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In the eight years that Merrique Jenson has worked in trans activism in Kansas City, she’s been invited to join nonprofit boards and government projects to represent trans women of color in KC.
Not all of those experiences turned out well, Jenson said. She was criticized for talking about race, and she felt that her insights and experiences were often discarded. At times, she felt like she was only there so the organization could advertise that it had a trans woman on its board.
Jenson decided to strike out on her own. In 2016, she founded Transformations, a nonprofit organization in the Midwest dedicated to mentorship and leadership training for trans women of color, who are underrepresented in leadership positions in most nonprofit organizations and businesses. Her goal is to empower her community to demand the respect that she says until now has only been given to cisgender white leaders.
Jenson understood firsthand how overwhelming trans activism work can be in Kansas City. Previous to Transformations, she had worked with LGBTQ+ organizations that organized funerals for murder victims and raised funds for their families and communities. She had been working upwards of 80 hours every week, as she watched members of her community face brutal violence within months of one another. She said she found little support from the organizations she was working with, which were run by white leaders who Jenson said didn’t appreciate her focus on people of color.
“I left thinking that I was a bad activist, that people hated me,” Jenson said. “I left not knowing what I was going to do. But I knew that I wanted to create some sort of space to activate and heal, and also remind trans women of color and trans young people that they’re resilient.”
She received a grant to host a three-day leadership summit with Nyla Foster, a trans activist in Kansas City, intentionally focusing on trans women of color. It was scheduled to accommodate those working jobs in nightlife, and they had a clothing swap to make sure that all attendees could at least leave with new clothes.
The summit would lead to the founding of Transformations, of which Jenson is now the executive director and founder and Kelly Nou is the vice president of the board.
Centering trans women of color in identity conversations
Initially, Transformations ran a drop-in support group for trans youth, but Jenson grew frustrated that their work did not seem to reach the people who needed it most.
Though her intention was to center trans youth of color and particularly young trans women of color, most of the group’s attendees were white children with affluent or supportive families. Few unhoused youth and youth of color showed up.
“The lesson that we learned is that when you have a “one-size-fits-all” model, when you put programming out that says, ‘This is for everyone,’ [you see] people who have the most access to resources,” Jenson said.
And with that demographic, conversations focused on how to validate everyone’s feelings and identities, rather than building the internal strength to be self-validating, she said.
“We are doing a disservice to young people and to those who come after us if we teach them that if … people don’t validate you, you should cry and break down,” Jenson said. “Instead, how do you bounce back? How do you remember that you are fierce and strong? How do you remember that you are worthy of love when nobody else was willing to love you?”
Six years later, Transformations is intentionally refocusing on trans women of color as the most likely to experience gender-based violence. The aim is to build resilience. These skills, Jenson hopes, will invigorate the queer movement in Kansas City and the greater Midwest.
Leadership resources for trans women of color
Every year, Transformations hosts a virtual summit called The Dolls Are Thriving, scheduled for Aug. 10–11 this year.
At the summit, speakers include trans women of color leaders from across the country, discussing topics from love life and medical transition to employment within a nonprofit organization and different organizing strategies. The aim is for dialogue that’s intentionally for trans women of color to help them understand themselves and their communities.
This year’s summit is being planned by the Transformations staff, as well as trans reality star and advocate Monica DeJesus-Anaya, who appeared on season five of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” DeJesus-Anaya has worked with Transformations for several years, and she said the experience has given her confidence and a newfound strength of self.
“After being on ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ and having to do these gigs, I had to stop because I thought, ‘I don’t know what I’m speaking about, I’m not a leader,’” she said. “But then I got with Merrique and she was slowly but surely pushing me out there. I really do have these leadership skills. Let me just tap into whatever’s inside.”
Fynelle Fristoe, who worked as an adviser with Transformations when it was founded, wants attendees to feel emotionally, physically and spiritually uplifted.
“They want to give the girls the power to accept stuff like Monica did, and say, ‘Here’s where I was, and here’s where I am now,’” she said. “And I have survived, and I have accomplished.”
Also this summer, Transformations is shifting its mentorship program to a virtual format in order to better reach the young people who need it most, Jenson said. Most of the trans youth are asking for help navigating medical resources for trans people, such as hormones and breast implants, or they may ask for general emotional support.
“The mentorship we’re doing is truly about relationship building,” she said. “You have to literally have the phone numbers in your phone, to be able to text the girls and check in on them.”
Transformations aims for empowerment beyond representation
For too long, Jenson said, she and other trans women of color have been brought into advocacy groups as representatives of the trans community without being given any real power. She wants Transformations to lead by example and to equip young trans people of color with the skills necessary to stand up for their values.
She described actions by local nonprofits that she said are intended to advertise their diversity without committing to any real action.
“They’ll bring a trans woman of color onto their board, but they won’t have a friendship with her,” she said. “They’ll never be the executive director. They won’t even be at the senior leadership level. These are all things that are used as tools to prevent a real shift in power.”
Fristoe said that she has grown through working with Transformations, and she feels empowered to stand up for herself and other trans women.
“When I came on board, I would have been the girl that they just hired to say, ‘We have a trans girl,’ and that’s all I would have known to do or felt comfortable with,” Fristoe said. “[Transformations] is empowering all the girls to be able to hold their own ground.”