When we launched the Campaign for Southern Equality (CSE) in 2011, my living room became our “office”, no one was getting paid, and almost every foundation we approached turned us down, either because they didn’t fund LGBTQ work or because they thought our primary strategy at the time – winning marriage equality in the South by 2016 – was laughable.
Across sectors, skepticism is a classic response to innovation and start-ups. But for grassroots LGBTQ organizers launching new work in the South, the skepticism is intensified because of specific regional dynamics, including the reticence of Southern foundations, local governments and other institutions to support LGBTQ organizing and because LGBTQ Southerners, the natural donor base for local grassroots work, are more likely to be low-income.
Fast forward to 2017: Large national LGBTQ foundations have increased their funding to established LGBTQ nonprofits in the South in recent years. The past year has also shown an exciting uptick in LGBTQ foundation grants to grassroots Southern work. But the fact remains that for most grassroots groups, especially those without 501(c)(3) status in rural areas, there are remarkably limited funding options.
Most people are surprised to learn that one-third of all LGBTQ Americans live in the South, a community that is diverse in race and gender. We live not just metro areas but also in smaller towns like Morristown, Tennessee, and Petal, Mississippi.
There are more than 750 grassroots LGBTQ groups across the region, many of them volunteer-led and without 501(c)(3) status, working in the hyper-localized context of a specific town or population. One of the first grants CSE received was for $250 from Blue Ridge Pride in our hometown of Asheville, North Carolina. This grant made it possible for us to host a free legal clinic, but it was also a vote of confidence.
Starting in 2015, we began making micro-grants of up to $500 through our Southern Equality Fund. The goal is to build a pipeline that gets funding to grassroots organizers who are doing heroic frontline work so they can grow and sustain their efforts and leadership.
You do not have to be a 501(c)(3) to receive a grant through our fund, and we’ve made the application short and sweet, knowing that many grassroots groups have not applied for a grant before and do not have paid staff or consultants who can focus on grant-writing. We get back to folks within a month of applying. To date we have given 111 grants totaling more than $59,000 to groups across 12 Southern states.
In the coming year, our goal is to increase our grantmaking to 10 percent of our organizational budget. In doing so, we are creating a practice of organizational tithing, drawing on the faith-based practice of giving away 10 percent of your wealth to support good works and acts of mercy.
Other organizations are doing it, too. Equality Virginia has launched a re-granting program to provide funding and capacity building support to transgender leaders and groups across the state. The Southern Vision Alliance provides wraparound support, including fiscal sponsorship and funding, to a cohort of youth-led, North Carolina-based groups focused on social, racial and environmental justice.
Systems and structures – in the South and in the LGBTQ movement – are changing. The Out in the South Fund, a project of Funders for LGBTQ Issues, has embarked on a multi-year project to increase LGBTQ funding among Southern grantmakers and Southern funding among LGBTQ funders. Southern institutions from hospitals to public universities are building out work and programs around LGBTQ issues, breaking a long silence.
But there is still the urgency of today and tomorrow. Tragically, more than half of the trans women of color who have been murdered to date in 2017 lived in the South. The prevalence of HIV rates among gay and bisexual men in the South, especially men of color, dramatically outpaces other regions of the country. Across Southern school districts, transgender children live without district-level policies that protect their rights under Title IX. You can still be fired for being LGBTQ in most Southern states.
Simply put, we need to get more funding into the hands of grassroots LGBTQ organizers across the South, and we need to do so as quickly as possible.
Established 501(c)(3) LGBTQ organizations in the South are well-positioned to lead an effort to fund grassroots work; we encourage more to do so. A quick glance at financials shows that if the six largest LGBTQ organizations in the region were to begin tithing at 10 percent to support grassroots work, it would release almost $1 million into the region annually.
There’s a moral case for doing so: Getting resources to where they are most urgently needed, to be used by those who are most impacted. There’s a strategic reason as well: Creating legal and lived equality in the South requires that we do long-term organizing in every community, not just in large metro areas.
For CSE, funding grassroots work is a core strategy as we build a new model of Southern organizing, just like direct services and litigation. We learn from and build with our grassroots partners. In the shared work and mutuality of these relationships, there is also great joy.
Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara is the executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, which promotes LGBTQ equality across the South. She is a minister in the United Church of Christ and a County Commissioner in Buncombe County, North Carolina.
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