Browse Author: Spectra Speaks

Spectra is an award-winning writer, media advocate, and new media consultant. Her work explores the relationship between culture, technology, and philanthropy, and her writing, gender, media, and the African diaspora. She's also the founder of QWOC Media Wire and community philanthropy programs officer at Africans in the Diaspora (AiD). Her mantra: "Love is my revolution."

A Rant — The Ugly Business of Good Social Causes

I really wish the LGBT and non-profit industry in general would stop hiding behind “good causes” and own their mistakes/shortcomings so we can all move forward. [Free Idea: Someone should create a for the non-profit industry]

Companies in corporate America (yes, those ugly ‘for-profit’ entities) get “reviewed” all the time. And guess what? The smart ones make it their business to incorporate both positive and negative feedback into their marketing campaigns, products, and services. They’ve learned that alienating their customers by guilting or scaring them into silence is a sure way to fail. Moreover, they only ever defend themselves from competitors, which — at least in this analogy — would be warranted if a similar non-profit / group was using internet slander to harm your reputation or to make themselves look better.

I was just perusing some non-profit blogs today, and read a number of disheartening, angry remarks from alleged “community leaders” all across the country. Geez — and I thought Boston had issues. It seems it’s not uncommon for people, who are supposedly working angelically towards social justice, to sling low-blow internet shots at social commentators for stating opinions that expose new flaws (or highlight old ones). *In one case, a blogger simply mentioned that a certain social group / organization wasn’t her cup of tea in passing, and was called a fame-monger for using negativity as a means to receiving more site hits. Are you kidding me? This really got me thinking…

Shame shame shame to organizers, non-profit execs, promoters-for-a-cause, or anyone who thinks that manipulating others into feeling guilty for admonishing your “good” work, or worse, threatening them with internet attacks is justified or “good for the community.” None of us are above judgment. I work very hard to bring racial equality into dialogue within the LGBTQ movement but it doesn’t mean that I am without fault — ask my volunteers, I drive them nuts — and it certainly doesn’t do much for my popularity ranking, even if I’ve just been cited as a “celesbian” (lol, I love this new word). Plus,  I know that at the core of our resistance to hear negative feedback (I include myself in this) is a strong desire to be recognized for our efforts, to feel as though people do acknowledge how hard we’re working. However, as leaders, we should learn to pat ourselves on the back. In so doing, we can rid the general public of the responsibility of prefacing each and every criticism with praise, and learn to not take things so personally. Moreover, if we all learn to give cross-issue support to each other, we’ll have each other to lean on (or to rant to) while the crowd chants on…

Moving forward, we should remember to thank community members who voice their opinions (no matter how callously… ok – I take that back – some people need to chill out), and tell them “Thank You” for keeping us accountable. Shoot, at least some of them have an opinion you can take direction from; this certainly trumps the blank stares and shoulder shrugs one typically receives after requesting constructive feedback. But, I digress… Regardless of what kind of feedback you choose to accept, at the end of the day, it all boils down to whether or not you’re sticking to your mission statement. If your mission is too narrow to matter, or too broad that you do a piss-poor job of including all the relevant stakeholders (who then start complaining), consider redefining it, or better yet, scrapping it altogether. You’ve gotta be clear, and listen, cause fact: some companies —  non-profits, organizers, promoters, and lobbyists included — will do a much better job than you if you’re not.

The non-profit LGBTQ community shouldn’t have to deal with mediocrity due to lack of competition or options. Our social justice movements can only be as effective as our ability to listen and incorporate both kinds of feedback into our work.

So, to community members, if an LGBTQ promoter hosts a night that sucks, tell them why, and let them know how it could be better. If a grassroots movement leaves out people of color, damn right speak up, even if they throw buzzwords (like “diversity” and “inclusiveness” at you). Moreover, I dare you to take the next step — volunteer your time. If black people forget to advocate for latinos, asians, white allies etc during conversations about “people of color” then it is up to anyone who notices to call it out. Being unpopular isn’t fun (I should know), but it does get people to sit up and listen (even if they don’t admit that they will).

We are all part of the problem if we choose treading on eggshells vs. keeping people in check.

We are all part of the problem if we discredit our individual opinions based on some smackademic concept of oppression hierarchies.

We are all part of the problem if no one speaks out.

