Storytelling and Power: 4 Things I Learned as a Communications Philanthropist at AMC 2017

“Stories are sites where power can be built and sites where power can be contested.”–Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter

“Telling stories of transformation is symbiotic with transformation itself.” —Claudia Garcia-Rojas and Maya Schenwar during their Feminist Transformative Justice Writing Workshop

The Opening Ceremony of #AMC2017 in Detroit featured a video clip in which native Detroiters argued that Detroit isn’t an “up-and-coming” city, as common narratives those not native to Detroit perpetuate about it seem to suggest, but that it’s a city that’s always been thriving. The video clip set the tone for the entire conference, sewing together themes about storytelling, truth, representation, and power that workshops and plenaries throughout the conference echoed. As a communications person at a progressive LGBTQI philanthropic organization, those themes resonated powerfully with the work I do and with the work Astraea does. Here are four of the most important lessons I learned:

  1. “Guard your data the way you guard your heart.”—Micha Cardenas, the “Hold Your Boundaries: Making Digital Security Accessible” project

    Data is critical to storytelling and building narratives.
    LGBTQI people of color are routinely and disproportionately surveilled by the state. In their “Surveillance as a Primary Tool of the Stalker State” workshop, the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition shared how local institutions like the police collect data on people of color, using it to generate lists of suspected gang members and criminals—sometimes even tagging children less than a year old simply because of their race, socioeconomic background, and relation to other suspected gang members and criminals. By keeping these lists and using them to detain immigrants and criminalize people of color, this data helps the state perpetuate the narrative that people of color are predisposed to be criminals, and therefore merit careful surveillance and wrongful privacy invasions. Data that is presented as “objective” has an uncanny ability to bend and alter “truth” and change minds, whether it’s used in the service of justice or injustice.
  2. “The act of telling your story, or of letting your story be told, is a revolutionary act because with those stories, we not only interrupt the structures that force us to suffer in silence and isolation, but we also allow theories of violence to become human.” —Monica Trinidad, Truthout, “Personalizing Our Resistance to Domestic Violence”

    Fair, accurate, consent-based storytelling is empowering storytelling.
    In their workshop on “Visual Resistance,” members of Bay-Area-based Design Action Collective shared what designers can do to select photos of those impacted by an issue and any related imagery responsibly. Photos that represent those depicted in an empowering light do much more to disrupt harmful narratives than photos that feel exploitative, after all. At the “Visual Resistance” workshop and throughout the conference, speakers also emphasized the importance of consent and the need to consult those depicted in photos or written about. In a Feminist Transformative Justice Writing workshop, speakers Claudia Garcia-Rojas and Maya Schenwar discussed how victims of domestic or sexual violence—especially women or femmes of color—often become subjects of articles that use only police and court documents as evidence, in an effort to be “objective” (read: to write from the cis white straight man perspective). Rarely do they have the opportunity to safely speak out for themselves or to work with reporters to ensure the media is accurately representing their side of events.
  3. “Knowledge isn’t power. Power is power.” — Malkia Cyril, Director of the Center for Media Justice

    In the wrong hands, storytelling can and has been used to create oppressive narratives.
    During AMC’s Data and Power plenary, Sadie Barnette discussed her “State Surveillance and the Black Living Room” project, which turns documents detailing the U.S. government’s years-long surveillance of her father, a former member of the Black Panthers, into art. As she described the project, she noted the role that storytelling played in the state’s surveillance, sharing anecdotes about the day police broke into her father’s home and arrested him just so they could take a mugshot to use on posters and in surveillance documents. Barnette stressed that although her father walks free today, many of the Black Panthers who were also under surveillance during the same time period were either killed or are still incarcerated. Surveillance and criminalization are key ways the state maintained their narrative that the Black Panthers were criminals—even if Black Panthers knew that such surveillance and criminalization were wrongful and indicative of a larger narrative that criminalizes Black bodies.
  4. “Stories are the medicine we need.” —Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Dalit activist

    Sharing counter-narratives is a key way to challenge oppressive groups and institutions and seed long-term change.
    The conference also made it clear that narrative and storytelling are not just important tools oppressors use to perpetuate power structures that benefit them, but that they are important tools activists can use to challenge those narratives. Mariella Saba, a member of Astraea grantee partner Familia: TQLM who presented alongside the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, discussed the Coalition’s Our Data Bodies Project. Through the Project, people of color whom the state has surveilled and criminalized speak out and share their stories, disrupting the narrative the state perpetuates—namely, that people of color are predisposed to criminal activity, and therefore must be controlled and surveilled. Saba discussed the Project’s mission to wake the public up to the state’s wrongful surveillance methods and to support people of color as they share their own narratives and truths.

