7 Questions with Joe Sangirardi about LGBTQ+ Activism

by Elizabeth Rowe (She/Her)

LGBTQ+ Activism

Interview about LGBTQ+ Activism with Joe Sangirardi

Joe Sangirardi is involved in LGBTQ+ activism and professional nonprofit and political fundraiser. Previously, Joe served as a Director of Leadership Giving at The Human Rights Campaign and was the Director of Development at the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund. Currently, Joe serves as the Development Director for California YIMBY, California’s state-wide housing policy reform and advocacy organization. He is heavily involved in his local community as the secretary for the Eureka Valley Neighborhood Association and  Membership Co-Chair for the Alice B. Toklas LGBTQ+ Democratic Club. He also serves on the Retail Strategy Committee for the Castro Community Benefit District. Joe is deeply passionate about climate change, housing, public transportation, good government, and revitalizing the LGBTQ+ legacy of his chosen home, the Castro. This week, we asked Joe questions about his career path.

Joe, you’ve had quite the career helping to advocate for the LGBTQ+ community. Can you talk a little about how you initially became involved in this work and your career path since then?

Yeah, absolutely. I'm originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma and I came out in high school, and I think that definitely had a really big impact on my trajectory into LGBTQ+  politics. My husband and I have been together since we met when I was an undergrad and he was in law school at the University of Oklahoma. At the university, I served as the student body president at the University of Oklahoma, and I was the first openly gay student body president. I came into conflict a couple of times with people in positions of power in the state, like the state legislature and the Board of Regents. That really just informed us of how far we needed to go.

I mean, it really wasn't an issue that I was gay at the University, but when I was in a position of power, all of a sudden there was a much bigger lens on the work that I was doing. Ultimately, I ended up working at the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund in Washington DC, which is a nationwide organization that elects queer people to office. That's where I kind of found my stride in the political space. One of the first openly LGBTQ+ elected officials I ever met was Jim Roth. He was a county commissioner in Oklahoma and then held statewide office. And I saw the impact that being an elected official who is publicly, openly, gay had on younger people, and it inspired me and gave me confidence that I could get involved in politics. I wanted to see more people like that from around the country who were able to inspire a new generation of folks who were coming up.

That's really what got me into the space. After three years at the Victory Fund, I  moved over to The Human Rights Campaign, and that was an opportunity to really start thinking about not just electing people to office, but giving people actual political power in organizing. HRC has a national membership of 3.2 million people, which is a lot, and as a result, building that membership means that we are building political power. During my time at HRC, we helped flip half a dozen U.S. Senate seats. The U.S. Senate majority we have today is in part due to the work we helped do at the HRC. 

So that's been my trajectory. And when my husband and I decided to move to San Francisco, we did the gayest thing we could and moved to the Castro. And I have to tell you, I love it. Getting to move to the Castro and get involved in our local community means I actually get to see the real work being done daily. And honestly, my favorite part is getting to live with the legacy of the activism that exists in our neighborhood.

Absolutely. Can you talk a little bit about how the work at HRC and LGBTQ+ Victory Fund shaped your perspective, your involvement, and the advocacy work you do not just locally in San Francisco, but also right now in your new job at YIMBY?

Yeah. I think the greatest lesson that I learned at Victory Fund, and I think this is something that a lot of cis white men might experience when they get into progressive spaces, is I started experiencing the diversity and breadth of the LGBTQ+  space and the identities that exist within what we call a community. It’s a broad rainbow, a beautiful constellation of a thousand different communities that we put under one umbrella. I was meeting openly LGBTQ+ elected officials who were people of color, who came from different socioeconomic backgrounds and different faith traditions, and it had a massive impact on my understanding of everything else in the world of geopolitics and of the experiences of people in the communities that I grew up in that I had never considered. I think it was both a hard and severe learning experience, but it certainly made me a much better person.
Because of that, the three years I spent at Victory were probably the most transformative years of my life. Getting to meet these openly LGBTQ+ elected officials and candidates who would speak to me about their lived experiences made me a better ally.
These are people who are putting themselves out there, and it's hard, and because of that, they have to have thick skin. They often become really good at pushing back on people when they come in conflict with a different worldview. And I certainly again, as a white cis man, got checked several times with missteps in understanding or the kind of language that I would use. I can tell you how much I appreciated not just getting that feedback and getting checked on those things, but people walking with me to help me learn how to be a better ally and learn to accept those criticisms as investments in my growth to be a better ally.
I think HRC gave me a much broader view of the policy landscape and how diverse the electorate really is. I think the ideological diversity of the electorate is what actually inspires people to action. HRC is focused on LGBTQ+ equality, but during my time there, we increasingly started working with a lot of other coalition partners in the women's rights movements and in climate and housing. We've always been intimately involved, such as in healthcare workers' rights, and it helped me realize what it takes to build a political movement that’s sustainable long term. I compare other movements similar to the LGBTQ+ movement, like the women's rights movements and the NAACP, and I think one of the greatest assets of the LGBTQ+ movement is the constellation of organizations that are all committed to different areas of progress for our community because we're all achieving different things, and we're also in some slight ways and sometimes even directly competing with one another. I think that it makes us better because we actually have to be better. Whereas oftentimes when there's just one organization leading a movement or a space, even if it's a local organization, like a neighborhood association or something like that, if there's only one organization in that space and there's no competition, it's very easy to become complacent,  to become complicit, and to not think outside of the box about how you can meaningfully affect change.

