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The Struggles of Organizing as Trans Women of Color

By |2018-09-12T11:08:54-04:00September 12th, 2018|Michigan, News|

Trans Sistas of Color Project Detroit (TSCOPD) Founder and Executive Director Bre’ Campbell shocked many at the beginning of the summer when she announced in a post on Facebook that she had actually left Detroit and relocated to New Mexico more than six months ago. She made this announcement while expressing resentment toward a funder, who she did not name, that Campbell said had threatened to take back their money upon learning that Campbell was no longer living in Michigan.
“I get the [funder’s] concern but I often times feel like the conversation often doesn’t come from a place of concern,” Campbell said. “People threaten to take away my funding without actually asking me if I’m OK. So I think that for me is the bigger problem. People expect us to perform miracles. They expect us to do work on behalf of communities who don’t support us and don’t really understand the work that we’re doing.”
Campbell said for the last three years before leaving Michigan she was spending large periods of time out of the state on actual work for the agency. She was literally zigzagging across the country in search of funds.
“We don’t get supported in Detroit,” Campbell said. “I actually moved around to work for us. For the last three years, I’ve literally been traveling across the country to get money for our organization so that we can do the things that we do.”
Since leaving Michigan, Campbell named the interim executive director of Affirmations, an LGBTQ community center, Lilianna Reyes the co-executive director of the TSCOPD.
“We get no local Michigan funds,” Reyes said. “Not one foundation in Michigan supports us. Most of our support comes from either New York or D.C. They come from either AIDS-focused grants or they come from (the) marginalized Third Wave Fund, and there’s some other smaller funding that goes into specifically marginalized communities. So, it’s very intentional money that we get. We don’t go after the DTEs or the GMs because there’s so much red tape, and most of those grants have strict requirements about not giving money out.”
However, giving money out directly has become TSOCPD’s first priority. Through their emergency assistance program, the agency allows trans women of color who were either born in or live in the city of Detroit to access funds quickly.
“You can get up to $500 a year,” Reyes said. “Every now and then in dire circumstances we’ll do two. But that doesn’t mean they’ll get $500. They could get $250 or they could get $300. It depends on how much we have on hand at the moment and how many girls are applying. For instance, we gave $300 to a trans young woman of color who was doing prom, one woman from Detroit was involved in the shooting in the Las Vegas club so we gave her funds. We usually do housing costs, court courts, medical costs, transition costs, name change costs. You fill out something online, and within 10 days you’ll have your check.”
The current program was not the initial direction in which the agency intended to go when Campbell created it three years ago, but upon examining the needs of the community they served, TSCOPD was compelled to create it.
“When we first started TSCOPD, a lot of our funders at that time and even Equality Michigan, who was our fiduciary, were really pushing polices,” Reyes said. “I think some people think if you change policies you’ll change all of this. When we started to do that lots of trans women of color were like, ‘We don’t care about policy. Policy is this long, drawn out battle. I’m working on Six Mile and Woodward and I’m selling my body and I’m going through all this stuff. You think I’m going to wait a year? You think I’m going to help you canvas? It’s just not happening.’
“So, we asked the girls, ‘What do you need?’” Reyes continued. “They said, ‘We need money. We need some kind of economic re-disbursements, because, otherwise, the reason we’re in this is because we can’t eat, we don’t have transportation and we don’t have sustainability with economics.”
That’s when their goal became clear. But, to fund the emergency assistance program, Campbell and Reyes quickly learned they’d have to look outside of Michigan.
“The grants at a bigger level that are emergency assistance grants still come with lots of red tape and lots of bureaucracy and don’t just give out the money,” said Reyes. “So what we do is we find a lot of operating non-restrictive grants, capacity building grants, and then instead of paying staff we hold it for emergency funds. Every time we’ve gone into a funding situation it’s always been ‘We can’t give you money so you can turn around and give it back out to the community.’ So we’ve kind of given up on anything local.”
Reyes credits Campbell for generating much of the funds they do receive from outside of Michigan.
“Ninety percent of our grants have come from organizations that literally have worked with Bre’,” said Reyes. “She’s literally going to trainings and to conferences with different funders so they can see us on a national platform. Really, her face is the reason we get a lot of the funds. They know her. They can speak to work.
“It started when she got really big in the national HIV movement,” Reyes went on. “When she was doing work with MTV it pushed her into a space where more funders were saying we want to support your work. So she used that to catapult Trans Sistas of Color.”
Jerry Peterson is executive director of the Ruth Ellis Center, TSOCPD’s current fiduciary. He agreed that’s imperative that Campbell continue to keep a national presence.
“In some larger cities where acceptance, support and protections are more widely available, trans women of color are organizing successfully,” Peterson said. “Bre’ and Lilianna are connected with those communities and bring that learning from the national landscape to impact their work in Detroit. Participating in national networks and collectives is vital to the long-term health and well-being of the Trans Women of Color Project. As a result, Detroit benefits from Bre’s standing and influence in those circles.”
Yet for what she’s getting, Campbell said the need is still far greater.
“I’m always in a place where I have to say this is not enough,” she said. “I feel it’s wrapped into this whole anti-blackness. We don’t trust black people with the things that they say they’re going to do,” she said. “And especially with black trans organizers, we’re fighting for scraps and when we get those scraps those same funders who give other people hundreds of thousands of dollars expect us to produce the same results on a fraction of what others received.”
Peterson said he still meets regularly with Campbell – at least once a month – and that wherever she may be calling home these days, she is still very much a part of the Detroit scene.
“Bre’ handles national networks and relationships and Lilianna handles local issues,” he said. “Bre’ is highly engaged with Lilianna and their community and her activities on a national scope benefit the work here. Bre’’s presence and impact are still very real and active in Detroit.”

About the Author:

Jason A. Michael
Jason A. Michael earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Wayne State University before joining Between The Lines as a contributing writer in 1999. Jason has received both the Spirit of Detroit Award (presented by the Detroit City Council) and the Media Award from the Community Pride Banquet & Awards Ceremony for his writing and activism. Jason is also an Essence magazine bestselling author having written the authorized biography "Strength Of A Woman: The Phyllis Hyman Story," which he released on his own JAM Books imprint.