June 23, 2022

Dreaming in Color: Urvashi Vaid

Episode Notes

In this episode, we welcome Urvashi Vaid, an Indian-American LGBTQ rights activist, lawyer, and writer. She talks about her roots as a student activist and organizer, her early days in the ACLU and the National LGTBQ Task Force, and her stints at the Ford and Arcus Foundations. Forged in the fire of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war era, the motivation Urvashi carried with her to turn the system on its head was nothing short of relentless. Her work in advocacy, policy, and philanthropy has shaped the bedrock that many of our efforts now rest on. This episode was recorded a few months before Urvashi’s passing. Join us in celebrating her life and genius by listening to her reflections on the triumphs and roadblocks that have led to our present and where we can go from here.

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Episode Transcript

Darren Isom (00:04):

Welcome to Dreaming in Color, a space for social change leaders of color, to reflect on how their life experiences, personal and professional, have prepared them to lead and drive the impact we all seek. I'm your host, Darren Isom. This is Dreaming in Color.

Darren Isom (00:21):

It is with a very heavy heart that I share that the following episode with Urvashi Vaid was recorded early in 2022, some months before her passing. Upon the news of Urvashi's death, my dear friend, Laura, that friend who always knows exactly what to say, knowing that Urvashi was a good friend and mentor of mine reached out by text with a note of condolence. The text included a picture of Laura sitting out in the clearing in the forest, surrounded by a circle of redwoods, and the following note:

Darren Isom (00:47):

"Hi, love. I'm up in Sonoma County this weekend out among the redwoods celebrating a friend's birthday and pondering life. Hundreds of years ago, a single large redwood grew here then disaster struck. The trunk of the large Redwood was killed perhaps by repeated and severe wildfire. From here where I'm seated, I can see the original tree trunk still standing upright now a dead and blackened snag.

Darren Isom (01:09):

Despite such terrible damage. The tree did not die. Below the ground its massive root system was full of vitality. Before long hundreds of young, bright green burled sprouts begin to come up around the circle formed by the crown root of the original tree. Some of those sprouts have grown into the full size trees that today stand in a circle around the original trunk surrounding me here, where I'm seated.

Darren Isom (01:34):

And with that may Urvashi always be celebrated as a champion of equity and justice, a pioneer of the LGBTQ movement, and a leader whose wisdom, optimism, and faith through action shaped so many of us. Giving us both a calling and a sense of belonging and this beautiful struggle, a circle that goes unbroken."

Darren Isom (01:58):

Today, I'll be joined by Urvashi Vaid. Urvashi is an activist, lawyer, author, brilliant mind, and a dear friend. Growing up with the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam war protest live and in living color, she found her calling and a sense of belonging and advancing social justice at a very young age.

Darren Isom (02:14):

She headed off to study feminist movements and law, beginning a career as a staff attorney for the ACLU National Prisons Project where she started organizing work on HIV and AIDS in prisons. She later turned her attention to the national LGBTQ Task Force where she served as the public information director and then executive director, and would later return to the Task Force as the Policy Institute Director.

Darren Isom (02:37):

She's held several positions in philanthropy, including deputy director of the governance and social society unit at the Ford Foundation, executive director of the Arca Foundation, an organization that promotes social justice and conservation, and co-founder of the Donors of Color Network.

Darren Isom (02:52):

A former senior fellow at Columbia Law School and now president of the Vaid Group, the social innovation firm that works with global and domestic organizations to advance equity, justice, and inclusion. Urvashi is the author of Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation and Irresistible Revolution, Confronting Race, Class and Assumptions of LGBT Politics. I feel very lucky to get to chat with her today and peek into her wonderfully beautiful mind.

Darren Isom (03:22):

Really excited to be chatting today, Urvashi, thank you so much for making time. And as promised, wanted to start it off; I'm a Southern boy, so I love a good invocation from a conversation perspective, and I'm leaving you the mic, or the floor, or the floor and the mic to give us our invocation for today.

Urvashi Vaid (03:37):

Okay. This is from Audrey Lord, a classic quote from Sister Outsider. So it goes, "What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow parameters of change are possible and allowable. Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society's definition of acceptable women, those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference. Those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older, know that survival is not an academic skill.

Urvashi Vaid (04:18):

It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master's house as their only source of support." Audrey Lord.

Darren Isom (04:44):

Thank you. And Mother Lord always comes through. Thank you for that one. So let's go ahead and jump in with that perfect inspiration for the conversation. And Urvashi, one of the things that I love the most about you, and I love many things about you, is that you always bring the fire and step into the fire and make sure the fire keeps going. And so I think that there's so many of us that have in our lives kind of embraced the fires, our calling, if you will, and for you, this is something that happened very early.

