A Side Conversation With Third Wave Fund Executive Director, Rye Young
By Editor Joyce Chen
In recent months, the term “activism” has become a buzzword associated with everything from hashtags (#NoConfederate) to Pepsi (unfortunately, eye-rollingly so) to a giant 30-foot inflatable chicken with a Trump-like hairdo that sits just across the White House’s south lawn. There was a hugely visible Women’s March in January, protests at airports nation-wide one week later, and a whole litany of other important movements pushing back against the president and his policies in the months following: a Day Without Immigrants, Not My President’s Day, a Day Without a Woman, the Tax March and the People’s Climate March, just to name a few.
The appeal of activism has sparked the interest of big corporations and big funders, capturing the attention of the media and celebrities alike, but there’s one element that’s been largely missing from the conversations surrounding these movements: sustainability. When the cameras are no longer trained on those at the forefront and the glossy appeal of an impassioned community rising up no longer makes headlines, the ones who are left doing the work are the ones who have always been doing the work, but often getting the least amount of media attention or recognition (and hence, funding) for it: grassroots organizations.
Third Wave Fund, founded in 1992 as Third Wave Direct Action, was borne out of a belief that the people who are most affected by the issues should be the ones leading the movements, and should be provided with the funding and support to do so. Those who know the lived realities of discrimination — sexism, racism, classism, ageism — should be the ones leading the charge, and be given the resources necessary to continue that fight long after public interest has waned. Today, the Third Wave Fund remains the only activist fund in the United States to be led by and for women of color, intersex, queer, and trans folks under 35 years old, with the idea that these communities have the most difficult time securing funds to do the important activist work that will shift the social conversation in meaningful ways.
Last month, we sat down with executive director Rye Young, himself a trans activist, and talked at length about the importance of being flexible to meet organizations’ needs, the foundational necessity of intersectionality, and why young people need to be given more opportunities to lead. In late July, after Trump issued a tweet declaring a ban on all transgender individuals from serving in the U.S. military, we chatted again, this time about the importance of healing justice and of taking charge of our own narratives. Our condensed conversations are as follows:
The Seventh Wave: First of all, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us. When I first heard about the Third Wave Fund, I thought it felt so timely and topical for The Seventh Wave, because this is exactly what we’re talking about this issue: bodies in danger. So I’m really happy to connect. And, obviously, we’re excited that we’re both waves.
Rye Young: [laughs] Yes. I thought about that. I was wondering if I was going to make the first comment or if you would. Glad you did.
TSW: Hey, somebody had to say it. You know, the elephant in the room, the wave that wasn’t crashing…
RY: I couldn’t agree more.
TSW: So just to start off, I love so much the idea that you are empowering voices that, whether it’s a matter of youth or being a part of a marginalized community, have previously been sidelined. Through Third Wave Fund, however, they’re the ones who’re leading the charge. Could you tell me a little bit in your own words how the Third Wave Fund first came to be?
RY: Sure. So the Third Wave Fund grew out of this sort of early third-wave feminist movement, and its first body of work was really through this umbrella organization called Third Wave Direct Action. That was headed up by Rebecca Walker and Shannon Liss, who brought different things to the table, but ultimately, were both frustrated with the lack of real inclusion and real opportunity for young people who represent diverse backgrounds and who represent diverse experiences to participate in movement-building.
They wanted to have these women’s voices be heard, because they’re so distinct from the other voices out there talking for women and girls, talking for young people, and claiming to represent folks that they really aren’t. So that’s where it began, and over the years it turned into a huge movement of self-identified third-wave feminists who felt like maybe for the first time this umbrella, this framework, was nuanced enough and thoughtful enough to let their whole selves show under a feminist banner, to say, “Yeah, you don’t have to feel conflicted about your queer identity or your trans identity,” or “You don’t have to put your race in the corner because you’re fighting for women’s rights.” It framed women’s rights and feminism around those things and so people came together and really felt like a part of it. There were chapters formed in different states, and it really popped off. At a certain point, it wasn’t something that the founders really controlled anymore, which is a sure sign of a movement.
