"Honey, those girls were being chased for at least half a mile once school got out," Ms. Myra recalled. I shook my head knowingly. We had just walked out of the subway station across the street from Boys and Girls High School and were listening to the owner of Cafe 258, one of our original safe spaces.
She went on: "Since business was somewhat slow, I was standing in the doorway and saw them down the block, running toward me. I heard the boys yelling, 'Dyke,' 'You think you a dude', cursing and carrying on. When the girls got closer I opened the door of the shop, pulled them inside, and locked the door. Those boys banged on my windows so much I thought they would break them. After about 15 minutes they left. I fixed the girls some hot chocolate and called their parents. I don't know why folks act out like that, but not on my block!"
Not on my block, not in my neighborhood, not if I am aware of what is happening. This is the aim of the Safe Neighborhood Campaign created by the Audre Lorde Project, a New York City-based community organizing center for people of color who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and gender-variant. The Safe Neighborhood Campaign was started by the Safe Outside the System collective, one of three working groups at the Audre Lorde Project. Its mission is to work within People of Color communities to end violence against LGBTQ people. The Safe Neighborhood Campaign engages communities in developing a deeper level of accountability for one another. We recruit local businesses and community nonprofits as safe spaces and safe havens for the neighborhood. A "safe space" is one in which the employer and employees are willing to intervene in the harassment of LGBTQ people inside as well as outside of their place of work or business. A "safe haven" is a place in which community members can seek refuge from the threat of harassment and physical violence. Ms. Myra turned her coffee shop into a safe haven that day and continues to do so.
Audre Lorde Project members have gotten somewhat used to the looks or comments directed toward them as they walk through the neighborhoods together. The most negative interactions have not been about our perceived sexual orientation or gender identity but rather about the shades of our skin. Our multiracial group can definitely stand out in racially homogeneous neighborhoods whose demographics are slowly shifting. Most of our members identify under the umbrella term People of Color, a term that implies a solidarity across cultures for people who are marginalized by race or ethnicity. We also have to acknowledge the ways in which internalized racism still divides us, both within our specific racial or ethnic groups and across groups.
The divisions are made apparent by our interactions with business owners or community organizations as we recruit them for our Safe Neighborhood Campaign. I have a pretty good relationship with the owner of a local bookstore, so I thought it would be great to recruit the bookstore as a safe space. At the time, I was training one of our new members in the process of recruiting safe spaces, so I asked him to come along. Although Thomas and I arrived together, the owner stopped me as I began to speak about the campaign and said, "Are we actually going to talk about this in front of him? He's the problem." "What? What do you mean?" I asked. The bookstore owner replied, "Those white folks are moving in here, bringing the police and causing the violence against our people." Thomas identifies as Hapa, meaning that he is both Asian (Japanese) and white. I identify as African American, as does the bookstore owner. Thomas interjected, "Sir, I'm not white, I'm bi-racial, half Japanese, and I'm very invested in ending the violence against folks in the community. It's where I live." The owner silently shook his head, so we decided that we would follow up another time. Although it would have been easy to dismiss him, we realize that meeting folks where they are and continuing the dialogue is a vital part of the process of creating safer neighborhoods. Thomas and I debriefed our experience, discussing the way that assumptions about our racial identities have affected our ability to make cross-cultural connections. We made sure to share this experience with the other members of the collective and learned to intentionally identify our members as invested community leaders when introducing them to safe space owners.
As I work on the campaign, I'm reminded of what Tracy, another safe space owner, says about the neighborhood:
In this community, we are not going to all look the same, go to the same church, or eat the same food, but we have a responsibility to look out for one another regardless.
This organizing campaign at the Audre Lorde Project calls us to redefine community across identities and cultures. We have learned that we need to engage one another in order to survive as business owners, as community organizations, and as human beings.