Feature: Freedom Inc.’s Creative Response to the Criminalization of Black Communities in Madison, Wisconsin

Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice has been supporting Freedom Inc. (FI) for 4 years. FI was founded in 2003, is based in Madison, WI and has used particularly creative and inspiring strategies to respond to oppression, racism and violence. FI works to end violence within and against low and no income communities of color. They work at the intersection of prison abolition, LGBT rights, education rights, and reproductive justice. FI aims to challenge the fundamental root causes of violence through leadership development and community organizing in Black and Southeast Asian, particularly Hmong communities in Madison. Their programs also aim to change cultural norms into which young people are socialized and build capacity for youth as leaders in their communities to organize for institutional change and accountability. In 2001, FI was recognized by Obama as a “champion of change” for their work against gender based violence.

On March 6th of this year, Tony Robinson a 19 year-old, “was shot five times and killed by Officer Matt Kenny in a stairwell at a friend’s apartment. Tony’s friend called the police seeking help for his friend, who was allegedly jumping in and out of traffic. However, instead of helping him, Officer Kenny broke into the apartment and fatally shot him five times.” As part of the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition, FI has worked tirelessly to bring attention to the issue of police brutality in light of Robinson’s murder. Rather than a federal investigation, the coalition has called for the UN Human Rights Commission and Organization of American States investigation to examine the murder.

Since Mike Brown’s murder in Ferguson, FI youth have been building solidarity with Ferguson activists and sharing their Human Rights framework. According to their online petition, “the greater Madison, Wisconsin area, including all of Dane County, is home to some of the greatest racial disparities in the United States. The Black unemployment rate is 5 times higher than that of Whites, and 54% of Blacks live in poverty compared to 8.7% of Whites. Black people make up just 4.8% of Dane County's general population, but 44% of the new jail inmate population, the highest racial arrest disparity in the United States.” FI is also demanding that Dane County officials reject the proposed jail expansion, release the 350 Black inmates incarcerated as part of structural racism, end the practices that got them in jail in the first place and invest the $8 million that is not spent on incarcerating Black communities on Black led initiatives in Madison.

Along with FI, Astraea’s other grantee partners are carrying out “Know Your Rights” trainings and producing police training manuals for the fair treatment of LGBTQ people; using transformative justice approaches to hate violence; mobilizing against policies that criminalize LGBTQ migrants; getting police departments to adopt LGBT protocols and working to abolish the Prison Industrial Complex. In the past two years, Streetwise and Safe and Audre Lorde Project worked with Communities United for Police Reform, a cross-movement coalition, to pass the Community Safety Act in NYC. Community United Against Violence pushed to pass historic legislation limiting ICE's controversial fingerprint-sharing "Secure Communities" (S-Comm) program in California and preventing the criminalization of queer and trans migrants. Providence Youth Student Movement moved forward the Rhode Island Racial Profiling Prevention Act and is working to pass the City of Providence Community Safety Act, Audre Lorde Project helped pass the Medicaid and Welfare Justice Campaign that provides trans* inclusive health care in New York, and Power Inside worked to pass the Healthy Births for Incarcerated Women Act in Maryland.

The LGBTQ organizations we support are led by the people most affected by systems of oppression: people of color, youth, trans women of color, people in the sex trades, homeless or unstably housed people, migrants and people with experience of incarceration. Their work is intersectional at its core, bringing together issues of race, gender identity and expression, sexuality, class and immigration status, among others. Astraea’s focus on anti-criminalization reflects a priority identified by the movement. A report published by FIERCE in 2014 Moving Up, Fighting Back: Creating a Path to LGBTQ Youth Liberation, revealed that the most critical issues impacting LGBTQ youth today are criminalization; policing; lack of housing; immigration restrictions; and concerns of safety and violence, including bias violence, school-based violence, and intimate partner/ sexual violence. Astraea understands criminalization and policing not as isolated cases of discrimination but as symptoms of systemic and structural oppression.

Our support to these organizations and movements aims to:

  • Increase police accountability, policies, protocols and measures to decrease police
    abuse against LGBTQ people.
  • Increase the resiliency and leadership capacity of populations most affected by criminalization.
  • Increase the safety and wellbeing of LGBTQ people through transformative justice,
    healing justice, and other creative responses to violence.
  • Strengthen connectivity, communication, and synergy between LGBTQ organizations working against criminalization at a national level.

In the last four decades, Astraea’s U.S. Fund has strategically directed grants to people of color- led organizations and projects that advance LGBTQ racial and economic justice. In the past three years we have been listening and learning from our grantee partners and from the grassroots movements they lead, and we have deepened our commitment to support organizations and initiatives that stand against the criminalization of LGBTQI people of color and immigrant communities and that increase their safety. These organizations work against different forms of violence including interpersonal and institutional violence such as police violence and laws/policies that criminalize aspects of LGBTQ people’s lives, dignity and livelihoods.

We are inspired by the work of Freedom Inc. and our grantee partners who have been carving the rode for this current movement moment for over fifteen years.

February 12, 2019

FFJ Advisor Discussion Series: Marisa Franco

Marisa Franco, FFJ Field Advisor and Director and Co-founder of of Mijente, a digital and grassroots hub for Latinx and Chicanx organizing and movement building, speaks on the current political moment and how funders can contribute to movement work.

Tell us about the particular moment you are in with your work and place in the movement.

Entering into our fourth year, we are doing our best to be a vehicle to both respond to the real-time challenges our communities face and a place to find respite, connection, and replenished meaning. Given what the Latinx and Chicanx community faces, we’ve got to walk and chew gum at the same time (and hop on one leg, juggle, and balance something on our head!) but we believe that through the continued growth where organizers, healers, change-makers, designers, and disrupters feel Mijente is a place to meaningfully contribute to collective liberation means we are going in the right direction. It is my view that our most critical task at this time is growth and recruitment - millions of people are becoming exposed to the injustice and summarily wrong direction we are heading in - our organizations must be open and accessible entry points for people to contribute to moving us in the right direction.

How do you understand the political moment that we’re in? What do you think we need to do differently right now?

Ultimately I think that lots of what we reference as threats that are coming are largely here - crisis as a result of climate change is here, it’s being felt across the planet. The extreme backlash and attempt to re-entrench power due to demographic change is here, occurring in localities across the United States. Authoritarianism is a growing threat beyond Donald Trump and within the domestic United States. Given all of this, at the very least I think it’s critical we start to widen our panorama of political understanding to include outside of the United States and make the connections internationally. Rest assured, our adversaries are in coordination - we ignore our movement siblings and the struggle outside of the United States to our own detriment.

What should funders be understanding in this political moment? What should funders be doing to support organizations and movements?

What’s important to understand in this political moment is how the volatility impacts the plans, perspective, and morale of people in organizations and social movements. It has become more and more difficult to lay out plans that feel real given how normal it's become for so much to turn upside down pretty regularly. Some understanding and support of this from funders, particularly when it means proposed work is not carried out in the way it was initially described, is very helpful.

Continued support for rapid response tactics is critical, as well as funds that help convene key groups and/or leaders in this time goes a long way. In times like these, those that are able to adapt and move quickly are well positioned to make impactful changes. These folks have got to be able to do so with enough support and not too many hurdles, hoops, and paper to be able to move. So some of these existing practices around simplifying processes, making funds available for rapid response activities, and pop up convenings is something that has been helpful thus far and is important to continue.

December 10, 2018

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