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VOL. 39 | NO. 13 | Friday, March 27, 2015

Equality Project still tough sell in some areas

By Joe Morris

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A decade into its existence, the Tennessee Equality Project is facing a year that will likely contain its biggest milestones.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision in June may strike down marriage bans in the state, but also trigger new legislation regarding same-sex marriage that will lead to additional court battles.

In the meantime, the organization continues steady lobbying efforts at the state Capitol, and also works to open new chapters around the state for its education and outreach efforts.

As executive director, Chris Sanders works to further TEP’s mission of promoting and sustaining equality of LGBT people throughout Tennessee, and he says that from school bullying to everyday workplace discrimination, there’s plenty to be done at the state and local level.

Q: Even with an improving economy, it’s still tough times for nonprofits, especially those with a social-justice mission. How’s TEP doing?

A: “The fact that we are two separate entities, a 501(c)3 educational organization, and then a 501(c)4 legislative lobbying organization, works well for us.

“It’s challenging, because we have an easier time raising money for the educational side. People are able to take that tax deduction. And that is OK, because we need educational programming in this state. But we also need a well-versed lobbying presence, so we work to meet the challenge that comes with 501(c)4 fundraising.

“Things are improving, though. My index of that is how we do when special campaigns come around. We participate in The Community Foundation’s “Big Payback” and national giving days like “Giving Tuesday,” and we have been exceeding our goals in those campaigns. And things are certainly better than they were a few years ago, at the height of the recession.

“People are giving more, but still not in huge amounts. But, again, our education and outreach helps people connect with us through their friends and social networks. People are spreading their philanthropy out more these days, so we’re making sure we’re on their lists.’’

Q: Is Middle Tennessee a fertile area for donations, volunteers and other nonprofit needs?

A: “The bulk of our money and people do come from Nashville and Memphis. East Tennessee continues to be challenging, but people like to give to organizations they are familiar with, and we have deeper roots in Davidson and Shelby counties. We’ve had committees in those areas longer, and so have stronger ties.

“Also, we are seeing a lot more LGBT nonprofits than we did a decade ago, and when you have more of those, that can dilute the giving, and the volunteer pool. It’s a good thing but it also creates a more competitive environment for that limited pool of dollars and volunteer time.’’

Q: TEP lobbies throughout the legislative session (and beyond) on such things as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The current makeup of the state legislature isn’t particularly predisposed toward the LGBT community, and local governmental bodies outside the major metro areas aren’t, either. How do you make progress?

A: “We do a lot of direct service. We get calls from people asking how to get help when they are in a domestic-violence or hate-violence situation. We work with people at some of their most vulnerable times, and help put systems into place that make them safer.

“One of our programs, Equality Means Business, identifies those businesses in our communities where a LGBT person’s job application and business is welcome. We work to identify safe spaces for people, both in terms of longer-term physical safety and economic empowerment.’’

Q: People say that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage will make your job easier. Is that an overly simplistic interpretation of the situation?

A: “Job discrimination is still legal in our state, and it will still be legal to fire and not hire people, regardless of what happens with marriage.

“People won’t get the promotions they deserve.

“Bullying will remain a huge problem in our schools, regardless of whether or when we achieve marriage equality.

“The issue of domestic violence is rising in our community, according to TBI statistics.

“There are a variety of issues to tackle, and added to that will be a slew of anti-gay bills such as those we’re seeing in Alabama and North Carolina in the wake of marriage decisions by courts there.

“Tennessee certainly will get a lot more anti-equality legislation after a pro-marriage ruling comes.’’

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