After raising and giving away $20.5 million in grants to 1,400 organizations in 43 states and 85 countries, it’s fair to say that Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice is quite literally putting a new face on philanthropy. “We are the only U.S.-based philanthropic organization working exclusively to advance LGBTQI human rights around the globe,” says J. Bob Alotta, Astraea’s executive director. “From multimillion dollar partners to folks who give 10 bucks a month, we have an incredible trove of stakeholders–including governments, private institutions, and individuals from every socioeconomic background who believe, trust, and therefore invest in our vision.”
It’s a niche Astraea has been filling since 1977, when a multiethnic and multiclass group of women gathered around a New York City kitchen table to create the change they desired to see. “They decided if there was going to be a diverse movement that prioritized the needs of lesbians and women of color, they were going to have to fund it themselves,” Alotta explains. So they did just that, changing the image that many people have of philanthropists–mostly white folks with more money than they know what to do with–into a more inclusive one that encourages underserved constituencies to take control of their own destinies, one dollar and volunteer hour at a time.
Earlier this year, Astraea, which borrows its name from the Greek goddess of justice, launched the Media, Communications, and Technology Labs, which are designed to unite activists and technologists to create new media strategies and digital advocacy tools that can be used in the LGBTQI activism space and beyond. They seek to use digital media to incite powerful calls to action and link hashtag activism with movements that already enjoy offline momentum. “Digital movements mean that those often silenced can speak truth to power. They have critical mass on their side. Not being constrained to physical space means that movements can also gain momentum rapidly and those voices that are often silenced can be amplified,” Alotta says.
But she counts Astraea’s current partnership with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) as its biggest success. Launched in 2012, the Global LGBTI Human Rights Partnership comes with a commitment of $7.9 million over four years. “The Partnership is the single largest pool of resources for LGBT human rights and, vitally, an investment in the infrastructure, tools, and leadership that lay the groundwork for long-term engagement in participating countries and regions,” Alotta says.
Alotta, who took over the top post in April 2011, never thought she’d be working in philanthropy, let alone innovating it. “Before this, my entire career was in film, video, and new media production. I’ve used media as an activist tool to bear witness, document and report, and to create zones of safety and accountability in some of the most tension filled communities throughout the United States and the Middle East. But it never occurred to me that my activist self and my occupational self could be one,” she explains. But her path–which includes four years as board chair of LGBTQ youth advocacy organization FIERCE, six years as a grant reviewer for Open Society Foundations Community Fellowship Program, and consulting with organizations including the Prison Moratorium Project–delivered her directly into the fold. “It is a bizarre feeling to know all roads led to here. We create platforms to amplify our grantee partners’ stories. I’ve been able to combine the production environment attitude that nothing is impossible or unimaginable, with the MacGyver-like attitude of both activists and technologists, and I think you will find that all over Astraea today.”
That said, if she has her way, Alotta will soon be out of a job. “Our ultimate goal is to put ourselves out of business because we have successfully managed to ensure that everyone, everywhere, is able to live full, safe vibrant lives regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” she says. “Whether we are fighting stop-and-frisk laws in NYC, trying to close lesbian torture clinics in Ecuador, or laying bare the real political motivation behind Putin’s anti-homosexual agenda, it’s all connected.”