Social responsibility includes more than just donating old clothes to Haiti, or volunteering at a homeless shelter; it means raising your voice whether in solidarity or (respectful) disagreement so that your community leaders never forget who they are serving.  And for leaders, this also means keeping a finger on the pulse of your constituents’s needs, even at the expense of your ego. We can’t call ourselves leaders if we do not learn to hear reason rising from the heat of an angry crowd.

Diversity speaks. (That means you.)

*Note: I’m not posting links to the forums I was reading because the platforms / arguments don’t matter. I’m more interested in debunking the perceived benefits of blogging on the internet, one of which is that free speech is without reprimand (or cost in mental health)

Glad about GLAD’s Inclusive Outreach for Annual Winter Dance Party

I wasn’t even supposed to blog today — it’s so nice outside, and I don’t know how long this sun will last so I gotta make this quick. I cannot contain my excitement, intense feelings of hope, and pride in my community as GLAD’s Annual Winter Dance party gets a makeover this year.

Friends across multiple social and professional networks are seriously buzzing about this party — hey, I’m here blogging about it! I’ve been promoting the Winter Dance all week, and have found that many of my friends were already making group plans to attend. Moreover, my new connections (including QWOC+ Boston newbies), have been reaching out to me about it, too — via Facebook, Twitter, email etc — so clearly both offline and online word of-mouth marketing is working full throttle to ensure a fun, energetic, and diverse attendee list at the event on Sunday.

For those of you who don’t know, Gay Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) is a non-profit public interest law firm that fights for LGBTQ equality under law throughout New England. Basically, they file BIG legal suits against bodies (including the Supreme Court? Daaang) that discriminate against LGBTQ people, but more importantly, they win :).

Their legal efforts have truly (and practically, down to the dollar) improved the lives of the LGBTQ community; groups and individuals who faced discrimination now have justice for it, and the rest of us can rest assured of increased legal protection due to their remarkable wins. GLAD has performed unimaginable, modern-day miracles. Take for example, their recent win against the US Tax Court, who blocked a transwoman from deducting the significant medical expenses she incurred from her sex reassignment surgery. OR, their ground-breaking Aids Law Project win against the Supreme Court in 1998, which holds that people with HIV are protected from discrimination — right to healthcare, for one — under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

GLAD has been fighting for me for years. So, how is it that an LGBTQ community organizer like myself had no idea who they were up until just over a year ago? And how is it that I only knew ‘of’ them because a friend of mine happens to be their Special Events Manager (ah Robbie, dare I say you’re behind this new makeover? ;)); I knew nothing about their work or accomplishments in the legal realm until relatively recently.

As part of QWOC+ Boston’s diversity-via-partnership-building strategy, I had gotten to know almost every single social justice organization that was doing work in the LGBTQ community — and not just by name. I was well familiar with their service-based programs and their event programming; I’d discussed future/potential collaborations with their development staff and other organizers; I’d met many of their board members at fundraisers, informal social gatherings, and networking events. Yet, GLAD stayed under my radar.

Here are a few reasons I think they didn’t appeal to me:

  • Nothing about the way GLAD presented themselves — their special events, their press releases, their dry online presence — seemed intended for younger people. The subtext was too heavily focused on a gay movement many of us were still learning about and hadn’t fully plugged into. How could I care about national legal issues when my mental health was in jeopardy from having no sense of social community in my own city?
  • GLAD’s special events were waaay too expensive for recently-out-of-college me, and seemed like they had been planned mainly for an affluent, philanthropic white gay male donor list e.g. they hosted live auctions with items going for thousands of dollars, like long oversea vacations for people with more flexible work schedules (and 9 friends in the same tax bracket)
  • Because of this, even when I could attend via complimentary tickets to QWOC+ Boston, I often felt like one of the youngest attendees. And, needless to say, I was usually one of a handful of people of color in the room
  • Again, the legal, political, lobbying, bill fighting stuff just didn’t resonate with me and the people I knew. I represented a group of young professional people of color and allies, who were still trying to create a multi-identity accepting and inclusive community in Boston. A national white male gay rights movement seemed even further away from my reality back then (just a few years ago), when I was still growing QWOC+ Boston. I didn’t think my support (or lack of it) in any form would have an impact at all on the work that GLAD was doing.