Darren Isom (05:09):

You really embrace the struggle, if you will, the beautiful struggle at 11, you were out here at protests, right? And just showing up, sure. But that speaks to a certain drive and a certain tenacity. And so as a place of starting, I would love for you to just jump in and tell me a little bit about where that fire comes from or where that embracing of the fire comes from?

Urvashi Vaid (05:27):

Thanks, Darren. I think the motivation for me for working on social change came from being an immigrant. First of all, migrating here with my family when I was eight years old from India and seeing that bicultural experience, living it, moving to a tiny town in upstate New York where my dad taught at the state University of New York and my mom couldn't get a job, even though she was qualified, because she wore a sari and it was unusual at the time to have Indians in a small town in upstate New York.

Urvashi Vaid (06:00):

So those experiences of being bicultural and that double consciousness, multiple consciousness. And then you add in discovering myself as a lesbian, which came later on in college and beyond. And then you add in the kind of awareness that those of us who were kids, even kids in the 60s, of the awareness of the Civil Rights Movement, the awareness of the anti-war movement, and then Women's Liberation, and then Queer Liberation, LGBTQ liberation, those movements were eye-opening.

Urvashi Vaid (06:33):

And for anybody who was willing to look and see what was going on, that I recognized myself in the people that I was watching in the little tiny black and white TV screen of the day. And I thought, "Wow, these are my people. This is what I want to do."

Darren Isom (06:51):

These are my people, right? What a powerful statement to make. And I think there's something just particularly compelling. I'd love for you to talk a little bit more about, because it's not that you have very naturally gravitated to finding a sense of belonging through your othering, right? It was because you didn't fit to some degree, that you created a community where you did fit and where you found some degree of belonging in that outside community, which is not necessarily how others very often see the world.

Darren Isom (07:15):

Some people strive so much to be in that community that they lose sight of where they may not fit in. Ultimately, I would love for you to talk about this idea of creating a sense of belonging from the world's sense of othering and how you create that community there and found a squad, if you will?

Urvashi Vaid (07:31):

Absolutely. Well, it's essential to find that squad, but it was hard. I have to start by saying that it was hard to find a sense of belonging. I think I still, I'm always a little uncomfortable, and maybe that's another piece of the nature of what drives me, is I don't know that I feel entirely at ease in most places that I'm working or living, which is just the nature of politics to some extent.

Urvashi Vaid (07:58):

But I think I found, I did look for a sense of belonging. I had to find a home. I had to find a base and I found it with other kind of odd people, found it in punk rock. I found it in different music cultures and cultures which were really important to me.

Darren Isom (08:16):

Music will give you a sense of space for sure.

Urvashi Vaid (08:19):

Oh my God, totally. Patty Smith was my iconic shaman figure as a late teen going, "Wow, this is possible to do this. I can be brave. I can have a vision. I can be messianic." And she showed me all of that. I found it in art and culture, in poetry and music. And then in organizing, in demonstrations, in protests, in work that I met people who were kindred spirits.

Urvashi Vaid (08:50):

So that sense of kinship that you feel I've found it with a core group of buddies that we met through organizing, through volunteering.

Darren Isom (08:59):

And I love that you make the connection between music, the art world, and organizing. And I've told this story a million times over and I'm sure folks, and my team, are sick of hearing it. But 50, 60 years ago within the Black community, all of our leaders came from the church. They were all reverend something or another. And then now it’s they all come from the arts community. And I think there's something to be said about how within each generation, one group of folks were charged with re-imagining the world and being bold and crazy enough, or thoughtful enough, to really imagine a new world and then try to live into it.

Darren Isom (09:33):

As crazy or as wild or bold as it may seem at the moment. And so when you talk about the punk rock side, you talk about really finding folks who were living outside the element, but what they had normalized, wasn't that crazy. It wasn't that radical. It was actually where we should be going.

Urvashi Vaid (09:48):

It's very interesting that you said that about Black leadership, because I was thinking about LGBT leadership. When I came out, the people that we looked to, were the artists in the 70s and 80s. It was really. Everybody ran to see Audrey Lord speak, whenever she read or spoke, Audrey and Rich. People like June Jordan, even Alan Ginsburg spoke at Gay Pride in the early 70s in New York City.

Urvashi Vaid (10:15):

Those were the icons, not politicians. It wasn't politicians or heads of large institutions that were considered leadership. It was the visionaries wherever they came from.

Darren Isom (10:26):

Yeah. And the visionaries and that visioning counts for a lot. And I always throw out an Octavia Butler quote, "There's nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns.” And those of us who've been responsible in some ways in charge with coming up with those new suns and discovering those new suns to live under. I think it's a really powerful piece.

Darren Isom (10:41):

You mentioned this piece of not necessarily finding a place of belonging and as a result, creating one for yourself, or always looking for one for yourself. And in many ways I just really identify with that statement. I joke all the time that there's so many of us who, because we don't really belong anywhere, we belong everywhere. That sense of other. And gives us a very strong sense of belonging.