TSW: And how has the organization changed over the years to be the Third Wave Fund as it exists today?
RY: What happened over time was that there was this realization that there’s not a lack of leadership, but there is a lack of attention being paid and a lack of resources and opportunities for the work of certain groups’ work to flourish. So it was kind of this realization that actually, what needs to happen is we need to build a stage and a spotlight, but not do the activism itself. And we need to be selling funders on the fact that hey, you know, there’s a powder keg that could explode if it had more resources.
At that time [when we first started], it was very stark. There were social justice funders that focused on racial justice and class issues but didn’t have a gender lens. And then there were gender funders who didn’t have a race and a class lens, and I think that you still see that things are still organized that way in large part, but there’s been progress made, which we’re really excited about. But the progress has only resulted in 7 percent of philanthropy going to women and girls’ issues [versus 4 percent]. So in the two decades of our existence, there’s been a 3 percent increase. [laughs] So that’s really why Third Wave exists. To be that permanent space for communities that are taking on social justice work with a gender perspective and people who are fighting the feminist fight and the trans struggle and who are feeling like they’ve been deeply marginalized within that movement. We want them to know they have the basis to get a lot more resources than they’re currently getting.
We’re in our 20th anniversary celebration year, and we’re one of the few places where we’re always evolving because we’re always listening to what organizations need and what movements need and movements change quickly, right? So when their needs are evolving, we need to be able to shape-shift around how we can best support those needs. Evolution’s in our DNA, I would say.
TSW: I appreciate that so much. I feel like that ability to be flexible and to adapt is something that is often lacking, because bigger organizations can feel like, “Oh, well, this is our infrastructure, and that feels unaligned with our mission, so we can’t do that.” But if the mission is the people, then it always has to change. So that’s a great point. And I love what you said about building the stage and the spotlight but not doing the activism yourselves. Was that kind of always the intention?
RY: I think that we see the resource mobilization as a form of activism, and a form of activism within a sector that’s not always talked about as being a structure in and of itself. A structure that sometimes has oppressive tendencies, a structure that sometimes has constructive tendencies. I think at the end of the day, philanthropy is an institution, just like every other kind of institution. There’s this very sophisticated analysis about how it plays out in government and financial institutions and academic institutions, and then philanthropy’s just kind of like, a black hole, and then the way the analysis plays out is through critiques of the nonprofits.
And you have the nonprofit industrial complex as the frame that people understand, but it obscures what other institutions are at play, and not just at play, but that set up the conditions that lead to that complex. There are people who serve on boards who represent the interests of other sectors that the public doesn’t even get to know about because foundations get to operate like they’re public institutions with a tax break without having to be transparent to the public. So ultimately, that’s why we see our work as activism. It’s not necessarily about calling out the sector. It’s really about placing ourselves within a legacy of people taking agency and philanthropy and changing it from a charity model to a change model, and that’s been something that many institutions have been a part of.
And I think for us, our role as activists/philanthropists is to talk to young folks and other people who feel like they’ve been on the marginalized side of philanthropy and saying, “Hey, there’s a whole history of us folks banding together to claim agency in this sector that never expected us, didn’t see us coming as leaders.” And I think that’s the exciting way that we bridge the work that’s happening in terms of activism and movement building in ways people are used to thinking about it with a conversation about money and resources and philanthropy and really trying to connect those dots.
TSW: That’s interesting because I think oftentimes isn’t that the case, that a deep divide exists between philanthropy and grassroots activism? Do you feel like that might be a perception gap of sorts, that these two entities exist in different realms?
RY: I think it’s gotten a little bit complicated, the relationship between philanthropy and grassroots movements, because there is a sort of push, a desire, of bigger foundations wanting to be aligned with grassroots activism. It’s become considered something that’s good or positive — and it is, of course. This is what we do all this work for. But there is a complicated way in which when there’s not an actual power shift between the funders and the grassroots organizations.There’s an alignment of purpose, but there’s not necessarily accountability. And whose job is it to hold funders accountable? It’s very hard when you’re on the grant-seeking side of things to, let’s say, write an expose about how a funder might have abused their power. And that’s something that happens frequently. And I think that has a very serious emotional toll.
