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'Under Construction': DENIM – Developing & Empowering New Images of Men

February 27, 2015

UC_logoUnder Construction is a multimedia online exhibit showcasing some of the best and brightest organizations working with males of color. The UC team of filmmakers, photographers, writers, and nonprofit experts worked directly with each of these organizations for several weeks. The collaborations yielded comprehensive portraits of the services men of color receive. Each profile features a short video, a photography exhibit, a visual program model, and a narrative essay detailing the efforts of these organizations.

Under Construction is a project of Frontline Solutions and was made possible through the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. For more profiles, click here.

It doesn't necessarily look like a place where someone would find freedom. It is indeed a sanctuary, but not in a mystical, ethereal way. Instead, freedom exists in a small commercial suite in northwest Washington, D.C., its largest room hugged by three cornsilk-colored walls and a fourth that is such a brilliant shade of red it shocks the system to attention. Navy Berber carpet sprawls underfoot and an assembly of IKEA-inspired furniture, mostly folding chairs and tables, make up the functional decor. This is the community space at DENIM, where young black gay, bi- and same-gender-loving men are affirmed, understood and validated, celebrated, informed, and encouraged.

DENIM_Terrance PaytonDENIM stands for "developing and empowering new images of men." In practice, it is a place where young men between the ages of 18 and 29 find unconditional acceptance and connect to programming that addresses their unique needs. "We wanted to provide a center that accommodated the many subcultures of black gay life: college-educated, people affiliated with Greek-letter organizations, gamers, the ballroom community, people who don't identify as gay, people who are openly gay, people who are transgendered, and create this organic experience for all of them," says Terrance Payton, one of DENIM's founders.

Launched in 2012, the organization is relatively new, particularly compared to others in the city that have been serving the gay community for decades. Every group has another group inside of it, and when dissected along the lines of race, age, and socioeconomics, the black gay experience looks a lot different than others. DENIM lifts up a population that is sometimes underrepresented — or not represented at all — in broader conversations about gay issues in the metropolitan area.

"We are a lot different from our white and Latino counterparts in the larger LGBT community, so it's important that we have a space where we feel safe and can have camaraderie and brotherhood," says Devin Barrington-Ward, a member of DENIM's community advisory board. "There's no other space that exists like this solely for black gay men, by black gay men, in Washington, D.C., and really takes into consideration the needs of this community." In here, they are not an alternative lifestyle or a cause to be championed. The men who come to DENIM are simply whoever, whatever, however they want to be. That is the freedom that exists inside this understated space.

First responders to an epidemic need

The community center is the brainchild of Us Helping Us, an organization that has been meeting the needs and challenges of black gay men in Washington, D.C., since 1985. It was established in an era when information around HIV was still exploratory and medical research contended with fantastic rumors, when the city had yet to mobilize against the far-reaching effects of the virus but faced a growing number of diagnoses that had significant impact on the gay community. With limited health and financial resources, the city's black community was hit hard — and the black gay community was hit even harder.

As the HIV epidemic was significantly checked in the white gay population, it ran through the city's black enclaves with ferocity. The dual stigma around being both gay and HIV positive — one born from a culture that has traditionally shamed homosexuality, the other the result of fear that overshadowed facts — caused many gay black men to operate covertly, refusing to seek testing and certainly never seeking treatment. Sexual contact did not decline, however, and the formula for an epidemic was fueled in part by secrecy and unsafe behavior. It was a silent crisis, and there was no one to address it.

DENIM_Ernest Walker"There was nothing in the community: no culturally sensitive support groups, no hospitals, no clinics, no funds, no places that black gay men could go and feel comfortable. At first, it was really just about five HIV-positive gentlemen who didn't want to go on meds because AZT was the only option and it was killing off black people," recalls Ernest Walker, director of programs for Us Helping Us. "The climate was really hostile because there was nowhere for black gay men to go and seek services — of any kind. So some community leaders started a support group."

