The Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice borrows its name from the goddess of justice, the last to abandon Earth and head to the stars, to become the constellation Virgo.
Founded in 1977 to fund the work of progressive movements—including those of women, gays and lesbians—Astraea is the largest lesbian foundation in the world that provides funding for other groups. From its offices in Union Square, the group annually raises millions of dollars to fund organizations dedicated to social justice, from rural women’s groups in the Appalachian Mountains to queer groups in Africa.
Katharine Acey, Astraea’s executive director for the past 18 years, said it is a constant challenge to ensure that these groups get the support they need.
“Some of it’s about more fund-raising, and I love fund-raising, because fund-raising we believe here is a political act,” said Acey, about an administrative task some other executive directors might find onerous. Acey said that the challenge is made more difficult by the nation’s current political climate, in which “the right has so much money that we have to get much more serious about raising more money and getting it to the organizations that can make a change.”
When Acey first joined the staff, the group was raising about $100,000 a year. Over the years, the organization grew from a staff of two to 13, adding new programs and grantees all the while. “And now we’re talking about $2.5 million a year. And we’ve got a small endowment that’s $3 million,” said Acey.
This money typically comes from private donations. Those donating $40 or more are invited to become members of the organization. Acey said that another group of more generous donors gives $1, 200 or more.
“We have a handful of individuals who give us anywhere from $10,000 to a couple hundred thousand,” said Acey, without divulging specific names.
Acey said her mission is to have more generous donors increase their giving from two to ten percent of their income, her own practice.
“I made a pledge a long time ago to give ten percent of my income to the groups that I felt were working in the service of social justice,” said Acey. Part of her movement-building mission is to get donors to connect to the issues so that they aren’t just writing checks, but getting involved in the overall mission of non-profit groups.
“We don’t call the people who give money to us donors, we call them members,” said Jennifer Einhorn, Astraea’s director of communications.
The group is a successful fund-raiser, said Acey, because “we have been able to establish a track record, not just longevity, but we basically walk our talk.”
In addition to individual donations, for the past six or seven years Astraea has been the recipient of grant monies from large foundations, many of which, like the Ford Foundation, are just beginning to fund groups that advocate for sexual minorities.
“I say lesbians and queers because our priority here is lesbians of color, multi-racial, anti-racist lesbian groups, but we also fund the LGBTI community, when there is inclusion of women in those programs,” added Acey, referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersexual, the latter two categories including people whose gender identification is self-defined.
Foundation money now comprises about 20 percent of Astraea’s budget. Several different panels select the recipients of these funds.
When asked to name three organizations funded in the past year whose work Astraea supports, Acey demurred at first. When pressed, she named three —The National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Audre Lorde Project, and Patlatonalli, a Mexican advocacy group for lesbian families.
The National Center for Lesbian Rights, originally a local San Francisco group that has gained national stature during the debate on same-sex marriage, is positioned for key legal and legislative battles involving lesbian rights, including adoption and child rearing.
“They pioneered second-parent adoption, and it’s not just second-parent adoption for lesbians,” said Einhorn, illustrating how Astraea’s funding sows fundamental reform that benefits the entire LGBT community.
The National Center for Lesbian Rights has grown so large that it is no longer eligible for Astraea grants, which Acey said are typically given to groups with an operating budget of less than half a million dollars.
The Brooklyn-based Audre Lorde Project, named for the African-American lesbian poet and activist, advocates on behalf of women, people-of-color and lesbians.
“They set out to do something that nobody in this country had ever done—to establish a people-of-color center, and to do it in a way that really embraced all people of color,” said Acey. “So they didn’t just say it’s for people of color, and it was all black, they really embraced African and Caribbean, Asian, Arab, native, Latina,” Acey said, adding that the group’s Fort Greene headquarters has kept it dedicated to its grass-roots approach.
A former Audre Lord executive director, Joo-Hyun Kang is now the director of programs at Astraea. Kang noted that Astraea is often one of the first supporters of local, community-based groups.
“We have historically prioritized support to communities that are most often under-resourced—even within LGBT communities—because of realities including racism, sexism, transphobia and classism. Astraea was ALP’s first foundation supporter,” said Kang. “Our grant-making reflects our multi-issue politics, and a real commitment to supporting the leadership of lesbians and LGBTI communities in movement-building for social justice.”
Patlatonalli, a women’s group in Guadalajara, Mexico, is a more recent Astraea grantee. Patlatonalli assists victims of domestic violence, people living with AIDS and combats anti-gay discrimination. The group works to get gay-themed literature in university libraries, “so that people could at least go to the university and read about their lives,” said Acey.
The group recently published a children’s book, “Tengo Una Tia Que No Es Monjita,” “I Have an Aunt Who is Not a Nun,” a story of tolerance about an eight-year-old girl who discovers that her aunt has a female lover.
“I was at a conference recently in San Diego and the speaker mentioned the book,” said Acey. “She and her husband read it to their child every night. And I thought, what a wonderful connection!”
Astraea focuses primarily on funding lesbian organizations, “because lesbians and women have been left behind or made invisible that we have to keep that in the forefront. But putting lesbians in the forefront doesn’t mean that others are being ignored or not directly benefiting or being directly funded by us,” said Acey. She noted that a male donor recently expressed surprise that Astraea had funded a gay group.
“We’ve always funded more than lesbians,” said Acey, acknowledging though, that a group’s commitment to lesbian inclusiveness is what Astraea’s board is looking for.
“Even when it’s an GLBTI group,” said Acey, “it has to have some meaningful inclusion of lesbians in leadership, and the program has to be really embracing of the lesbian community.”
Acey has been named the grand marshal of this year’s Pride parade in Brooklyn, the state’s most populous county that Borough Pres. Marty Markowitz recently described as having the highest population of lesbians in the nation.
“I can literally walk to some of my dearest and closest friends’ homes,” said Acey, a borough resident for the past 28 years. “And I really feel that I’m a real New Yorker, but Brooklyn has my heart. And I feel like I have a true community there.”