That was me, then. Flash forward four years later, where I’m now a loyal follower of GLAD in part because I’m a little older, financial stable in my career, and more plugged in politically. Since equality for all is extremely important to me — I fight for it daily, in my own way — I want to get involved with organizations like GLAD, and I’m sure others do too! So, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’m very encouraged by their recent efforts to appeal to a more diverse group of potential donors.

I’ve made a few observations about the GLAD Winter T-Dance’s event marketing that I’d like to point out:

  • A Tea Dance is a gender-neutral event format — it appeals to both male and female identified attendees, unlike a dragqueen show (gay boys), or wet t-shirt contest (Cali Dykes). Okay, just kidding, but you get the point. That’s a diversity tip we should all store somewhere. Love it.
  • A lower price point (cheaper than a $75 mini-fundraiser faster, but boasts more sentimental ‘value’ than a $10 admission fee to a nightclub) will undoubtedly induce a huge wave of excitement; people love to support causes that are within their financial means (see post on Valentine’s Day). And now, there’ll be no need to remind them to tip the bartenders! Love it.
  • Music, music, music! DJ Mocha spinning “Dance” hits! Yes! Who doesn’t wanna party on a Sunday? You’re even allowed to Suggest Songs for the Playlist via a Facebook Widget. That’s great for the DJ AND the eager dancing crowd that may wanna “shake it up” per the Bay Windows advertisement. What’s more, is that they’re providing a Jazz Lounge for the people who just wanna schmooze (and preferably not over a loudspeaker). Love it!
  • In addition to the big-money raffle prizes, GLAD has (as always) the “Choose Your Own Raffle” section, featuring gifts like Red Sox vs. Yankee tickets, Spa Massages, Dinner and a Movie for Two Packages etc. Over 20 of these, apparently. So I’m delighted that the prizes they choose to highlight on their website could be for anybody. Love it!
  • In addition to using all the popular social media channels (e.g. Facebook and Twitter), GLAD offered an even bigger discount to community member by providing special codes to small groups. I was delighted to receive an email that said I was being offered two complimentary tickets to attend, but that I could also share a discount code with QWOC+ Boston members as well. Social networking, viral marketing, and community engagement all in one?? I LOVE this!

These “special features” may have everything to do with GLAD’s long overdue success with at least exciting a younger, gender-neutral, multicutural crowd about their upcoming winter event, or nothing at all. I’ll know for sure on Sunday. But regardless of what the turnout is like, I am encouraged by their efforts, and am looking forward to having a good time with my friends and fellow POC community organizers on Sunday. I love fresh starts.

Go GLAD! :)

Harvard LGBT Students of Color and Allies Talk Race and Queerness, Gender Takes a Back Seat

Harvard's Team logo

Last night, I had the pleasure of facilitating a student discussion about the experience of being an LGBT person of color and/or ally on the Harvard campus. I was invited to speak about my work as the QWOC+ Boston founding organizer, and about the complexities of having multiple identities as a queer person of color. Read the article in the Crimson (Harvard’s student newspaper).

The event was hosted by the staff and interns of the Harvard Women’s Center, [correction: including Queer Students and Allies, and BlackOut. I originally thought there were no queer or of color student groups listed as co-sponsors or organizers of this discussion — a common tactic to draw out queer or questioning of color youth ].  A good number of students of color and allies showed up — this speaks to the power of collaboration and partnership-building as a method of creating diversity — and even if some of them were on what I heard referenced as “Harvard Time”, the event commenced promptly at 7:30PM and didn’t end till around 9:15PM, when we were all still chirping away about what we could do as individuals to improve the (social) support systems available across college campuses.

Facilitating discussions like these is never easy; for one, it takes a while for students (or anyone really) to warm up to the occasion, but then on top of that, with sensitive topics like race, culture, sexuality, and gender, you’re also asking that near complete strangers open up to sharing some very personal experiences — and strong opinions. Needless to say, it can get racey really quickly. So as the facilitator, I made sure to set some ground rules (e.g. no talking over each other, use the “I” form when sharing an opinion so as not to universalize it for everyone else etc.), and smile BIG as often as possible, to keep the atmosphere light, warm, and open. [Side Note: This picture caught me during an off, intensely cerebral moment!]

