The Feministing Five: Katherine Acey

Katherine Acey is the outgoing executive director of the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, an organization that supports efforts to protect the human rights of lesbians in the US and around the world. Astraea issues grants to LGBTI rights groups in Belgrade, Kolkata, Chile and Zimbabwe, to name just a few, ensuring that those rights are protected worldwide, and in a way that works for individual communities and cultures. And it counts among its board members our very own Miriam Perez.

Acey has been involved with Astraea for the better part of three decades, as well as with a mind-boggling number of other organizations including Women in the Arts, New York Women Against Rape, Human Rights Watch and Women Make Movies. After twenty-three years as executive director she is moving on (the interim executive director is Aimee Thorne-Thomsen, who I interviewed not long ago). Acey’s plans for the near future, she says, involve resting and reflecting, then spending quality time with friends and family around the world. But she’ll be staying on as a senior advisor at Astraea, and she predicts that she’ll back in political work soon – after a lifetime devoted to social justice, it’s a difficult habit to break.
It was an absolute pleasure to speak with Acey, a woman who’s been involved in feminist and progressive causes for almost her whole life. It was an absolute pleasure, even though she totally cheated on the desert island question.

And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Katherine Acey.

Chloe Angyal: How did you get involved in social justice work, and particularly in feminist activism?

Katherine Acey: When I was an adolescent, I got involved in, shall I say, doing good. In those days it was about volunteering and doing community service; I was part of a choir that would visit senior homes and community centers. I was also worked in the parish church, doing service around issues of poverty and helping families in need. It first came out of helping others, giving, and in high school I was very involved in school politics. Once I got to college the Civil Rights movement was at its tail end and the anti-war movement was heating up and I got very involved in those two things. I had already been working from a politic of making change and looking at things that were unjust, and my politics really centered around some of my lived experience, around issues of race and class. I began to be more involved in women’s issues when I came to New York to go to graduate school and got involved in the reproductive justice movement and the anti-violence against women movement.

I went to work at the North Star fund, which is a local, progressive, public foundation that funds grassroots movements here in New York City. They’re part of a national network of community foundations, the Funding Exchange. I was there for five years, and at the same time, I was on the board of the Astraea Foundation in the 1980s, and became their first staff person in 1987. We were already ten years old by then. And so we moved from being an all-volunteer public foundation to be a staffed one.

CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?

KA: It changes all the time, but my favorite right now is Lisbeth Salander from The Millennium Trilogy.
In real life, I’m one of those people for whom there are many people and many issues that resonate. I’m also one of those people that doesn’t one best friend; I have a number of best friends. There’s somebody that I’ve admired since I was young, but she’s not the only one. But it’s someone who’s been a constant, and I have a poster of her in my house. It’s Angela Davis. For her courage, her politics, her ability to see the big issues and to stay engaged all these years, even as an academic, being part of a movement and sticking with her radical politics, reaching a lot of people. But I also want to say that there are many people who aren’t well known, who, if I said their name, you wouldn’t know who they were.

CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?

KA: This latest compromise around taxes and unemployment is making me pull my hair out. The compromise is unreasonable and irrational. It’s indefensible. Obama had a tough situation, but given the economy and the tens of thousands of people suffering, people who are unemployed or working two or three jobs and making less than a living wage, when there are so many not just millionaires but billionaires, to not ask them to share responsibility and to have a better redistribution through taxes, is, to me, ludicrous. I find it immoral, actually.

CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?

KA: I think it’s always been a challenge to realize that this is about justice, about social justice. Social justice feminism dictates that we have a broad view that looks very deeply at race, class and age. In doing that, we have a deeper understanding of the lived experiences and the structures affecting all women, not just a small core. So that’s our challenge, is to have another radical and deep “true feminism.” It’s an analysis and a practice that looks at the intersection of race, class and gender, and that looks very deeply at how we’re living our own lives, how we think about those issues, and how we put them into practice. Whether we’re an activist or a human service worker or an academic or the vice president of a bank, we need to look issues of inclusivity.

CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you bring?

KA: Pork chops, pinot noir, and I would have big cruise ships surrounding the island, with thousands of feminists aboard, and I would row out to them.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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