Queering the Land: How Queer and Trans Black, Indigenous, and People Of Color Are Fundraising for Land Justice

From the March-April 2018 Grassroots Fundraising Journal

In the wake of low-income communities and communities of color being displaced at alarming rates across the U.S., Denechia Powell-Twagirumukiza shares how Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous and People of Color are mobilizing resources for land justice to stay rooted in their communities.

By Denechia Powell-Twagirumukiza

Members of Queer the Land pose at the end of the collective’s first annual organizing retreat in 2016. QTL is comprised of Queer and Trans Black, Indigenous, and People of Color in Seattle (Duwamish territory) working towards the vision of collectively owning land and labor.

 

THIS LAND ISN’T MY LAND. In fact, I don’t know where my land is exactly thanks to colonialism and white supremacy. While I know my ancestors are from the West Coast of Africa, I have no claim to that land.

I feel connected to both Georgia and North Carolina, states where I have ancestral ties, but that land ultimately belongs to Indigenous people. Although I’m distinctly African and American, I occupy a gray space in between both.

As a queer Black non-binary (NB) woman in America, it’s easy to feel like I don’t have a home and like I don’t even deserve one. I’ve been evicted, I’ve been homeless, and many other Black women have experienced the same things, including my own wife. A 2014 MacArthur Foundation study found that Black women are being evicted at alarming rates due to factors such as low wages, familial status, and of course, gender and race.

Instead of feeling ashamed about being formerly homeless, I push back against housing injustices whenever I can. I’m proud to have been a part of organizing campaigns under the leadership of Black homeowners who saved their houses from foreclosure and East African immigrant public housing tenants who kept pro-posed rent increases at bay.

My commitment to housing my people persists. In the summer of 2016, I helped birth a collective in response to the rapid displacement of queer and trans Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (QTBIPOC) from Seattle, naming it Queer the Land (QTL) in tribute to the longtime Black liberation demand “Free the Land.”

QTL is collectively-led by queer and trans people of color (QTPOC*) community organizers and cultural workers who are raising money to acquire property in one of the world’s most expensive cities.

This property will be a place where working-class QTBIPOC activists center our own needs in a city that isn’t designed for us. Our plans for the property include cooperative housing, communal space, co-working space, and a community garden (lots of C’s!). QTL members will make decisions together about the building(s) and the programs that are based there.

We don’t want to profit off of land, nor do we want to extract from it. For us, queering the land means working towards the day where Indigenous people are honored as the rightful owners of this land.

QTL approaches ownership differently from most since we don’t subscribe to capitalism. We use the term “property” for lack of a better one—many of us have a contentious history with it be-cause our ancestors were sold into chattel slavery. Regardless, we owe any property that comes into our stewardship to Indigenous folks and enslaved Black people who built this country.

There’s no blueprint for what we’re doing, which is both frustrating and exciting. Most of us have been involved in grassroots social justice movements for years, but raising upwards of a million dollars to buy property is very new to us.

In the past, we’ve raised money to fight the bad guys since we’re always playing defense in our movements, opposing inhumane policies. We’re used to soliciting donations to stop terrible things from happening; now we need donations to create something that’s life-affirming.

Fundraising towards a liberatory goal like this is uncharted territory for us, and it feels transformative. To guide us in developing and implementing our vision, we turn to ideas from fellow Black, Brown, trans, NB, and queer activists.

For example, transformative justice/community accountability (TJ/CA), which was largely founded by Women of Color (WOC), is one of our principles of unity.

generationFIVE, a volunteer collaborative working to end child sexual abuse within five generations, defines transformative justice as “a liberatory approach to violence…[which] seeks safety and accountability without relying on alienation, punishment, or state or systemic violence, including incarceration or policing.”

According to INCITE!, a national organization dedicated to ending violence against WOC, trans and gender non-conforming People of Color (POC), community accountability is “a community-based strategy, rather than a police/prison-based strategy, to address violence within our communities.”