I must say that the 15-20 or so Harvard students that attended the event were so respectful of each other that I didn’t really need to enforce any rules. They were also really insightful students. Once or twice, I forgot that I was the facilitator — with the role of guiding the conversation and keeping it going — and would get lost in a student’s well-articulated description of their discontentment with the LGBTQ social landscape. I’d be nodding my head vigorously, then be jolted back into action by my sudden awareness of the  eager, questioning eyes that bore into my befuddled expression, expecting some kind of “answer”… from me. But the truth is, as many of us disillusioned adults know, there is no answer to the problem of diversity. No ‘one’ answer, at least. So that was my message: Diversity is constant, and shape-shifting, but more importantly, it is a collective of perspectives, which we much strive to hear as often as possible.

Take for instance, the great turnout of LGBT students of color and allies at the discussion last night. There were so many different cultural/identity groups represented in the room that it would be easy for the organizers (and facilitators) to boast success in achieving diversity as far as the turnout and quality of conversation. However, as someone who’s been self-trained to notice missing voices, I noted that most of the conversation was driven by the male-identified attendees, which, quite frankly, came as no real surprise; QWOC+ Boston exists as a space primarily for women-identified queer people of color in part because of the sexism and male privilege that women experience within the larger gay community.

As much as queer people of color can discuss feeling “left out” by a predominantly white, male driven gay rights movement, the same can be said of gay men of color leading a male-driven multicultural-within-LGBTQ sub-movement, and it was quite interesting to see this already budding at the collegiate level. To think that we were in the Women’s Center, yet a large number of women sat through the majority of the conversation without uttering but a few words. To be fair, there were a few white allies in the room (predominantly women-identified), who did disclose that they felt more comfortable listening than talking, but even their silence is food for thought.

I dream of a world in which white allies engage in conversation with people of color — not just with other white allies. (Another day, another post.) Moreover, I dream of a world in which queer people of color don’t simply acknowledge that race isn’t the only attribute by which people can be (and are) marginalized, but proactively incorporate this awareness into their LGBTQ organizing efforts. Forming new coalitions around race, compartmentalized, cannot be the answer to marginalization; the perspectives of women, trans and gender non-conforming must be integrated into any action plan if we are all to move towards unity and raise our voices, together.

Many, many thanks to the organizing interns — special thanks to Eva Rosenberg for her fierce, down-to-earth allyness — and the supportive staff of the Harvard’s Women’s Center for creating such an important space for their students (and providing the most delicious fruit dip! Finally, a very humble Thank You to the students for opening up to me and letting me be a part of their conversation. Much love to you all, see you on twitter! :)

[MIT Rules! ;)]

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Offline Social Networking Reveals True Diversity (Or Lack of It) — Ask Boston World Partnerships

In this new world of social networking, one can argue that outreach has become a much easier endeavor, and hardly warrants much more than a positional title; we’ve all seen the “Outreach Coordinator” and “Community Engagement Director” job titles listed on so many websites and business cards (particularly in the non-profit industry), but whether or not these professionals make it a point to step “out” of their offices (or online networks) and do some actual OUT-reach is still a mystery.

These days, with the click of a mouse, you can send out over 10,000 invitations to youth, LGBT leaders, marketing professionals, performing artists, political campaigners, students, and the list goes on and on. With a cyber range of that many users — and the convenient existence of dense networks such as MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, and others — it’s easy for marketing and outreach professionals to fall into the trap of assuming that their communications will reach and resonate with, well, everyone. But this simply isn’t the case. A vast number of users in your network doesn’t necessarily imply diversity online, or offline.

Boston World Partnerships Excels at Connecting a Diverse Group of Industry Professionals

Take, for example, my mini professional networking adventure this week: On Monday I got my first taste of networking events hosted by Mayor Menino’s social citizen initiative, Boston World Partnerships. The organization has done an AMAZING job on ensuring industry diversity — the professionals I met spanned across a variety of sectors such as technology, pr/marketing, finance, venture capitalism, non-profit, clean energy, etc — and, I must admit, an equally good job of getting women and some people of color to turn up at events. I attribute the success of their outreach strategy to not just their expert use of social media — link sharing contests, twitter, blogging etc — but to the active use of their diverse portfolio of industry “Connectors” to bring people together offline at their events! [Learn about the industry- and social network-specific professionals that the BWP continuously recruits to help spread the word about the organization here.]

