Ep. 4: Represent Responsibly with Raquel Willis

Raquel Willis has found her lane as an advocate for Black trans people’s lives. And it’s not just about visibility or getting a seat at the table—it’s about changing systems that do harm, regardless of who’s in the White House. As Raquel explains, there’s a whole menu of options beyond the electoral system, from direct action to workplace organizing, and it’s time to get creative! Speaking of which, she updates us on her forthcoming book, a collection of personal essays about her experiences in activism. Plus: Breaking down misconceptions about the South, and the one thing Raquel wishes she could bring from Georgia to New York City.

Twitter: @RaquelWillis_ | IG: @raquel_willis

Learn

Read | From writing a book, to working 9-5, to speaking to a crowd of 15,000 people marching for Black trans lives, Raquel shares how she gets it all done

Read | The Trans Obituaries Project honoring 22 trans women of color lost to violence in 2019 and Raquel’s 13-step plan to move the discourse from tragedy to transformation

RSVP | Join Raquel, Ms. Foundation for Women, and Brooklyn Historical Society on October 6 for Women + Power: PEOPLE POWER, a virtual conversation about the leading role women of color play in social justice movements, past and present

Act

Buy | Keep an eye on Raquel’s Twitter for updates and pre-order announcements for her upcoming book, The Risk it Takes to Bloom, coming 2021

Donate | Support The Okra Project, bringing home cooked meals and resources to Black trans people experiencing food insecurity

Sign | Pledge your support for the Trans Agenda for Liberation with the Transgender Law Center

Vote

Head over to NDWA’s voting hub for all your voting needs! From checking your registration, to the latest safety information on voting during COVID, we’ve got you covered

Transcript

Ai-jen Poo:
Welcome to Sunstorm, where we get real about what’s happening in the world and what we’re doing about it, because we are the light in the storm.

 

Ai-jen Poo:
Hi, I’m Ai-jen Poo.

 

Alicia Garza:
And I’m Alicia Garza. And joining us today on the pod is a woman whose social media account is basically our Bible. We adore her so much.

 

Ai-jen Poo:
Raquel Willis is the Director of Communications at the Ms. Foundation. She was an editor at Out Magazine. She’s a former national organizer at the Transgender Law Center, and she has a book coming out next year. She’s so amazing.

 

Alicia Garza:
This woman is so busy, so fantastic, so fabulous, and so brilliant. And we are so happy to have her here. Please welcome Raquel Willis.

 

Raquel Willis:
Hi. I’m so glad to be on.

 

Alicia Garza:
So let’s jump into it. There’s so much to discuss, but I really want to kind of start with where you come from. I hear that you identify as a Georgia peach in the Big Apple. So if you could bring one Southern thing to New York City, what would it be? And what do you miss the most about the South?

 

Raquel Willis:
If I could bring anything, it would probably be this gardenia bush that was in my backyard growing up. I always just reminisce about that scent and being a child, and I don’t know how well you can keep a gardenia bush in a New York apartment, but I dream about it sometimes. Sometimes I’m like, “Maybe I should try it.”

 

Raquel Willis:
And then what do I miss the most? I have started to miss other Southern accents. I’m starting to get used to, I guess, being away from the South. I have a different attachment to it now. And it’s so funny, because growing up, I did not want to have a Southern accent.

 

Ai-jen Poo:
Right.

 

Raquel Willis:
It was so associated with being too country, being uneducated, being uncultured. And now I really find solace in hearing it.

 

Ai-jen Poo:
Raquel, following up on the question about the South, what do you think Northern and West Coast people don’t get about the Black South?

 

Raquel Willis:
I think that there is this like prevailing idea that Black folks in the South just accept systems of oppression and don’t actually put up resistance to them. I think that we have this idea that if you leave the South, then you won’t be dealing with white supremacy. You won’t be dealing with all of these different ways in which conservatism still reigns in the South and in the US. But that’s not true. All of those things exist everywhere. And actually when I think about the South, I think of some of the most powerful, resilient, forceful, revolutionary folks trying to shift all of what’s wrong in this country. So, yeah, so I would say those things, I think the South has gotten lost in the social justice shuffle.

 

Alicia Garza:
I kind like that you said that.

 

Ai-jen Poo:
Me too. I love that.

 

Alicia Garza:
For the people who are listening, what do you mean by the social justice shuffle?

 

Raquel Willis:
When I think about movements in general, whether it is like the LGBTQ plus movement or thinking about women’s liberation movements or thinking about even the movement for black lives, the attention on those movements has often been centered in spaces outside of the South. When we think about the civil rights movement, which has been a blueprint for many of those movements, that happened in the South. And a lot of the folks who were a part of that then dispersed out into these other corners of the country. And so when I think about this ongoing fight for liberation in the United States, it would be nothing without the blood, sweat, and tears that came out of fights in the South.