It’s something that has to be a secret that gets kept for philanthropy, because you’re afraid it might blow back and hurt other activists who are trying to get the same kind of funding. So what we’re seeing is that it puts some movements on eggshells because they’re very deeply afraid of losing that funding in some ways. I think a lot of what big philanthropy gets is a lot of press coverage when it supports things that are exciting, and then they don’t get a lot of journalistic coverage when they shift and don’t give a reason. We only celebrate when they get grants, but we don’t talk about the impact when the funding ends. And it always ends. So I think it’s really complicated and we’re excited to see a lot more investment in grassroots work but we’re also skeptical of it. Money from philanthropy is fickle. It comes and goes. It’s very tied to perception and media and marketing, and not necessarily the good work that people are doing.
TSW: That is very complicated for sure. Kind of a push-and-pull in a ways.
RY: [laughs] Definitely that. Definitely that.
TSW: To put it mildly. I think about even, for The Seventh Wave, we’re a 501(c)(3) but so far it’s mostly just kind of been donors and our in-network and people who are interested in what we’re doing donating to our cause. And entering that grant space has been a little bit of a struggle for us for the very reason that you’re saying: Do we want to allow another entity to have say over what we’re doing? Because we’re pretty intentional about what we do, and we want to keep it very community-based and very much focused on our contributors and our writers and our artists.
Have you found — in terms of feedback from the grassroots organizations that you have been working with — is there on their end an understanding of wanting to become sustainable, and what are the biggest challenges for them to get to that point?
RY: I think the typical model is that funders are evaluating grantees and doing whatever they want. And a lot of the ways that we do reporting is we get on the phone frequently and we ask questions about their work and what they’re learning and what they believe they’re doing well and what they believe they could be doing better, and how we can help them to do that work better. A lot of funders expect groups to become financially sustainable but then don’t invest in that as a body of work unto itself. And so if you’re getting a grant that only lets you put that money toward running your programming and nothing else, you’re not really positioned well from that grant to work on that project of sustainability, which might involve more stuff.
Very few organizations are textbook sustainable. And oftentimes, the groups that get asked to prove that they’re sustainable are the smaller ones. There’s this kind of inherent way that certain groups are treated as too big to fail, and they’ll always get bailed out, like big national organizations. So two things that we’ve done apart from our actual grantmaking is looking at the way that we ask these questions and looking at the way that we have these budgets. We actually built this into our grantmaking programs through our Grow Power Fund, which is a six-year grantmaking initiative. We believe if we want our groups to be sustainable, we have to sustain our funding in some way and have a transparent conversation about where groups hope to be at the end of that process. We avoid the fear mentality and just stick to the idea that you need to throw down if you want to see growth.
So the second program is a new grant program, and it’s really about honing in on that capacity-building piece, and it’s called the Own Our Power Fund. That fund is looking at the different ways that communities can really feel in control of their organizations. It sounds kind of vague, but it really breaks down in three areas. The first is leading their own organizations. I think that’s so basic and a lot of foundations talk about wanting organizations to be led by the communities that are most impacted, but rarely ask what those challenges might be to implementing that. We found that when leadership comes out of membership, and comes from within the community, it makes the organization stronger.
The second area revolves around financial sustainability, and recognizing that this can’t just magically happen. It’s hard, hard work that grassroots groups are expected to do the most, but get the least amount of support. And so we created this revenue stream just for people to be able to take their great ideas about grassroots fundraising, take their great ideas about how they could, and ask: if they’re an intersectional organization, but they only get money from women’s funders, how do they get money from racial justice funders?