Upon arrival to the BWP as a first-timer, it was nice to have a connector introduce me to a few really cool people, including a PR Connector who promised to get me marketing advice for my consulting practice, a fabulous fashion designer who still refuses to design an outfit for me because he “doesn’t make clothes for the female body” (haha!) and a  smart, political campaigning Latina I shared a “Yay — another woman of color!” moment with. She let me know about this amazing program that trains future democratic leaders to run for office which I may actually apply to in the fall — woohoo! I do think the group could (and should) do some work around LGBTQ-inclusiveness (we are, after all, in Massachusetts) in terms of recruiting connectors that could serve as links to the gay business community, but I was generally content with the evening’s turnout.

The YNPN’s Diversity Fail: A Case Study for Volunteer-Run Social Change Organizations

On the flipside, Tuesday’s Young Non-Profit Professional Network’s event was a bit of a let down. Perhaps I expected more of a multicultural crowd due to the very nature of the social-justice-centered network, but regardless of my failed assumption, it’s never fun to be one of the only people of color in the room, and at this NPO-Connect sponsored Karaoke Event, I was one of three. Yes, three. I counted. The friendly African-American lady that introduced herself to me as I was making my escape also confirmed this number (and then we shared a somber, commiserative moment). However, aside from the low POC count and the bad food (cold mozzarella sticks and chicken fingers), the venue’s social climate was open and warm — I walked into a white male quartet karaok-ing to Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” — and the event attendees represented  a variety of job functions in the non-profit sector. All this made my short time there a little bit less awkward, but I wondered if this fun, free-for-all format would prove useful in the long run. I had been inspired to attend this event based on the organization’s mission to “promote an efficient, viable, and inclusive nonprofit sector that supports the growth, learning, and development of young professionals,” yet I left the event having engaged in minimal conversation — many people seemed to already know each other, and with almost no new meaningful connections. Moreover, without an online RSVP/attendee list available, I couldn’t even mine the attendee list for any potential contacts when I got home. Grrr.

Somehow, in spite of the Boston Chapter of the YNPN’s large mailing list and several-year tenure, the event had a less than impressive turnout of mainly liberal white professionals. The chitter-chatter of of business-card-swapping yuppies (typical of most networking events) was almost non-existent; across the room, eyes remained transfixed on the karaoke stage as the YNPN staff and board members performed pop song after pop song in an attempt to liven up the crowd. Entertaining, yes, but not useful by any means. I left shortly after speaking with a board member about getting more involved with the group, specifically in the area of event planning. It was a nice group of people, and I do hope to get involved eventually, but ultimately, I’d regretted leaving the comfort of my couch that evening. And now here I am, blogging about the not-so-great experience I had. Fail.

My Pro Bono 2 Cents…

Incidentally, I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine who asked me what diversity consulting had to do with event planning or program development. My answer: absolutely everything. The kinds of events an organization chooses to host (and how often) will inevitably draw out patrons of a particular profile over time. Pricing, location, sponsoring organizations, and of course media advertising channels (including social media), all play a major role in determining the offline success of your online marketing strategy. And like every good non-profit marketing strategy, the persons responsible should begin by first considering their target membership base, and then working backwards.

In the case of the Boston Chapter of the YNPN, I would recommend the following:

  • Add sector focus to your monthly event programming (e.g. March: Women’s Issues, April: Schools and Education, June: LGBT and Equality etc); this would create more efficient networking (and mentorship) opportunities for your members, and align more closely with your organization’s mission.
  • Take a cue from Boston World Partnerships and consider partnering (monthly, or on a case-by-case basis) with Connector Organizations (vs. Individuals) that would be responsible for increasing their network’s reach to different sectors, multicultural groups, and peripheral service providers to create and sustain diversity.
  • And lastly, jump on the social media bandwagon. Take out Facebook Ads, use Twitter hashtags to start (and continue) conversations about your events, leverage RSVP and link-sharing tools such as eventbrite to make it easier for your members to connect with each other etc. There are tons of great uses of social media to grow membership: pick one. Wait, do you have a twitter account?

And how will you know that any of this is working? Well, you could ask your members — send out a survey. But the truth is that there is no better test to whether or not your online outreach efforts are working than the attendee, registration, or donor lists you’ll collect via your offline event programming.

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