Darren Isom (11:03):

That said your career really demonstrated this vacillation, if you will, between, I would never call you mainstream. I'm not trying to throw shade your way, but definitely having taken some roles that were more traditional system roles and then other roles that were just more revolutionary or radical, and I would love for you to talk a little bit more about how you were able to find a sense of peace, if you will, or to normalize that lack of peace, by vacillating between kind of the more traditional roles and then going off and doing your own thing, then coming back and to push traditional. Just how do you think about balancing those two things and how you made a career of that?

Urvashi Vaid (11:36):

Yeah, I think it's a great question. And for me, the process was pretty organic because I started out in the street movement. I started out in grassroots organizations that were pretty much doing protests against the police or against media entities or the government officials, whether it was in the feminist context or first in the anti-apartheid context. We were pushing to get our schools to divest from corporations doing business in South Africa, it was a part of a student movement that did that, or working on organizing against violence against women, or working on LGBTQ issues in the late 70s, early 80s.

Urvashi Vaid (12:16):

The groups that I went with and was involved with, people never have heard of them. The Green Light Safe House Project in Austin, Brighton, The Lesbians United in Non-Nuclear Action. Whoever heard of them? Lesbian and gay media advocates.

Urvashi Vaid (12:31):

It was my direct action group LIPS or Lesbian Mobilization Force. They were like Gay Community News. These were the places that I learned so much and they were not mainstream. They were left. They were multi-issue, they were intersectional in their politics. They were working on global and domestic a lot of times, in the cultural stuff too, in the cultural movement.

Urvashi Vaid (12:58):

I worked a lot with Road Work, the organization that Bernice Reagan, Bernice Johnson Reagan, and Amy Horowitz started. Bernice who founded Sweet Honey in The Rock. And so those kinds of experiences are my base. And that enabled me, that is what I fall back on wherever I am. It formed me.

Urvashi Vaid (13:19):

And so you have to have that core set of values, I think, that shape you. My values were not shaped by traditional sources, I think. They were, and they weren't classical education, all that stuff. But when I went to law school, I went to law school in order to be more effective as a community organizer. I wanted to learn how systems worked. And I ended up practicing law with the National Prison Project of the ACLU. And I did prisoners' rights work during school as a law student at the prisoner's rights clinic that we had at Northeastern University Law School.

Urvashi Vaid (13:51):

And that was another experience that was formative of understanding systems and how they don't work for Black people, for people of color, for poor people of all kinds, and for women and queer people. So when I went to work at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, as it was called at the time, I had started volunteering for them, but a bunch of us were really frustrated with how mainstream they were. And so it was a real strategy of my kind of posse of activists from around the country to go in there and try to change it so that it was more connected to folks around the country, working at the local level, that it wasn't just about Washington, that it wasn't just about lobbying, but it was about organizing.

Urvashi Vaid (14:35):

And you know what? We did it.

Darren Isom (14:36):

I'm going to stop you right there because I think that's just such a powerful point. And I love the way you talk about how in many ways your base and your starting point just gave you a very different orientation around what success looked like and the skills that you use. And although you developed other skills, clearly you learned the master's tools, if you will. You learned how to use them in a way that actually allowed you to elevate the skills and the appreciation, the assets you had to start in New Orleans. And I'm just back from New Orleans so if I call you baby or boo at any moment, it's just because I've been home for a bit. And that's how we call people, ma'am and sir, out of respect, to offer love.

Darren Isom (15:09):

But one of the expressions that we have all the time, a roux, which is the basis of all Creole cuisine. It's the flour and oil. And we talk about certain people being just a really good roux or their family being a good roux. They have a really, just a good base, a good background. And a solid roux flavors everything differently.

Darren Isom (15:25):

And I would love for you just to talk a little bit more, if this community organizing space was your starting space, what kind of roux did that give you? As you think about shaping the world and thinking about the world and what mattered and what is important?

Urvashi Vaid (15:38):

I think that the base that I was describing, the politics that formed me and the experiences and the people who taught me how to organize, we're not invested in the status quo. And that's what I think Audrey Lord's quote is about. It's not just the tools, tools you can apply and use, like a hammer or something, you use it.

Urvashi Vaid (15:58):

But if you're really invested in the meaning of the hammer, if you're like, "Yeah. This is the only way to do it." Or, "I must pound this nail with this hammer." That's really different. That's a buying into the system. And a lot of people very much, as you said earlier, who are outsiders want to conform or conform in order to fit, in order to advance. And there's a difference between doing that in a performative way and doing that in a real absorbing, "I'm in it to win it," kind of way.