The conference underscored the value of one of our most important communications strategies at Astraea. Because we are a philanthropic organization, we are tasked with not only telling our own story as Astraea, but with supporting our grantee partners’ efforts to tell their stories on their own terms. Sometimes this looks like sharing the articles, videos, and other media they produce on the web, but oftentimes it also looks like holding gatherings like our regional CommsLabs convenings all over the world. At these gatherings, we work alongside activists and technologists to cultivate the tools and skills activists need to keep their data safe and tell their stories strategically and effectively, recognizing that not only do they know their stories best, but they know best how to tell their stories. At our 2017 Fueling the Frontlines Awards in LA, our Executive Director J. Bob Alotta noted that Astraea, “moves money from where it purposefully is to where it purposefully isn’t.” AMC highlighted that shifting power looks not only like moving money, but shifting who has the power to tell stories and control what we see culturally as “truth.” At Astraea, we’re proud that shifting storytelling power is one of our most important strategies for supporting the work of our grantee partners.

Written by Astraea Communications Officer, Kim Kaletsky

Jova Lynne

Jova Lynne is a multidisciplinary artist and educator who is currently an MFA candidate at Cranbrook Academy of Art where she is studying Video/Installation art in the photography department.

Jova Lynne is a multidisciplinary artist and educator. Jova is currently an MFA candidate at Cranbrook Academy of Art where she is studying Video/Installation art in the photography department. Jova has shown works in New York, Oakland and Detroit and recently completed a 4-month artist residency program at Talking Dolls Studios. Jova is a co-creator of collaborative arts based projects such as the Black Survival Mixtape, Black Artists Meet-Up Detroit and WOAH collective. As an educator Jova has an extensive background in facilitating arts-as-social change programs with young people. Jova is the former Youth Arts Manager at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts where for 3 years she facilitated collaborations between youth, incarcerated persons and local grassroots organizations. Most recently, Jova was a teaching artist-in-residence with Detroit Future Schools.


Detroit REPRESENT! is a collective of LGBTQ youth of color from Detroit with the mission to inspire and support media organizing.

Detroit REPRESENT! is a collective of LGBTQ youth of color from Detroit with the mission to inspire and support media organizing in order to resist erasure, transform oppression, and create authentic portrayals of their communities, their lives, and themselves. The group started in 2011 when a group of LGBTQ youth of color from all corners of the city started gathering at a nearby church every week to teach each other photography, and discuss the oppression within mainstream media. Detroit REPRESENT! uses collaborative community media production as a tool of leadership development amongst LGBTQ youth of color as they become community organizers. The media that that members and participants produce then also increases LGBTQ youth visibility and understanding in Detroit and the region. Detroit REPRESENT! has been youth-conceived and youth-led and has always been made up of the most marginalized, specifically LGBTQ youth of color.

This organization is supported through the Funding Queerly Giving Circle, which is housed at Astraea.

August Grantee News

This month we bring news from a several coalitions of grantee partners: the LGBTTTI Coalition who are securing human rights protections around sexual orientation and gender identity and expression at the 43rd General Assembly of the Organization of American States; organizers of the Undocu-Caravan seeking justice around immigration policy in California; and a delegation of grantee partners Astraea brought to the Allied Media Conference in Detroit.


LGBTTTI Coalition Wins Human Rights Protections in the Americas

This June, eight Astraea Foundation grantee partners played a central role in the passing of two conventions that protect human rights around sexual orientation and gender identity and expression in the Americas. Part of an LGBTTTI Coalition working to engage the Organization of American States (OAS), these grantee partners worked diligently for over 8 years for human rights protections for LGBTI people in the Americas alongside several other grassroots and civil society organizations representing 23 countries in the Americas. During the 43rd General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) in La Antigua, Guatemala, two landmark conventions were passed thanks to the LGBTTTI Coalition’s efforts: the Convention Against Racism, Racial Discrimination and Related Forms of Intolerance, and the Convention Against all Forms of Discrimination and Intolerance.

The passage of these conventions this summer marks an important regional victory for the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression in an international instrument of human rights protection. As a result, activists, civil society organizations and grantee partners will have new tools to pressure the 35 OAS member states across North and South America to sign and ratify the conventions and to then adopt policies, measures, and affirmative actions in favor of individuals or groups exposed to discrimination and intolerance as outlined by the convention. Additionally, the OAS’ General Assembly adopted the fifth resolution “Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression” which outlines 10 specific demands member states must adopt to protect people from discrimination, acts of violence, and limitations around access to participation in public life on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. The General Assembly also established an Inter-American committee to follow up on the commitments made by the signatory states of the two conventions.

The grantee partners celebrating this landmark victory include Aireana in Paraguay, Santamaría Fundación in Colombia, J-FLAG in Jamaica, Mulabi in Costa Rica, Organización of Transexuales por la Dignidad de la Diversidad (OTD) in Chile, Organización Trans Reinas de la Noche (OTRANS) in Guatemala, Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) in Guyana, CAISO in Trinidad & Tobago, and United and Strong in Saint Lucia. In addition, The Global Initiative for Sexuality and Human Rights (GISHR), part of Heartland Alliance for Human Needs & Human Rights, was crucial in supporting the coalition to achieve their goals. Heartland Alliance focuses exclusively on building strong and diverse LGBT movements internationally.

