Pictured Affinity's Chris Smith (left) and Jackie Anderson at an Affinity gala in 2001. Photo by Tracy Baim
The basement of a Hyde Park Church seems like an unlikely gathering place for Black lesbians and bisexual women. Churches and the GLBT communities, at best, have an unspoken bond of 'don't ask, don't tell.' The relationship leaves many GLBT people, especially Blacks, feeling isolated.
Whether gay or straight, isolation seems a reoccurring theme regarding Blacks and acceptance. Yet for the past several years, this sanctuary has provided a safe haven for Affinity Community Services, a Black nonprofit committed to serving the social and well-being needs of Black lesbians and bisexual women.
There are few Black GLBT organizations in the Chicago area. Affinity professes to be a FUBU (for us by us) if you will, a space where Black lesbians can come together and talk about the issues they face, a space where Black women can access their problems and solve them.
'In 1994, there was almost nothing to do on the South Side or almost any side of Chicago for Black lesbians,' remembers board president Chris Smith. Credit Chicago's segregated landscape; even today, a cloud of separatism still hovers. Smith recalls that many people attempted to dissuade her.
There is no wonder that the initial members believed the larger GLBT community were not properly addressing their needs. So, they took steps.
'When we tried to do one of our first events, people told me that there is no market for Black lesbians other than parties or bars.
I said that 'you are lying,' contends Smith one evening over tea in the South Shore area.
'I have friends like the segment of women that we are reaching out to, and they need the same resources. So we really emerged out of that skepticism around us and our work.'
Eight years ago when the group began forming, a permanent meeting place did not exist. Smith and the others knew the importance of an address in seeking members.
With what Smith describes as a 'racial divide' and with many of their prospective members living on the South Side, they set up office at 61st and Indiana.
'It is a pretty tough spot; but it was a free spot and we stayed there for about a year and a half,' recalls Smith.
'But we wanted to be in a place where women would be comfortable coming and going. There are people who say that Hyde Park is not the true South Side but I disagree.' Maybe this feeling of Hyde Park not being the real South Side hits at the heart of Affinity's existence.
How do Black women create community for each other, and deal with internal disagreements when it comes to defining what it means to be Black and lesbian? Who sets the agenda, creates the mission and how will the white GLBT community view the organization?
The questions, though staggering, do not amount to much when compared to the answers. Blacks struggle to define their identity especially when stereotyping and copycatting of certain aspects of their culture persists. 'If your mission is based on a sociopolitical climate of the people that you are serving, it is going to change and be challenged,' explains Marguerite Griffin, volunteer Affinity financial consultant, 'and it is going to take that organization to redefine itself, whether it is reaffirming that mission or changing that mission.'
Initially when talks began about what the organization would be, that earlier conception included men.
Over time, women performed the lion's share of the work and began questioning their earlier notion of a co-gendered organization.
Smith credits this transformation to women performing the majority of the work. 'There might be certain board members who might be angry with me for saying that but it is true.'
Smith, when recalling the shift, believes that fear of neglecting Black men led them to procrastinate when changing the organization to all women.
The change came at the suggestion of a funder who told them that they could get money being a lesbian-only organization. 'There is a thing that Black women have about our separation and identity being different from the Black community and our separation from Black men. And what our roles look like separate from all of that, so it is easier sometimes to come up with an identity that is inclusive of everybody.'
We Are Family
The typical Affinity member is between 20 and 45; her income and education levels vary. Some are young college women looking for a women's community, others are older women looking to connect outside of the bars.
They come seeking community, other women for conversation, and advice on getting into and living what some called 'The Life.'
Forty-three-year-old Reseda Jackson is such a woman. 'I joined because it was one of the few groups that reached out to Black lesbians. They are very positive. They actively raise money to keep our doors open.'
Jackson now is the volunteer coordinator, telling other women about Affinity and getting them involved with the organization. Since its conception, 5,000 to 10,000, women have passed through its doors. Jackson lets other Black women know that there are options for community outside of the bars.
Those options are Lez Chat, a program that Affinity describes as a 'Sistah to Sistah heart-to-heart.' Chat provides an open forum for Black women to talk amongst themselves.
