“We need more people like you!”
That’s what I used to hear in transgender-focused workshops and seminars, especially in conferences. Attendees would praise us as presenters and speakers, encouraging us to continue our work, with the hope that more people like us would rise up.
But there were always more people like us—just not a lot of opportunities. Working with Transgender Strategy Center (TSC) on leadership projects such as The Masterclass by the Holistic Empowerment Institute (HEI) is a way to create those opportunities for trans people—in particular, transgender women of color—to rise up.
The Masterclass is a transgender leadership program being piloted by TSC as an incubation project of the Holistic Empowerment Institute, an organization created by Valerie Spencer, MSW. The project is funded through AIDS United’s Fund for Resilience, Equity and Engagement (FREE) and Transgender Leadership Initiative (TLI) funds. The cohort is led through an 8-month program of learning, self-reflections, mentorship and real-life applications, with an academic approach. The Masterclass is designed to empower transgender women of color to not only step up into leadership, but to step ahead as leaders.
Valerie Spencer is one of those women who rose up early on. I witnessed her strength while attending my first Los Angeles County HIV Commission meeting. I never imagined there was a place for trans women to speak up, be heard, and affect life-changing decision making. “We need more people like you,” I thought to myself as I listened to her make so much sense out of the chaos. That was one of the times that made me believe that I can be, and I am, one of the people needed to make change happen.
As a consultant on the Masterclass, it has come full circle for me. Hearing the sentiments of the cohort—how excited they are to be a part of it, to absorb what is being taught, and feeling empowered to lead—I’m finding comfort in all of it. Their experiences in various public health sectors remind me of similar challenges I had to overcome in the past. From the lack of a college degree to qualify for a position, to qualifying for a position but requiring more support than was available, it can be overwhelming. A major difference between then and now is an increasing collective understanding and acceptance that trans women of color can be in leadership positions, and are gaining those positions more and more.
“Our lives are messy, crazy, and beautiful,” said a colleague of mine. And it is true. And it doesn’t fit well with the sterilized organizations that some of us work in. The genius in trans leadership comes from that messy, crazy, beautiful life. It brings creative approaches to situations, practical applications of scientific information, and a vibrance to the workplace. Entities like TSC and HEI do our part to finesse, prepare, add knowledge, hone skills, and train the leaders. And organizations that extend a degree of flexibility to trans women—not just to practice what they’re learning, but also to lead cis-people with the wisdom they have gained—greatly contribute to the future leaders of society.
Jordan Blaza Olsen is a faculty member of TSC and a public health consultant with an extensive background in HIV/AIDS work, including capacity building and technical assistance.