IT’S ESSENTIAL FOR US TO NOT ONLY BE ACCOUNTABLE TO EACH OTHER, BUT ALSO TO OUR QTBIPOC COMMUNITY AND TO THE LAND WE’RE STEWARDING.


TJ/CA is crucial to us because harm and violence within our communities are real and not to be ignored. Harm inevitably happens in our collective because we’re all human; thus, we need concrete ways to deal with harm and try to prevent it. TJ/CA helps keep our relationships intact so we can build and sustain our movement together.

It’s essential for us to not only be accountable to each other, but also to our QTBIPOC community and to the land we’re stewarding. We strive to be the opposite of our colonizers, who have yet to be held accountable for the destruction they’ve wrought on Indigenous Black and Brown land. 

Our praxis is also grounded in emergent strategy, which Black queer activist, healer, and writer adrienne maree brown details in her recent book, Emergent Strategy. Emergent strategies are the outcomes of when groups prioritize adaptation, collaboration and experimentation in intentional ways.

Because we center collaboration in our practice, we’ve sought out QTBIPOC in other parts of the country who are also organizing for land justice, including in Oakland, Calif. and Spencer, W. Va. The QTPOC tenants of Oakland’s 23rd Ave Community Building are in the process of owning their building, while a QTPOC-led multiracial collective is stewarding 65 acres of land in the mountains of W. Va.

Though our land projects aren’t identical, I see common threads in our work, such as our desires to cultivate art, culture and healing. We’re all dedicated to meeting the needs of QTPOC and to tilling the soil like our ancestors did. Despite all odds, our collectives are claiming permanent space for ourselves and for our communities to survive and thrive.

Claiming space costs money, so major fundraising is a must, especially since we lack generational wealth. There have been triumphs, growing pains, and plenty of lessons in our fundraising processes.

Queer the Land (QTL), Seattle
Most trans, NB, and queer POC can’t afford to live in Seattle. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, we have the fifth highest rents in the country. The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) folks who prosper in our city are white and sometimes make our “gayborhood,” Capitol Hill, feel uninviting to QTPOC.

Communities of color are being displaced from Seattle to the suburbs, away from decent public transit and jobs. White-owned marijuana dispensaries and boxy overpriced apartments have thoroughly gentrified Seattle’s historically Black Central District, which went from 70 percent Black in the 1970s to only 20 percent today.

Furthermore, it’s unsafe for Black and Brown people to live in Seattle because of the police and other perpetrators of state violence. The Seattle Police Department (SPD) is currently in a consent decree with the Department of Justice (DOJ), who found that SPD had a pattern of excessive force that violated the Constitution and federal laws.

Despite reportedly being in compliance with the DOJ’s consent decree, SPD is still devastating communities of color. For example, in June 2017 a SPD officer shot and killed Charleena Lyles, a 30-year-old pregnant Black mother who called the cops while in emotional distress. Lyles’ murder hit way too close to home for me and other Black women in Seattle.

For these reasons and more, we conjured up QTL as a refuge for our healing, liberation and safety. During a living room conversation two summers ago, we decided that acquiring property was the best way to guarantee a space like this for ourselves. We began holding regular meetings and have grown to a membership of approximately 20 Black and Brown trans, NB, and queer organizers. Our primary objective right now is purchasing property within the next two years.

We have three committees: Membership, Operations & Development, and Property Acquisition. Membership recruits new members and ensures that current members have ongoing opportunities for political education and leadership development. Operations & Development makes sure that we have the resources we need and that we’re operating in a financially and legally sound way. Property Acquisition scouts potential properties and man-ages the logistics of buying property. These committees are subject to adaptation and change.

Resources
We already have experience mobilizing people for social change, and now we’re mobilizing money for our liberation. We lean on each other and our relationships within community to identify and locate the resources we need. Many of our members have attended fundraising trainings, and we share what we’ve learned with the rest of the collective. Some of us have done giving projects at Social Justice Fund NW (SJFNW) in Seattle. A giving project is a months-long process where a cross-race, cross-class cohort gains hands-on experiences with donor organizing and grantmaking to social justice organizations.


