Letter From Executive Director

Black Lives Matter Statement from Executive Director Jose Albino

George Floyd was murdered in the streets of Minneapolis a few weeks ago. The killing of Breonna Taylor preceded his murder. Police in Louisville, KY shot her eight times in her own home. A few weeks before that, Ahmaud Arbery was shot while jogging by three gun trotting white men in Georgia. Before that there was Sandra, Trayvon, Layleen, Eric, Kiko, Michael, John, Ezell, Tanisha, Freddie, Breona, and far too many more. They, too, were taken from us too early and killed by the police, and/or were victims of violence and the racist systems and edicts that are designed to not serve and protect them.   GRIOT Circle’s staff, members, and board unequivocally stand in solidarity with all individuals that have been affected by these senseless murders – particularly the loved ones of the victims. Black lives have always more than mattered to us.
Like many, because of the quarantine and sheltering in place, I was forced to intentionally follow the modern-day lynching of George Floyd. I was paralyzed for days not understanding why. And it all came back. His tragedy transported me to a place I repressed and dared not look. This is how trauma works. Years prior, on multiple occasions, I was pulled over by white cops while driving with other men of color in New York. There was no apparent reason for this. We were simply driving while Black and Brown – in our own neighborhoods. I have felt the cold, gray, paralyzing steel of a gun pointed to my head many times. I have seen the hate in their eyes and the dance in their souls when they catch their prey.
Unlike others before us, the triggers weren’t pulled.
What I want – no need you to know – is that these experiences fundamentally change you. They break you. The barbaric intentions to vanish and vaporize you shift and de-calibrate you. They create a space in your core that you can’t even name. They question your humanity, your worth. And that of others. It changes how you view authority, whiteness, power, privilege, and access.
But now more than ever we see you. We have always seen you. Now, you will see us in all our splendor and glory. You will see us and respect us – it is no longer an option. We are committed to sharing our deepest truths with you. Making you comfortable is no longer part of our collective strategy. The shiny protective veneer is dulling, so listen up. We have seen you dismiss us, expel us, mute us, dehumanize, and minimize us. No more, no mas.
For me, the staff, members, and board of directors, enough has been enough for a very long time. We refute the vile actions of the police force in Minneapolis and around the country, and are unquestionably calling for justice and requisite reforms. We stand shoulder to shoulder and link arms with activists, elected leaders, and change makers around the country who are calling for the reduction of funding from police forces. Like them, we are advocating for the redirection of these funds towards the social services that will help us break the cycle of poverty, promote upward mobility, and create concrete paths to opportunities and wealth in communities of color. We will not allow for the conversation to be highjacked by well intentional empathizers. And while we truly and humbly appreciate and welcome a multiracial movement, WE are committed to policing (pun intended) these police reforms and reconstructions to make sure that the changes that are on the horizon are predominantly steered by the Black and Brown voices, including our trans and gender non conforming family, that have been fighting for these changes for decades.
And we fight.
This week marks my fifth year as the Executive Director of GRIOT Circle. Our mission is to respond to, and eliminate all forms of oppression, including: ageism, racism, sexism, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, poverty, xenophobia, and their intersections.
During the first few months at my post I set out to strategically build and cultivate relationships with key (and powerful) influencers in the LGBTQ community, and in philanthropy. During two telling meetings, on two separate but equal occasions I was nonchalantly asked the same thing: Why does an organization like yours even exist? The first was from a cisgender, gay white, elected leader. The impudence, I thought: the audacity of this man with influence and power, who is further leveraging his white privilege by the income bracket that my tax dollars make it possible for him to exist in, defecating on the history of my constituents. And the other from a white cisgender female. To them it felt as if they were asking why are you even wearing that color sweater. To me, it landed completely different. How cunning. And Aggressive. And dismissive. How American, I kept thinking. American as apple pie. No side of dulce de leche ice cream here. I also think they thought that they clipped this fairy’s wings. Nope. They uncovered them.
And that’s why we fight.
