Be You Network launched the role model campaign "Gender Shapers 2020", a worldwide series of gender+ entrepreneurs' portraits. They will share their stories, their business journey and their advice to make your idea a reality, from launch to impact.
This week, we had a talk with Ashton from He Is Valuable. #HeIsValuable started as a social media campaign aiming to fight HIV stigma. The project has grown up to become a social movement for Black Queer men and their communities, with a holistic approach of health, addressing issues like employment or housing to body positivism. Ashton told us how he helped the organization to be legally registered and the importance of financial sustainability to create impacts in his community.
“Having this sense of responsibility is very important and opens up for more opportunities: as a brand new organization, it can be difficult for grant funders to trust you, to know what you would do with $100.000 when you’ve never had any dollars.”
I am Ashton, a native of Houston, Texas. I grew up in the ’90s, in a religious household in the South, in which we did not have a lot of conversations on sexuality or sex at all.
At that time, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a major official policy in the military: if you were part of the LGBTIQ+ community and if you were part of the military, you could not explicitly be asked about your orientation or gender identity, and you were not allowed to openly disclose this information. At the time, it was seen as a safe way to allow people to serve in the military but it was also a way of silencing your freedom of expression, a way of sweeping under the rug someone who is part of the LGBTIQ+ community and a way of hiding necessary representation. This policy extended beyond the military and made its way into many communities and families, including my own.
It was not until I was seventeen, that I finally decided to come out to my aunt who raised me. It was a bit of a struggle at first, she had her religious views about it and she was not ready to accept it. When I was eighteen, I moved away to Atlanta and I decided to live on my own terms. My aunt eventually and thankfully came around. Today, my family is extremely supportive and loving. They love my husband and ask about him all the time!
I recognize that I am in a very privileged space. There are a lot of people, especially Black people in the South, who do not have the same freedom to express themselves and live in their authentic truth. If they do, especially with youth, they are kicked out of their homes and disowned by their families. An alarming number of youth commit suicide when faced with this situation. Some young adults tend to lean into alcohol and substance addiction to cope. Even more lean into sexual addiction because they missed the freedom of expression and the needed information from their families or their communities to be exactly what God made them be.
In the last few years, I have been working with the organization called He Is Valuable, as the Director of Operations & Development.
As a minister, I do a lot of social justice work and I have been able to connect with a large community of Black Queer people here in Atlanta. I’ve done a lot of work around HIV stigma, helping people to be educated around HIV and cope with their HIV status. A few years ago, one of my friends told me about He Is Valuable and suggested that I should do some work with them. I was extremely busy at the time, and my first intention was to do some volunteering here and there. But when I met with Richard Hutchinson, one of the founders, and he told me about his vision, I was so impressed and blown away that I could not refuse to be part of the organization.
When it was founded, #HeIsValuable was just a social media campaign, featuring images of Black Queer men, of different ages, sizes, shapes, or expressions doing different things, stating HIV should not stand in the way of identity, brotherhood, sexy, on and on...
It was a way to show that a person’s HIV status does not take away their value, replacing the meaning of the acronym Human Immunodeficiency Virus with He Is Valuable. It was a way to show people that whatever your HIV status is, it should not stand in the way of your sense of value, your sense of worth, whether you are living with HIV, or whether you are HIV negative. Your value is inherent within you and cannot be taken away.
It was a way to show people that whatever your HIV status is, it should not stand in the way of your sense of value, your sense of worth, whether you are living with HIV, or whether you are HIV negative.
In 2018, Richard gathered a group of people together on a weekend retreat where he laid out the vision for He Is Valuable. Beyond talking about HIV, it was about creating a community of Black Queer Men, to provide them support, a sense of community, and empowerment, particularly in Atlanta but also everywhere else. The members would support and lift each other up, advocate, and change the narrative around what it means to be a Black Queer Man in America. Most of the time, Black Queer Men are related to HIV or are represented under highly caricatured stereotypes. At this weekend retreat we came up with an official mission statement: “The mission of He Is Valuable is to Identify, Reinforce and Celebrate the value of Black Queer Men and their communities.”