 

Alicia Garza:
That’s right. You know, one of the things I have always appreciated about you is that you get right to the heart of the matter. So I read the other day two things that you have said, one of them is that we need to focus not just on the deaths of black trans people, but we need to focus on the lives of black trans people. And that one hit me like right in my gut. I mean, speak about the social justice shuffle. There is a set of phrases that we start to say to each other, as a method of being inclusive. We’re like, “Hey, actually you’re missing the boat, because the whole point of social justice is making sure that people can live full and dignified lives.”

And so I want to hear more from you about what does it look like for black trans folks to live full and dignified lives? And how does that get forwarded by our movement? What do we need to be doing? So that’s one.

Relatedly, I think this is a related question, in August you Tweeted, and I quote, “Representation without accountability is dangerous.”

 

Ai-jen Poo:
Yeah. That was my favorite.

 

Alicia Garza:
Literally I wish you could see, there’s like goosebumps on my arms right now. So can you talk a little bit about that?

 

Raquel Willis:
Yeah. When I think about the increased visibility and awareness of black trans folks and our stories and our experiences over the last, I would say almost decade now, there has been an important slate of releases in entertainment, right? You think about television, Orange is the New Black, Pose. You think about kind of what’s happening for folks who are actresses or media personalities, sometimes that includes me, or models. That all is great, but that doesn’t necessarily say that everyday lives of most black trans people have changed. So there’s that kind of positive visibility, but then there’s the negative visibility. If it’s not those things, it is the deaths, the tragedies, the murders, whether it’s by the state or by folks in our own communities, in our homes.

And so there’s often no middle ground. And when I say middle ground, I just mean we don’t get the experiences of black trans working people. Or black trans people who are struggling, but at least still living. And so that is a problem. As you were phrasing this question I was like, “well, black trans people just want to be treated like everyone else.” And even I have to like unlearn that conditioning that I think all Americans have had, as this idea that all people are created equal, et cetera, et cetera. It’s like, “Well, no, I don’t actually just want to be like everyone else because the black folks that I know who are not trans are not doing well. The other folks of color that I know who are not trans are not doing well.”

And then I don’t actually want to be like a CIS straight white man with any privilege that you can think of because I think that there’s actually a lack of empathy because of all of those privileges in their lives. So I don’t even actually want to be that. So, when I think about black trans power, as I started to say more, I don’t just want to be seen, I don’t just want people to bring up my experiences when I’m not in the room. I want them to actually ensure that I am in the room. And that actually, as a black trans person with a certain skill or types of experiences, I actually could be a better leader than you. So what does it mean to consider that?

 

Alicia Garza:
Okay.

 

Raquel Willis:
To consider relinquishing power in that way. That doesn’t just stop at black trans identity. What does it mean for me to relinquish power to folks who have less privileges than me? Whether it’s around disability. Someone who is non-binary may not have the privileges that I do as a trans woman who is not invested in the binary. So that’s where my head is in I think kind of wrapping myself around that question today. Now ask me tomorrow, I’m sure it will be something else.

 

Ai-jen Poo:
No, I think that is brilliant. It makes me think of just the idea that it’s not about getting a seat at the table when the table is all messed up for everyone. It’s about actually, how do we reimagine the systems, the politics, the culture, to be one where black trans people can be fully human and powerful. It’s not about being treated as normal in a normal that is actually really messed up. I love the way you put those. So powerful.

 

Raquel Willis:
Thank you.

 

Alicia Garza:
I need to hear about this book, because, first of all, book writers to book writer, books are freaking hard. They’re hard. I would love to hear how your process was, because I have been complaining to Ai-jen, I know for the last like year and some change about how hard it is to write a book. But I also want to hear what is going on in this book. What are you talking about? What are you not talking about? And what can we expect to see? And when can we expect to see it?

 

Raquel Willis:
So it is still slated for a 2021 release. But obviously so much has shifted. Trying to write during this time has been very easy some weeks, and it just like flows out of me, like spring water. And then sometimes it is so difficult to concentrate. So my book initially started as a collection of essays, but I found myself focusing so much more on my experiences in activism and organizing, because I think we haven’t really heard from black trans folks in movement, but in the wake of obviously the murders of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, scores more of black trans women, Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells and Riah Milton, I really pivoted and wanted to focus specifically on the activism and the organizing.

I think the ways black trans folks have always been kind of trying to fight for our voice, it has been difficult to navigate spaces that are considered the quote unquote most woke.

 

Ai-jen Poo:
That’s right.

 

Raquel Willis:
Because that does not necessarily mean that folks know how to show up for people with identities or experiences that they’ve never really actually been in space with.

 

Ai-jen Poo:
That’s right.