You have incredible experience and knowledge in the art of fundraising and development. Can you give our listeners some of your top tips for fundraising and how to overcome the potential awkwardness and fear that is associated with asking people for money?

I think the most important thing anybody can do is make a list. Make a list of all the people you know—all your friends, all your family acquaintances, put them down on a list. Think about what kind of change you are trying to make. And then think about what local, not national, but what are local organizations that are affecting change in an area that you care about? Is it cleaning up the streets in your neighborhood? Is it helping the homeless people who are on the streets in your neighborhood? Is it building power in your home, county, city, or state? Find that organization, seek it out, and get involved, and then ask your friends to get involved. As far as fundraising goes, making that list and learning how to make an ask is the most important thing that you can do to fundraise for your own organization, fundraise for a nonprofit that you're participating in, or even fundraise for your job if you happen to work at a nonprofit organization. I think the hardest thing that most people face when fundraising is making the ask itself, and I think a lot of people perceive making an ask and fundraising as asking to take something from someone. Like you’re asking them to divorce themselves from their money, you're stealing from them. I actually think it's the exact opposite. People often only give to causes that they're invited to give to. For the vast majority of people, the reason why they care about the things they care about, is because they know something about it—at some point someone told them something about it, right? So, when you actually sit down for coffee, call somebody, invite a friend to an event for a local organization, you're providing an opportunity for somebody to decide for themselves if this is something that they care about and if this is something they'll want to invest in. You're giving them a chance to contribute to change, to manifest the kind of world that they want to see in the future. And I think that's one of the most generous things that you can provide somebody. Some people like to volunteer, some people prefer to give money, and you don't know that until you've asked somebody.

You’re very committed to public service. How do you believe community engagement contributes to effective advocacy and change?

I think about this from movement capacity building. There are a lot of national organizations dedicated to a lot of things and there are a lot of local community organizations dedicated to a lot of things. The irony is that a lot of these organizations aren't speaking directly to the people in the communities that they claim to represent. I think that's the reason why certain places, like San Francisco, have a thousand organizations dedicated to just about everything under the sun. And it's in part because we've built a civic culture where people think that, yeah, an organization should exist for the thing that they care about, and they do. Because of that, I mean, I would say civic engagement seems to be our city's religion, right? I mean, it is the way that people give back and like to participate socially in things. And it's one of the things I love most about San Francisco—it inspires me every day to stay involved myself. And that's a bit different than other places that I've visited and lived. I think that this is about learning how to talk to people, learning what the brass tacks are, and what the bread and butter are, right? Or the kitchen table, I don't know what the saying is. But what are the things that people really care about and what are the things that people align with? And if you live in a place where there isn't a lot of community engagement, or you feel like the organizations aren't being effective or they don't do a lot, like what an opportunity, right? The fact that you actually can see that that's happening means that there's an opportunity for you to make a really big difference in your community through local engagement. So I would absolutely encourage anybody to go out there, see what organizations exist in your city or your neighborhood, and if one doesn't exist for an issue that you really care about, whether or not it's building more affordable housing, supporting local public transit, getting more  LGBTQ+ folks elected, whatever it might be see if there's a local organization that is dedicated to that and if they're effective. And if the answer to either one of those questions is no, there isn't, or no, they aren't, then get to it.

Currently, you serve as the Development Director for California YIMBY. Can you tell us more about the organization's mission and your role in advancing its goals in the realm of housing policy reform?

