Feminists We Love: J. Bob Alotta – The Feminist Wire

Feminists We Love: J. Bob Alotta

Bob with Achebe Powell  (one of Astraea Foundation's Founding Mothers)

J. Bob Alotta with Achebe Powell
(one of Astraea Foundation’s Founding Mothers)

J. Bob Alotta is the Executive Director at the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, a global foundation based in NYC that provides critical resources to LGBTQI organizations and individuals around the world.  Bob is a lifelong activist and an accomplished filmmaker with a track record of leading exponential organizational growth and capacity building through visionary management and fundraising. She builds strong partnerships with diverse communities, grantee partners, donors, institutional funders, and corporate stakeholders. Bob served for four years as Board Chair of FIERCE (Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment), a longtime Astraea grantee partner, helping to build the leadership and power of LGBTQ youth of color.  On behalf of the FIERCE Board of Directors, Bob was awarded the Stonewall Foundation’s 2009 Alan Morrow Prize for Excellence in Board Leadership. Bob also served for six years as grant reviewer for Open Society Foundations’ Community Fellowship Program, and has consulted for Swarthmore College, Williams College, WITNESS, and the Prison Moratorium Project.  Prior to joining Astraea, Bob served as Director of Digital Media and Content for Zeitbyte Digital Media and as Director of Digital Technology for Film at the Columbia University School of the Arts.  Bob’s documentary and narrative films have aired on Democracy Now, GRITtv, and PBS, and have screened at festivals in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and the Middle East.

When I scheduled Bob’s “Feminists We Love” interview to coincide with the 44th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprisings (aka Riots), I very honestly didn’t factor in that the Supreme Court would rule on critical issues that directly impact LGBTQI people during this same time period. I was solely focused on scheduling. The horror!

While I am ecstatic and celebrate the decisions that struck down DOMA and Proposition 8; I am also deeply disturbed and mourn the horrid decision, which basically dismantles the Voting Rights Act.

As Congressman and veteran Civil Rights Activist John Lewis wrote,

[…] the purpose of the Voting Rights Act is not to increase the numbers of minority voters or elected officials. That is a byproduct of its effectiveness. The purpose of the act is to stop discriminatory practices from becoming law. There are more black elected officials in Mississippi today not because attempts to discriminate against voters ceased but because the Voting Rights Act kept those attempts from becoming law. Just hours after the court’s decision was announced Thursday, Texas said it would immediately implement the same voter ID law declared illegal by the Justice Department…

This society is filled with multiple contradictions that often pits one marginalized group of people against another marginalized group. It’s as if there aren’t countless individuals who don’t simultaneously embody multiple marginalized identities. Rather than focusing on which form of marginalization hurts us more than the other; our movements must focus on how we can eradicate all forms of oppression because they’re all interconnected. None of us are free until all of us are free.

This is a bittersweet moment in her/history for those of us who are both queer and radical. The recent Supreme Court decisions on the Voting Rights Act, DOMA, and Prop 8 are an urgent reminder that we, who believe in freedom and justice for all, must have a consistent intersectional approach to compassionately fight against all forms of injustice.  It’s not either/or, but it must be both/and – always….ALWAYS.

For two decades Bob has worked diligently to bring the margins to the center. She is a friend and comrade to many across the globe. She is also one of the many radical-feminist-queer individuals who walks the talk of intersectionality as an artist, activist, and philanthropist.  This is precisely why Bob is a “Feminist that I love, respect, and cherish.”

Aishah: Tell us about yourself. Where are you from? What are some of your formative life experiences that you believe informed the trajectory of your life?

Bob: I am first and foremost a kid from New York City.  That is how I think of myself, even now.  I grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens & eventually the East Village.  My early artist bio reads:

I’m the product of an immigrant-informed hustler-class, loud proud multi-ethnic family.  Growing up in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the world, in a house where a lot of languages, elders, food, and music flowed, it marked my worldview and my personal priorities.

Today I have the house where the food, music, ritual, and company flows still. More intimately I can see how my identity was marked by a deep nostalgia that ran through both the paternal and maternal lines of my family.  They are people who knew exile (both politically and self/economically imposed) and who weaved their prides and longings into the stories they did and did not tell, the food they cooked and the company they both kept and deeply missed.  They came from Russia, Iran, Georgia and Sicily.  They were Jewish and Catholic and cantors and mystics both deeply religious and fervently atheist.  They were dancers and singers and musicians and barbers and whatever else a kid isn’t supposed to overhear at the dinner table.   I joke that this all makes me fat and demonstrative!  In truth, these crazy people taught me to:  trust the story above all else; love the rhythm of things; want spicy food; feel safest in the company of people who do not resemble each other; believe in ghosts; attempt a love that can conquer all and to absolutely believe that anything is possible.