Here is the thing: There is another layer of structural racism that we need to deconstruct. We demand structural changes and reforms from our policing systems across the country that target Black and Brown people, but also for non-profit organizations across the country, and the people who lead them, particularly LGBTQ orgs. We demand that you throw away your diversity and inclusion manuals and center racial justice in your respective organizations. We want to see the changes .
Your approaches to thinking you’re saving the people you serve are incendiary. The systemic erasures of the narratives and contributions that Black and Brown people have made to this country’s economic, moral, cultural, and social fiber, including the LGBTQ movement, only serve you to give the semblance that you are saving us from the oppressive positions that you put us in. We built this country. America has bruised and bloodied us, but our heads are still unbowed. History has shown that we are not victims, but beacons of resilience. Hasn’t this pandemic shown you who is essential? But we want more, and we are demanding more.
           I, and my equally dedicated team, protect and fight for the older adults we serve every day. We will fight for the honor and legacies of the Black and Brown female warriors that founded this organization because no one else was serving them. They were entrenched in the civil rights, LGBTQ, and women’s movements. But they are still not the predominant beneficiaries, unless you count their voluminous scars. They still continue to experience misogyny, homo/bi/trans phobia, ageism, and systemic, crippling racism. Because of this, how we serve and uplift them is centered in, and anchored by, the traditions of the African diaspora, and African American history.
GRIOT Circle has unapologetically centered race, social justice, and equity in all of our work for over 24 years. It is time for non-profits across the nation to do this as well. Until this happens, the bones of our society – the society we are fiercely fighting to strengthen today – remain feeble and weak.
The hope and change around race relations we are currently experiencing and calling for in our country needs to bleed into the non-profit sector as well. We, too, need a paradigm shift.
The top brass of organizations, including boards, need to be vehemently committed to recruiting, hiring, and retaining people of color to leadership and decision making positions within their respective organizations. Understand that people of color, particularly trans women of color, extending to the growing aging community – will be reticent in seeking services unless their identity is represented.
Don’t continue to use us as honorable mentions and sound bites at your palely attended galas, or plaster us on your annual reports and promotional videos like a modern day Hottentot Venus.  It’s reductive. Commit to real structural changes.   We need intentional, well-funded opportunity programs that create a sustainable pipeline to leadership positions for people of color. We know best what our communities need.
     And we fight.
As a twenty-plus year non-profit leader serving marginalized communities of color, I can tell you this: The esoteric world of philanthropy needs to bend their arc of giving to support the unglossy, small, underfunded and incredibly dynamic organizations that are in the front lines organizing, advocating for, and transforming the lives of the very people we are fighting for today. Our organizations, much like communities of color across our country, are expected to do more with less, work harder, and “get creative” with the skeletal resources that we are given access to. How you prioritize your distribution of funds deserves its own #oscarsowhite moment because how you distribute your awards is insulting. It’s beyond laughable, really. Your messages to front line organizations are as clear and apparent as the white paper your denial letters are printed on: You don’t matter and we don’t see you. That’s what they say.
Our organizations, many whose leadership look like the people they serve, are the ones that are fiercely invested in ensuring that marginalized communities have access to education, fair housing, employment, and access to quality healthcare. Even a pandemic told us what we already knew: Without social justice, justice simply can’t exist. Deconstructive, transformative and restorative equity and inclusion work need to be present in your respective boards and hiring practices as well. Social justice can easily be facilitated if just decisions are made. They sit in the heavy purses that you hold.
And. We. Fight.
And, still, I am hopeful. It’s a poetic moment in time. A man who put kids in cages and who vowed to build a wall at the border – is now living behind a black fence to protect him from us. As #45 continues to fan the flames of division, I am proud of this country because the winds of change are circling back and, it is my deepest hope, that it will soon turn those flames into ashes. If we continue to stand with the ones that suffer the most among us regardless of where we come from – we will move closer to Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream. And we will reach, and shout it from the mountaintop.
“Soon must come the day ~ When the righteous have their way ~ Unjustly tried are free ~ And people live in peace I say ~ Give the man release ~ Go on and set your conscience free ~ Right the wrongs you made ~ Even a fool can have his day”
Tracy Chapman