Aristotle once said, “To give away money is an easy matter and in any man’s power. But to decide to whom to give it and how large and when, and for what purpose and how, is neither in every man’s power nor an easy matter.” nptrust.org
This is a case in point for those of us who – not only do gratis work but – also help fund work. When we speak out as Philanthropists expressing concerns that end up being dismissed, we realize our problems are not taken seriously. So, we ask ourselves, “Do we continue to support an organization whose leadership dismisses our concerns, or do we affect change by addressing these concerns privately and, when this fails, then publicly?”
As an Activist, Philanthropist, and Advocate, I can only share my experience working on a project for elderSource. The PhotoVoice project comprised six participants. I tried to remain faithful to the participants, but this was not without challenges. I witnessed how others, like me, expressed sentiments of not being treated with respect or whose concerns were dismissed.
The gratis work and amount of hours my intern and I put into this project to uphold the authenticity of what the LGBT elders voiced was not valued any more than the participants’ contributions, as evidenced in the end. The leadership cared about their funding, not the profound statements made by three participants – all on film – all very compelling – rolled out in one statement (Precarious Legal System). Leadership argued that such a statement would place their organization at risk of losing funding.
(1) The statement “Precarious Legal System” was made and disputed by the leadership.
One of the participants (near the end of the project, right before the exhibit) passed away. The participants had come to know her in all the months we worked closely with them. We suggested a postscript in her honor to celebrate her contribution as a valuable member of society. She was our one and only trans woman in the group.
(2) Postscript was initially rejected.
The reason that was given for rejecting the postscript? It would take away from all the other participants’ stories and overshadow the voices of the others, even though her voice was a part of this project.
I worked hard, helping the leadership realize in a one-on-one discussion at my studio that this participant had worked equally hard throughout this project. To not have a postscript in her honor would be a dishonor.
The statement “Precarious Legal System” was placed on MOCA’s exhibit wall.
(3) Despite the rights for creative control written in my job description, the statement was shrunk down to a size that conflicted with the directives I had given. I was never informed and did not know about the alteration until I arrived at the exhibit’s opening.
(4) I also received the directive, after reaching a compromise, to keep the postscript of the trans woman to one page.
The exhibit was to travel to Baker County, an oppressed area where topics such as LGBTQIA are controversial. We were initially informed that this project would not pose any problems. We were given space in their conference room and hallway right outside the conference room.
(5) My colleague and I traveled to Baker County’s Health Department, where we were informed that they were in a meeting; elderSource and the Director at the County Health Department all agreed ahead of time to remove the trans woman from the project, despite earlier emails confirming my role and time of arrival.
(6) Rather than stand by their promise to give voice to all participants – and honor terms throughout the traveling of this exhibit – they agreed to erase the trans woman from the project in favor of the organization’s self-interests. In doing so, they devalued the human being – now -deceased and unable to defend herself as one of their participants – like all the others – was informed that her voice mattered.
The act of trans erasure sent a strong message of non-acceptance and rejection to our trans community.
When we asked for a list of their board members, which was unavailable online, we received only one name.
(7) The President of elderSource’s Board was sent a letter addressing my concerns.
(8) The Board sent a response that I felt was condescending and served as a way to shut those of us up by returning the funding to the foundation.
(9) The leadership announced they would do the project themselves shortly after that and dissolved their LGBT Elder Taskforce.
Cultural competency is an added value to any organization’s Best Practices. Transmisogyny is serious and permeates our culture.
Holding organizations accountable who accept funding from those of us in the LGBTQIA community – when their leadership diminishes concerns raised by those in our society – is out of necessity and not meanness. Some of the individuals involved with the LGBT Elder Task Force throughout this project tried to reason with the leadership. Still, instead of listening, the administration decided to dissolve this task force comprised of individuals who wanted to improve the quality of life within the elder LGBT community. Just for the record, I was fortunate to have been a witness to the Baker County incident, and I knew I did not stand alone. There is a history at this organization of blatantly disregarding the issues raised. These ranged from concerns expressed, by others familiar with the organization, to the lack of materials available at Pride celebrations. Leadership criticized the LGBT community for failing to support the PV project, never acknowledging that neither did the cisgender community—the need to remind that two LGBTQIA individuals from this community had funding before the Kickstarter campaign.
