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  IDENTITY

AFFINITY TURNS 10
by Amy Wooten
2005-09-01

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Pictured Affinity marked its 10th anniversary in style at the Park West. Comic Karen Williams and R&B singer Terisa Griffin entertained, with DJs Sherron and Wilma following it up with a dance party, and Taylor Made Cuisine providing food. Awards presented at the Jazz 'N July ( chaired by Mary Morten ) were: Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, Chicago Foundation for Women and the Crossroads Fund. Co-founders Lisa Pickens and Chris Smith were also acknowledged, with Smith receiving a special gift for her 10 years of work on behalf of African American lesbian and bisexual women. Call ( 773 ) 324-0377. Or see www.affinity95.org .

More Affinity photos and article online at www.windycitymediagroup.com and in the September edition of Identity. Photos by Tracy Baim.

As Affinity glides through its tenth year, the organization raises the bar.

Affinity is a South Side grassroots non-for-profit serving Chicago's Black lesbian and bisexual women. The group strives to provide visibility, empowerment and leadership for Black lesbians, and meet the community's needs. It provides economic empowerment workshops, social justice and health justice initiatives, advocacy work and social networking events. Looking ahead, Affinity board members plan to fine-tune their focus to better serve their community.

The agency even raised the bar for its annual Jazz n' July event. Held at Park West, 322 W. Armitage, Affinity celebrated its anniversary of serving the Black lesbian and bisexual women's community. Singer Terisa Griffin and comic Karen Williams entertained July 30, plus there was food, dancing and DJs.

'We are forcing ourselves to take another step forward,' said board vice president Gaylon Topps Alcarez. 'Even by having it at Park West. It's just pushing ourselves a little bit more.'

Affinity is a social service agency that provides a wide range of programs for the Black lesbian and bisexual women community such as outreach, health initiatives, youth and social services, a drumming circle and singles nights. Singles groups serve as a way of decreasing isolation, while drumming circles and open mic nights act as a forum for Black lesbians' self-expression. Drop-in discussions are available for young women and other groups, and Affinity is part of a coalition of women, healthcare providers and community leaders that address health needs in the community. Affinity is also committed to the advocacy of Black lesbians internationally, nationally and citywide. It takes a stance against violence, hate crimes and war, and promotes creativity and inclusiveness.

Over the course of a year, Affinity serves close to 1,000 constituents—or women they serve on a consistent basis—through its programming.

The first meeting was in November of 1994, according to co-founder and board president Chris Smith. Smith joined the steering committee, which started meeting January of 1995. The organization applied for its first grant in October of that year, and was awarded its first grant January 1996. Affinity was born out of discussions among Black gays and lesbians on the South Side about forming a community center to service their needs. 'They felt like the North Side was catered to white, gay males so they wanted to form their own thing,' said Alcarez, who joined in June of 1997. The group did a needs assessment survey, and as the work progressed, the men 'disappeared' from the table. The mission became to provide a safe space for Black lesbian and bisexual women, she continued.

'Virtually nothing that existed here today was there then,' Smith said.

Much has changed since Affinity was simply discussions held in the homes of the men and women who gave birth to the idea, such as co-founder and returning board member Lisa Marie Pickens. Affinity went from being a collective group of women to a legit non-profit agency. Smith said the group has made all the necessary changes to be a strong, responsible part of the community that people can depend on.

'We went from a steering committee with this pie-in-the-sky idea to an organization that for its size, has developed really strong allies over the years,' she said.

One thing that hasn't changed, said Pickens, is the need for the organization. 'I believe that the need existed then for an Affinity, and I think the need continues to be there for an organization like Affinity,' said Pickens, who returned to Affinity after a break to help the organization set its new agenda around advocacy and policy—something she has expertise in.

Out of the numerous programs and outreach and advocacy efforts the agency provides, just being in existence is Affinity's most important role.

'Culturally, Black lesbians have been just isolated in terms of the broader community,' Alcarez said. 'They've been isolated in not only the gay and lesbian community, but in the African American community.' Therefore, she added, Affinity is proudest of not one specific program, but the fact that the organization creates visibility for the community.

'I think that says a very major thing to other Black women, Black lesbian women, younger women that are seeking safety, seeking a space where they can merge all parts of themselves into one area,' Alcarez continued. 'This is a place that's out there, that's visible and that is really a key, key statement. Yes, we provide a lot of great programs, but I think the most important thing we can do is just be visible and just be in existence.'

Affinity has faced many challenges over the years. Funding is always an issue, said Alcarez. Until staff was hired four years ago, the volunteer board was up to its ears in grunt work.

At times, being such a visible part of the community can be difficult. 'We always drift right square in the middle of being completely out and visible—and serving individuals who aren't out,' Smith said, who added that many of the group's constituents are coming out of heterosexual marriages. 'We serve as a bridge.'

Alcarez was one of those constituents. Coming out of a marriage, she read about Affinity in the back of a publication. She called the number just to see if such a place existed. 'I was like, 'Is this real? Is this real?' because I was coming out of a heterosexual marriage and I was scared of coming down,' she said.

In addition, another challenge is trying to touch different levels of the Black lesbian and bisexual women's community. Alcarez said that there are different segments of the population, such as youth, those in the closet or people who 'are not into the social service thing.' The board is trying to figure out how to market to them. 'That's challenging because in order to continue to grow, you've got to move yourself beyond certain boundaries and you've got to expand,' Alcarez said.

The last three years have brought a turnaround for the group. The board members have been tapping into constituents about why they should give back to Affinity. In the past two years, Affinity has had to face new situations, such as preparing the memorial and burial of some of its constituents.

'It's something we never envisioned when we first began,' Smith stated. But people look up to Affinity as a responsible institution that brings its constituents help, safety and hope, she added.

Three major shifts have occurred in the past year. Affinity is refocusing and creating new goals. Affinity is now focusing on economic empowerment, health advocacy and building community partnerships, Smith said. The group is working on building coalitions within and outside the community to provide information to its constituents and gain access to healthcare issues. Although much of its current work focuses on networking opportunities, the organization wants to continue to increase its exposure and provide ways to combat isolation. Affinity also wants to continue its efforts in strengthening its constituents' economic situations by providing information, as well as career and education workshops.

As she returns, Pickens said she would like to see the group she helped form be more geared towards advocacy. 'I think there is absolutely a need for the voice of Black women to be involved in those types of discussions, so I think there's always going to be a need for the types of services that Affinity provides,' she said, adding Affinity is 'in the very best place' to push forward with its health initiatives and other goals.

Call ( 773 ) 324-0377. Or see www.affinity95.org .


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