A Pandemic Year in Reflection
Q & A with Interim Executive Director Sandy Nathan
Q: It has been over a year now since the world was rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic and what a wild year it has been. How are you doing, both personally and how is Astraea doing as an organization?
Sandy Nathan: Yes, in many ways, it feels that it’s been much more than a year since the pandemic hit. On a deeper level, we have crossed a real chasm and we have entered into what I feel is an era of profound transformation. The pandemic has drawn attention to the stark inequities in healthcare, racial justice and economics. The underlying story here is that we cannot go back to the way that we were! We are facing competing tensions: this desire to go back to some sense of normalcy, and given all of these inequities, the deeper understanding that we cannot; that we have to advance our energies towards creating a world that works for all of us. And so that shift in the awareness and urgency around dismantling the structures of white supremacy has been the most colossal universal gift.
And by that I don’t mean to minimize in any way the profound suffering that has come as a result of the pandemic, the profound loss of life, the calling out of all the horrific, white supremacist actions that have just called attention to the fact that we can’t bury this stuff any longer. We’re living two separate realities: One that says, “We’ve got to hold on to the way things were, at any risk.” And the other says, “Okay, we need to be about creating a new world and we need to shift all our might towards that vision of collective liberation.”
Q: In birth there’s always a tremendous amount of pain. I’m wondering, how does Astraea, an organization filled with actual people, with feelings, emotions, thoughts, and who are experiencing an immense transformation of their own navigate through such a profound shift?
Sandy Nathan: The first thing that’s critical to any shift is awareness of the need to shift. At Astraea, we have had a deep sense of the need for organizational shifts and cultural shifts for quite some time. When I joined Astraea, I felt like I stepped into this amazing, wildly creative feminist womb. And I just kind of curled up inside of it, because in many ways it was the first time that I felt completely comfortable to just bring my full self as a Black lesbian to an organization.
It was really easy for me to identify with Astraea and the radical, bold and visionary feminist ways. But it also required a lot of nurturing, as there were some historic harms that had not been fully addressed, something that I am learning has been true for so many progressive feminist social justice organizations operating in philanthropy. The pandemic really exacerbated those harms, and emphasized the need for healing. Unaddressed harm and trauma combined with the inability for folks to be together, and added to that the sudden uncertainty folks were facing in their day-to-day lives, you can really understand how challenging it was to fully address those underlying cultural issues that we have begun to hold and nurture within Astraea.
As leaders within the organization, we struggled initially with all the ways in which we needed to recalibrate, so that we were engaging staff and supporting them, and most importantly, making sure that in spite of all the things that we were confronted with, that we were focused on the mission of Astraea. Simultaneously, we had our best year ever of fundraising and we had our largest grant-making year last year — we gave nearly $6 million to our grantee partners around the world. In many ways, we rallied, we stepped up, and we transcended all of the obstacles that we were facing on a day-to-day basis to meet our mission and mandate of standing behind our incredible grantee partners and movements.
Q: Why do you think that that is? Why do you think that in the midst of so much panic, so much uncertainty, that people were betting on Astraea?
Sandy Nathan: There were a number of factors leading to that, leading with the passion and the commitment of Astraea staff who have really shown up to do the work required of them s to shift and transform into an organization that holds reflection, healing, conversation and liberation at itsit’s core. As it relates to our grantmaking, our staff have deep relationships with our grantees, and when the pandemic hit, those relationships helped us to understand that the most powerful thing we could do in the moment was to be Astraea, listen to the needs of grantees and get resources to those movements on the ground. We raised over $1 million via our COVID-19 Collective Care Response, an organization-wide initiative with the aim of bolstering our grantee partners as they care for their communities and confront the pandemic’s ongoing impacts across the globe.
We also adapted our Spring grantmaking strategy to meet the moment and moved additional flexible resources to grantee partners in the U.S. and globally. LGBTQI communities across the globe were not only suffering themselves as a result of the pandemic, but were also being harmed by ongoing state-sanctioned violence, surveillance, and discrimination as a result of the pandemic, with many governments using COVID-19 as an excuse to suppress rights. It was critical that Astraea was able to be nimble and responsive to these needs.
Q: What is your vision for Astraea as we navigate through 2021?
Sandy Nathan: My vision and hope for Astraea in this year is that we take the time to do the internal work we need to strengthen ourselves for the long-haul in every regard. We have already gotten much of that work off the ground: we are shoring up and building our infrastructure by investing in critical operational improvements, we are — in spite of this pandemic — finding all the virtual ways that we can to safely connect with one another as both colleagues and human beings, and we’re tending to our organizational structure and capacity. We have made key hires, redefined our strategic priorities, centered anti-oppression and anti-racism work to strengthen our organizational culture, and encouraged staff sustainability through structured organizational pauses. We’re building an organization that finally is right sized to its level of growth in revenue. I think that is only going to lead to a much more sustainable organization in the long haul.
Q: How do you think that the internal work that you’ve been able to undertake has either shifted or expanded Astraea’s feminist philosophy and how the organization sees itself?
Sandy Nathan: It is our uniqueness that excites, that drives the funding support to the organization. It’s our uniqueness that attracts passionate radical staff within the organization, so we continue to be that. This interim period has enabled us to be that much more deeply transformational. A fundamental critical shift that has started to happen within Astraea is that we are really moving from doing to being. We have made a profound shift in that regard, from “let’s just focus on the work,” to, “let’s internalize our feminist, anti-racist, social justice oriented values and philosophy within every part of who we are, and so let’s internalize that within everything that we do as a public foundation.”