At Audre Lorde, Kris Hayashi aims to empower communities once marginalized
This month marks three years that Kris Hayashi has been at the helm of the Audre Lorde Project, the community organizing center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, two-spirit, and transgendered people of color located in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene. During that time, ALP has earned a reputation for unstinting commitment to promoting inclusion and the sharing of power. The organization’s TransJustice initiative, a political group of gender non-conforming activists of color, is only one example of an ALP program that has challenged the greater LGBT community to examine its own orthodoxies and prejudices.
Hayashi, 31, came to ALP following extensive work on the West Coast as a community organizer at the Western States Center in Portland, Oregon, and as executive director of Youth United for Community Action in Palo Alto, California. He attended Stanford University and was raised in Seattle.
CHRISTOPHER MURRAY: What are the queer grassroots?
KRIS HAYASHI: What do you mean by that?
CM: Grassroots work is a particular kind of organizing that prioritizes the involvement of regular folk and my understanding is that ALP does that within a queer, people of color, two-spirit environment. Maybe a better question is who comprises the queer grassroots?
KH: Maybe this is a way to answer that question. For ALP, the particular constituency we focus on is lesbian, gay, bisexual, two-spirit, and gender non-confirming communities here in New York City. There are clearly a vast range of communities within that, diverse as far as race, ethnicity, class, what borough people live in, gender, sexuality, age, and so on. At ALP we prioritize communities that we think are facing some of the greatest barriers to survival today; they are at the center of our movement. The communities that ALP has identified are LGBTST immigrants of color, LGBTST youth of color, and trans and non-gender conforming people of color.
CM: What do you say to people who don’t understand the need for queer people of color and gender non-conforming folk to organize separately?
KH: It’s actually not totally true that we view ourselves as organizing separately. We believe that it’s important that there is a space for us to come together as LGBTSTGNC [lesbian, gay, bisexual, two-spirit, trans, and gender non-conforming] communities of color to identify the critical issues that we’re facing and the solutions to those issues since we are the folks who are directly affected. As the people impacted, it’s also important that we are in the leadership of the organizing that’s happening. But that doesn’t mean that we organize separately. We clearly, in everything we do, are working with allied communities, whether that’s with the larger LGBT movement or the larger racial justice movement in the city. We definitely believe that there is a clear and strong role for allied communities in the work that we’re doing.
CM: What makes a powerful ally in the work you are doing every day?
KH: One of our major donors who is a really strong ally—I’m not going to identify him because I don’t have his permission—he said it best at an event we had recently. He was talking about his role as an older, white gay man and how he felt that the way that he could best support ALP’s work was to take a step back, basically, and to be clear that he’s in a support role. There are things that he can do to support the work that really depend on what the organization is asking for, from offering resources or funding access to space, to endorsing or co-sponsoring events that ALP is doing, but really the important thing is understanding how supportive it is actually to take that step back.
CM: How does ALP wield its power?
KH: In multiple ways. The grassroots organizing we do currently includes four different areas—immigrant rights; youth organizing around housing; work by TransJustice specifically around jobs and education access; and the efforts of our anti-police and state violence group which is called the SOS collective. SOS stands for Safe Outside the System and the collective works on the on-going violence and harassment that’s occurring in Bed-Stuy.
The outcomes of the organizing ranges from things like the Trans Day of Action coming up on June 23—which is a march calling for social and economic justice for trans and gender non-conforming communities—to putting out statements that specifically articulate the analysis and perspective of our communities. For example, with all the talk about immigration reform now, our immigrant rights group just put out a statement that clarifies the specific demands of LGBTSTGNC immigrants of color.
CM: What are the major roadblocks then to this work?
KH: There’s a lot of them. One thing which ALP and lots of other organization’s face is a lack of access to adequate funding. We’re really struggling to implement our work with limited resources. The reality for the community that ALP works with, LGBTSTGNC people of color, is that people are really struggling with issues of survival. Folks don’t have jobs or housing, folks are trying to access benefits and schools. In the overall movement there’s also a lack of spaces where LGBTSTGNC people of color communities are in leadership.
CM: You talked about survival. Do you mean that literally, in terms of life and death?
KH: Yeah, I mean, I think that the majority of the folks who are in leadership at ALP, who are running the campaigns and developing and implementing the programs face issues like homelessness or unemployment, violence from the police or within communities or from immigration officials. I don’t want to be overly dramatic about it, but I do think that it is day to day survival.
CM: I’m sensitive to the fact that as we have this conversation the language that we use to discuss these issues constructs meaning. When we talk about LGBTSTGNC communities or use a term like “survival,” what your sense of the power of language?
KH: The words that we use to talk about the issues that our communities are facing are critical. But what’s most important is that the language comes from the communities that ALP represents.
CM: The self-determination of language is part of the power of this community.
KH: Definitely. When Trans-Justice started, I guess, two years ago now, one of the first things they had to do was figure out what terms they would use to define the project. That was a long discussion.
CM: What language do you use to talk about your own gender and sexual orientation?
KH: It’s funny I haven’t been asked this question in awhile. I usually just define myself as trans and genderqueer or gender non-conforming.
CM: Does that convey something about your sexuality?
KH: For me, no. But that’s just for me. Other folks who identify as trans or gender non-conforming might say differently, but for me it doesn’t. As far as sexuality, I identify as queer.
CM: What do you think about people’s curiosity about trans people? Does it offend you?
KH: I think it depends on where it’s coming from. If it’s coming from a lack of knowledge, understanding, or exposure, and if folks are open to information and learning, I think that’s useful, particularly when people take it on themselves to become educated about trans and gender non-conforming issues. When it’s coming from a place of seeing folks as “other” or as curiosities, then I do feel that is problematic, and not at all helpful.
CM: How do you respond when you feel approached in that fashion?
KH: It varies. Generally when that has happened to me I’ve been around other people who see themselves as allies of the trans communities and they’ve stepped in and dealt with the problematic person. That’s another example of the role allies can play, educating other people.
CM: How do you manage the overlap between the personal, the professional, and the political in your life?
KH: Since I work all the time, it’s a challenge. [Laughs.] I think that’s the case for most people who do movement and community work. It’s tough to find a balance and not be overwhelmed.
CM: What did you do on your last day off?
KH: I just went and saw my mom in Seattle. That’s what I try to do most when I have time off, spend it with family and friends.
CM: Where do you see yourself in 15 years?
KH: At 46, I know I will still be doing movement work for social and economic justice for communities of color, for LGBTSTGNC communities. At that point I could see myself playing a different role than I am now, but basically still doing the work.
CM: Where do you hope the movement will be 15 years from now?
KH: On a hopeful day? There’s been a lot of movement in recent years within the LGBTSTGNC communities of color in New York City to build infrastructure and to communicate about our work. I would hope that those structures are even stronger 15 years from now. I hope there are more and more programs specifically run by the folks most directly affected.
CM: Do you feel a connection with Gay Pride? What will you be doing the last Sunday in June?
KH: What is everyone going to be doing? [Laughs.] The month of June is the busiest in the year for LGBT groups! At ALP we take the opportunity to do widespread outreach to our communities. Come to the Trans Day of Action the Friday before Pride!
The Audre Lorde Project will celebrate ten years of community action with “The Power We Have: An Evening of Cultural Resistance” on June 8, 2006 at Judson Memorial Church. For more information on this event or the 2nd Annual Trans Day of Action for Social and Economic Justice on June 23, 2006, go to alp.org.