Yeah, absolutely. As I said, I live here in the Castro, and it's one of the most expensive neighborhoods and one of the most expensive cities in the world. San Francisco certainly radicalized me as being very pro-housing and wanting to build a lot of housing. I also believe that if there were more housing and more affordable housing in the Castro, more people would move to the Castro and San Francisco. And for a city that says that it is a refuge for LGBTQ+, people who experience discrimination, that it's a refuge for families of trans kids who might be being attacked by their legislatures, we're not really a refuge for these folks if people can't even afford to live here. So, you know, I've become very aggressively pro-housing since moving to San Francisco. And that's really kind of brought me around to my work at California YIMBY. One of the biggest challenges in California is that of local municipalities, the state housing shortage isn't the result of state policy per se. It's the result of a thousand municipalities, a thousand small little areas and their city and town councils deciding themselves to restrict housing and work production to keep single-family neighborhoods the way that they have been since the 1960s and 1970s. All of these municipalities have made these decisions in tandem, not with one another, but at the same time. And the result is that the entire state has, in essence, redlined itself away from building any new housing. And that is the reason why California is in such a housing crisis. The challenge now is that all these municipalities recognize it, but none of them are willing to do anything about it, or many of them aren't.
I work for the statewide housing policy and research organization advocating in Sacramento for housing policy change. And that's really our goal. Our goal is not necessarily to work at the local level but to work with our dozens of partners and nonprofit organizations from around the state to build a strong coalition that represents diverse interests in communities around the state to ramp up housing production so that California can be a livable, affordable, place for families, regardless of where you are. The single greatest indicator of an individual's CO2 contributions, like the greatest indicator of somebody's contributions to climate change, is how dense of a neighborhood they live in. So the single greatest thing that somebody can do to mitigate their impact, their contributions to climate change, is to live in a dense community. Unfortunately, a lot of our dense communities, these are in cities, have put up massive restrictions around building housing within cities that might already have public transit and might already be walkable. So our work is to incentivize the building of new housing in these denser areas so we can help fight climate change and make California more affordable. This leads to public transportation, healthy lifestyles, and really resilient, livable communities.

What are some of the key challenges and opportunities you encounter in your work with California YIMBY? How do you envision the future of housing reform?

My hopes and dreams for housing reform are that cities and counties take responsibility for what they need to do and how much housing they need to build. In the 1970s, there were bills passed that created a regional cyclical allotment of how much housing municipalities needed to facilitate the building of over an eight-year period. It's called the housing element or arena goal. A lot of cities have been coming up short on this for decades because there were no teeth in the law. So people just kind of kicked the can down the road and never took it seriously. But a few years ago, as a result of some legislation from State Senator Scott Wiener, we put some teeth in that. And now cities are having to take seriously what their arena goals and what their housing elements look like. The result is they can have their housing elements de-certified, which then resends all of their local control over zoning which can jumpstart housing production. But more often than not, what it does is it just forces people in positions of power and cities to think through things like, what would more housing production look like in our municipality? How can we do it in a way that does feel like it belongs in these communities? They start chipping away and alleviating the downward pressure of housing prices on people. California has a massive crisis with people who are rent-burdened, and that qualifies as people who are paying 30% or more of their annual income on housing. And California has one of the highest rates in the nation of people who are spending more than 50% of their annual income on housing. And you can only imagine, you come to San Francisco, look at our neighborhoods, and you might see some closed businesses, and you can look at the number of people in that community that are rent-burdened and how many storefronts are closed. It's because people are spending more and more money on their housing, and as a result, they're not able to spend money on anything else, and it's hurting the vibrancy and resiliency of our communities.

What are some of your favorite podcasts, books, movies, or TV shows?

My favorite podcast, hands down, is Freakonomics. It’s looking at the untold story of everything. Freakonomics is very enlightening on all different areas of the economy and how it operates. They also have several really, really good episodes dedicated to housing. So if you're interested in getting more involved in that or learning more about the housing crisis, I would suggest that. I'm also really bad at keeping up with pop culture. So I listened to a podcast called Keep It! My friends Ira Madison III and Louis Virtel are two of the co-hosts for that podcast. It's part of the Crooked Media podcast and media narrative conglomerate, which also includes Pod Save America, another of my favorite podcasts. I’m reading Golden Gates right now. It's a book about the housing crisis in California that starts with a story about some activists locally here in San Francisco who sensibly kicked off the EMB movement, which is based in San Francisco. I'm also reading another book called Just by Looking at Him, by Ryan O'Connell.

I also say if you're looking to get involved in your own community, read the local news—regardless of whether or not you agree with it, regardless of not whether you feel it has a perspective that it shouldn't, I would still suggest you read it because other people are reading it too, and it's gonna give you a sense of your community's priorities.

Thank you Joe for all that you’re doing! Have a question? Drop us a line!