By Alyssa Shapiro
Raquel Willis’s Augusta, Georgia upbringing comes through clearly in her deliberately-paced speech. It’s an effective tool for helping others to hear her message, which is truthful, clear, and necessary. Now residing in Brooklyn, New York, Willis, a Black trans woman whose role encompasses journalism, organizing, and activism, is using her voice to bring necessary change by ending isolation, and increasing beauty by sharing opportunity.
Watch her story below, then read on for the full interview.
Alyssa Shapiro: Can you tell me about your work at the Ms. Foundation and your role there?
Raquel Willis: I am the Director of Communications for the Ms. Foundation, the oldest public foundation funding women on the front lines—and feminists, of course—and I’m so excited to be there to help expand the narrative around feminism and inclusion, and of course living up to the major value of intersectionality that seems to live on everyone’s tongue these days.
AS: Can you talk to me a little bit about the idea of intersectionality? How has that word come to encompass more—do you think people have a better understanding about it now than they did 40 years ago?
RW: I walked right into that one, didn’t I. I definitely think that intersectionality has reached a different level of popularity these days, in terms of a concept that a lot of people use but I don’t necessarily think that a lot of people really understand the root of it. Of course, it was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, an amazing legal scholar and Black feminist, so that means there is a very integral part of this concept that is around Blackness and fighting against the systems of white supremacy and, of course, patriarchy. Those are at the core of it. I think a lot of times, that experience of discrimination at those various vantage points is ignored or diminished. I do think we have expanded our understanding of what intersectionality means to encompass more systems of oppression than maybe were at the table at that initial coining—but I think that we have a long way to go in terms of understanding systems of oppression and how they impact us.
AS: A lot of your work centers on elevating the dignity of folks who are marginalized—particularly Black transgender people. Can you talk about the elevation of Black trans women and what that really means in a concrete sense.
RW: A lot of my work is concerned with building up the honor and dignity of Black trans people, particularly Black trans women. I definitely think that there is a lot that people of any experience can learn from the Black trans experience in terms of breaking down these restrictive ideas of who we're supposed to be in society. We all deserve the right and the ability and the respect to express ourselves as fully as possible on our own terms. And that's what Black trans folks are demonstrating every time that we leave our houses or speak up.
AS: What are some of the things that you propose—in a concrete sense, like beyond living, walking out your door, and being who you are—that are working to end this epidemic of violence against trans women?
RW: I think that we can end this epidemic of violence against Black trans people, and of course the widespread discrimination, simply by listening to us and building up our leadership. And I know that sounds like a big tent, but that means in every corner of our society—whether it's in the workplace, making sure that we have access to leadership development, it means supporting the organizations and the groups and the initiatives that we start to solve the problems in our community. It means making sure that we are empowered as writers, as speakers, as creatives, so that our point of view isn't lost amongst a deluge of transphobia and anti-Blackness. I think it's really about folks getting creative and thinking critically about how they can use their privileges and their platforms to elevate Black trans power.
AS: Who in your life brought you into opportunities or helped you achieve more leadership roles?
RW: So my journey in terms of leadership has really been supported of course by Black women who were my educators in college, by Black trans women who have pushed me to deepen my analysis around social justice and systems of oppression. It's been my mom and my sister, of course, and my family just supporting and affirming me, even when they didn't have all the answers—and let's be clear, they still don’t. It's really been a collective effort and I think that that's true for everyone—that none of us experienced whatever you want to consider to be success or elevation on our own. It comes from who we surround ourselves with and who we also pour our support and affirmation into as well.
AS: Can you expand on the role of community support in collective success?
RW: Growing up in Augusta, Georgia, I definitely felt very isolated from the LGBTQ plus community. And you can forget a specific trans community—that wasn't even on my radar. So when I had other trans people to lean on, I held on to them for dear life and really valued being able to share experiences, to be able to share grievances about the world, and really understand that I wasn't alone, that that isolation didn't have to continue, and that really pushed me to want to end isolation wherever possible, whenever possible for other Black trans people coming up into this world.
AS: I'd love to hear about the Black Trans Lives Matter March this summer, when you spoke. Can you tell me a little bit about that experience?
RW: The Brooklyn Liberation March, also known as the Black Trans Lives Matter March in Brooklyn, New York this summer was a very powerful assemblage of allies and of course, Black trans folks showing up to make sure that folks knew that we also were experiencing violence and discrimination and that we will no longer be silent about it. It was a beautiful experience to see so many folks with so many different backgrounds come together, so many non-Black allies and cis allies show up and really support in building this platform for black trans leaders.
AS: What does digital activism look like for you versus real life activism? Do you find that one is more effective than the other in creating change?
