In September 2021, Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, a public foundation working to advance LGBTQI human rights globally, welcomed Joy Chia as executive director. Chia joined Astraea at a time of significant growth and was to lead a strategic planning process for the 45-year-old organization.
Born in Singapore, Chia received her bachelor of arts in political science and international studies from Yale University and a J.D. in international law and human rights from Columbia Law School. Before joining Astraea, Chia was the Women’s Rights Program team manager at Open Society Foundations, where she began as a program officer for LGBTQI work in East Asia.
IP recently spoke with Chia to discuss her first year in the role, workplace culture and vision for the philanthropic sector. Here are some excerpts from the conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve been executive director at Astraea for over a year now. What changes have you witnessed in yourself?
It’s complex to become an executive director in a largely remote environment that is also characterized by the pandemic. I recognized that I cannot use my in-person skills and that shift had to be more intentional.
The other piece for me was stepping into the space. I was very much aware, and depending on the day, intimidated by the fact that nobody who looked like me had ever been in this role before. I felt like there wasn’t a roadmap on how to engage in ways that were authentic and reflective of who I wanted to be.
Also, I recognized in my leadership philosophy that the kindest or best thing to do is not always the easiest or nicest thing to do. As someone raised female with often unseen expectations around emotional labor, and then also wrapped onto that, as an Asian person with cultural expectations of what I am to say or not say, it has been important to move out of a space of self-preservation and into one where leadership is doing the kindest rather than nicest thing.
How do you create a work culture where staff can feel a sense of belonging and show up as themselves?
It’s really difficult in a remote setting. It’s been important for me to publicly acknowledge that as Astraea is a Queer organization that hires internationally, this diversity also means that all of us bring all the trauma and cases that come to us in the workplace. Tying that all into a very charged political environment, what does that mean for us in terms of how we show up and what we expect in our community? I think the big push is for us to approach things with curiosity rather than judgment.
Also, we build a shared vision of where we are going. It’s been important for us to come together and reflect on what we care about and how we want to go about doing it. How do we bake flexibility into our work culture so we plan for contingencies, instead of people getting burned out because they could never take a day off? This concretely aids to belonging and valuing people for the work that they do and all they bring to the organization.
What does it look like in practice to work at the intersections of gender, race, class, sexuality and more?
There are many layers to it, starting with the significance of who makes the decisions about grantmaking and hiring. If you change the kind of program officers you’re hiring, with their personal experience and understanding of what is important, that also changes the way in which resources are allocated. I’m delighted to see a change in the past 10 years in who is at the table.
For Astraea, working at the intersection of both women and LGBTQ rights and explaining that we are both and not one or the other can be an interesting challenge. In philanthropy, I’m really concerned about the population identity-focused categorization because when you categorize something, you budget it accordingly. Do we get funded out of the women’s rights, human rights, racial justice or LGBTQI budget? It forces people working in intersectional ways to disintegrate themselves in order to make a case to fit a portfolio, but the original categorization and definitions affect who gets to cross that barrier.
How is Astraea able to raise funds for systems change and convince people to invest in long-haul efforts with results that take time?
That’s the fundamental difficulty of a lot of the work that feminist and human rights funds do. Social justice takes time. I find it helpful to think about, “What does a movement need to be sustainable, not just in terms of financial resources but also in being able to attract and retain talent? How do you prevent burnout? How do you develop leaders so that they can continue to bring people in and move out in a dignified and elegant way?”
There is also what I call security, which is about moving situations from surviving to thriving. A lot of our communities are in crisis and that makes it difficult to keep your eye on the long haul. For Astraea, our role in mobilizing LGBTQ resources also requires us to support environments that are enabling so people can move out of hour-by-hour crisis and into imagining futures.
I also think about who else needs to be in the party for us to be able to move forward. When we think about mobilizing and distributing resources, it’s easy to fall into the scarcity mindset of dividing up a pie. The challenge is to make the case that this is not a zero-sum game. In order to mobilize resources, it’s not about taking away from one person to give to another. We’re working toward reframing the whole issue and pulling in to decide what we believe we owe each other in solidarity. I think that frame allows for a long-term timeline in which people also recognize that in some ways, short-term performance indicators are grounded in a scarcity mindset.
What do you wish we had a deeper understanding of in the sector?
Operations, policies and procedures are as substantive as the money that goes out — to see it as two different lines doesn’t help. Also, I hope we will all take the time to investigate and understand our relationship with money. Money lends itself to hoarding, but it is ultimately a tool to something else. At the same time, you have to recognize that our field is about money. There are a lot of people who are uncomfortable with the fact that they have the privilege to make funding decisions — this is not the case for people who are creating the institutions, who are rich and have power and positions. The discomfort and embarrassment around that privilege can impact the way we think about grantmaking. For example, there is a direct conflict with grantmakers questioning overhead costs and valuing nonprofit work enough to pay staff a living wage.
What does an LGBTQI and feminist-forward liberatory future look like to you?
We all have the agency and ability to be really actively involved in decisions that impact us. For philanthropy, it’s decisions on how money is spent on things that matter, but also on an individual standpoint, having bodily autonomy and deciding what you’re going to do with your physical self and how you are perceived by others. It’s a lot less focus on divisions and more on the ways in which we are similar.
The idea here around my queer and feminist perspectives of seeing the world is that we’re looking at who has power and who doesn’t, and also calling on ourselves to exercise whatever power that we may have to transform that. The power and agency to make those decisions will inevitably mean that you get to increase care for the ways in which we work with each other.
Michelle Dominguez (they/them/elle) is a Queer and Trans Los Angeles native born to Colombian immigrants. After a decade-long career in higher education student affairs, they switched to the nonprofit and philanthropy sector in 2021. What brings Michelle joy? Quality time with loved ones, mindfulness, chocolate desserts, and Disney magic.