Out of that absence grew a plethora of services, as Us Helping Us developed a range of programming focused on mental and physical health, personal safety, STI prevention, condom distribution, and community outreach. DENIM was born as an extension of that work, and together the two organizations have committed to taking the apprehension out of HIV testing with teams that meet their target demographic on the streets. In their brief but poignant interactions, they remind young men to make wise, precautionary sexual health choices and urge them to take advantage of the services available at both DENIM and Us Helping Us. DENIM pushes its on-the-ground activism further by taking its safe-sex evangelism to nightclubs.

Partnering with Ignite DMV, DENIM has made testing an empowerment of personal health and a cool thing to do. "You can come to our events, and if you get tested, you can skip the long line, get in free, and get a free drink. People are very persuaded by that," says Eric Frasier, a DJ and party promoter who works with both DENIM and Ignite DMV. For Frasier, it's an opportunity to offer the kind of support to other young gay men he wishes he had gotten himself.

"I’m from southern Virginia and homosexuality wasn't discussed. I knew who I was, but I wasn't able to convey it or portray it or live it," he says now. "I moved up here [to D.C.] in 2006, and I remember seeing gay men and women proud to be walking around with their boyfriends and girlfriends. They didn't mind showing their affection. That was big for me." The personal liberty to outwardly express who you inwardly are is defining, he adds. "Sometimes I wonder if I had these types of outlets when I was younger, would I be a different man today? Would I be a different gay man today? Would I be a different black man today?"

The 'who are you?' question

The work to discover one's identity can be complex for anyone, and for gay black men is complicated even more by the matrix of expectations, society's standards, personal histories, and traditions that intersect with gender, race, culture and sexuality. The spectrum based on the Kinsey Scale of sexual attraction created by researchers in 1948, is one way of defining self, says Payton, who is the medical case manager for Us Helping Us. "The spectrum exists from 'I am questioning my attraction to persons of the same sex and may never do anything with it but think about it for the rest of my life', all the way to 'I think I've been born in the wrong body and I want to change to one that is more comfortable.'

"There is even a spectrum for how people choose to label themselves, which is important," Payton adds. "You'll have people who'll say, 'I'm gay'. You'll have people who'll just say, 'I'll do what I'm doing'. You'll have people who'll say 'I'm same-gender-loving'. The positive is that people get to define what they do. That negative is that they forget that they're still having a black gay experience. So what does that mean and what is the impact of having a black gay experience first?"

DENIM_Toni LloydThose are the conversations being forged at DENIM, those deep moments of discourse in a safe, judgment-free space that generate greater understanding of self and others. Some whose preferences are too fluid to be neatly and conveniently defined by anyone, including themselves, avoid being boxed in. Toni Lloyd is, by other people's label, transgender. She is the only woman who comes to DENIM, but she doesn't come in search of herself. She's already confident about that.

During an exercise in the community room, volunteer AJ King kicks off a conversation by reading a series of statements.

"Move to the right if you identify as gay," he says. Most of the group steps across the strip of white tape that serves as a divider. Toni stays put.

"Move to the left if you identify as African-American," King says. Everyone steps back across — except Toni.

"Personally, I don't like identifiers," she admits later that evening. "I don't even like labels. On one spectrum I would be considered androgynous, but on another, even though most people can't even tell, I'm a trans woman. I just say I'm human." She smiles. "Let's leave it at that."

No one at DENIM can answer the "who are you?" question for anyone else. That's something the young men — and woman — who regularly attend discover during the course of the conversations and activities there. Open for drop-ins from four to nine, Tuesday through Friday, it's part confessional, part hangout space, part health ward, part community center, and, on Friday evenings, part nightclub.

If a young man has had an argument with someone in his family, he can talk about it at Brother 2 Brother, a monthly support group that uplifts young, same-gender-loving men of color. If another is weighed down by relationship problems, he can vent about it at illuMENation on the first Friday of every month, where the discussion revolves around dating, identity, and sex. DENIM also partners with other organizations in the area — among them, Temple Hill Skate Palace for a weekly roller skating night — to enhance the socialization and bonding in comfortable, familiar settings.

