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Community Corner—UTOPIA Washington

The Community Corner is a place where we highlight the work of our community partners. Our goal is to gather the stories and post pictures that you might share with your friends and neighbors when you run into them on the corner, out and about in your community…

People receiving food during a community meal
Serving a meal to community in 2021. Photo provided by UTOPIA.

What is the role your organization fulfills in your community?

UTOPIA serves as servant leader to our own community ensuring that basic needs are met and empowering our community to move changes that affirm us and is rooted in the multiple layers of our identities. UTOPIA promotes low barrier access and challenges the outdated systems that have long kept us from the resources we most need.

How does your partnership with Seattle Human Services (HSD) assist you in that role?

With HSD, we are able to build the resiliency of our community and ensure that they see themselves reflected not only through the work of UTOPIA but in practicing customs that are valuable to them. Our Queer and Transgender Pacific Islander community in Washington State continues to grow, and as we settle away from our homes to find better opportunities, we hope for a space where we can find each other, share our stories, sing and dance together and most importantly care for each other. That is what UTOPIA intends to continue providing.

What is your organization’s origin story?

A group performing on stage in matching traditional costumes as part of an annual Asia Pacific New Year celebration.
Photo provided by UTOPIA.

We are an organization founded and built by Faʻafafine and Transgender Women from the Pacific Islands. We were founded in support of many of our own community moving to the Pacific Northwest to find better opportunities but met with the harsh reality that spaces aren’t always inclusive and welcoming to us. Many of our community turned to sex work to survive, to care for our families, each other and ourselves. We were truly found in the struggles, and the rough journey of our community.

How has your organization grown or developed in recent years?

In 2017 we hired our first full time staff member—our Executive Director Taffy Johnson. Today we have a family of 25 full time staff and a large base consisting of our amazing community and volunteers. Our team grew exponentially but so have our programs and services. We recently launched our free clinic this year which is such a huge milestone considering where we came from. We hope that it serves as a life changing/saving resource to our communities ensuring that no matter who you are – gender, race, or immigration status – we all deserve quality health care and a connection to a community that is meaningful.

Why is it important for HSD and City of Seattle taxpayers to invest in community-led work?

If we want to make change that is rooted in the heart of where the real work needs to happen, it’s important to invest in community led organizations. While we may not always come with all the skillsets academia provides, we bring something far more valuable, lived experiences. We are moved to do the work that we do because of who we are to this community; we are inspired to continue that every day because of that same reason.

How do your organization’s programs and services help to reduce the disparities experienced by people of color living in our region?

Our services aim to provide low barrier and free access to resources and benefits. We understand that many of our communities are often in informal economies, and identify as LGBTQ, undocumented, underinsured, and many more. Our hope is that we can continue to build services of our own to navigate our people through, such as our free clinic. If our communities are constantly in a state of surviving, then they can’t be present to make impactful change. Addressing basic needs for our community is important in order to make systems change that can sustain us long term.

What’s one example of how an HSD-funded program or service made a difference in the life of one of your community members?

A group of Queer and Transgender Pacific Islanders, some wearing traditional fabrics and skirts, dancing together in a dance room.
Photo provided by UTOPIA.

This year we are funded to host ROOTED in Culture through HSD. To know that there is someone willing to provide funding so that we can have a space to get together with each other and practice our culture is so refreshing. We are able to witness every week a group of Queer and Transgender Pacific Islanders (majority transgender women) come together and dance together, sing, practice handicrafts. And what we are able to witness through that is community connection and a sense of belonging.

What motivates your staff or keeps you going?

We are motivated by our own community, many of our community members show up to give and donate hours to volunteer and just to be a part of the greater work. We are motivated by the stories of those that we serve but also in connecting those stories with our own, and understanding that we are able to have this connection to them because of who we are as an organization that is founded by and for our very own community.