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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Affinity marks 20 years of grassroots accomplishments
PART TWO OF TWO Video below
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond
2015-05-20

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When Affinity began work in 1995, at its helm was a group of true idealists determined to do whatever it took to ensure than an under-represented Black LGBTQ community on Chicago's South Side was given a voice and the confidence to express it in a challenging political, social and philanthropic world.

For the next 20 years the women who led Affinity took it from an all-volunteer grassroots organization that had to fight for recognition and precious donor dollars to one that is now forging partnerships and initiatives that span LGBTQ issues across the city and nationwide.

They don't have a massive staff or an inordinately large budget. A great deal of the work Affinity accomplishes is still completed day-by-over-12-hour-day through its volunteers, board and small number of employees. Yet Affinity continues to expand its reach.

Two of the organization's leaders—Executive Director Kim Hunt and Board Vice-President Anna DeShawn—sat down with Windy City Times late one Wednesday evening to discuss Affinity's work both present and future.

Hunt was an independent grant-writer when she discovered Affinity during an INCITE Color of Violence conference in Chicago—Chris Smith was a panelist at that conference. "I had recently come out and I had walked past Affinity many times and never went in," Hunt said. "So when I saw [Chris] at the conference I was like 'let me just introduce myself and make my services available'."

Hunt's work with the committee to bring the 2006 Gay Games to Chicago had provided her with plenty of contacts, "folks who were on the front line across the city in the LGBT movement," she said. "But to know someone involved with this organization on the South Side working with Black women in particular was intriguing."

After Hunt finished grad school, Smith and Pickens took her out to dinner. "[They] put the moves on me to be on the board," Hunt recalled with a laugh. "They kept asking so eventually I said 'yes' and was on the board for a couple of years before I became executive director."

Ten years ago, DeShawn was an undergraduate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa—a place she referred to as a PWI ( predominantly white institution ). "I was looking for people that looked like me and they just don't exist in Des Moines," she said. "I was following Affinity's website for quite some time. I had come home for a break and I was like, 'I'm going to go'."

She showed up to Affinity's XPU youth leadership institute and was encouraged to join despite an initial reluctance. "Major peer pressure, good old Affinity style," DeShawn said. "I started doing the drop-ins and found community. When I first started working with Affinity there was no full-time staff. Everything was run by board members. Everything was a volunteer-based system. The capacity has grown exponentially over the past 10 years."

For Hunt, the challenge was to broaden Affinity's initial focus on community building and providing a safe space. "That was hugely important and very attractive to funders," she said. "Over the years focusing on that alone wasn't enough to bring funding in and it really wasn't meeting the needs of the community either."

While those communities and spaces still exist in the form of Affinity's volunteer-led programs such as Trail Blazers, 40 +, Proud Parents and Chi T* among others, Hunt recognized the need to have more structured programming over a longer period of time. Born from that need, the three-year Youth Scholars Program was developed by DeShawn and her fellow XPU members. "We have 12 alum from that group who are out doing amazing things," Hunt said.

She added that peer-to-peer education and advocacy has become a quintessential element of Affinity's work in social justice, direct services and programming such as HIV prevention.

In 2010 Affinity began a dramatic shift toward public policy efforts. "By that time a lot of the organizations across the country that were created around the same time as Affinity were dying, they were just starved for funding," Hunt recalled. "We knew that we needed to step up our game in certain areas."

Nevertheless in terms of funding and support DeShawn said that a great divide still exists between the North and South sides of Chicago.

"Inherently larger non-profits that have million-dollar funders can of course serve more people," she said. "And often times when you have grants based on the number of people you serve, then they automatically get more funding than smaller nonprofits like ourselves, even though we have proven to be financially stable [with] pages and pages of good work."

DeShawn said she credits Affinity's community as among those who have helped the organization navigate through a difficult philanthropic world with priorities that seem to be in a constant state of change. "We have people who continue to give their five dollars every month," she said, adding that Hunt's ability to build relationships and find new sources of funding has been just as invaluable.