Urvashi Vaid (16:30):

I'm in it to change it and overthrow it. And if that means dislodging my own position in it, fine with me. And that was the kind of person that made my roux. So I credit people, there was an incredible radical Episcopal priest that I met through community organizing around anti-apartheid work. He was working in Poughkeepsie in a parish and he was incredible.

Urvashi Vaid (16:55):

He and his partner at the time, they taught me so much about liberation theology, about underground anarchist writing. We'd go to bookstores and there was stuff that I'd never read before, James Cohn and people like that. So those were formative experiences for the roux. And then you get into, I mentioned Gay Community News, which was this unbelievable weekly newspaper, community based newspaper.

Urvashi Vaid (17:22):

It was run by a collective, put out, and the collective included the writers and the artists who made the paper and this small staff that was all paid the same wage, $50 a week we're talking. And I started out volunteering as a person who stuffed the paper into the envelopes and sent it out every Friday night. That's how, it was the Friday night stuffers. And then I became a Thursday night proofreader, and then I became, a volunteer in another way. It was like that. And most writers and thinkers in and around that community, absolutely amazing people.

Darren Isom (17:59):

And I think you'd talk about... What's really powerful there is that a group of folks who are not only interested in disrupting the narrative, but actually creating a different one. Building something new?

Urvashi Vaid (18:08):


Darren Isom (18:08):

And I think that's something really powerful because there's a level of empowerment that comes with my role is not just to say no to something, but to say yes to something and to create something new that others can say yes to as well, which is really powerful.

Darren Isom (18:20):

I want to transition. because going back to master's tools and all those things, natural transition point to philanthropy and talking about how you thought about flipping from this site where you're more community engaged, definitely have this understanding and this, this role of really not just fitting in, but really shifting how the work is done, and then entering philanthropy, which is a space where the rules are very clearly defined. The power hierarchies are very clearly defined.

Darren Isom (18:45):

You have so many folks that are in it to keep it going and are so excited and happy to be invited to the table that they don't raise any questions once they get there. I would love to hear your thoughts about how you kind of entered that world and your career in philanthropy and how that shaped you and how you shaped it?

Urvashi Vaid (19:00):

Absolutely. I was always on the outside of getting any grant because I worked in the queer movement and as a job after I left the ACLU Prison Project. And what that means is that mainstream philanthropy wouldn't fund us. We were self-funded through our own contributions, 25 bucks, a hundred bucks people joining as members. That's how the Task Force was funded, very small donations and lots of them.

Urvashi Vaid (19:23):

And we didn't get grants until, I don't know, well into the second decade of the organization's existence because it was too controversial or it didn't fund LGBT. Nobody did. So I was working at the Task Force in the 90s. I worked for the organization. I left and wrote a book and I came back and I was working my second time around running a Think Tank in New York and a headhunter called me up out of the blue.

Urvashi Vaid (19:48):

And she called me because her boyfriend was somebody I had worked on a project with as a volunteer. We had served on this little committee and he said, "Oh, you're doing this search. You should talk to Urvashi." So she calls me up random, random and a wonderful woman of color, head hunter.

Darren Isom (20:05):

It is so often how random the connections are and how those things happen though.

Urvashi Vaid (20:09):

And I said to her, "I'm not Ford Foundation material. I'm an outsider, I'm a troll maker and that's not what they want." She and she just was Lauren Gumbs was her name, amazing woman. She said, "Urvashi, just think about it. Just think about it." And she just kept at me and said, "Just go meet this guy. Just go meet him." And I go in there. I said, "All right, what have I got to lose?" And Kate, my partner, said, "Come on. What do you got to lose? You'll learn something. Just go do it."

Darren Isom (20:32):

God bless Kate, as well.

Urvashi Vaid (20:33):

I was very skeptical. I was really skeptical. And I went in, I met the guy who turned out to be wonderful, thoughtful, looking for somebody who came out of social movements, not somebody who was the conventional person that I thought worked there. But somebody, actually he was looking for somebody with my background and it was a US civil society portfolio. And I did it. I took the leap and I got the job and I was there almost five years.

Urvashi Vaid (21:00):

And then I moved over to the Arcus Foundation, which is an conservation and LGBTQ rights. And it's an individual donor who founded it and helped that donor build out his vision. And the two experiences really were eye opening. To go from somebody who it was easy not to return your calls because you worked for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. And you weren't perceived as being powerful. And to being at the Ford Foundation where I had the experience of one of the people who would never return my calls in Washington, when I would call him, I ran into him with his program officer at the elevator and he was like, "Oh, Urvashi." Like we were best friends. And I just thought it was hysterical because it's about power and money and proximity to money.

Urvashi Vaid (21:51):

But being in philanthropy, again, it was my basic values and the base that I had and who I felt accountable to. That's kept me honest, I think, I hope. It's very seductive. I'd never made that kind of money. I always say being in philanthropy changed my class status. It did. From a middle class to upper middle class in my instance. So I was lucky enough to be middle class. And it changed my class status and it taught me a lot.