Aishah: When I first met you in the 90s, you were a baadass filmmaker. Your work has been broadcast on television, the Internet, and featured in numerous international film festivals. You did not create art for art’s sake. Your filmmaking was a powerful form of radical queer feminist activism. What was your process? How did you choose the subjects that would be the focus of your work? One of my favorites is your music video of Toshi Reagon’s powerful and unfortunately timeless “Battle of the Broken Word.” It’s frankly sobering how appropriate it is today in the wake of the recent Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act.

How can people view your films?

Bob: Right now I have some of my fave short work and recent still work posted on my tumblr page.   I just started shooting again – it’s been a trip trying to figure out how to make work and give Astraea everything she needs…  I’m really being thoughtful about how to take time in the coming months to write and bring some more ideas to fruition.  I’ll be cutting something I just shot this summer.  I feel like that part of my brain is coming alive again.   It’s exciting.    I have also been starting to take a camera around with me again… so look out!

My work spans genre and form:  documentary, experimental narrative, installation/performance plus commercial & industrial work.  As an activist I use video as witness, arbiter, and truth teller.   Thematically, I’m most consistently obsessed with diaspora (home/place/body) and the way we architect our own possibilities.  I’ve often said my work is about what it takes to live a life.  New York City is one of my favorite protagonists — the way our neighborhoods exist[ed] as both boundaries and possibility; and the transgressions thereof…   I speak about that slightly in past tense because New York City is so changed and because I have nostalgia for a time when neighborhoods were more distinct and less traveled into/out of.  It is also, obviously, the perspective of childhood.

I love to find magic in the mundane.  I really believe in poetry.  I also love collaboration.  So in terms of process I often either go into a hole…  like suddenly I’ve been cutting or writing for 4 days and I didn’t even know it or when I’m working with other artists I love to brainstorm big and then find the story.  I love to find the narrative thread I believe exists in everything.  It’s just a puzzle you have to pay enough attention to and figure out.  I should say I’m an editor.  So I create from the baseline.  Meaning, I like to find the groove of the story and build from there.   When I’m working with other folks, I’m often inspired by something they are doing and I stream of consciousness channel what their work inspires me to create.  Toshi is one of my favorite artists to work with in this way.  We have a very strong collaborative commitment.  I really like working with smart people.

Aishah: You moved some metaphorical mountains during your tenure as both the Director of Digital Media and Content at Zeitbyte Digital Media and as the Director of Digital Technology for Film at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, which is one of this country’s premiere film schools for emerging filmmakers. Your accomplishments are quite impressive to say the least. You grew Zeitbyte’s staff and built the production vision of this start-up. You expanded the program at Columbia and helped secure multi-million dollar gifts, while also teaching and mentoring undergraduate and graduate students.  I think it’s also important to emphasize that you did this aforementioned work as an out queer woman.  Did these jobs serve as the bridge from your work as a filmmaker to your work in the world of philanthropy and institutional sustainability?

Bob: Absolutely.  At Columbia I was building systems and structures and community even though the University was not requiring me to do so.  But I don’t know how to operate any other way.  Columbia’s Film program is stellar and the students and faculty are amazing. Most of the queer students, students of color and international students worked for me in one of our Labs or as Research Assistants. We concurrently built a social network, a methodology for the creation of creative content;  ways to disseminate information and secure the technological tools, skills and financial resources we needed to get our work done.  That is no different than the work I’m doing right now.

It was pure hustle (and an earnest belief in what I was doing) that I somehow managed to get meetings at Apple headquarters in Cupertino or any of the other improbable places I wound up over the course of those years. I got a lot of those meetings without having a business card!   But my ideas were on point and weirdly ahead of the curve.  I pitched Apple that they should be investing in our people not in our institution because technology was inevitably going to be worn on our bodies [hello.  queer theory].  I argued that if we could now practically cut our films on laptops [ha!], we would shortly be wearing our media on our person, so how could they not put their tools in the hands of our students, who had won the last eight Student Academy Awards?  I made that pitch literally months before the debut of the iPod.  We scored the largest educational “discount” Apple had made to date.

Film is a collaborative art.  I never ever assume I know more than anyone I am working with.  I just know that my role as Director or Producer is to cull everyone’s expertise to create something original, beautiful, and powerful.   That was my charge inside of a new media start-up and it is my daily approach to work in the philanthropic sector, inside of the organization of Astraea specifically and as a player in the larger movement.  Come up with the most powerful possibility, throw your best creative thinking at it, and Get. It. Done.