This experience of mine with this particular organization has me evaluating how we can affect change positively. Continually receiving conflicted messaging was disturbing to me. Other participants also verbalized receiving conflicted messaging. What stood out even more profoundly was a letter from an LGBT Elder Task Force member, counseling the leadership to work matters out with me to save the project from collapsing. After receiving a copy of the letter from its author, the author resigned from the task force. If the project was abandoned because I chose to uphold my end of the terms and adhere to my commitment to the participants instead of defending the self-serving interests of the leadership, then it is not a surprise to hear others say that their concerns were dismissed. This means a lot.
When I inquired who would deny them funding, I was informed, “The State.” What happens to elders who express concerns about this agency or others not meeting their needs? Are they heard? Are they dismissed?
During one of our meetings at MOCA, there was another attempt made to revoke my creative rights. I reminded everyone that I had been working on this project for six months before completing it. To have it altered right before the event was not reasonable nor a part of the agreement. We were running out of time.
Some of us were dismissed many times, and at one point, I was called names during a phone conversation with one of their staff members. I was accused of being aggressive (typical of sexism when females assert themselves in business). I insisted that the terms of my job description gave me creative rights over the project.
This organization was not interested in agreements, let alone upholding any agreements with venues for the exhibit. At one stage, the struggle became overwhelming. I quickly realized that my creative rights to ensure this project would remain intact were about to fall through; I offered to revoke funding until they could live up to my job description or decide to do otherwise. I was accused of sabotaging the project. Shortly after this, I was told that I was a “bitch” in a private conversation held at late hours over a four-hour phone conversation to try to work through finalizing the marketing and brochures for the exhibit. The lack of professionalism was very telling. How the participants were selected in the first place (no men, no people of color, etc.) and why the PhotoVoice project was an interest remained baffling when they were unwilling to use the one profound statement of the three participants who used it. It was their voice, after all.
The censoring of this statement opened Pandora’s Box for some of us. After all, what legal system is not precarious? Those who experience marginalization and discrimination have not always had the law on their side, particularly without human rights protections. The educated individuals at this organization failed to understand the terms of the job descriptions they approved for this project. As someone who worked with Best healthcare practices, I wondered what their understanding was of other contracts they held with service providers. The lack of cultural competency could be pulsed. If I were to fund or recommend to others to support an organization’s project again, I would begin with funding a healthcare consultant trained and well-versed in cultural competency.
In the end …, the leadership (prematurely) received an award for the project before it went on display at MOCA. The Board probably never really knew the other side of this story, and the participant will never know that she did not contribute once the exhibit traveled.
Trans erasure occurs every day. JamieAnn Meyers, in The BLOG of the Huffington Post, wrote a beautiful article on Trans* Invisibility. It’s up to trans* people to be proactive and make sure that our individual and collective voices are heard loud and clear by the public and the media and that we continue to be written into the record of queer history.
Laverne Cox stated in an interview taken from an article by News Editor Jamilah King Friday, September 13, 2013, “There’s consistently an erasure of trans identity when we have these discussions,” said Cox, who’s skyrocketed to stardom because of her pioneering role on the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black.” http://colorlines.com/archives/2013/09/laverne_cox_and_janet_mock_talk_mister_cee.html
My perspective and expertise in Best Practices tell me that this isn’t unique to this particular organization. It raises the question that when organizations make statements, they are allies to the LGBT community. Whether they do so to try to get funding or whether they understand their ally-ship to the LGBTQIA community needs to be demonstrated through actions and not run parallel with conflicts of interest.