Leading Edge Vision:
Aria’s vision is to end the ecomomic oppression and marginalization of transgender people by creating thriving economic hubs led by and for transgender people of color.
What is your vision for your community? For California?
One of the primary tenets in our founding of the world’s first transgender district in San Francisco was, and is, to create pathways towards economic empowerment for and led by transgender people of color. A dream I’ve held personally is for transgender people to be the innovators and thought leaders towards solutions that eradicate the disparities we face. With macro-level discrimination and disenfranchisement, we still see that unless we create our own businesses and economies, much of the world won’t hire us, which means we face continued economic disadvantages. My “big idea” is expanding the frameworks I’ve co-created at The Transgender District, working with leaders in different regions of the world with denser transgender populations. My hope is that grassroots organizers and transgender advocates can replicate more developed economic empowerment models to buffer the ongoing economic disadvantage facing their local transgender communities. If we can create thriving economies led by and for transgender people, we can end abject poverty in tremendous ways.
My big, crazy idea aims to support transgender people with multiple barriers to economic advancement, create vehicles to opportunity to drastically shift the disparities we face, and build economic empowerment for future generations.
Can you share a story, either personal or from a directly impacted person, that exemplifies the problem you are trying to solve?
In San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, over 70 percent of transgender people of color live in abject poverty, living off less than $10,000 a year in one of the wealthiest cities in the world. In a local context, we face extremely higher rates of homelessness, employment discrimination, housing discrimination, substance use and abuse, and adverse mental health issues due to ongoing marginalization. Even in a city as legislatively progressive as San Francisco, the “trickle down” impact isn’t felt for the everyday trans woman living in the Tenderloin and relying on survival sex work to be self-sustaining.
For more than 15 years, I have fought for strategies that empower trans people and are informed by us.
My big idea aims to support transgender people with multiple barriers to economic advancement, create vehicles and opportunities to drastically shift the disparities we face, and build economic empowerment for future generations. The world will not employ us, house us, feed us, so we have to find vehicles to give folks the support they need to build businesses that are hiring from the community and benefiting the community.
A lot of work that has gone into the Trans District is inspired by my own personal trauma as a Black trans woman. These cultural districts are for and by trans people and queer people, and can be vehicles for financial liberation for our community. If we create economic hubs led by local trans coalitions, then we will see a dramatic shift in how trans people are able to navigate the world and get the resources they need to thrive.
What progress have you seen thus far in your work?
Something that is very exciting is the work we did around guaranteed income, which was the inspiration behind the guaranteed income initiative that Mayor London Breed put in her budget. In 2020, The Transgender District launched a unviersal basic income adaptation, Mutual Aid & COVID 19 Relief Fund for trans people during COVID. Two days after San Francisco issued its shelter in place, we piloted 2,000 cash grants to trans people across the country and helped 35 nonprofits replicate that model to provide COVID relief funds to their communities. This is a testament to our hope, drive, and will to daydream.
What more would you like to do?
Our goal is to share back what we’ve been able to learn with coalitions and trans folks, show what’s possible and share the roadmap. We want to sow seeds that economic empowerment and justice informed by trans people is possible. For example, it is not enough to put someone in a hotel and say that they’re housed. It must go beyond that. Are you compensating folks in a way that actually allows them to live in the area they work, and have access to all the things they need to thrive?
What barriers have you faced, or continue to face, in achieving your vision of change?
There are barriers on all sides, whether it is lack of investment from philanthropy or the reality of hiring from the community. We are a peer-led organization that employs and professionally develops trans people from the community. This can take more time from a project management standpoint. Folks are learning on the job, so we need long-term sustainable funding to make that happen. People think of the trans community as one big monolith; if they fund one [trans-led] organization, they think they do it all, but each organization has specific needs and focuses on specific issues. As Audre Lorde said, “we’re not single issue people.” We know that when you’re engaging with the Latinx community or Black community, for example, there are several sets of cultural issues to consider. There has to be a way to invest that addresses the diverse portfolio of needs and people.
How will the Leading Edge Fund fellowship help?
The fellowship gives me the confidence to be able to pilot my ideas. I am a daydreamer and lead a nonprofit organization. Chasing grants and having to scale down ideas is limiting. With this fellowship, I am encouraged to daydream a world of possibilities for trans people, put that on paper and facilitate that idea. I am confident that my ideas and dreams can be actualized and are possible.
Who needs to hear your story and what is your call to action for them?
Philanthropy and government decision-makers need to trust us and invest in us. Transgender leadership is possible and necessary in addressing the issues we face as a larger community. We are a minority, and a very small minority at that. We also live in a world where trans people are at the will and mercy of cis-gender people to accept us. Trans-led organizations deserve the same level of funding, respect and trust as other larger, established nonprofits.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
At times, I feel isolated in my work, so I’m excited for the experience of being with other leaders, and in an environment where I don’t always have to translate my experience and vision for others.