1. Why did you decide to get involved in the work you do? Was there an experience that you had that pointed you toward social justice work?
I grew up in a very white part of the world (the suburban Oakland Bay Area in California) as a Black, Puerto Rican person. Despite being other in that way, I had a family and multiracial church community that loved me deeply. They really showed me what it meant to be loved, through good times and bad.
But much to my surprise, much of that love seemed to disintegrate instantly when I came out as queer at 17.
This was a pivotal point for me because I realized I had a choice to make. I realized that because of what they’d been taught, my parents and community didn’t know how to continue to love me. I had to choose if I was going to love them despite how fraught our relationship had become. They were afraid for me and worried about my salvation, and while no one could ease their fears about that, I knew my calling was now to love them, no matter what. I sent them books, studied the bible alongside them, and stayed engaged in our family despite hurtful moments and memories. While I’m not as involved in any churches now, recently, my mom told me: “you redefined loved for me, I didn’t know it was possible [to love queer people this way].” This was totally unexpected, but it solidified for me that the way I show love and live my life is rooted in powerful possibility, even if it seems to go against what people have been taught. I now bring this same unapologetic love and commitment to all of my social and gender justice work.
Around the time I came out, I started to pursue the study of Blackness and performance in college. I used my time at Stanford University to work through questions like, “What does it mean to be both Black and Queer?” and “How can we tell our stories so that people learn how to love those of us at the intersections?” My work in theater helped me learn to close that gap for people who had just never seen people like me - queer, gender non-conforming, Black, confident - demanding to be loved and seen. This work helped me see how we can use art and storytelling to build new worlds, no matter what the past has been like.
In terms of racial justice work, no amount of studying Blackness and Black History in college could prepare me for how it would feel to see both Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown’s killers walk free. Watching people come together out of grief and hope for a better world reminded me of the holy work I’d grown up watching be done in churches. I knew there was something righteous underlying this work and so my pursuit of change and justice is rooted in just that - “What is just?” “What is right?” Lately, I have added: “What is possible?” Because that is what we must work towards.
I’m aware of the tension that can come with the combination of queerness and Blackness and I’m always searching for how we tell those stories in a country where Obama was elected president but it’s still OK to shoot Black children and kill Black people for selling CDs. I truly believe that there’s a way to do this work that makes everyone safer, so I’m constantly searching for those kinds of solutions.
2. What motivates you?
Joy, my family, and possibility motivate me. Once you experience any one of those things, you want more. I want more people to have more access to unfettered joy, unconditional family, and the fulfillment of dreams being realized.
These three things are what keep me going in my fight. I know that everyone deserves these things, so I wake up everyday asking how we can fight for a new world - a world with more joy, family, and possibility - and explicitly fight to include those in the margins. What can those who make a way in darkened corners teach us about our world? I’m motivated by fighting from and for the margins because that is where we confront what we don’t want to see about ourselves. We must remember not only listen to but to elevate the voices of the people who have been backed into these corners. This is when we are able to really turn the corner and expand the scope of possibility.
3. Tell me about your firm, specifically how you create Music, Freedom and Dreams.
Well, I’m a saxophonist, bassist and a songwriter, and I’ve been singing church songs since I was in the womb. Music was always a part of our lives as a family - from weekly home bible study, to singing at church 4-5 times a week. There would be songs everywhere and at every gathering. Music was in our blood and I am simply keeping the blood pumping when I infuse it into my movement and consulting work.
Also, when you look historically, that same singing, vibrational energy is the blood of any movement struggle. In the history of fighting for justice, music has been such a vital part of the struggle. The songs of the civil rights era - artists like Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye – they were all connected to a movement. To me, combining music with storytelling just feels right. There’s certain things you can say in a song and not in real speech. Songs provide vibrations and lyrics that get into your body and, no matter what, promote healing. Music is one way I build community and I do it even if it seems like it doesn’t belong in a space. Because trust me, it probably does.
When it comes to creating freedom, I spent many years as an educator and know that even when we achieve something that feels like freedom, we have to strategize to keep it and continue to fight for whomever was left out of that movement. I spend a lot of time strategizing how we can be free and do so inclusively.
The dream piece is just a reminder for us to keep dreaming. In this world, so many folks have been killed unjustly and robbed of their abilities to dream. We must dream our own dreams for them and also for ourselves. As my friend and incredible mentor adrienne maree brown says - “we are living in someone else’s imagination”. My addition then is to encourage the question “What if I believed in my imagination enough to live into that?” That’s an incredible thought and so my work is to build a movement and world where Black women and Black trans folks - people often left out of the patriarchal, white supremacist dreams that get funded and realized - are at the center of and best served by that dreaming and imagining. That dream world would actually serve everyone better.