The third is about how do the organizations get the resources and tools they need to actually tell their own stories, generate their own kinds of knowledge and research and work against the general co-optation of their own people and their impact. Large organizations have the communications, the money, and the time to invest in research and they also have big development teams, and when the groups we fund achieve something significant at the state level, it’s often the big national groups with big teams who are there for like, five minutes, and they can still leverage that. Cue a success story. So the groups that we fund are tired of it, and they’re like, “This is part of what’s so unsustainable about our work. That even the things that we’re doing in terms of achieving things, we’re not seeing the benefits of it in terms of our fundraising because we don’t even have the resources that we need to tell that story to a big audience.”
TSW: I feel like I just want to directly take this transcription and stick it on a page because what you’re saying is so spot-on. Everything you’re saying here is about needing to see the intersections where all these different causes collide and can help each other, and I was wondering if you could speak a little bit more about that, about how gender oppression is tied to classism, is tied to racism and ageism and ableism. Why is it important for both funders and people on the outside watching these movements happen, or even people wanting to take part in the movement, why is it important for them to understand these ties? [laughs] I’m all about the giant questions.
RY: That’s one of the most important questions, I think, and it’s ultimately why we exist in so many ways, because we know that even if, say, 50 percent of resources went to women and girls, there could very well be many women and girls who will never see the benefit of that if the funding only supports the liberal, colorblind idea that women are one thing and if we just focus on women’s issues and ignore other types of oppressions, then we’re gonna see the end of sexism. And I think that even if the equal rights amendment were passed tomorrow and implemented fully, there are many women who would still be deeply oppressed and undervalued economically and underrepresented in the healthcare system and forth because of their race and because of their ability status and gender identity and all these different things. So you know, the question is, is that some other issue? Or is that deeply inherent to understanding womanhood?
We’re very used to hearing funders who fund LGBTQ issues talk to queer immigrant youth who are being told that their work isn’t gay enough. And they’re like, “We’re fully gay, we’re fully being discriminated against because of our queerness, and the way that we’re being handled with any immigration system is very different from our straight peers. And our cisgender peers.” And they’re just completely being told that they’re squarely just not gay enough. It’s like a square peg trying to go in a circle because funders define gayness around a white construct.
If you come to a funder and say you’re talking about reproductive justice, for example, and you are trying to solicit funding to say we’re talking about decriminalization of black women and we’re talking about state violence impacting black women. And we see this as a reproductive justice issue, right? The funder may go ahead and say, “Well, how does this circle back to abortion?” And the grantee is like, “Well, we can’t have an abortion if we’re dead.” Or we can’t have an abortion if we’re in prison. And I think what’s interesting about that to me is that you then have this kind of reproductive rights framework that puts abortion and the issue of abortion over the importance of a woman’s life. Which is what the people do who are the anti-choice movement.
What I ultimately feel about this is intersectionality can be very theoretical, but when you look at philanthropy that’s organized as though there are no intersections, you can see that impact really quickly. And what’s also true, I think, is that there’s always intersectionality going on and when you do have a single-issue funder, let’s say this LGBT fund, that says that queer immigration issues aren’t gay enough — they’re still holding an intersection. And their intersection is the intersection of citizenship and privilege and whiteness and class. They’re still holding all those intersections, but it’s a privilege intersection. So part of what we feel is that intersectionality is always at play, so if the women’s movement is being called out as non-intersectional — it is! It’s at the intersection of whiteness and class privilege and able-bodiedness. There’s all these ways that it already is, it’s just not siding with those of oppressed identities.
TSW: I have a mental picture of sorts as you’re speaking about being forward-facing, but not seeing who’s behind you, and how what you’re doing is impacting those who are behind you, and thinking, “Well, what I’m doing is helping everyone who’s either in line with me or in front of me.” And if I imagine this in terms of who’s leading the movement, that’s 100 percent saying every once in awhile, “Hey, turn your head around and understand that there a lot of people behind you who are also fighting this fight.” Shifting gears a little bit, I know such a big part of Third Wave Fund is making sure that there is youth empowerment and youth leadership, because that is where all these things are pointing toward. I’m wondering if you can speak a little toward that. Why is it important for the younger generation to be involved not just as a peripheral volunteer, but as the people who are leading the charge?