Urvashi Vaid (22:17):

It exposed me to a whole set of networks that have been valuable to this day, but I was never invested in it in like, "I got to protect my career." It was like, "Organize the money. That's why you're here. Organize the money, facilitate opening doors, facilitate people who come to you with great ideas, getting support for their ideas. That's your job. It's a facilitative role." Not a you must do what I think role. And it's a very interesting space.

Darren Isom (22:48):

Yeah. I think that definitely interesting space. And I love how you've talk about this idea of, and I'm glad I brought at this point of the roux, your base was different, because as you advocate within philanthropy, you have very different orientation of what success looks like. And you talk about this concept of being introduced to a world where your positionality is great and the power's great to some degree and you recognize that your power comes from positionality. It's not yours.

Urvashi Vaid (23:09):

Not mine.

Darren Isom (23:11):

I do think there is something to be said about how do you then understand what you bring to the table and how do you double down on that as opposed to trying to leave behind all that you brought to the table to capture a new set of things to fit in.

Darren Isom (23:24):

And so I would love, and I'm just going to get a bit of a tangent, but for me I remember very clearly heading off into the great white professional world after graduating from Howard and then going off to grad school and my uncle sitting me down, he's like "Now, remember, as you go into this big white professional world, you will never beat white people at being white. You can beat them at being Black. That's what you bring to the table. So you should double down on your Blackness as a way of kind of thinking about your assets."

Darren Isom (23:48):

And with that in mind, I would love for you, as you think about kind of being successful, because you did have a very successful career in philanthropy, whether you would admit that or not, as you think about that time and that space kind of what were those skills that you brought from your community engagement world from your initial roux, if you will, that made you just distinctly qualified, better, smarter at the work from a philanthropy perspective?

Urvashi Vaid (24:12):

I don't know if I was smarter than other people at the work, but I certainly applied the tactics that I learned of one-on-ones. I sat down and did one-on-one conversations with people across all sorts of disciplines in the foundation, the big foundation that I worked in and even continued that in smaller spaces that I've worked in.

Urvashi Vaid (24:32):

So curiosity, engagement with people, what are you working on? Where did you come from? Why you do what you do? Builds relationships, it builds understanding. And that's critical in any institution for any kind of leadership. You have to understand who you're with or who's alongside you whether you agree with them or not. You got to try to understand where they're coming from a little bit.

Urvashi Vaid (24:57):

And I learned a lot talking to the economic justice teams there or the international people or the global civil society folks, so many kinds of backgrounds and so many kinds of experiences. The one-on-one tool is the most important community organizing narrative exchange strategy that you can.

Darren Isom (25:15):

And I'm going to interrupt that one-on-one, because you take it for granted, but I think it's worth calling out. To meet with someone one-on-one and to listen to them also means that you respect and understand they bring assets to the table, which is not, as simple as it sounds, not always the case. And so already there's a valuing of the person, as a person and as a community, that's noteworthy. Yeah.

Urvashi Vaid (25:35):

And then I had mentors. That's the other thing that I really believe in a workplace environment or in a movement environment where people, you don't know everything, I certainly did not know the first thing about grant making or philanthropy. They taught me the mechanics of it, but then the kind of depth of it and the positionality, as you said, that you get from being proximate to wealth. Had never been in that situation in that way. So people who had been there like Anthony Romero or Alan Jenkins or people who I knew who had worked, Natalia Kanem. They taught me so much about that.

Urvashi Vaid (26:14):

And not only are they friends for life, but they mentored me in a very easygoing way. And then there were people that I didn't even know who mentored me. I remember this one person who was a very smart woman, white woman, who was at the foundation. She heard me speaking at a program officer's meeting and the next day caught me in the cafeteria and she said, "Hey, I got this book. I think you should consider it." And she gave me this business book, which was all about how to succeed you have to model, it was about performing in the language of the company that you're in, basically in a nutshell. And not by changing your values or what you mean, but by framing it.

Urvashi Vaid (26:57):

And I understood that because I was trained as a lawyer. When you go into court, you have to follow a certain cadence. You have to follow a certain protocol. You can't just do the same thing you would do at dinner with friends. And so that's how I heard it. I didn't get insulted or anything I thought, "Oh, that's interesting. She's trying to tell me that to succeed in this environment, I can succeed if I listen to the affect and bring that affect."

Urvashi Vaid (27:21):

That was helpful. Because I'm a hothead revolutionary type, in my youth, at least. Perhaps not in my wizened bougie old age, but I did not listen well. I did not modulate my cadence very much and that was kind of help... So those kinds of mentorship moments or teaching moments some random, some more organized were really, really helpful.

