, characterized the overall lack of funding for organizations like theirs as a direct result of long-term silencing of Black, queer and trans-identifying WGOC in our interview.
In a previous discussion with Take The Lead, Lewis described the trap that keeps marginalized peoples without vital support as one of mis- and underrepresentation, then erasure. “What we don’t see, what we don’t hear, we cannot humanize,” she said. To that end, Lewis explained that without charity through the lens of humanity, our most vulnerable populations will remain so.
“People love to talk about the great work you do, but they don’t invest in enough to really position you to lead and execute work that can shift the paradigm for your people,” shared Dominique Morgan, Executive Director of both The Okra Project and Black & Pink National. “In real time, every day I see my leadership questioned just because of my identity,” she said, recounting her experience of transitioning during the pandemic. As the first Black trans woman to simultaneously lead two national nonprofits, Morgan remarked that the most taxing part of her work involves the overwhelming expectation for her to lead with excellence and perfection, in spite of understandable adversity.
Collectively, these leaders shared similar experiences of their nonprofit work as Black queer and trans women – needs for trust-based philanthropy, sabbatical support, and access to long-term care services that alleviate the prevalence of crisis episodes were a few of the issues voiced. However, through shared stories of overwork and underfunding, these ladies managed to warmly convey the undying love they hold for their communities, and what they’ve been able to do with such a resource.
Nakisha M. Lewis (She, Her, Hers): Lifting As She Climbs
Nakisha M. Lewis grew into her advocacy for racial and gender equity through modeling her mother’s mobilization in their hometown of Boston, MA. “It’s one of the greatest influences on my life,” she said warmly, recounting Saturday morning trips to the local food pantry and Red Cross. Innocently questioning why she helped organize and share the items they needed themselves, Lewis recalls her mother emulating what she now refers to as her purpose. “I watched my mom – whenever seeking a solution – share with others,” she stated.
The President and CEO of Breakthrough, an organization founded over 20 years ago and built on the premise of ending gender-based violence on a global scale, Lewis shared the articulation of her life’s work in the co-creation of a world where Black women and girls can truly thrive in abundance and safety.
Overtaking the helm to reshape Breakthrough’s core values through an updated lens, Lewis is using existing resources to push forward into an expansive conversation around gender. Utilizing social media as critical tools in the shifting of narratives about their community, Breakthrough is creating disruptive content, supporting diverse storytellers, and actively engaging across platforms.
Dominique Morgan (She/Her): Innovatively Cultivating Instruments Of Change
For those belonging to Dominique Morgan’s community, the need for real-time resources that provide long-term care is immensely echoed. Incarcerated for almost a decade after committing crimes of survival as a homeless teen, Morgan experienced sexual harm by a corrections officer and 18 months of solitary confinement during her time in prison. Upon her release in 2009 at the age of 27, Morgan says that it was her discovery of advocacy that left her both mystified and motivated to help. “I had been in these systems for most of my life, and I didn’t know that there were people who were fighting for the care and safety and the integrity of human life.”
In 2018, Morgan became the Executive Director of Black and Pink, the largest prison abolitionist organization in the United States. Now having grown into an entire ecosystem of support and advocacy under her direction, the organization’s innovative efforts toward the abolition of all oppressive systems has left her proud to leave the lasting legacy that feeds her personal mission. Currently working to launch The Lydon House Opportunity Campus, a first-of-its-kind space devoted to serving system-impacted LGBTQIA2S+ youth, Morgan described a vision that will one day serve the entire country with education and healing. “I want to create work that positions people to see their entire lives as valuable,” she concluded.
Joanne N. Smith (She/Her/Hers): Continuing An Equitable Conversation
The vision Dominique Morgan holds for The Opportunity Campus speaks to what Black women and girls were telling Joanne N. Smith they needed over a decade ago. In 2011, Feminist Press published Smith’s first book, Hey, Shorty!: A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools and on the Street. A learning model for teens around sexual harassment, ‘Hey Shorty!’ is a direct representation of what young Black girls were experiencing in their everyday interactions between home and school, and the solutions they created for themselves.
Moving forward, Smith believes that authentically moving toward gender and racial equity invokes an ongoing process of continued education and meaningful collaboration. In our interview, Smith shared that GGE will be celebrating its 20th Anniversary on June 23, 2022 at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden in NYC. Leaning on their three-pronged strategy of youth led programming, policy-change work, and culture-shift work, she hopes to spend the upcoming year deepening her organization’s overall impact through replication and professional archival of two decades worth of groundbreaking, youth-led organizing.
Expected in 2023, Loving Black Girls, Smith’s forthcoming book will build on Professor Robin Kelley’s concept of freedom dreaming, through the lens of uplifting Black girls and gender-expansive youth. Speaking of her continued leadership, Smith highlighted a working strategy toward Black women and girls’ liberation involving cross-sector expansion of GGE’s values, and stepping aside to make room for newer leaders in changing times.
Dr. Torie Weiston-Serdan (She/Her/Hers): Letting Youth Lead The Way
Growing up with a future molded for her, Dr. Torie Weiston-Serdan was raised valuing the more structured routes to success that her mother and grandmother modeled with their own professional paths. But after founding the Youth Mentoring Action Network, Dr. Weiston-Serdan says working with one individual protege opened her eyes to her limited perspectives of thrival for Black women, as well as her role as a mentor in the promotion of that mission. “She pushed the boundaries of everything I thought I believed,” said Torie of her challenging mentee.
“When I started learning about mentoring,” recalled Dr. Weiston-Serdan. “Too much of it was focused on changing young people and trying to sort of craft this perfect image of a young citizen.” Later, she says, when she finally began meeting the young people she knew where they were, embracing how they were, and giving them the space and grace to be who they wanted to be, mentoring became a much more rewarding experience for everyone involved.
At YMAN, Dr. Weiston-Serdan remarks that they’re finding new ways to measure success, as antiquated systems have continued to fail the populations they work their hardest to serve. Their Liberation Map, the founder says, will be a strategic plan for impacting youth in ways that go deeper than the surface, such as curating spaces that love young people into their existence. In our interview, Smith likened such thinking to a necessary culture shift, an event that will “allow us to see Black women, girls and femmes as valuable, as resourceful, as leaders, as thinkers – beyond what can be commodified.”
For all four women, building on what they’ve been able to carry is the overarching goal. As they shared, their voices were amplified in collective admiration for their served communities and the work they do within them. In their separate efforts, despite their challenges, these leaders have been able to convey a united front in support of Black women and girls of all identities. In the future, they hope for these actions to be mirrored by the rest of the world.