For the 40 and older set, there is Forty Plus; many of these women may have been married and need different resources in making their transition into the community.
The programs leave women feeling empowered.
When asked why she volunteers her financial expertise, Griffin answers: 'The why was based on the way that I spend my free time, which is being part of organizations that help women to feel empowered, and this is an organization that is doing that.'
The basic common denominator is always women in relationships with other women. Yet, as Chicago undergoes political and economic change, those changes affect Black women even more so than their white counterparts, who may have more job security and resources. There is no wonder that within its eight years, Affinity's goals and members have altered.
'Affinity has been a number of organizations, from what I understand, based on two things,' observes Griffin. 'What it saw as its mission and the people who were carrying out that mission and what was important to them at that time.' Despite complaints of Hyde Park not being 'Black enough,' Affinity manages to make its presence felt and continues increasing its size even in this economic uncertainty.
Lately, the organization and its programs gain visibility, their social-service programs take place several times a week, and recently they were the recipients of the V-Day Monologues (South Side) fundraiser.
Long-time community activist Vernita Gray also aided in Affinity receiving a $1,000 donation from Blair Hull.
It is a pleasant change, since previous funding came from within the organization.
With Griffin's fundraising background and Smith's social-service and experience, Affinity has experienced rapid growth, which brings challenges.
'We had to get to a place where it wasn't just me showing up,' says Smith.
'We had to grow the board; we had to grow our constituency, people had to see the number of people using our programs and supporting them. People had to see us growing and there was always some doubt around whether we could do it. And we just kept going and tried to respond to those challenges.'
Helping Smith respond to those challenges are dedicated Board members, which include Deborah Benton, Daphne Glanton, Gaylon Roberson (vice president), Barbara Smith, Felecia Thomas, Diantha Watkins (treasurer), Bianca Wilson.
Board members have to volunteer several hours before being considered. 'Affinity started out with a Board Equity thing, meaning you could not get onto the board without giving so many hours of your time for volunteering. So our board was not necessarily made up of people with high visibility. Now in the last couple of years we changed that and have a combination of the two and with that there were many challenges,' shares Smith.
Money, Money, Money—Money
Maybe the change in the board to include people who know possible funders can be linked to the current economy.
The economic crisis may very well be in its beginning; so more jobs, companies and nonprofits may slowly disappear into the black hole of extinction. 'I want to add that outside of Affinity,' shares Griffin. 'I think that this current economic situation caught a lot of non-for-profits off guard and they are scrambling to reach out to their donors.'
Griffin believes that even the more established nonprofits are looking for more bang for their buck.
'They may have fundraisers and galas that they have enjoyed but they may not necessarily have looked to the margins in terms of what they are going to recoup from that as closely and [now they begin to wonder], do we really need the pink chandeliers.'
With downsizing and layoffs, jobs being sent overseas, people just do not have the same income. Consequently, they give less.
This applies to individuals as well as foundations. Less than one percent of most foundations award money to GLBT organizations and the numbers get smaller when it is a Black GLBT organization. Affinity, being Black and GLBT, has been affected the most.
'We always knew that at some point those grants would not be available to us and it was hard,' shares Smith. 'With the grants, we were able to hire some full-time staff; unfortunately it has been a challenge to keep our infrastructure and we may be in the same position next year and that is pretty hard to deal with.'
In the midst of this crunch, Affinity still has decided to fundraise.
The decision is tough; yet, Smith feels if they do not make this choice, it will be harder next year. 'So we are asking people, can you give us a nickel, a dime some dollars ... stretch yourself.' Griffin also urges people to give more. She compares nonprofits to businesses, which cater to the social good. 'They have a different mission but they need the same things to be successful and that is a steady cash flow.'
Today within those Hyde Park church walls, Affinity continues its internal dialogue about what its members see as the organization's responsibility. Smith and the board want people to know that 'you do have something to give no matter what the amount, to add to the lifeblood of an institution.'
Affinity meets at 5650 S. Woodlawn, (773) 324-0377.