Finding a space to just be

In addition to providing a place that is comfortable and familiar, DENIM is a hub of resources for its constituents. Increasingly, the paramount need is housing. In Washington, D.C., which is consistently ranked among the country's ten most expensive cities, the number of apartments one can rent for less than $800 a month has been halved in just over five years. The high cost of living plus the limited availability of spaces has created a competitive market for developers but real challenges for people in need.

According to a survey by the Williams Institute, a think tank at the University of California, Los Angeles, 40 percent of youth in temporary homeless shelters in the district are LGBT. Most have an unfortunate backstory. "Many of my clients have been kicked out not just because they're gay, but because they're HIV positive," says Guy Anthony, treatment adherence counselor at Us Helping Us. His job is to make sure the young men who are diagnosed with HIV aren't derailed from getting and staying on a course of treatment.

DENIM_Guy Anthony"I assess the barriers and sometimes HIV is the least of their worries. It's where am I going to live? What am I going to eat tomorrow? What am I going to wear? I have to say, 'Let’s attack all these other things, these socioeconomic disparities, that are happening in your life first before we can even attack this HIV'."

That challenge is exacerbated by waiting lists to get an apartment through a public agency as long as six years, so even after a client begins treatment the housing challenge can make it difficult for the client to stay adherent. "A lot of people are saying, 'I'm in treatment and I'm going to see my doctors and my viral load is down and my CD4 count is up but I'm bunking on someone's couch and I'm sleeping on someone's floor'," Anthony says. "That's a problem, and until we are able to reconcile it, we'll continue to see non-adherence here in D.C."

The ability to relate runs deep, and Anthony, who was diagnosed with HIV when he was 21, uses his own life experiences to connect with clients and give them hope. It can get better, he promises. "Seven years ago, I was him. I was sleeping on someone's couch in L.A. I was on cocaine three, four times a day, just trying to make it, trying to drown out the fact that I have this disease that won't go away," he says. "I was supposed to die when I tried to commit suicide after I took pills and chased them with vodka. But God saw that I was worthy of helping other people. I never take that lightly."

The liberty to be their own kind of man

It's Friday night, just barely past dusk, and DENIM's multifunctional office space is alive with festive energy. It's not a calendar holiday, but the weekly Vogue Night ball is a do-not-miss celebration for the young men who frequent the center. Bass-heavy music vibrates the floor, converting it into a catwalk strut simply by the attitude shift that courses through the room. The pressures of the week have been a burden and they fall away when the DENIM participants gather here to dance and cheer each other on.

The DJ takes to the mic to coax them forward, and the need to strut becomes contagious. Some may have been insulted, even flat-out rejected, by others, some may be fully supported by loved ones, some may be going it solo and are completely independent of and unconcerned about other people's opinions. They gather here to celebrate each other and who they individually are. The monolithic perception of manhood is challenged as they assume what, by mainstream standards, would be considered feminine postures in their dance routines. In doing so, and proclaiming their manhood at the same time, they're remixing the neat and tidy conventions of masculinity.

"Vogue Night is an outlet. A lot of people aren't familiar with the ballroom community," says Travis Wise, manager of youth services for DENIM. "Back in the '80s, a lot of [gay] kids were displaced because their families didn't want to have anything to do with them. More mature adults, who had their own places, said, 'Okay, come stay with me and I'll teach you how to apply for a job, I'll teach you how to get into college'. That's actually where the ballroom started, and unfortunately it's a message that's kind of missed." He smiles as the music amps up in the next room and he has to raise his voice to make himself heard. "Tonight is just about having fun and expressing yourself. And some friendly competition."

Several participants get up and take to the center of the room, becoming voluntary contenders in the judging that will happen at the end of the night. A tall, lean young man with flawless caramel skin and curly hair cut into precision-edged sharpness steps forward. Without so much as a smile, he intensely sashays across the floor, then spins and dramatically tosses a red scarf around his neck. The crowd circling him goes crazy with applause and snaps and verbal affirmations, cheering him through a series of twirls and poses. Then, as if he's attached to a string of invisible elastic, he falls to his back in the most acrobatic of half-splits and bounces back up with effortless agility, only to repeat the move seconds later.