Beyond talking about HIV, it was about creating a community of Black Queer Men, to provide them support, a sense of community, and empowerment, particularly in Atlanta but also everywhere else.
We use Black Queer Men as an umbrella term that is inclusive of a wide variety of identities: gay men, bisexual men, transgender men, pansexual men, gender nonconforming individuals, masculine-presenting individuals, etc. We are not Black Queer Men exclusive but Black Queer Men centered. In our mission statement, the phrase “and their communities” is also important: we might not be at the forefront of conversations around Trans women, Black women, or our White or Hispanic LGBTIQ+ counterparts but we recognize we are in community with them and that their equality is inextricably tied to our equality.
We fulfill our mission through a large umbrella of various activities.
We understand through research that HIV among Black Queer men is at such an alarming rate in the USA, especially in the South because of the intersection of economic disparities. This is why we did not want to focus only on HIV but also address that Black men often face unequal access to affordable housing, well-paying jobs, emotional and mental support, healthy, romantic and sexual life, and so on. On top of that, Queer people face homophobia, transphobia, a lot of them are kicked out from their homes, are denied access to jobs, or are forced to put themselves in compromising positions and all that puts Black Queer Men at a higher risk of contracting HIV. We aim to help them not just get tested and get on PrEP or antiretrovirals, but make sure they have access to the things they need in order to live a holistic healthy life.
We run a variety of social media campaigns, and HIM Naturally is our last initiative in which we represent Black Queer Men of different body types talking about their relationship with their bodies in a way to promote body positivity and increase self-worth.
We have weekly discussion groups called Chit Chat & Chew, which allow Black Queer Men the space to talk about issues that are relevant to them. Our Random Kickbacks are themed community events that celebrate the freedom of expression within our community and provide a space to build community. We provide support services for our members with our program He Is Supported in which we navigate people to resources that they need, whether it be a HIV Care, housing, or access to food and necessities.
We also do advocacy work around voting, making sure people are registered to vote. Currently, Atlanta and the entire nation is in a state of civil unrest because of the racial inequalities and the police brutality that has been going on for centuries in our country. He Is Valuable has been in support of the protesters by providing water, masks, and working at the frontline, behind the scenes, talking with city officials to help them to understand the situation for our community. We lift our voices around the Black trans community because we want to emphasize that All Black Lives Matter: historically in the Black community, Black Queer people lead the change when talking about racial inequalities. However, our straight Black community often ostracizes us. Black trans women are being murdered at an alarming rate, most of the time by Black straight men because of transphobia. We are pressing that conversation to be sure that when we are fighting for racial equality and racial liberation, that includes our Queer and Trans brothers, sisters and siblings as well.
Organizational structure is really, really important if you want to grow into something people can benefit from
I became the Operations Director for the organization and I was instrumental in helping us to get our business license and our non-profit status, so we can be able to get funded and hire staff to do the work we wanted to do.
My primary responsibility is to ensure that the business of the organization keeps running so other staff can focus on providing those necessary programs and services to the community.
If you want to make a significant impact, that takes money. We live in a money-driven world where it costs to bring your vision to fruition, to pay people to help you to bring your vision to life. The primary reason for legalizing and creating an organizational structure is to get the resources you need: you can ask for $5 here, $10 there and people will donate, but it takes a lot more structure to be able to get grant funding or “big-money” donors, for investors or for banks to take you seriously and convince them to invest in your vision.
Another advantage of having a strong organizational structure is the community buy-in: people usually gravitate around things they already know. If you want people to take part in what you are doing, people need to see there is a structure. Since we became organized and increased our professionalism and our marketing, we have seen more people in our community come to us for services, more attendees joining our events, and more leaders willing to partner with us.