WE ALREADY HAVE EXPERIENCE MOBILIZING PEOPLE FOR SOCIAL CHANGE, AND NOW WE’RE MOBILIZING MONEY FOR OUR LIBERATION.


Additionally, two of us attended the Reimagining Movement Resource Strategies Network Gathering at the 2017 Allied Media Conference (AMC). At the gathering, we learned from and with fellow LGBTQ and POC grassroots donor organizers, including staff from the Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training (GIFT).

Our fundraising is never-ending, and fundraising best practices are always evolving, so we prioritize continuing education. This year, we’re returning to the AMC to participate in the same gathering and the Resourcing and Sustaining Our Movements track. Another conference on our radar is GIFT’s Money for Our Movements.

Also in 2018, we hope to tap into local assets that we haven’t fully explored yet, such as community land trusts, to help guide us through complex technical issues that come up in our process.

Funding Sources
Over the past year and a half, we’ve raised approximately $45,000 towards our vision. We’re proud to have received grants from foundations who value anti-racism, gender justice, and grassroots community organizing. Our grantors aren’t merely benefactors—they’re also our partners—so it’s essential that we share common values. Since we aren’t a 501(c)(3) organization, we’ve been fiscally sponsored by local nonprofits to apply for grants. So far, we’ve received grants from SJFNW’s Displaced Tenants Fund ($28,000), the Astraea Foundation Funding Queerly Circle ($10,000), and the Pride Foundation ($5,000). We hope to nurture our relationships with these foundations in hopes of future partnerships. 

A group of white anti-racist organizers in Seattle with access to generational wealth have shown financial solidarity to us. We’ve received online contributions from donors who heard about us through the grapevine and gave simply because they believe in our vision. We’re also dedicated to sustaining ourselves, which is why we have membership dues. Dues are currently $20 a month or one hour of labor a month in service of the collective.

Goals
We’re pursuing big foundation and government grants to acquire property within the next two years. Since we need such a large amount, we’re putting a lot of energy into applying for grants, but grassroots donors are especially precious to us. This is why we’re launching a monthly donor drive this spring.

We don’t want to appeal to just rich white donors—we want votes of confidence from our own people. Since we hail from POC, immigrant, and low-income communities, we know that we’re capable of giving. We want QTBIPOC from all over to invest in us, as well as POC accomplices, because our liberation is intertwined.

Also, we’re partnering with like-minded community groups to hold fundraising events, including a “rent party” this spring with Black & Tan Hall, a cooperatively-owned performance venue and restaurant in the historically POC neighborhood of Columbia City.

Challenges
It’s no secret that 2017 was difficult for POC. For QTPOC, it was especially hard because we were oppressed in so many different ways.

Our members include folks who are poor, who are immigrants, who are disabled, so we’re navigating multiple barriers that have only been worsened by our current president. Those of us who have steady jobs are overworked with limited capacity for movement-building.

We have members who are underemployed, who are exhausted from searching for work, and who are in precarious housing situations. Last year we found ourselves putting out a lot of fires, which ultimately slowed down our pace.

Another challenge is not having a home base yet. Currently we meet at member’s houses, coffee shops, and public libraries, but our meetings and programs could be more consistent if we had a dedicated wheelchair-accessible space. We decided against renting office space because we’d rather hunker down on our fundraising than throw money away on sky-high rent.

Lessons
Rome wasn’t built in a day. At times it feels like things aren’t mov-ing fast enough, but that doesn’t mean we should stop. Timelines may shift, members may leave. We’re always ready to adapt because change is the only constant thing.

On a personal note, I’ve learned to believe in myself and my vision when fundraising. Privileged folks tend to be confident in their fundraising, and QTPOC should be just as secure in our abilities. We’re survivors of violence and oppression, we’re leading movements, we’re creating art in a world that tells us we’re not beautiful. We have superpowers that most folks don’t, which is why we’re more than capable of fundraising towards our liberation.