Freedom is a song in one's soul. It's an absence of controls, a certitude in self-assurance, a confidence that bubbles up from within and spills outward. The young man in the center of the dance floor has found his and is showing it off for the world to see.

— Janelle Harris

Weekend Link Roundup (September 1-2, 2012)

September 02, 2012

Labor_day_offOur weekly roundup of new and noteworthy posts from and about the nonprofit sector....


Network for Good's Katya Andresen shares a letter from one of her blog readers, who urges development directors to "make sure your donors are really getting the prompt thanks they deserve."

International Development

On the Gates Foundation's Impatient Optimists blog, Ari Katz describes how public libraries are bolstering development efforts in impoverished communities. Among other things, Katz writes, libraries empower women, expand awareness of and solutions to public health problems, and help to bridge the education gap in many developing countries.

Nonprofit Management

On her blog, Beth Kanter announces the forthcoming publication of her second book, Measuring the Networked Nonprofit, which she co-authored with KD Paine. Among other things, the book presents "a framework called 'Crawl, Walk, Run, Fly' to help nonprofits figure out what...steps they need to take to get to the next level of networked nonprofit practice. It is designed to help them understand and measure the nature of the change process as they move through it." We're looking forward to reading the book and learning more.

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Libraries and Latinos: Return to Adams County

August 14, 2012

(Kathryn Pyle recently marked her fourth anniversary as a PhilanTopic contributor. In her last post, she wrote about the Justice Matters series at Filmfest DC.)

Children_with_booksFour years ago, in my first post for PhilanTopic, I described how the Adams County Library system in a rural part of south central Pennsylvania used a modest donation to try out some new ideas and improve its services for the growing Latino population in the area, mainly families and seasonal workers from Mexico.

Since then, thanks to PhilanTopic's broad and inclusive vision of civic life, I've written about a presidential inauguration, a "City of Trees," the first moon landing, transitional justice, a memorial park in Argentina, and -- most frequently -- social issue documentaries and the organizations that support them. Over that time, I've really enjoyed the opportunity the PND team has given me to refine my vision of the nexus of philanthropy and social justice. But today, because this is my thirtieth (!) post for PhilanTopic, I thought it would be interesting to revisit Adams County to see what, if anything, has changed.

I caught up with library director Rob Lesher on his way to the annual library book sale, which was organized by the Friends of the Library at the main branch in Gettysburg; Lesher told me they hoped to raise at least $25,000. That's a lot of used books and a big shot in the arm for any library in an era of government cuts.

"It's been a challenge financially," says Lesher. "But the big news is that this summer we've seen the highest circulation months in our history. Seventy-five thousand items circulated in July, part of a fifteen-year pattern of growth. And 2011 was a record year, with seven hundred and fifty thousand items circulated; we'll equal that this year. Despite the cutbacks, we've managed to expand our services to Latinos. The key has been experimenting with new programs and partnering with community organizations."

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Announcement: Foundation Center Seeks Host Orgs for Cooperating Collections Network

April 02, 2010

(Kief Schladweiler is coordinator of cooperating collections at the Foundation Center.)

The Foundation Center is looking for host organizations that are ready to join with us to meet the information and training needs of organizations and individuals whose grantseeking needs are not being met.

The center needs your help in identifying appropriate host organizations for our Cooperating Collection network. Cooperating Collections are free funding information centers located in libraries, community foundations, and other nonprofit resource centers that provide a core collection of Foundation Center print and electronic publications and a variety of supplementary materials, training, and services in areas useful to grantseekers.

We are particularly interested in reaching underresourced and underserved populations across the United States and in other locations around the globe that are in need of and can use this information and training to become successful grantseekers.

Watch the video below to learn more about the program and share it with your contacts and colleagues. And if you know of a potential host organization, feel free to use our handy online form to nominate them.

Thanks. With your help, we can continue to ensure free public access to these needed resources in the U.S. and around the world.

-- Kief Schladweiler

Whose Philanthropy Is It Anyway?