 

Raquel Willis:
So for me, I’m really excited about focusing on the activism and organizing, because it also seems like there’s such an entry point right now. I didn’t grow up with a lens around black liberation. A lens really around social justice. I grew up understanding the civil rights movement and how important it was in our history, but there was kind of a prevailing idea, I think in at least the ’90s and before for a lot of folks in Augusta, Georgia where I was from that things had been won. And so it was just about the pulling yourself up by the bootstraps kind of argument.

 

Ai-jen Poo:
That’s right.

 

Raquel Willis:
That there was nothing else to really fight for.

 

Ai-jen Poo:
That’s right.

 

Raquel Willis:
And whatever you’re struggling with is your shit. You know? And that story obviously doesn’t resonate for much of anyone.

 

Ai-jen Poo:
That’s right.

 

Raquel Willis:
But it definitely didn’t resonate for my little black queer self growing up with no representation at all, whether it was people who looked and lived and loved like me or had my values.

 

Ai-jen Poo:
I have this beautiful image of you, this image of a future that we’re all kind of painting a part of. And yeah, that image is actually really beautiful to me. And I feel like we need this book. We need your part of this painting in such a big way.

 

Alicia Garza:
Yes, please.

 

Ai-jen Poo:
So I cannot wait. And I’m also just in awe of all the incredible women of color who are stepping up and stepping forward right now. I think, isn’t it the case that this cycle has more black women running for Congress than any other year in history?

 

Alicia Garza:
I’m like, again?

 

Ai-jen Poo:
It’s amazing.

 

Raquel Willis:
Right.

 

Ai-jen Poo:
Again.

 

Alicia Garza:
That’s amazing.

 

Alicia Garza:
All right. So we’re in an election season and I have talked about this many times where I feel like election seasons can be painful for black folk in a lot of ways, because I don’t know about other folk, but I feel like we get the same litany of tired ass messages about why we need to vote. We vote at higher rates than everybody else, given our percentage of the population. For me, I’m much more interested in figuring out how it is that we close the gap between people who have a direct interest in change happening in their lives now, and our electoral system, meaning there’s so much happening in terms of issues that we care about being on the ballot, even though we don’t see them that way.

So for example, there’s candidates who are running, who are incumbents, and they’ve had a long history of anti-LGBT advocacy and have actually built their legislative careers on trying to keep queer and trans people from living full and dignified lives. So that’s on the ballot and there’s somebody who is challenging those kinds of incumbents and doing so basically along the lines of, I am going to be a better ally to LGBT communities than this incumbent has been for these communities. So I guess my question here Raquel is, for black trans folks, what’s at stake in this upcoming election cycle? Because so often I feel like black trans folks aren’t even talked about when we talk about electoral organizing. So I’d like to make sure that we’re bringing folk into the conversation, but then the second piece here would be what needs to shift for black trans folk to really see electoral organizing as a tool? Not the tool, but a tool, given how deeply marginalized folks are?

 

Raquel Willis:
Like everything, I struggle with this. I was talking about this with one of my friends the other day and they railed on and on about people who don’t vote, like that is the thing that makes them the most angry about any election. I’m like, “Oh, it’s not the people who voting for candidates that you don’t care about.” “No, it’s the non-voter.” And so a couple of things I was saying was like, “First of all, do you really think railing on them is going to get them to do what you want them to do?”

 

Alicia Garza:
That’s right.

 

Raquel Willis:
So that’s also a thing, but what grinds my gears a lot is these moments of demonstrations of electoral powers that people so easily gloss over how deadly the status quo is for many. And so it’s not enough to just say we’re going to return to form.

 

Alicia Garza:
Yep.

 

Raquel Willis:
Most people actually need a complete change-up, shift-up, of the form itself.

 

Alicia Garza:
Yep.

 

Raquel Willis:
And so I’m not satisfied with being upset or disappointed or angry at people who don’t vote. So going more specifically to what’s at stake for black trans folks in this election, I do think even a sliver of difference can mean all the world for a black trans person. It’s been surgical, it’s been across the board, young people trying to find themselves.

 

Alicia Garza:
That’s right.

 

Raquel Willis:
Our next generation of voices who are going to be more trans than we can even imagine, started by telling them that they can’t be themselves in schools.

 

Alicia Garza:
That’s right. That’s right.

 

Raquel Willis:
Then there is the fight against those folks who serve in the military. And for all of my reservations around supporting and volunteering to be a part of the US empire in that way, that is a signal that it’s okay to discriminate against trans people in the workplace, whatever that workplace is. That sentiment does spill over. I think about the recent issues around profiling trans people who are trying to find affordable housing. There was a guidance, I believe, that came out saying, “This is how you can tell if someone is trans and you can use this at the tools to deny folks access and services.” So that’s kind of my spiel on that.

How do we get black trans folks to feel the potential impossibility of electoral power? I think I rephrased that.

 

Alicia Garza:
And it was well done.