Urvashi Vaid (27:44):

Those are the ways that I think I "succeeded" and then just, people of color, we work hard, we work hard.

Darren Isom (27:52):

You definitely worked hard. I love the thinking here around one, the lessons and code switching, because we're always developing our ability to code switch in a way that allows us to hold onto our authentic selves, but also allow us to be heard by people that would not necessarily hear us. And so I think there's something to be said about code switching as just a masterful asset as it relates to building relationships.

Urvashi Vaid (28:13):

And it doesn't have to be where you sacrifice your values in order to do that. That's the skill that you develop with practice that you can raise your hand and raise the objection in the room or raise the concern. And sometimes they won't hear it. And many times the classic thing happens where you say it, nobody responds, and then somebody else says it who's more like the rest of the room and there is a response.

Urvashi Vaid (28:35):

So there's all sorts of reactions you have to be prepared for. But that's the other thing, is that tying back to something we talked about earlier, I think in most situations, one of the impacts of not feeling a sense of belonging in many places is that I don't look for or believe that there is a perfectly safe space. I think there are safer spaces and more welcoming spaces and more inclusive spaces, but I've spent many, many, many hours with people who were frustrated that something wasn't a safe space. And I just think, "Wow, that is the holy grail." That's looking for that mythic goblet that does it exist? And I don't know if it does.

Darren Isom (29:14):

Yeah. And I always wonder as well when I hear about this idea of safe space. So I feel like I've navigated so much of my professional career and spaces with people who are so different and think differently.

Darren Isom (29:23):

That one, somehow another managed to create a safe space with your squad of folks that think the way you do and are going to be encouraging. And the folks you can text and be like, "Now, does this make sense to you? Because I just said it and folks looked at me like I'd lost my mind, but it seems like it's? That normalize that what you're thinking is normal.

Darren Isom (29:39):

But I think it also makes you realize how, in some ways, this idea of having a safe space seems like such a mark of privilege. It's like, "Oh, you have spaces where you just feel completely safe and nothing you said is going to trouble someone?" What a privilege.

Darren Isom (29:55):

There's something to be said about how not even having that as an outlet or an answer means that you're always creating... You're comfortable with discomfort in a way that others aren't, and comfortable with navigating uncomfortable spaces in a way that others aren't, because you just don't even have that expectation. That's powerful.

Urvashi Vaid (30:10):

It's like Bernice Johnson Reagon's talk that she gave in early in 1981, it's in Home Girls Anthology and it's about coalitions. So she has these passages about coalitions and she says, "A coalition is not a home. It's not a womb. It's an uncomfortable place. You go somewhere else for home. And then you come back and coalesce and it's not because you're in a room with different people. You're engaging in a very uncomfortable set of spaces and that's what's powerful about it."

Urvashi Vaid (30:42):

I always learned a lot from that kind of a framing of what political partnership with people is about. It's not easy, but it's possible.

Darren Isom (30:51):

It is possible. I want to jump on that a little bit as well, because I think that you just spent quite a bit of your time working within the LGBTQ space. And so personally speaking, I think it's one of those spaces where you would expect some sense of home and you get in very often, you're like, "Whoa, this is actually, I feel very un at home. I want to go back to the straight folks. They seem to be a little bit more accommodating than over here."

Darren Isom (31:14):

Particularly as a queer person of color who, if you come from a different region, you come from one of the coastal cities. And I would love just to hear, as someone who's worked in that space, and different places within that space as well, some more conventional, some more traditional, some a lot more radical, if you will, how you feel like you found a space there, carved a space there, and also how that space has changed from a leadership perspective?

Urvashi Vaid (31:36):

Yeah. One of the best things about the LGBTQ space is that it isn't preformed. It's still in formation. There's a lot of invention that is even today happening and possible because the institutions are new or don't exist or haven't been imagined yet. And when I came in, when I started working at the Task Force, there were five staff people. There was hardly anybody who had a paid job in Washington. Lambda Legal was tiny and the community center movement was just small and very, very funky, but visionary and full of amazing people. And that's the space of creativity that emergent movements bring.

Urvashi Vaid (32:21):

I think you see that in a lot of movements, the Dreamers, I think the movement for Black Lives has that amazing genius creativity, because they're not limited by preexisting institutional forms or preexisting systems. People are inventing them.

Urvashi Vaid (32:37):

I think that's kind of helped me. That's how I approached my work and my posse, my squad, approached the work in LGBT organizations at Gay Community News, we were making it up. We weren't making up the news, but we were making up the institution and how it operated and what it covered and what it politics were and its values were. And same with the task force. When I started working there, we reoriented, "Okay, how are we going to work with community based organizations?"