4. What’s the philosophy you’ll bring to the Transgender Education and Advocacy Program?
In addition to what my foundational MFD commitments bring, cultural organizing is a really important tool when doing large coalitional, new-world-making work. While trainings, and marching our way to freedom are certainly part of changing the world, often a piece of art will move someone more than a speech or a rally. Art can help us realize how we want to the world to be and give us the urgent push to make it real.
As I mentioned above, I bring a commitment to the people at the margins who are already imagining what we want the world to be. There are people already doing this and actively creating incredibly inclusive spaces all over Missouri. I’m excited to find the other trans and gender non-conforming artists, dreamers, drag queens who are creating new worlds and pushing boundaries. I’m also here to listen and provide resources, where possible, so that we can help people build their dreams. I want this program to not just advocate for folk’s rights, but also help them get to the next level of their lives.
Again, as I do this work, I explicitly work from a black, queer feminist framework. I prioritize, black queer folks and artists because those folks that are dreaming and creating have often been taught they are not fit to be alive or are not enough just as they are. I prioritize their lives because they are enough, just as they are! Part of our work here will be to prioritize those who are marginalized in a way that we don’t even have the language for and who have been effectively shut out of public life because of other people’s discomfort or belief that God thinks they’re wrong.
I look forward empowering and elevating the voices folks already have. Sometimes, that involves checking in and seeing if they’re OK.“Do you need anything?” “Do you have food?” “A place to sleep?” I’m not just here to get people to lobby or do trainings, I want to connect people with someone who will help them realize their dreams. I’m here to make sure they’re empowered in a way that other people haven’t seen before.. The philosophy I bring is that sort of mistreatment and oppression has to stop.
5. What are some of the biggest issues trans folks (and particularly trans people of color) face in Missouri?
Honestly, it’s really difficult for people to walk out of the house and just be themselves. but additionally it’s even harder to access housing, jobs and public safety resources. Often, trans folks aren’t believed, similar to how women and Black women aren’t believed. For transgender people of color, the struggle is compounded with the feeling of not being able to trust institutions. Housing and jobs, living in public life safely.
Ultimately, trans and gender non-conforming folks are most often inhibited by cis(gender) people’s fears. We don’t keep ourselves out of a job, or out of an apartment!
Cis folks fear trans folks because they have a specific, deeply held idea of what gender is supposed to look like. People have been socialized into thinking they know what it means to be a “man” or a “woman” and that its always based on physical attributes or norms – and now people are questioning those assumptions. That can be uncomfortable but that discomfort is not a reason to keep people out of jobs, public life, and public space. Here in Missouri, we look forward to pushing back against the narrative that disagreeing with someone’s presentation is a good enough reason to keep them out of the public. We know that those types of decisions have consequences - higher rates of suicide and unemployment among trans people is unacceptable and completely preventable. Changing thist is our work.
6. What do you hope to build the Transgender Education and Advocacy Program into at the ACLU of Missouri?
I have four goals as the Lead Dreamer of Music Freedom Dreams doing this transgender education and advocacy with the ACLU.
I look forward to prioritizing access to resources for people around the state of Missouri. I want to make it possible for transgender folks, and especially trans and gender non-conforming people of color to live public and fully resourced lives.
A second goal is to increase public knowledge of and accommodations for transgender and transgender non-conforming folks around the state so that rates of suicide and unemployment drop drastically here.
Thirdly, I want to widen the commitments of allies and faith groups’ ability to be outspoken and to anticipate needs. I fully believe it’s possible for there to be a broader and bigger commitment to entire communities.
Lastly, I want to make gender an accessible conversation in cis communities outside of trans folks. I want to encourage non-trans, or cis people to do their work to unlearn genderhsving to be one way. I’m tired of gender being trans’ folks fault. We didn’t make it, we’re actually trying to unmake it and undo the problems caused by sexism.
Broadly, the Transgender Education and Advocacy program nationally includes the goals of lobbying on behalf of the Transgender community and to do that, we will also need to create a table of trans leaders and non-trans (cis) advocates that can help lead the conversation and be “spokesfolks” for what we want Missouri to look like. I want Missouri to be a place where people can stay here and be themselves.
I’m also excited to include women and women’s rights in this conversation. How can we connect our struggles so that everyone can have more power?
Ultimately, like I said, I also want to manifest a lot of joy. I want to bring joy-filled events to spaces all across the state. Often times, transfolks spend so much of their time fighting for their rights that people forget we also (want to) feel joy and happiness. It’s easy to be mad at people arguing or protesting - it’s a lot harder to squash folks unfettered, innocent joy. That is the possibility of this work and I’m incredibly excited to engage in it alongside other powerful and hopeful Missourians.