 

Raquel Willis:
Thank you. Well, first of all, I will say, when I think about electoral politics and the potential impossibility of it, the promise of it I guess, I see that as just the menu of options that you have to try and affect change in the world, or in your community. And so when I think about folks who don’t see that as a real option, then what are the other things on the menu, and why are we not considering those things as just as important?

I would love for everyone to see themselves in our electoral system. And I would also love for it to work. And usually then my question is, “Okay, well, if you’re not going to vote, then what are you going to do? What else is in your menu of options?”

 

Alicia Garza:
That’s correct.

 

Raquel Willis:
Are you doing direct action? Are you involved with your church? For me, the first ideals around stewardship and volunteerism that I was exposed to was believe it or not in the Catholic church, because I grew up Catholic. So I do think that there’s organizing, that can happen in a religious institution, or in the organizing that may be able to happen when you advocate for people in your workplace, whether it’s through an employee resource group or it’s in a school where a student that’s like, “I want to be a student body president, and make sure that we’re not using straws, or the straws that we do use are paper straws.”

That is a type of organizing. And so I do think we can expand this menu of options when we think about organizing. And I think when you find one lane, then you get curious about the other ones too. Because you’re like, “Oh, if I can pull this lever and that does something and we can get these paper straws in the lunch room, what about voting over here? What can I do to then impact climate change policy on a larger level?” I do think that we have got to get creative and innovative about the ways that we make people curious about power, and curious about what collective power can look like.

 

Ai-jen Poo:
I love that.

 

Raquel Willis:
Now, with black trans folks, I am more concerned about us figuring out how we make sure that people have housing, and affordable housing, right? How do we make sure that people can actually be employed? Because just because the Supreme Court says something we know as people of color, as black people, as black women, and in the wake of the centennial celebration of the 19th amendment, that just because things become quote unquote, the law of the land, does not mean that it actually trickles down to the folks who most need it. How are we going to make sure that people have food? Like the Okra Project works on in New York. Food insecurity for black trans folks.

 

Raquel Willis:
For folks who consider themselves to be allies or comrades or accomplices or whatever word we’re using this week, because either way, it’s going to be rendered null and void at some point, because that’s just how we are.

 

Alicia Garza:
Exactly.

 

Raquel Willis:
We run through words. I want CIS people. I want white people. I want folks who think that they have something to contribute to support black trans power, to be considering those other questions before they consider how to use us as an element of their electoral and political agenda. Because I think a lot of times it boils down to that. It’s not really how do we necessarily get folks to vote. For a lot of people it’s like, “How do we get you to vote for what we want you to vote for?” First and foremost.

 

Alicia Garza:
That’s right.

 

Ai-jen Poo:
You actually went straight into the theme of this entire season.

 

Alicia Garza:
That’s right. That’s right.

 

Ai-jen Poo:
Of Sunstorm which is basically around finding your lane. So many people want to do more. And they also have questions about what that looks like. And there’s so many ways. You talked about different leavers to pull. There’s so many ways, there’s so many spaces in your everyday life where you can contribute and be a part of building power and be a part of the solution. And I think movements, one of the things that people don’t really kind of think about is the fact that movements by definition are like lots and lots of organizations, lots and lots of people, lots and lots of strategies and tactics and levers. And they all add up in the context of a movement, and you just got to find your little place in it and then it moves. And it’s a beautiful thing. So thank you for laying all of that out because I think you just gave a bunch of our listeners some ideas about how they could find their lane.

 

Raquel Willis:
And thank y’all. I mean, I did not get a chance to just properly gush, but to be in conversation with y’all and to be interviewed by y’all as titans, I think, really for social justice, for a long time. It is an honor. So I don’t take any of this lightly.

 

Ai-jen Poo:
We love you.

 

Alicia Garza:
The feeling is so mutual. So, so mutual. Well thank you, Raquel Willis, and people can find you at Raquel Willis on all the socials.

 

Alicia Garza:
And to all of you, lovely listeners, write to us, Tweet to us, tell us how you are making your way through the storm. Stay safe out there, wear your mask, and keep washing those hands. Miss Rona ain’t no joke. Follow us @Sunstormpod on social media and Tweet us @Ai-jen Poo and @Alicia Garza, hashtag Sunstorm. We cannot wait to hear from you. Until next week.

 

Ai-jen Poo:
Thanks for listening.

 

Alicia Garza:
Sunstorm is a project of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, in collaboration with Participant. Sunstorm is executive produced by Alicia Garza, Ai-jen Poo and Kristina Mevs-Apgar. Sunstorm is produced by Amy S. Choi and Rebecca Lehrer of the Mash-Up Americans. Producers are Shelby Sandlin, Mary Phillips-Sandy and Mia Warren. Original music composed by Jen Kwok and Jody Shelton.

 

Ai-jen Poo:
You two are dimple twins.