RY: Show me a social justice movement where young people didn’t play a fundamental role. I think young people have shaped the amount of justice that everyone has access to right now in ways that are very invisible-ized. Like, if you look at the civil rights movement, for example, even MLK was incredibly young. In today’s day, he would be considered a youth in funders’ eyes in terms of being under 35 and doing so much of his activism. I think that there’s a way in which you’re considered a young person until you achieve something, and then you’re just a successful person, and so youth is just kind of framed inherently around this idea of delinquency. And around this idea that you don’t achieve anything. And there’s this kind of negative framing, like, “When will young people do something?” And “When will young people be the change that we need?”
And the thing is that young people have been the change that we need, but we don’t frame that positive impact in a recognition of the power of young people. I think our culture is obsessed with youth in a very superficial way, but they don’t really take young people seriously. They want to exploit young people for looks and for cultural capital and for ideas and for different forms of innovation, and then young people get known for being obsessed with technology and they don’t ever read any books, whatever these ageist ideas are.
think it’s really interesting because if you think about who’s a “millennial” and who gets pegged as that, it’s a very racialized, class concept of a person. People picture a liberal arts-educated person and this person who has all this access to technology and someone who’s entitled and someone who got an internship somewhere and somehow thought they had a right to a salary. You know, all these different perceptions. And I think there’s not this kind of deep thought about how are young people grappling with some of the biggest issues of our country’s history: dealing with racism, dealing with classism, very much attended by many funders in the way that they’re doing this — and still very much dealing with the shady perception that they don’t do much of anything, on top of all that.
TSW: I liked your mentioning that someone is young until they do something, and then they’re just successful. Then the youth falls away somehow, or that label does. And this idea of fetishizing this idea of youth without really understanding that there’s so much power behind that.
RY: There’s this way that young people are kind of written off, like “Oh, you’re just idealistic.” When what’s interesting to me is that young people have taken the lead in the idea of transformative justice and transformative organizing. And they’re saying, “Well, all idealism is is recognizing that another world is possible.” And bringing that into their organization and have actually made the world different, and so it’s actually very rational reasons for believing in idealism. And the other way that people show they’re suspicious of youth is by calling it entitlement. Like, how dare you come into this movement and think that you can do X, Y, and Z? I think that entitlement is the bedrock of social change. How do you demand some different kind of treatment if you don’t think you’re entitled to it? And so I think there’s this kind of ageism as far as, “Oh young people are coming in and they don’t know what we fought for and they should be grateful and they should bow down or they shouldn’t critique what hasn’t been accomplished yet.” Or they shouldn’t talk about what further there is left to do. And oftentimes, there’s a racist edge to it, because in the women’s movement, the LGBT movement, it’s people of color who’re saying, “This job is not done. We’re frustrated because we need to get on our feet and keep operating.”
The other thing that’s true about young people, and I hate to say this, is that politicians understand that young people are powerful and young people are vulnerable in a very particular way. A lot of their legislation targets youth. Bathroom bills are very much targeted around schools and young people. So even at the same time that they’re infantilizing young people and talking about them as victims of sexual violence, we’re doing nothing to support actual victims of sexual violence, who are very often queer youth. I just think there’s a lot that needs to change, and I think a lot more support and thinking needs to be paid around age. The way that we just need to start taking these issues seriously, and start taking seriously the impact that high schoolers have around issues of real change and be able to be achieved when young people come together and are allowed to lead.
TSW: That is really important to note, that politicians can see this power, but also this vulnerability, to exploit, and that’s such a dangerous thing. It’s this idea of having the younger generation recognize their power and then just taking that and really owning that and running with it.