However, 2012 proved to be a year when Affinity ran a perilous gauntlet. "Ironically that's the time when we were growing," Hunt said. "[It] was a weird year. It started out on a really high note, and then, towards the middle of the year, it became apparent that some of the new foundation donors we were cultivating were going through some changes in interest areas and leadership, and it all happened at once. Money that we anticipated even conservatively just disappeared."

Affinity's leadership was left with a heart-breaking but inescapable decision.

"At our high we had three full-time and two part-time staff," Hunt said. "By the time we laid people off, there were two of us left and we were paid part-time but continued to work like before because there was so much to do."

"Affinity is always [operating under the pretense that], 'We're going to get through this,'" DeShawn said, referring to the board."We're all a strong-minded, opinionated group of people but at the end of the day the main goal is what's best for the organization. That's what we all agree on."

Neither the board nor Hunt allowed the somber days of 2012 to consume Affinity. Three years on, they now boast an operating reserve and an auditor, which is very rare for an organization of its size.

Today it is difficult to find an LGBT fight in which Affinity has not played a significant role, whether in marriage equality or the myriad of issues faced by the transgender community, those living with HIV, homeless youth, immigrants — all people which the organization proudly calls "constituents." To further its reach it has forged partnerships with organizations from the Chicago Urban League to the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.

"We've been working closely with Affinity probably for the last five years," AFC President and CEO John Peller told Windy City Times. "When we say, 'Hey, we need your help with something' the answer's always 'Yes'. The level of grassroots engagement that Affinity is able to bring is incredible. It's an organization that is deeply rooted in the community and exceptionally well run. Kim and the board have done a phenomenal job in making Affinity a small but incredibly mighty organization."

According to Hunt, a person can travel anywhere in the country and will find someone who knows about Affinity or has been affected by the organization's work.

"I remember talking to one constituent who said that Affinity saved her life," Hunt said. "She had gone to a health forum on breast cancer and one of the things they had talked about was self-examination. She went home and did that for the first time ever and I saw on Facebook that she has been cancer free for five years."

On July 18, Affinity will hold Jazz 'n July at Gallery Guichard on the South Side. Jazz 'n July is an event that hasn't been seen since 2009.

Hunt and DeShawn said that it will be a moment for nostalgia but also one which looks forward to accomplishing new goals.

"The biggest thing that we all would like to see happen really soon is a community center on the South Side where we can provide even more direct services and have even more programs available," DeShawn said. "A starting place where we can do so much work."

"There's also a desire to connect the dots around the Midwest when it comes to LGBT organizations," Hunt added. "I've talked to several organizations in different parts of the Midwest who want to come together to do something bigger. Those are seeds that we've been planting for the last three or four years now."

When Affinity's first co-chairs Chris Smith and Lisa Marie Pickens planted the seeds of the organization in 1995 they could not have dared to imagine it would become so critical to the community.

Yet according to Smith one of the reasons that has occurred is because then and now Affinity's leadership stayed true to the founding vision and mission of the organization.

"I'm proud of them," Smith said referring to Hunt and the current board. "I mean, they not only moved beyond the challenges [of 2012] but they doubled the budget. They've done an outstanding job and they always reached back to ask about the principles specific to the structure of the organization and how to carry those philosophical pillars forward in their work. They are some powerful sisters."

Note: Affinity Community Services, Chicago, will benefit from the Saturday, June 13, Artemis Singers Pride concert/dance at Beverly Unitarian Church, 10244 S. Longwood Dr., at 7 p.m. The nonprofit chorus, celebrating its 35th anniversary, specializes in performing music written or arranged by women. Visit artemisproudbeverly.brownpapertickets.com .

Part One of this two-part series at the link: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Affinity-at-20-Marking-two-decades-of-grassroots-accomplishments/51461.html .



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