Some of the residents and members of the groups housed at the 23rd Ave Community Building. When the landlord told them she would put the building on the real estate market in 90 days unless they made an offer first, they rolled up their sleeves and raised $90,000 from 600 people to #Liberate23rdAve—as a queer and trans people of color-centered hybrid residential commercial land trust. Photo by Luba Yusim

23rd Ave Community Building, Oakland, Calif.
For two decades, the 23rd Ave Community Building in East Oak-land’s Lower San Antonio district has been a haven for low-income and immigrant trans, NB, and queer POC. Shortly before Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, the building’s commercial and residential tenants got an alarming email from the landlord: Their building would be put up for sale if the current renters couldn’t put in a high enough bid.

The sale of the 23rd Ave Building stood to displace grassroots POC and QTPOC-led organizations, including a community bike shop run by Cycles of Change; Liberating Ourselves Locally, a POC-led maker/hacker space; Peacock Rebellion, a QTPOC arts and healing institute; Shaolin Life, a martial arts and self-defense studio; and Sustaining Ourselves Locally, a QTPOC collectively-run house and community garden.

These tenants immediately jumped into action upon receiving their landlord’s email. With buy-in from the rest of the building, a core group of six organizers started a YouCaring crowdfunding page entitled “Liberate the 23rd Ave Community Building” with the goal of raising $75,000 by May 1 to put down an offer on the building. Their fundraising video ended up going viral, garnering them donations from around the world.

The group exceeded their goal, purchasing the building in partnership with the Oakland Community Land Trust (CLT) this past November. The land underneath the building will be owned by the CLT in perpetuity, with the goal of tenants buying the building from the trust within the next 15 years.

In the meantime, they’ve negotiated five-year leases with the CLT, with options to renew for up to two more five-year terms, all with stabilized rents. Their ultimate objective is for the 23rd Ave Building to be in the hands of POC and QTBIPOC individuals and organizations forever.

Resources
Tenants assembled a strong fundraising team quickly because of the deep relationships they had formed in the building over the years. They already knew how to work together in a democratic way because most of the groups in the building operate as collectives. Cycles of Change, the only 501(c)(3) organization in the building, leveraged their nonprofit status for the crowd fundraiser. Because of them, donations to the campaign are tax-deductible and not beholden to fiscal sponsorship fees.

The core fundraising team benefited from having three trained grassroots fundraisers in their ranks. One of them was Devi Pea-cock, the artistic and executive director of Peacock Rebellion, who attributes some of their fundraising prowess to their everyday hustle for survival as QTPOC. Other resources include the Oakland CLT and the Northern California Community Loan Fund, who have provided tenants with technical assistance in their process of acquiring a million-dollar-plus property.


THE #LIBERATE23RDAVE CAMPAIGN PRESENTED FOLKS WITH A PROACTIVE WAY TO COUNTER DISPLACEMENT AND GENTRIFICATION IN THE BAY AREA.


Funding Sources
As of January 2018, the 23rd Ave building’s YouCaring campaign was at more than $90,000 with approximately 600 unique donors. Because tenants received publicity for raising such a large sum of money so quickly, lenders were excited to be attached to their project. The group ended up choosing the Northern California Community Loan Fund for the bulk of their loan.

Oakland CLT put money towards the loan and also secured $300,000 from the City of Oakland’s Small Sites Acquisition Program for it. The building also received a grant from Oakland’s Community Arts Stabilization Trust pilot program, which is funding to preserve the city’s arts and cultural assets.

Goals
The 23rd Ave building tenants’ long-term goal is having the build-ing controlled by tenants from communities who are being displaced from the Bay Area—people who are poor, immigrant, Black, Brown, trans, NB, and/or queer—for many generations to come. Their short-term goal is to raise approximately $320,000 for a costly earthquake retrofitting and a major plumbing job by the end of year to fulfill the terms of their mortgage agreement.