RY: They know exactly where our movement is the weakest and they’re building their power right in those places. And so they’re building a lot of infrastructure in rural parts of the country and places where rural funders have thrown down the least. They’re making traction there and then they’re scaling that work up. That’s what we should be doing but we don’t in terms of progressive philanthropy, because we don’t trust grassroots activism in a deep way. We don’t scale up projects that are not in big cities. And the Right has been really effective in using that strategy to change the terms of what’s possible. And not only that, they also really fundamentally get intersectionality, right? They will come out with pamphlets about how gay rights and welfare and abortion are all the same issue. We can’t even make traction on the fact that queer politics and women’s politics belong together. We have to fight for even just that semblance of understanding in terms of how resources flow and how things operate.
TSW: Do you think that’s a matter of a lot of delayering, in a way, of unlearning, of not seeing things so clear-cut?
RY: Many new organizations are coming out being deeply intersectional and I think that’s really wonderful, and I think that a lot of institutions that are entrenched in the ways that they’re doing things are finding it really difficult to pivot and to change. To go from a place of theory to practice around intersectionality is hard, because all of their staff roles and all of their plans and all of their materials are really rooted in this “single issue” logic. It’s a logic model that this institution has been built around. And as much as people might understand it takes a lot of work to change those things, there’s a lot of ways people can understand something intellectually but as a person, they don’t operate with that deep understanding in their everyday positions about the work. So there’s also a question of personnel and people who operate on this and know how to operate on these lines of intersectionality. That’s something that you can’t take for granted.
Many women of color-led organizations might be working on a big breadth of work, but they might only be getting funding from women’s organizations and reproductive justice organizations. They’re not getting racial justice funding, and they’re not working directly in education so they’re not getting education funding. So there’s a lot of challenges there in terms of organizations and people being pigeonholed to one thing even if it’s really a cross-sector and multi-issue work.
I think it’s also important to say, “Hey, this organization is not doing their job.” To not be intersectional is fundamentally not doing your job. If your job is to fight for the rights of all women but you have historically left out all women of color, it’s really important that funders recognize that that’s not just not gettin’ with the times. That’s a fundamental failure in mission. You fundamentally cannot be good at your job if you are not intersectional. You’re not thinking about who this work impacts most directly, and building that into the deepest way that you do your work.
TSW: Right. It needs to become something foundational to any kind of org that is trying to do this kind of work, rather than the way some people speak of diversity these days, as just something that needs to be tacked on, like, “Oh okay, we’ve got it. We’ve got our two women of color. We have our diversity.” It’s like, no, that’s not what this means. Inclusiveness and diversity are two very different things.
RY: So the third area of focus we have is called the Mobilize Power Fund. So there’s the Grow Power Fund, the Own Our Power Fund, and then there’s Mobilize Power Fund, and that’s a rapid response vehicle, and that gets grants out the door within two weeks. It funds across movements and supports urgent activism that is being led by young women, queer, trans and intersect women of color. And it’s been funding everything from the Say Her Name campaign and other campaigns related to violence against women and queer and trans folks. It’s also been holding the line around the crackdown on immigration and the crackdown on undocumented folks, and has really provided a space for queer and trans folks and women to have access to resources within the immigration funding landscape that really doesn’t pay much attention to issues of gender and sexuality. And in response to the Bathroom Bills, and not just the Bathroom Bills, but all this related anti-LGBT and anti-trans bills, we formed a rapid response fund just for that body of work called the Flush Transphobia Fund. We’re going into our second year for that fund, and that’s been supporting transgender, intersex, nonconforming non-binary-led responses to these bills. It’s also been supporting spaces for ciswomen and transwomen of color to be in community together. The Right is trying to pit trans women against cis women in so many ways, and there needs to be space to form an agenda that is all-encompassing and that includes talk about violence against women as being a thing that trans women and cis women have in common.