RW: I think that we have to expand our understanding of what activism and even organizing looks like. I think that there are a lot of times we have this idea that the way to be an activist or to be engaged looks one particular way and it doesn't always look like holding protest signs and bull horns out on the streets, although that is very powerful. It very much can be about disseminating information to folks so that they are aware of what's at stake in an election, right, or what is at stake when we don't actually understand how police forces operate in a given location. It's important for us to understand that there is a relationship that is so strong between what we consider to be in real life activism and digital activism—and they really need to be in conversation with each other at all times.
AS: Can you tell me about your background at Solutions, Not Punishments?
RW: One of the most formative experiences in my organizing journey was working at Solutions, Not Punishments Collaborative as an intern. It was there that I deepened my understanding of how the “criminal” “justice” system really wasn't serving Black and Brown folks and actually was harming us. It was a space where I really was exposed—in many ways for the first time—to the concept of abolition and how it could be used to draft a new world where none of us are experiencing state violence.
AS: What does it mean to you to be a beautiful person—in your thoughts, how you live, your energy?
RW: To be a beautiful person, to me, is less about how you look, although we all have our own ideas about how that plays a role. But it really is about how you think about the world in a collective sense. I think people are their most beautiful when they are coming up with solutions to end exclusions, to make sure that folks who have been locked out of the door of opportunity are actually brought in and encouraged to achieve the livelihood that they always deserved.
AS: To you, what is, or what are the most beautiful things about being a Black trans woman?
RW: Hmm. The most beautiful things to me about being a Black trans woman is our strength. It is our ability to think and create more expansively than most other groups and it's our ability to love others, even when it's difficult for them to also express that love.
AS: Can you talk about that expansiveness? What that encompasses, what that means?
RW: I think being Black and trans pushes me to think expansively about the world, because I've always had to. I've always had to break down these ideas of identity, of binaries, of what are considered essential concepts like gender and I actually think that has been great practice to think creatively and innovatively about what liberation could look like in a collective sense.
AS: And what do you think liberation could look like in a collective sense?
RW: I think liberation looks like us all being able to live, love, and express ourselves without restrictions.
AS: In moments when you feel maybe ungrounded or like you need to recenter, or you need to come back to yourself or feel more like yourself, do you have rituals or anything you've turned to in those times?
RW: When things are stressful and difficult, and I need to reorient around who I am, calling my mom is probably the first thing I'll do, tending to my plants is another thing, taking a walk, remembering to breathe, hydrating. And sometimes I just have to nap on it.
AS: What is your greatest power or alternatively, what are your greatest gifts?
RW: My greatest power is being able to see the connections between different experiences and ideas that may not be readily understood. My greatest gifts are my deep sense of empathy for other folks of different experiences, my ability to communicate in a way that illuminates things that may not have been understood initially, and my faith that collectively we can find the solutions to make this world work better for all of us.
AS: What is an example of a time someone tried to tell you that you could not do something and you proved them wrong?
RW: I think my existence is a testament to my ability to be able to do something that the world told me I would never be able to do as a Black trans woman.
AS: What does it mean to you to Dream Beyond™?
RW: Dreaming beyond for me means imagining a future that is greater for all, but that I may not actually get to experience.
AS: What drives you to want a better future, even if you're not here to see it?
RW: I’m driven to draft a better future—in the work that I do, in the way that I live—by a deep sense of service. I think that we all should be finding our place in the world where we can make change and progress for future generations. I don't know if that's my Catholic upbringing or if that's just the collective history that I've inherited as a Black person, as a trans person, as a woman. But I know that the work that people did generations prior reverberates today to allow me to be the person that I am now.
AS: I love that answer. Is there anything else that feels really important to you in the moment, or something that you're trying to push maybe that you want to talk about?
RW: Recently, the LGBTQ+ community lost a titan of journalism, a Black trans woman named Monica Roberts. And recently, I've been thinking very deeply about the impacts that writers, journalists, creatives have on how people on the margins see themselves and vision a new future. And the legacy that she left behind is a legacy that I hope to live up to along with many of my peers, so that we can encourage the next crop of Black trans folks coming up to continue to draft this larger story.
When I was at the Brooklyn Liberation March in June, I really wanted to make a statement about Black trans power and how it's something that everyone can be invested in building up, even if they don't have the same identity. I think there's so much that other folks can learn from the Black trans experience. We have more connections than folks realize. When I talk about breaking down binaries or imagining a more gender expansive world, I'm speaking about the fact that we've all been encumbered by gender norms at some point. So as a Black trans woman, I'm fighting for the boys and men and masculine folks who are told they can't be emotional and experience the full range of humanity. I am speaking to the women and girls and feminine folks who are discounted, disqualified, and made to feel like they can't be brilliant, strong, capable leaders. And to all of the folks who are in-between or outside of those categories, who are dealing with all of it, the world that trans people are crafting now is the world that will allow them to also be free.
Photographed and directed by Alex Kenealy for Youth To The People