Urvashi Vaid (33:03):

We invented creating change as a conference. We piloted a lot of ideas and sparked a lot of new infrastructures. That was fun. Even in the hardest of times, even with all the conflict, even with all the death and loss of HIV Aids, which was a devastating experience, it was really creative and generative. And made you feel like you were doing something.

Urvashi Vaid (33:29):

So I feel that LGBT experience gave me a sense of possibility that if I had just worked, let's say as a lawyer in traditional ACLU type organizations for my whole career, I love the ACLU it's a really important group and I value what I learned and I'm a member and all that, but I think it would've been a different, I think my vision would've been very different to be just limited to being a practicing lawyer.

Darren Isom (33:58):

Yeah. Completely. And even just particularly given just your position and your ability to affect change. So everybody brings up to the party and you just have taken on different roles that have given you different entrees.

Urvashi Vaid (34:07):

One thing I would say is that I meet a lot of people of color who are starting their own organizations because they don't see what they want to see existing. And I think it's a great thing. I actually am a fan of that, of people starting projects, initiatives, ideas. It's hard to start an organization from scratch. Sometimes I counsel folks that I meet to find a way to attach it to something that exists so you don't have to deal with all the administration and infrastructure, but you can really focus on the program vision that you have. I love that. We don't see what exists. But we want to see, so we have to invent it.

Darren Isom (34:42):

Yeah. I think there's something to be said about how do you create those things you wish you had when you were coming through? The supports that you wish you had. Now also very much so aware that this is an old Howard professor, one of his favorite quotes that I laugh about all the time now, optimism, that is the Howard professor was that:

Darren Isom (34:56):

"America's founding documents were all perfect documents. They say that all men were created equal. We’ve just spent our entire history as a country deciding who is a man. Is it just white land owning men?” Is it white men in general? Is it white men, white women, people of color? Queer folks, gay folks, children.

Darren Isom (35:12):

So I think there's something to be said about as in some ways you have a perspective on someone that should be loved and cared about that matters. You're announcing that into the conversation and holding, creating new institutions that develop that as a way of kind of launching that new space and making sure that's understood to be something that should matter living into that definition of all men.

Darren Isom (35:29):

Deciding who is a man, just love that quote. I think that speaks to that. I do wonder as well, you've in many ways balanced a career, that's allowed you to kind of do new things, work with more radical folks, if you will, but also work within traditional space to push them along. And that seems like an interesting recipe to success, to some degree in a way that allows you to still have the connection from a grounds perspective and a community perspective, but also realize the power that comes with positionality and moving large institutions in ways that matter.

Urvashi Vaid (35:58):

I never thought I would be able to work full time in social movements. I thought I'd... And another reason I went to law school was because I knew I had to have a job and it was going to be a J-O-B and then I would do all my other stuff at night or on the weekends. And for a lot of years I did that. And then it was really quite amazing to get a job at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force as the communications director. That's what I started. And again, I'd never done that, but I approached it like you write briefs, you write a press release, but it's shorter than a brief.

Urvashi Vaid (36:34):

And it is amazing when I think back on the career. But I don't think I ever had a big plan, the serendipity of Lauren calling me to apply for that position at Ford, which then led me to be considered for the position at Arcas, which then led me to be at Columbia Law School for a few years, which then after that, I just decided, the last seven years I've been consulting and working with nonprofits and doing sort of freelance organizing and activism.

Urvashi Vaid (37:02):

I like building projects and I like inventing organizations with people and inventing strategies. So that's been the lucky break to me is to be able to do that by and support that through the consulting has been just a dream come true.

Darren Isom (37:17):

Yep. I love you're doing that as well. And of course I've made it perfectly clear, I would love to see you writing more because the world needs more of it. And I know we're coming close to our time together. And one question I just had for you and a wise mentor and by wise mentor, I mean a really gifted therapist at some point in San Francisco shared with me this idea that sometimes hope comes from experience, which I thought was just a very masterful way of thinking about our life experience offer us a very interesting and powerful outlook on the world.

Urvashi Vaid (37:40):


Darren Isom (37:40):

And with that in mind, I think of you as being just a wonderfully gifted leader, but also a mentor as well to many and in a world where cynicism abounds, what words of hope might you offer for those in this work, leading this work, funding this work, words of hope that come from your experience?

Urvashi Vaid (37:58):

Hmm. I'm a very hopeful person. I'm a very optimistic person. And I think of the changes that we've seen in our lifetimes, just things that one never thought would happen. I never thought of I'd live to see apartheid fall. And that was 1992. And I never thought marriage equality would become real. I never thought that we would see mainstream institutions talking about white supremacy in the way that's happened in the last two years where people are conversant in the idea of white supremacy, it's polarizing, but it's also unifying. A lot of white people are behind ending it.