And I think another thing is this Fund funds all kinds of institutions, whether you have a 501(c)(3) or not, partly because a lot of emerging work and a lot of urgent work is happening outside of the 501(c)(3) structure and outside of the nonprofit world. It’s really people coming under attack and responding, so we’ve been making resources available for all kinds of activism and have been accepting applications over the phone or through selfie video or just through a couple of points, a one-pager. It’s our way of saying we need to shape our process to make it the right process for the people who need it. Like, if you’re under attack, why are you going to write a 10-page narrative? So we’ve had young folks, 18-year-olds, passing a phone around and saying, “This is what’s up and this is why we need funding,” and that’s their proposal.
TSW: That kind of brings it full circle in terms of being adaptable and meeting people where their needs are. Because you’re right, if you’re under attack, 10 pages is probably not where your head’s at. It’s just, this is an immediate need, and how can we get the funding to create whatever we need or create the resources we need for the people who need that help?
On July 26, 2017, President Trump issued a series of tweets announcing that after consulting with several generals and unnamed military experts, he had decided to ban transgender individuals from serving in the U.S. military “in any capacity,” sending the public into a fit of reactionary anger. We reached out to Rye once again to get his reaction and take on Trump’s inflammatory decree and what it meant for the hard work grassroots organizations were already doing to combat homophobia and transphobia.
TSW: I just wanted to provide a space for you to talk about what the last few days have been like and what kinds of needs you’re seeing that are popping up with activist organizations.
RY: Sure. Well, I am … I’m still forming my reaction to [the ban], honestly, and trying to think about it — what’s been hard about the last week is that we’ve done a lot of media conversations about and it’s like, I’m a trans person in the world just reacting to the news as a human, and learning that it’s happening at the same time that the media needs to know exactly what my talking points are [laughs]. So I think that just part of the chaos of doing these things in the moment is that a lot of what groups need is a minute to think and breathe and process and feel what’s happening, and there’s so much pressure to act and react. And so I think what a lot of what the field needs, which is very similar to what me as a person, what I need, is just a space to address the harm that it’s caused doing this work with very little support and resources and that there’s just tolls that being an activist and being a person directly affected by the policies are going to take on folks. So I think at the same time that we want to know “What are you doing about this? What are you doing about this?” I think it’s important particularly for us as a foundation, to think about “How can we support you?” What do you need?
That’s one of the reasons that our Rapid Response Fund includes healing justice as a component of rapid response. I think that part of how we’re responding to what’s going on in addition to recommitting ourselves to the extent of Transphobia Fund for another year is to create a space to heal. With the bathroom bill and these kinds of lump attacks against trans people, it’s clearly not going to go away. And I think that the ban, if anything, is just an affirmation that trans people are being used as a bargaining chip and a wedge and a target to rally up support for conservative politicians. So I think that’s what we can notice from those comments, which are not a policy; they’re just a tweet.
I mean, I think that in terms of the analysis that I have now, and where I think it points me to as a funder, is that I think that when you look at the military as an employer as opposed to the military in all its imperialist ambitions, I think that we see that one, these militaries are survival economies and it’s why so many trans people serve in the military, or at least one of the reasons why. And so I think what we encourage is to just have an economic analysis as well, to draw the line about what this is going to say about employment law and what the federal government intends to do in terms of employment protection for LGBT people because I don’t think we should ignore the fact that Jeff Sessions put out his briefing on a federal case with no prompting whatsoever on the same exact day as this Trump tweet. And the briefing specifically outlined legal arguments for why the civil rights act of 1954 doesn’t cover LGBT discrimination.
So I think that if you look at those things together, this is the federal government as an employer not just taking away legal protections, but outright banning something that is legal and possibly a legal model for other employers. So that’s one way of looking at it. I can also see the way that [Trump] justifying the ban in his tweet is really laying the groundwork for so many exclusions within the ACA, and not just for the ACA, but all health care reform. And not just for trans people. It’s a way of “othering” so many communities to couch their rights in parameters of how expensive you are for the government and the taxpayers. And so I think that rather than just kind of fanning the flames of being like, “This is ridiculous, this is the military!” I think we need to see this in the context of healthcare and employment and all the tools the government has to keep people oppressed economically and physically. I think it’s really important right now to band together with disability justice folks who are putting their lives on the line for healthcare; with women of color who have been fighting for health care for so long; with reproductive justice advocates who also have seen many various needs and demands and are always on the chopping block because of some supposed shortage of society.