Aishah: Let’s talk about your award-winning work as the Board Chair of FIERCE, which is an incredible organization that walks the talk of empowering LGBTQI youth of color to be social change agents. FIERCE was one of the first organizations that, in concert with other organizations, brought national awareness about the case of the New Jersey 4 (also known as the New Jersey 7). I recently heard that Patrese Johnson is coming home in August, which is wonderful news.  What lead you to get involved with FIERCE and serve on their Board? Often individuals and organizations talk about youth empowerment, but they don’t carry it out effectively. FIERCE does. What does youth empowerment mean to you and how was this reflected during your tenure as Board Chair?

Bob: In my board of directors interview for FIERCE they asked why I was interested in joining them.  The answer was really simple,

because you weren’t around when I was young enough to be a member!

I first became aware of Fierce when I came out for a call of solidarity at a Community Board meeting where they were vehemently trying to protect public space and reverse the curfews imposed on the young people who gather on the Christopher Street Piers on the west side of Manhattan. Queer youth of color are increasingly criminalized as areas become more and more gentrified.  They pretty much had me from jump because they were so on point and so unabashedly out/young/proud. They had an answer for every argument against their presence. They had a plan and strategy for goals and demands that prioritized their needs as a community; and by the end of the meeting made it very clear they were a strong organized political constituency that was a force to be reckoned with.  I was in.

My first board meeting I looked around the room wondering when everyone else was going to show up – there were only 4 of us on that board for over a year!  We received an award from the Stonewall Foundation I think because we were so honest about the challenges it took to be a board.  We worked really hard to provide good governance and help facilitate the organization’s growth and encourage its stellar leadership.  Board work is difficult and amazing.  I encourage everyone to consider joining a board of an organization doing work you respect.

You asked what youth empowerment means to me.  For me it means getting the hell out of the way a whole lot of the time, being honest and open and available the rest of the time.  Sharing what you have access to as a person who has simply had more time to cultivate opportunity and resources; making every connection you can think to make; and being prepared to have your mind consistently blown.

Aishah: When I received the news two years ago that you were appointed the Executive Director of the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, I was ecstatic. I was also (and I still am) in awe of your courage to lead the only philanthropic organization working exclusively to advance LGBTQI human rights around the globe. To say that this is a major responsibility is an understatement. You have earned a powerful legacy and are following in some incredible footsteps. Talk about the organization’s herstory; its present-day global vision and mission; and your work as its Executive Director.

Bob: Astraea was founded in 1977 by a small group of multi-racial, multi-class women who were determined to address the lack of funding for women -— specifically lesbians and women of color. Grown from a lesbian feminist vision, the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice is now a multi-gendered, multiracial, multi-identity organization. As you noted, today we are still the world’s only foundation that’s exclusively dedicated to supporting LGBTQI organizations both in the U.S. and internationally.  [How crazy is that? Where are the others?]

At Astraea we strive every day to honor our legacy, be uncompromising in our vision of rights for all, uphold values of self-determination, community empowerment, movement building, and build across issues and generations. And, we encompass so many identities — we’re feminist, queer, trans, multi-racial, and we’re radical. We are always working for racial, economic, social, and gender justice. That drives everything we do. And we honor our history and create our future by privileging organizations and social change efforts that are led by lesbians, trans people, and people of color.

In my role as Executive Director, I’m tasked with amazing responsibilities everyday.  I deeply know our work to be relevant and critically necessary.   So I want to build the best vehicle by which we function – that’s the organizational piece – who says we have to operate as we always have?  Who says there aren’t smarter ways to do things?  I’m not talking about abandoning what works.  AT ALL.   I’m talking about being bold enough to hold ourselves to the standards we deserve.  To prioritize our needs, and strengths and mission and figure out how the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice needs to be best positioned to thrive, so that our uniquely tried and tested vision is triumphant.

The other thing that drives me everyday is imagining what the world would look like if all the crucial LGBTQI work being done out there were well-resourced.  You know what’s hot?  We can collectively make that happen.