September 05, 2008

(Mary McGrail is director of communications for the Brooklyn-based Independence Community Foundation, a private independent foundation that focuses on community development, education, arts and culture, and economic and workforce development issues in the New York metropolitan area. This is her first post for PhilanTopic.)

Macon_library_2Mainstream media coverage of philanthropy often seems confined to eye-popping individual charitable donations, society gala events, "whimsical" bequests, or sponsor plugs on PBS.

Unfortunately, these public narratives don't offer a full picture of the complex, engaged, and ever-changing world of charitable giving. Which is a shame, because more in-depth media coverage of foundations -- and the nonprofit world -- could lead to greater transparency about the inner workings of our sector. It could also lead to greater awareness of what philanthropy routinely accomplishes and even spur more broad-based "grassroots" giving by individuals and communities to projects and organizations they care about. What's more, in this election year, a reasoned, wide-ranging dialogue about the role of philanthropy in generating new approaches to seemingly intractable problems would be a welcome addition to the civic debate. But how can a vigorous conversation occur if the all-too-infrequent philanthropy news story rarely ventures beyond the obvious or sensational?

I'm not saying philanthropy doesn't make headlines now and then. News of Leona Helmsley's bequest in memory of her dog, the aptly named Trouble, is a recent example: According to an article in the NY Times, "[Helmsley's] instructions, specified in a two-page 'mission statement', are that the entire trust, valued at $5 billion to $8 billion and amounting to virtually all her estate, be used for the care and welfare of dogs...."

Reaction was swift, and mostly negative. The "Maltese bequest" became a stand-in for all giving: Writing in the Times, Boston College law professor Ray Madoff explained how Helmsley's bequest "rubs our noses in the tax deduction for charitable gifts and its common vehicle, the perpetual private foundation. Together these provide a mechanism by which American taxpayers subsidize the whims of the rich and fulfill their fantasies of immortality."

But is that really the case? And what about other questions raised by Madoff's piece? Questions like, What should be funded publicly and what privately? When is enough too much? And who decides? More people need to weigh in on these and other issues. The role of philanthropy in society is an important -- even crucial -- topic for public debate, and I'd love to see the day when strongly held opinions about it are as common as opinions about the war in Iraq, sex education in the schools, climate change, or Paris Hilton.

But there are other stories, good stories, out there. My question is: Where is the press?

For example, Professor Madoff might have trouble (no pun intended) referring to the Buy a Book for Macon Library Campaign as something that serves "the whims of the rich." The idea for the innovative campaign was jointly hatched by Independence Community Foundation executive director Marilyn Gelber and Dionne Mack-Harvin, director of the Brooklyn Public Library.

The campaign began with a $50,000 challenge grant to the Macon branch of the Brooklyn Public Library in Bedford-Stuyvesant. ICF matched every dollar raised in the community to purchase the book collection for the century-old library's first African American History Center. Local donations quickly poured in, so Independence raised the "Buy a Book" challenge to $100,000. In all, more than 500 people from the neighborhood -– kids, store owners, writers, readers, church members, activists, parents, artists, and practically anybody who had ever dropped in to the library -- contributed. Over 80 percent of the donations were for less than $150. By the end of the campaign, the residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant had raised over $100,000 for their library, for a total of $200,000, and the library was able to add 15,000 new volumes to its bookshelves. In this instance, at least, people doing good even made the news.

The question is, How do we get the mainstream media to pick up more stories like this? And how do we convince the media that, in these troubled times, man bites dog isn't the only story people care about?

Your thoughts?

-- Mary McGrail

Literacy for a New Generation

July 31, 2008

(Amit Shah, a long-time publishing executive based in Somerville, Massachusetts, is an avid reader of print newspapers, magazines, books, blogs, and anything else written with verve and wit. This is his first post for PhilanTopic.)

Digital_literacy_sam_2Sunday's front-page article in the NY Times ("Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?") has already generated more than 180 posts. That there's interest in the topic should come as no surprise. The debate reflects the enormous changes that have occurred over the last ten years with respect to how we access information; what the meaning of "literacy" is in the 21st century; and what yardsticks we use to determine who is and is not literate. If, like me, you've spent a good portion of your career working for textbook publishers, have teenagers of your own, and have derived joy every day of your life from books, magazines, and newspapers, your interest in the topic is especially keen.