During the OAS General Assembly, catholic fundamentalist groups pressured OAS member states to understand “families” as inherently heterosexual. The LGBTTTI Coalition challenged this political pressure. Johana Ramirez, Director of OTRANS, represented the LGBTTTI coalition in a dialogue between OAS member delegation leaders and civil society leaders. Ramirez presented a list of demands from the LGBTTTI Coalition to member states not only to sign and implement the two conventions but also to adopt public policy, education programs, and legislative frameworks to protect the civil rights, human rights, and health rights of LGBTI people.

While only 6 member states have signed the two conventions (Antigua & Barbuda, Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Uruguay) and challenges remain even after passage in implementation of conventions, the LGBTTTI Coalition’s victory opens space for activists to continue to pressure their governments towards the guarantee of human right protections for LGBTI people. This is a determined step towards freedom from violence, self-determination, and gender justice.

undocuqueer_bannerUndocu-Caravan leaders in San Francisco demand immigration justice

Undocu-Caravan Demands Deportation Reform in California

Astraea Foundation grantee partners Immigrant Youth Coalition (IYC) and California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance (CIYJA) organized an Undocu-Caravan Tour, traveling across California to raise awareness about harmful deportation policy and build public support for the TRUST Act. If passed, the TRUST Act would limit collaboration between local law enforcement and national immigration enforcement, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). California legislature approved the TRUST Act last year but Governor Edmund Brown later vetoed the bill.

Partnering with the National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON), IYC and CIYJA kicked off the tour in San Diego on June 24th. They lead community-based actions at various locations throughout California, educating public on the complexities of “the deportation machine” and sharing stories of community members most impacted by deportation.

One of the Undocu-Caravan’s stops centered queer voices within the undocumented movement. Arriving during Pride Weekend in San Francisco, the Undocu-Caravan joined in the East Bay Immigrant Youth Coalition’s July 1st action. Queer undocumented speakers and allies gathered in front of a newly erected billboard at Galaria de la Raza that reads “I AM UNDOCUQUEER!”. They spoke of the personal impact of harsh immigration enforcement policies and demanded change.

The Undocu-Caravan arrived at its final stop in Sacramento on July 2nd in time to testify at the public safety committee in support of the TRUST Act. In a final event in Sacramento, nine immigrant activists, including queer leaders of the IYC, conducted a sit-in at Governor Brown’s office, urging him not to veto the bill again this year. These activists continue to build pressure in support of the bill.

AMC_delegationAstraea staff and grantee partners gathered at a dinner meeting

Astraea and Seven Grantee Partners Build Media Skills in Detroit

In June, Astraea Foundation brought a delegation of seven grantee partners to attend the Allied Media Conference (AMC), a vibrant annual gathering of grassroots organizers and media activists from across North America. Three Astraea staff joined members from BreakOUT! (New Orleans), Gender JUST (Chicago), Streetwise and Safe (New York), Gender Justice L.A. (Los Angeles), El/La para Translatinas (San Francisco), Freedom Inc (Madison), and PrYSM (Rhode Island) in Detroit for a week of media skill-building and tool-sharing. The goal of organizing a delegation was to bring together Astraea grantee partners who work on anti-criminalization and addressing violence in their communities. Specific to the selected groups’demographics and missions, the AMC uplifts leadership of youth, LGBTQI, and people of color activists, providing a unique space to build connections and re-energize. The delegation’s travels to Detroit opened conversation on a range of issues including immigration rights, the prison industrial complex, criminalization, labor rights, sex work, children and youth rights, grassroots fundraising, and holistic health and sustainability.

For some grantees, it was their first time at the AMC and for some organization members, the first time boarding a plane and leaving their hometown. Grantees reported that they found the AMC’s comprehensive overview of social justice organizing productive and generative. Some groups held workshops and led caucus meetings. Streetwise and Safe’s workshop on using media to address the criminalization of LGBTQ youth of color was very well attended. Streetwise and Safe and BreakOUT! led a caucus on queer youth of color interventions to criminalization and mobilizing national responses to the issue. In addition, Gender Justice L.A.’s very successful workshop, “Trans Dignity & Justice through Theatre of the Oppressed: Strategies for Immediate Safety & Changing the Culture of Violence Using Theatre as a Tool,” drew a large and engaged crowd of participants. Astraea staff hosted a film screening, “Queer Migrations,” to help build cross-border connections and discussion on asylum, citizenship, and the immigration debate in the U.S. The conference provided Astraea and the delegation many opportunities to build with allies, new and long-time partner organizations, and sibling foundations such as RESIST.