What’s in a Name Change?
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) Pride Month is currently celebrated each June to honor the June 1969 Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan, a pivotal moment in the Gay Liberation Movement. According to Youth.gov, Pride Month celebrations include pride parades, picnics, parties, workshops, symposia and concerts, and LGBT Pride Month events attract millions of participants around the world.
During this year’s Pride Month, United Way of King County highlights one of its partners, UTOPIA Washington, a Kent-based Queer and Transgender grassroots organization that works to serve and empower LGBTQIA+ groups statewide.
As the COVID pandemic curtailed Washington state’s queer and transgender Pacific Islander communities access to food and financial assistance, word got around that relief was coming out of Kent.
UTOPIA Seattle, a queer and trans people of color-led, grassroots organization provided everything from hot meals to harvested vegetables to up to $1,000 to pay bills. Broadcasting their services on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, the group whose acronym stands for United Territories of Pacific Islanders Alliance sought to help people of all backgrounds marginalized by the pandemic, including refugees, immigrants, people of color and those involved in the sex trade.
And though the group’s scope of work was then confined to metro Seattle, folks in need from across the state figured there’d be no harm in reaching out.
“I didn’t realize there were so many of us spread out in the state of Washington,” said UTOPIA executive director, Taffy Johnson, whose organization began fielding inquiries from Blaine, Cle Elum, Wenatchee, Ravensdale, Bellingham—even Vancouver, BC. “We were getting requests from places I never even heard of.”
That prompted a name change: the former UTOPIA Seattle is now UTOPIA Washington. The United Way of King County-supported organization has expanded its reach to serve queer and transgender Pacific Islander (which it calls, QTPI, or “Q-T-pie”) communities statewide.
“We’re in the process of opening satellites in those areas [outside of metro Seattle] where we have contractors navigating those areas so they can be able to support communities,” said Johnson, who added that UTOPIA is also working with Indigenous tribes in rural areas to help serve communities as well.
“Those are their communities; they know them better,” Johnson said. “So, they tell us what the needs are, and we try to find financial support or what type of support they’re in need of.”
Since its inception in 2009, UTOPIA has helped its communities access food, resources, unemployment, healthcare and education. And its shift to statewide status does not mean that UTOPIA’s local work has waned.
UTOPIA is among groups partnering with United Way to deliver food to communities through DoorDash’s Project DASH program. Through local food banks and grocery stores, Project DASH enables United Way to deliver culturally appropriate items to people who can’t readily access food banks or live in food deserts.
“[During COVID] there was a such need in our communities to access food, but when you think about marginalized communities, we also need to factor in that a lot of these folks work full-time jobs,” said Johnson. “They don’t have time to come down here to pick up food, and we don’t have the full capacity to deliver food all over King County.
“We pick up the food from our partners, box the food up and set up the deliveries [for DoorDash] so that folks are accessing food on a weekly basis or twice a month,” Johnson added. “When we think about food accessibility, food should be free and easy to access to all people, and so we’re trying to make food as accessible as possible.”
UTOPIA also partners with Living Well to harvest vegetables at a greenhouse in Auburn. The organization grows arugula, lettuce, cucumbers and cabbage that it packages and distributes via DoorDash. UTOPIA also has also partnered with Food Lifeline, other vendors and volunteers to deliver hot meals twice a week as far south as Olympia.
UTOPIA also worked with the area’s sex worker community, one of the most vulnerable during the pandemic.
“One of the things that happened at that time was that when everyone was getting their stimulus checks, communities who engage in sex work weren’t receiving any,” said Johnson. “We provided financial assistance so they could continue to keep their housing, to continue to pay for their utilities. Most importantly, we set portable sinks on the streets so they could access water.”
UTOPIA’s prowess for serving communities has become so renown that urgent care facility staff and rural area doctors refer patients to the organization for help with utility bills and food. In 2020, UTOPIA distributed more than $125,000 in rental or utility bills assistance and distributed more than 800 boxes of food each Monday per month.
“During the COVID shutdown, a lot of folks were trying to find ways to survive,” Johnson said, “and often we neglect communities who aren’t able to access resources: immigrants, refugees, communities of color in rural areas. This left a lot of communities with disabilities and language barriers with less or no information in terms of how to access food and resources to pay for their bills.”
“While everybody was at home [UTOPIA] didn’t rest, because there was a need,” Johnson added. “We need to be able have those accessibilities for our community.”
While everybody was at home [UTOPIA] didn’t rest because there was a need. We need to be able to have those accessibilities for our community.”Taffy Johnson, executive director of UTOPIA Washington
The next step for UTOPIA, Johnson said, is to provide holistic supports that include counseling for those grappling with the emotional tolls of the pandemic. That includes UTOPIA staff; they receive 100% funded health care coverage from the organization.
“A lot of times, nonprofit organizations are expected to do a lot and they take in a lot of traumas without taking care of themselves,” Johnson. “We want to make sure that we are not only taking care of community but taking care of people on the ground.”