It also should come as no surprise that the single biggest issue today in any classroom in the country (and that includes college classrooms) is the inability of too many students to effectively decode text and glean information from age-appropriate materials. Or, as many of the teachers I have worked with put it: "My kids don't read; won't read; can't read.” Indeed, Isabel Beck, a professor in the Department of Instruction and Learning at the University of Pittsburgh and one of the most-respected reading researchers in the nation, has said that most students leave a text without any understanding of the author's intent or ideas.

Understanding and deriving meaning from texts is not only key to the enjoyment of literature -- it is an essential skill for anyone who hopes to succeed in the 21st century knowledge economy. But first you have to get people to read. Not just road signs and short informational pieces but narratives of various complexity.

It's not clear, however, that the digital media tools increasingly used to convey information and ideas -- text messaging, blogs, Twitter, PowerPoint, etc. -- provide the "keys to the kingdom" -- the ability to analyze, synthesize, compare, and evaluate ideas and draw inferences -- in the same way or as effectively as frequent exposure to print texts did for earlier generations. And while state, district, and private school curricula standards have started to specify proficiency levels for various types of informational texts, digital as well as print, the jury is out with respect to whether standards-based curricula can create proficient readers through strict adherence to text-based outcomes (i.e., paper-and-pencil tests).

At the same time, the literacy debate in pedagogical circles has already moved to the next stage: Defining and encouraging "21st century literacies." Or, as Sara Kajder, assistant professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, puts it: "[We need to expand] the technology toolset students use as readers and writers....We must teach them how to synthesize a range of texts that appear on a screen at lightning speed and communicate to authentic, wired, global audiences with the explosion of new tools, modes, and media now made readily accessible by Web 2.0."

The fact that standard secondary school literature anthologies contain graphic novel selections of a classic such as Beowulf simply underscores what many of us already knew: There are many ways to teach students about archetypes and epic heroes. Whether they are "writing" via digital storytelling formats, creating summaries via electronic portfolios, comparing hip-hop lyrics with poems by Langston Hughes, today's readers are indeed reading. And that gets to the key issue of literacy in the 21st century: Using any and every tool at hand to get students to engage with literature and complex texts. We need to do more of it.

-- Amit Shah

From Seeds to Saplings

May 29, 2008

(Kathryn Pyle was senior representative for Central America/Mexico at the Inter-American Foundation; executive director of the Samuel S. Fels Fund; and co-founder of Delaware Valley Grantmakers. Currently, she is producing a documentary film about the post-conflict period in El Salvador. In the post below, her first for PhilanTopic, she describes how a small donation expanded library services to Latinos in a rural Pennsylvania county.)

Children_with_books_3I spent several teenage summers in the 1960s picking fruit alongside migrant crews from Puerto Rico; my family lived in the fruit growing region north of Gettysburg, in Adams County, Pennsylvania. When the apple harvest was over in the fall, the Puerto Ricans left.

Around 1980, Mexican workers began to make up the crews, and the Mexicans stayed. The population of Adams County is now about five percent Latino; that’s 5,000 people, with several hundred migrant workers temporarily bumping up that number during fruit season.

The county economy is agriculture-based, with 20,000 acres of fruit orchards and several fruit processing plants providing seasonal and year round jobs. Most of the Latino laborers are Mexican; they tend to come from poor rural areas, and have few years of schooling.

I left Adams County many years ago but was aware of the changing demographics. As a grantmaker with experience in rural Mexico, I could imagine the needs in this new community and wondered how the county might assist their educational and cultural integration.

When my parents passed away, my family decided to honor their involvement with the Adams County Library by offering a $5,000 contribution, in 2002, as seed money to determine how the library could best serve the Latino community. The library had a small section of books in Spanish, but agreed they could be doing more. The staff was interested and now had a small pot for research and experimentation.

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