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  • Zackary Drucker / The Gender Spectrum Collection

After cutting its teeth protesting racism in Boystown, local nonprofit Lighthouse Foundation plans to survey five of the largest LGBTQ+ focused organizations in the city, with the goal of grading each organization on their top-down diversity, inclusion, and equity.

Jamie Frazier, the executive director of Lighthouse Foundation, tells the Reader that the nonprofit is launching the Black Queer Equity Index this year, with its first cohort of respondents being AIDS Foundation Chicago, Center on Halsted, Chicago House, Equality Illinois, and Howard Brown Health.

“None of these institutions has eschewed racial equity work, all of them are doing something, but that something is happening in silos,” Frazier says. “So what does it look like for Black queer folk to build a table, and to invite these institutions to sit at that table, and have discourse about how they pursue racial equity, with greater vigor and intentionality?”

Though the initial cohort is small, they are mighty; the five organizations are some of the largest and most influential LGBTQ+-focused organizations in the midwest, and according to Lighthouse Foundation, they boast more than $180 million in combined funding. Additionally, Frazier says he plans to add five additional responding organizations to the survey each subsequent year.

The organizations, Frazier says, are a crucial first class of participants in the survey, and it will ultimately be up to them to encourage employees to complete the index. But with “an articulate and cogent explanation,” Frazier is confident employees will opt in.

Modeled after the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, which ranks companies based on their LGBTQ+-related corporate policies, the Black Queer Equity Index asks organizations to provide detailed breakdowns—by race, gender identity, age, sexual orientation, and location of residence in the city—of their senior staff, but also their entire employee base and their clients as well. This, Frazier says, is crucial in investigating the true scope of diversity at these organizations.

“If we just have a bunch of Black faces in high places, without actual institutional support or institutional buy-in for racial equity, then we’re going to end up with a whole bunch of [diversity, equity, and inclusion] chiefs who are Black, and work at these institutions, who are responsible alone for racial equity,” Frazier says.

“No, no, the whole institution must be dedicated and devoted.”

The place of residence is particularly crucial, Frazier says, for south and west side-serving organizations that may be mostly staffed with north-side residents.

For Kevin Pleasant, director of the TransLife Care program at Chicago House, the comprehensive nature of the survey is what makes it so powerful. According to Chicago House, Pleasant leads its racial equity work.

“Usually, the board of directors doesn’t speak for the agency itself and the culture of the board of directors doesn’t always accurately reflect the employees of an agency,” Pleasant says. “When you have a board that is made up of, say, 95 percent white gay men, and the community the agency serves is 95 percent Black folk, and they employ probably 90 percent Black folk, but the culture is a gay, white culture, that’s a problem.”

But Lighthouse Foundation isn’t undertaking this effort on its own. The nonprofit has partnered with two University of Illinois at Chicago capstone courses, one in public administration and one in urban studies, to create the survey. Experts from the Evaluation, Data Integration, and Technical Assistance Program at Northwestern University’s Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing will also be providing input, Frazier says. The finalized survey is being released to the cohort and the public at an event the evening of April 15.

A 10-member advisory council is also overseeing the survey process. According to Lighthouse Foundation, the board includes leaders from the survey respondents, and from Chicago Regional Organizing for Antiracism and the Chicago Black Gay Men’s Caucus, as well as Reader publisher Tracy Baim.

Funding for the survey comes from Holy Trinity Lutheran Church’s Mission Endowment Fund, the Chicago Temple Fund, the Conant Family Foundation, the Crossroads Fund, and AMPT: Advancing Nonprofits, a local initiative that supports Black and Brown-led organizations in Chicago.

At the conclusion of the survey, each organization will receive a grade based on their responses. But as John Peller, president and CEO of AIDS Foundation Chicago, says, the work doesn’t stop there. In fact, he says, the results are just a jumping-off point.

“We need to do a better job of confronting systemic racism, understanding what’s driving it, and understanding how we as an organization can change our own organization and the broader systems that we operate in, in order to improve the lives of our clients,” Peller says.

“Of course, there’s the external, we want to serve the community better,” he says. “But it’s also because we want to get something out of this project, which is to improve the organization and the way of providing services to the Black LGBTQ+ population.”   v

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