Urvashi Vaid (38:36):

And that's a Testament to the organizing of the movement for Black Lives and many decades of organizing in the Civil Rights Movement. So there's a lot to be hopeful about. And then there's setbacks. There's the authoritarian turn that we are living through. There's the restriction of freedom, reproductive rights and reproductive justice. And there's the continued misogyny.

Urvashi Vaid (38:59):

So there's a lot of challenges. There's that ever widening economic inequality. And that's pretty fundamental. But I guess the words of hope that I would give is clichés like sometimes you have to fake it till you make it. Sometimes you put one foot ahead of the other.

Urvashi Vaid (39:18):

I've been in situations where people poo-poo small victories. And I don't. I think every victory is something to be celebrated and whether it's a local school board victory or a massive Affordable Care Act type thing, these are all steps that we're collectively taking and we're in this relay race together. We're handing the relay back and forth to each other all the time. Those of us who are running towards liberation, running towards a vision of a different social and economic order.

Urvashi Vaid (39:52):

And it's not just on you. It's not just on one person. That's the other thing I'd advise. If we each act like, "It's all on my back." That's just exhausting and it's unsustainable. It's not true. We're part of a community, a web of people. So that's hopeful to me. And every single day I read something or I hear about something or I meet somebody who just inspires me.

Darren Isom (40:16):

That's a wonderful way to close the conversation. So thank you for your time. You inspire me. Inspire many.

Urvashi Vaid (40:21):

Thank you, Darren. You're wonderful.

Darren Isom (40:23):

Great chatting with you. And I think that just that piece around the hope, the possibility. I think that's why we're here and you can't let anyone rob you of your radical imagination and your hopefulness.

Urvashi Vaid (40:35):

Seize the possibilities.

Darren Isom (40:36):

Seize the possibility, call it a cliche, call a truism, whatever it is. It's true. It's what we have to work with. So thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

Urvashi Vaid (40:44):

Thank you for having me.

Darren Isom (40:45):

I hope to speak with you at another point real soon.

Darren Isom (40:45):

So it's always just a pleasure to talk with someone like Urvashi who's had the opportunity to live the career that so many of us long for and so many of us see as meaningful from a success perspective and an impact perspective. And her conversations where she talks about her roux, which was in community organizing and really working with folks and how she's always brought the fire from a work perspective to really change the narrative.

Darren Isom (41:10):

And even her opening quote from Mother Audrey, giving us an opportunity to think about how we're not here to help construct the master's homes. We're here in many ways to deconstruct that and what it takes from a different skill perspective. It reminds me of many ways of my upbringing in New Orleans and makes me think of my grandmother.

Darren Isom (41:26):

A story that just came to mind as I thought about the conversation. Like many generations of women before her, my paternal grandmother, Lois was gifted with just a beautiful helden contralto voice and perfect relative pitch. And one of my favorite childhood memories is sitting in the church mezzanine, up near the bell tower with the other church children. And just looking down at the congregants below it, admiring really the pageantry of Sunday hats and tutorial splendor. And the Broadway show that if any of you who grew up in a Black church knew Sunday service to be.

Darren Isom (41:53):

And there third pew center right, in just a perfectly plumed hat, because my grandmother loved her feathers, was my grandmother just effortlessly singing harmonic chords that made the most simple hymn, more beautiful and the already grand anthem that much more moving. And so she was just really gifted at singing harmony as so many of us are in the world, but on occasions, the sopranos would falter and the soloist would take an uninvited extended Cadenza. Or the ordinance would even miss a necessary key change and the melody would be lost.

Darren Isom (42:21):

And it was in those moments that my grandmother would break from harmony and very quickly shift to the melody, belting it out boldly and just confidently to remind the lead of the notes they should be singing and the musical path, they should be charting. And once the melodic leads found their footing again, she'd return to harmony and euphony would be restored. All normally within just a matter of bars.

Darren Isom (42:40):

And there's something to be said that of the lesson I learned from that story and seeing that play out some Sundays as a child, that there's no harmony without melody. And sometimes those of us who'd been crowned as the harmony makers have to pick up the melody and carry it to a more beautiful place. And there's something to be said there about both a lesson in euphony and a lesson in leadership.

Darren Isom (43:01):

And as I think about the Urvashi's of the world and those of us who have been called to bring the fire, sometimes as we're burning things down, we have to think about what we're constructing and have to think about what's the melody that we're creating for the world that others can sing to?

Darren Isom (43:23):

Y'all that's a wrap. And while the episode is finished, the work continues. Thank you for tuning in and listening generously to Dreaming in Color, a Bridgespan supported Studio Pod Media Production. A special shout out to our show producer, the wonderful Teresa Buchanan and our show coordinator, Nicole Genova, and a huge thank you to my ever brilliant Bridgespan production team and family Cora Daniels, Michael Borger, Christina Pistorius, and Britt Savage.

Darren Isom (43:48):

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