Aishah: Full disclosure, I LOVE Astraea. After two years of hardcore fundraising, they were the first institution that gave me a grant in 1997 to support the research and development of my film NO! The Rape Documentary. At that time, there were hardly any institutions who wanted to fund an unapologetically out Black-feminist-lesbian incest and rape survivor who was making a film about sexual violence and healing in African-American communities. Astraea said “Yes to NO!” several times. I received two subsequent grants, which supported the production and post-production of NO!. Present day, “rape culture” is a term that is used fairly widely. However, as you know, this was not the case in the 90s. As a result, very few people wanted to touch NO! with a ten foot pole. Funders are like lemmings. Often when one funder says ‘yes’ to a project, others are sure to follow. Astraea’s support of NO! helped to legitimize the importance of the documentary, which paved the way for many other funders to come on board the NO! train. Will you please share the impact that the organization is making on the lives and work of a few of your current grantee partners?

Bob: I love that I can give you examples of things that have happened in the last 24 hours!

Late into the night on Wednesday and into Thursday morning, while our community here in NYC was reeling from the obliteration of the Voting Rights Act but also celebrating in front of the Stonewall Inn on the heels of the Supreme Court ruling on DOMA, the most amazing thing happened—the New York City Council passed key parts of the Community Safety Act, critical legislation that aims to stop discriminatory policing and hold the New York Police Department (NYPD) accountable.  While it still has to pass a few hurdles, we’re looking at the first real possibility of putting an end to the harm to LGBTQI communities of color under NYPD’s Stop & Frisk program. A few of our grantee partners are part of Communities United for Police Reform (CPR), the campaign that’s bottom-lined this huge effort, and we’re so proud of them—Streetwise & Safe, who are on the steering committee of CPR, FIERCE, and Audre Lorde Project. They’ve all worked tirelessly on this.

Then, I woke up to an amazing blast from our grantee partners at Southerner’s on New Ground (SONG) who put out an amazing video, “Marry the Movement,” which is an extraordinary love letter to our movements. They want us all to commit to love each other beyond any one issue or win.

YES. We are so proud to stand with them. So proud.

Of course both of those efforts are products of years of work on the ground.  Likewise, Fundacion de Desarollo Humano Integral CAUSANA is another group that does incredible work. They have been working for years in Ecuador to see the closing of “lesbian torture clinics,” private and public clinics where lesbians are sent to be “cured” of their homosexuality. This past year their advocacy resulted in the closing of 30 clinics, but there are 190 more still in operation.

Aishah: The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) recently announced its New Partnership to Promote LGBT Human Rights Abroad. Astraea is one of the organizations who will be involved with this ground breaking public-private partnership. In an April 8, 2013 press release, which was released by USAID, you said, “Together, with each of the partners, we will collectively address some of the most critical human rights issues faced by our communities.”  Please share more about what this partnership will mean for Astraea’s work and mission.

Bob: The Global LGBT Human Rights Partnership is an amazing project. In late 2011, President Obama made a commitment that all federal agencies working abroad would incorporate LGBT rights into their work. This groundbreaking partnership is the first of its kind and the first on the heels of the President’s mandate.

As you noted, we’re partnering with USAID for this four-year program. The Partnership is very purposefully aligned with our work and mission.  It is a partnership both Astraea and USAID took a lot of time to craft.  It is predicated on the goals of being impactful beyond what either of us could accomplish alone.

It’s a substantial investment in critical policy, legislative, and cultural gains towards the advancement of LGBT rights around the world. We’re the lead partner, we have to match USAID’s investment dollar for dollar, and in that role we’ll direct financial support to grantee partners, invest in capacity building and leadership development, increase the visibility of the advancement of LGBT rights through public education strategies, and we’ll document the impact of successful advocacy efforts in order to create sustainable models for effective cultural, political, and social gains.

As part of the Partnership, the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund is training and support LGBTQI public leaders in key countries, and the Williams Institute is conducting research and doing impact evaluation on the cost of exclusion and the impact of inclusion on both the Global and developing economies.

Aishah: How does Astraea sustain itself as an organization while financially supporting the work of LGBTQI individuals and organizations globally? What are concrete ways that individuals can support the organization’s work?

Bob: Astraea is a public foundation, which means we fundraise every dollar that we invest.  That we have also managed to give the most number of grants to LGBTQI activists, artists and organizations of any other foundation (public or private) and are in the top ten dollar amount of grantmaking is staggering.  We are only able to do so because we have the most insanely committed staff and because people believe in our work and invest in us!

Give us money!  Let us know you believe in the work we are doing.  IT. MATTERS.   Seriously – connect with us.  That’s what keeps us going.  Whatever amount is a meaningful gift to you, is a meaningful gift to us.  But folks who sign up to be monthly donors are the folks who become most invested in the work we’re doing, who feel most connected to the bravery and brilliance they help stay strong across the planet, and who realize they already know someone connected to us in their own neighborhoods or towns or cities.  And who get our party invitations!! (We throw down.  For real.)  Become a part of our community.  Bring us into yours.  Become a monthly donor here; like us on Facebook; write us into your wills and buy one more lottery ticket in our honor.