About how to choose a legal form for an organizational structure
What we knew from the beginning is that we are a non-profit organization: we are not in this to get rich but to serve our community. There were then two options here in the United States: you can be your own non-profit entity that gives you tax exemptions as an organization, or you can be a “fiscal agent,” you have a project but you don’t necessarily want to be financially independent and you could go under the umbrella of a larger organization that would receive all of your funding and then redistribute to you. It was a big question for us at the beginning but we eventually decided to become our own organization, primarily because we knew that we had a vision that had a potential to grow rapidly, and we wanted to have the financial independence to be able to adapt and grow the way we thought would be best.
The way we are structured as an organization was based on the determination of the type of work we wanted to do first: we knew we wanted to have a social media presence, so it was a no-brainer for us to have a Marketing department. We knew we wanted to provide services and speak up for our community so we knew we needed a Services and Advocacy department. We knew we wanted to throw parties and have open discussions in groups, so we knew we needed a Programs department. And we knew we needed some structure in order to create it all, so we needed the Operations department. Look at what you are already doing and create a structure that makes sense for what is naturally growing and evolving within your project and that fits within the work you are already doing.
What we knew from the beginning is that we are a non-profit organization: we are not in this to get rich but to serve our community.
Another important thing that helped us in the early stage was a consultant, Montee Evans, who had experience starting nonprofits, with legal processes and fundraising. He dedicated countless hours teaching us about how to get formalized, how to create your vision and mission statement, and our structure. All of that information, for most of us, was brand new. None of us had started an organization on our own before!
Richard and I went through a 6 month training course around the inner workings of building an organization: we learned about creating a board of directors, fundraising strategies, how to create a sustainable budget, how to create more efficient programs, etc. This training has proven to be successful in our ability to measure our growth and create systems that work for us.
Sometimes you have the money in the bank but it does not mean you can afford to do it.
We are now a year and a half as an official legal organization, we started only with volunteers and we now have people who are on payroll. We have a growth rate that is incredibly rapid and a lot of that is due to building relationships with grant funders and community supporters. Grant funding is our main source of fundraising as a non-profit organization. We are supported by two major grants and this is how we can pay for our staff, our programs, our supplies, and our office.
My role is to make the organization sustainable for the long term future. In order to do that, I needed to learn what we could do and we could not do. We had to understand that a good idea might not be such a good idea right now. I often ask myself and the team, can we afford it? Sometimes you have the money in the bank but it does not mean you can afford to do it. We were fortunate to have received major grants who took a chance on us and we have been very diligent making sure we handle our finances properly. We budget our expenses well in advance, and we diversify our funding with smaller grants as well as fundraising events and online donations campaigns.
Having this sense of responsibility is very important and opens up for more opportunities.
Having this sense of responsibility is very important and opens up for more opportunities. As a brand new organization, it can be difficult for grant funders to trust you, to know what you would do with $100.000, or even less, when you never had any dollars. Before you get the dollars, you need a structure for what to do with them, how you manage your accounting, understand the federal laws and local rules around taxing or hiring staff. Organizations often want to put all the money into the program and projects but you need to invest some of the money into the back-end, making sure your work is sustainable and you have a proper accounting software, the necessary legal documents, insurance on your business and so on, and all those things cost money.
It is really important to network within your community and within your field. Get to know the people who have already done the work, and develop relationships with them.
Our goal is never to replace or do better than other organizations serving the Black Queer community in Atlanta. For us, it is never a competition but an enhancement of the work that is already out there. There is always something new to be added to the field you work in and you can avoid mistakes that have already been made. It will help you to make your transition into growth and independence a lot easier!
Our goal is never to replace or do better than other organizations serving the Black Queer community in Atlanta. For us, it is never a competition but an enhancement of the work that is already out there.
A last piece of advice: make sure you continue to love what you are doing! As queer people, a lot of work that we do, we do not just do it for a paycheck but because we understand the impact it will have on our family, on our LGBTIQ+ community and future generations. When you start doing this work, sometimes it can be tiresome and draining. But always remind yourself why you are doing it in the first place! If you continue to keep this passion, to show love for what you do, there is no choice but to grow, succeed, thrive and impact other people's lives.
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