We don’t want to get swept up into every little thing Trump says because we want to be building movements that are actually fighting for a viable health care system and an economy that doesn’t leave any people out.
TSW: Right. If everything we do is purely reactionary, it’s kind of missing the bigger web of things of what’s happening, is what it sounds like.
RY: Yeah, definitely. And I think they’re going through really old playbooks and part of what makes me sad is that none of their talking points should be as effective as they are. I think part of the context for that is even though the LGBT movement and many other movements have nipped this ideology in the bud in terms of messaging so many times, we just don’t have the strategic communications that has to be on the Left to keep combatting these things. I mean, we win stuff, and then the capacity drops out of the field. Like, after gay marriage, after that victory, it felt like all of that messaging should have gone into, “OK, so how do we maintain our rights? How do we make sure we don’t leave people behind who become vulnerable even within the message of what helped us win?”
With our Own Our Power Fund, which actually provides funding for a number of things, one of them is about radical storytelling and how communities can own and can harness their power of actually being able to share their stories, their narratives, and create their own data. We live in this world where media and stories shape culture and shape policy. Those kinds of statements that are grounded in hate and exclusion shouldn’t be winning. I think our messages are a lot stronger that we’re grounded in love and compassion and respect, and those should be winning.
TSW: Right, and like you said to me when we talked previously, things need to be intersectional and we have to understand the economic repercussions of seemingly social policies. It’s not just, “Oh, those issues don’t affect me directly, therefore, I’ll protest another day.” That’s not really how it works.
RY: Right. We all are spinning our wheels from our own little corners trying to combat oppression, and it’s really hard and it’s really hard to know how you do that. So it’s like, “OK, this ban on trans people, we need to keep our focus on that as a cause.” But at the same time, we need to see beyond that and realize that everybody’s lives are at stake, that everyone’s being oppressed in this. So the question is, how do we get better at identifying what they’re doing with language and how they’re manipulating things and either play the game or choose not to?
TSW: We just need to be very aware of what we’re digesting.
RY: Yeah, it’s really hard to know what to do and how to respond strategically, with a whole set of completely new rules or no rules at all. And I think I’m just hoping if they’re going back to ideas that are rooted in false terms but are really good at undermining all of us, it’s really important as a funder that we provide the funding that people need and to actually do it together. I just hope they respond with just a more powerful, united message. That’s … I think that especially because the Right has been so bad in actually creating a vision that is compelling, I think now is the right time to actually be asking, “What am I asking people to be a part of?” and “Who’s it for? What’s it for for?” or “How am I going to get the right people behind it?” Because there’s so much that is falling apart about this world view. I mean, there’s a real opportunity to come up with something much more compelling than whatever’s being offered. We just gotta get to it.
TSW: No small task.
RY: And you know, it’s not like it’s going to happen today; these are the same battles that were being fought, even like, after Obama, but it’s very different rules, different players.
TSW: It’s like hopping onto a different board game, and saying, “Alright, now I have to learn from scratch, but what do I know from the previous ones?”
Rye Young is the Executive Director of Third Wave Fund which supports and strengthens youth-led gender justice activism focusing on efforts that advance the political power, well-being, and self-determination of communities of color and low-income communities. He has been involved with Third Wave since he started there as an Abortion Fund intern in 2008.
Rye currently serves on the Board of Directors for Funders for LGBTQ Issues, the Groundswell Fund, and Funders Concerned About Aids, and is a former board member of the New York Abortion Access Fund.
Rye is passionate about expanding opportunities for communities who are most affected by oppression yet remain marginalized in our movements and in philanthropy. Rye received a B.A. from Bard College in Arabic Language, Culture, and Literature, and attended the Institute of Culinary Education.
Featured image created by Micah Bazant for Third Wave Fund in 2015.