VOTE: Shifting Internal Culture
CAUSA and BRO have been among the VOTE cohort organizations working with Western States Center’s Uniting Communities program to shift their internal organizational culture – which is strengthening their external work.
“For many years we’ve had a strong ally relationship with queer organizations,” says Aeryca Steinbauer, an organizer with CAUSA, which describes itself as the largest Hispanic civil and human rights advocacy organization in the Pacific Northwest. “But that ‘ally’ perspective set up a false dichotomy of straight farm workers helping white urban gays, which is not who our communities are.”
Basic Rights Oregon, the state’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization, was similarly lopsided. “There was always a conversation about a desire for more diversity in the organization, but not an understanding of what it meant to build a truly inclusive organization,” says BRO’s Executive Director Jeana Frazzini.
Over the last few years, CAUSA and BRO have been among the VOTE cohort organizations working with Western States Center’s Uniting Communities program to shift their internal organizational culture – which in turn is strengthening their external work.
CAUSA made a deliberate organizational commitment to become explicitly welcoming to the LGBTQ community. “We’re doing this so folks can bring their whole selves to the work and be in leadership positions,” Steinbauer says. “Some were bringing 100% of their immigrant Latino selves but not saying a lot about being gay.”
The shift from an ally position to affirming LGBTQ people as part of the organization’s base began with storytelling. “How do you feel about LGBTQ equality? Have you always felt that way? What shaped your experiences? We found that everyone has a personal story about someone close to them who is LGBTQ and could hold up those models of courage and leadership,” says Steinbauer.
This internal focus now infuses their external program work. Staff training helps everyone to integrate LGBTQ-inclusive language into their organizing: “We work for the rights for all.”
CAUSA supports a group of LGBTQ Latinos and allies that meets regularly to provide support for visibility. Fielding an LGBTQ contingent for the large annual immigrant rights May Day march provided intensive leadership development and organizing experience. A queer speaker affected by the DREAM act was a featured headliner at an Immigrant Action Day at the State Capitol.
Basic Rights Oregon got serious about changing its internal culture after a 2004 campaign where opponents of the freedom to marry successfully engaged communities of color and using a wedge strategy. “Our side scrambled to engage leaders of communities of color and queer people of color,” Frazzini says. “It was evident that these relationships weren’t in place.”
In one-on-one debriefs with LGBTQ people of color, BRO solicited and got feedback that Frazzini describes as humbling. “People said ‘I don’t see a place for myself in the organization. You don’t prioritize my concerns or the concerns of my community.’”
In 2006, BRO engaged Western States Center to lead the organization through its Dismantling Racism process which Frazzini says “shifted us from diversity to an anti-oppression frame.” Training moved outward from board and staff to BRO’s base. Organizing began to include mobilization around racial justice issues.
When white LGBTQ members question or push back on the racial justice emphasis, BRO makes its case on three dimensions, Frazzini says. “We tell our base that we’re involved because of a shared struggle and common enemy. We also have a values piece that communities of color and immigrants communities are under attack – and that’s wrong. Lastly, there’s the strategic value of standing with our allies for when we’re asking them to stand with us.”
Starting with a workshop titled “Are Immigrants the New Gay?” CAUSA and Basic Rights Oregon have forged an ongoing partnership to educate LGBTQ communities on immigration rights. The two organizations worked with the Rural Organizing Project to defeat county anti-immigrant measures in 2009. With a shared analysis and relationships fostered by Western States Center convenings, Steinbauer says that VOTE Project cohort members “always look for ways to support each other.”