Aishah: Today is the 44th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising (aka Riots) and the beginning of LGBTQI PRIDE weekend in New York (and other cities). We’ve come a long way since 1969 and yet, we still have very much work to do in support of the rights for LGBTQI people. We are an extremely diverse community who fall under the metaphorical Queer umbrella. However, as we’ve discussed throughout your interview, all Queers are most definitely not treated the same in our society and even in our communities. How do you walk the line of both celebrating the inroads while reminding all of us that there’s still so much work for each one of us to do to ensure that all of us are free from enmity and danger?

Bob: Okay, I’m really glad you asked this question because I’ve been trying to figure out how I was going to hijack this interview to talk about the Supreme Court’s decisions on DOMA and Proposition 8 alongside of the Court’s essential dismantling of the Voting Rights Act and their punt on Affirmative Action.  Now we know!

The Supreme Court ruling DOMA unconstitutional is a victory I think I can barely fathom.  We can and should be proud of the work of so many people in our community.  We, a community that exists across so many different names and lives and bodies, have equally occupied as many tremendous places in history — thus we have felt joy and triumph as well as much of history’s sting and many of its’ battle scars.   The DOMA ruling on the heels of Voting Rights Act ruling is a brilliantly complicated truthful example of who we in fact are.

Those places of triumph and sting are where we do our most necessary work.  It is there in that intersection where our most ridiculously badass grantee partners stand.  Across 81 countries and 43 states over the course of the last 35 years, Astraea has supported the most nascent groups — often the few boldest people who refuse to rest easy in the face of inequality — to those who have grown in size or who have willfully survived years because their mission and belief has called for such often herculean stamina.    In every place any one of us stands to secure freedom from violence even when we would expect the law to provide but it does not; where we fight to break free of the isolation so often felt where the law does not reach or where it continues to criminalize us or deny us due process – Astraea is and will continue to be, right there.

SO I know our work is not done.  I am proud of all of the people who have brought the goodness of this day to fruition.  I also deeply, deeply believe in tomorrow.

If it’s all right with you, I want to share my morning muse from Wednesday.  This is before we knew how DOMA and Prop 8 would go down.

Aishah: Yes, please share your morning muse from June 26, 2013.


I don’t know what news the court will bring us today, but it will be forever tempered by the political shame of yesterday. Yesterday’s decision in our highest court and what was required of one woman in the state of Texas were not mere partisan disagreements about, and subsequent rulings on, law. These decisions and defenses are signal of the tectonic drag towards the scourge from which we come. They are systemic rulings that all black people and all women must be controlled and therefore classified as property. Period.

We must not draw neat lines around decades or movements and say, “done”.  We are erasing the torture of our ancestors, the toil of our predecessors, and our best imaginable selves if we do not rise up immediately and demand justice. We have no choice but to physically stand – for 13 hours or 30 years – wherever the law refuses to go.

If, today, the court rules to overturn DOMA or to uphold Proposition 8, it will have done so having already martyred the emblematic potential of these decisions to shine as glorious example of our egalitarian arrival as a nation. We will instead be left with a bifurcated democracy, signaling a tactic long-used to undermine freedom rather than a celebration of our equality hard won.

Aishah: Black-Lesbian-Feminist-Mother-Warrior-Poet Audre Lorde wrote,

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it’s self preservation and that is an act of political warfare.

My final and very important question is how do you take care of yourself in the midst of your non-stop work for Astraea?

Bob: Churl…   Okay. . .  I’m going to take your asking as one of those Aishah-is-sage moments.  As in, “the answer is in the question.”   I’m working it out.  I’d be lying if I told you I have it down.  I don’t.  This has been the most non-stop two-year gorgeous bananas hustle ever.  BUT.  I’m committed.  I have no interest in being a martyr or building an unhealthy unsustainable institution.  NONE.  So.  I’m figuring out where the quiet is.  I’m learning to love hotel rooms.  I can actually live very easily from the neck up but I know it is the thing that makes me most cranky and most depleted.  It also keeps me farthest from my intuition and creativity and passion, which is why anyone would want me in this gig anyway.  I LOVE TO LAUGH.   I’m often the loudest person in the office.  I feel slightly apologetic about it, but ya know, not so much.  If we can keep me laughing, eating 30% raw, 70% caffeinated and in good company, honestly, I’ll be alright!