Challenges
Core organizers of the campaign feel burnt out because it became a full-time job. Calls and emails from all over the U.S. and Canada are coming from groups who want to learn from them. Audience members at a recent panel on which Peacock spoke accused the group of hoarding resources, which isn’t their intention nor their truth.

Still, Peacock holds compassion for these folks because their anger is righteous. Too many people are being pushed out of Oak-land, and their efforts to stay are often in vain. For instance, ac-cording to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Black people in Oakland dropped 10 percent between 2000 and 2010.

Peacock sees the city’s housing crisis manifesting at the home-less encampment right outside of their window. 23rd Ave building tenants are currently working to be better accomplices to the encampment, such as training on how to use NARCAN, a spray that reverses overdoses.

Another challenge faced by tenants is deciding if and how to collaborate with government entities, which are notorious for diluting movements and taking credit for grassroots organizing wins. The tenants want to be able to fundraise without compromising their integrity or values.

Lessons
Eri Oura, the co-coordinator of Cycles of Change and a member of the building’s core fundraising team, cites crafting a compelling narrative as a hugely effective part of their campaign. Donors clearly connected with the 23rd Ave building’s story and vision. Their campaign presented folks with a proactive way to counter displacement and gentrification in the Bay Area. Also, regular email and social media updates from the campaign kept donors engaged and moved some of them to give even more.

Peacock advises getting clarity on the front end when fundraising in coalition with multiple groups. Some questions to consider include:

■Who’s a part of the core fundraising team, and what are their roles?

■Will organizations have equal access to donor contacts?

■ Are individual organizations allowed to solicit money from donors who give to the joint campaign?

EarthStar Co-op, Spencer, W. Va
I wasn’t able to speak with EarthStar Co-op for this story because of their limited access to internet and phone reception up in the Appalachian Mountains. I look forward to connecting with them in the future to learn more about their work to achieve reparative justice for QTPOC through land access. Here is EarthStar’s story via their YouCaring page:

We are QTPOCS healing from white supremacy and transphobia on our farm/homestead named “EarthStar.”

We’ve come to learn that living in the modern ways of city lives has been draining, belittling of our potential as humxns in the world and on another hand it has put us QTPOCS in extreme dangers of exposure to racism and transphobia that have lead so many QTPOCS to be murdered or commit suicide.

EarthStar has and is HEALING QTPOCS in a way that allows them to find themselves through manual farm and homestead labor, communal living and spiritual practice. We live, work and heal together, recognizing that we are all that we’ve got and that the Land, our mother nature, has got our back in all that we do.

We are decolonizing and are in due of reparations, so we ask for support from all, but especially those with most privilege (Cis-Hetero-White-Men). Any variations of this also means that you are privileged enough to support us.

EarthStar is proving to have the ability to heal and decolonize many QTPOCS to come and you have the opportunity to help with funds for our folks and land to thrive. We need you, other-wise, us QTPOCS will continue risking our lives just for the sake of healing ourselves and each other. #SeventhGenerationRising

We need all hands on deck to transform this world into one where all QTBIPOC have place and space to lead joyful lives free from harm. Will you fight alongside us for land justice?

Learn more about our movements:

■Queer the Land | queertheland.org

■23rd Ave Community Building | peacockrebellion.org/liberated

■EarthStar | instagram.com/earthstarcoop 

* I use the terms QTBIPOC and QTPOC interchangeably in this article.


Denechia Powell-Twagirumukiza (they & she pronouns) identifies as a womanist, intersectional feminist, writer, community organizer, facilitator, dancer, freedom fighter, wife, and cat mama. They’re constantly conspiring in the name of liberated Black futures, Queer and Trans Black, Indigenous, and People of Color power, solidarity economics, and transformative justice/community accountability and is currently based in a suburb south of Seattle, where they live, love and create with chosen family.

 

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