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Transformations KC works to add more trans women of color in leadership roles

Merrique Jenson transformations kc
Posted at 5:30 AM, Jun 29, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-29 08:41:13-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo.  — This Pride month, we want to share stories of some of the most marginalized people within the LGBTQ+ community.

That means sharing the stories of transgender women of color, who have historically been misrepresented in - and even harmed by - media coverage.

This story will center on Transformations KC, an organization working to elevate trans women of color so they can be centered in positive ways moving forward.

For years, Merrique Jenson saw the violence her trans sisters of color faced but, in her mind, no organization was doing enough about it.

So, she started Transformations KC in 2016.

It began with securing a grant to fund a three-day leadership summit for trans people of color and youth. After the summit, Jenson said the group was begging for more.

"We sort of built this really makeshift youth organization at the time, which was really cool," Jenson said.

Although the group was started by trans women of color, she realized young trans people of color were still not accessing their services.

"Every trans, non-binary person, every LGBTQ person has the right to feel safe," Jenson said.

But they found their model was one-size-fits-all, and Jenson said it didn't work.

More often, they were seeing white families who had more time, money and resources, while the trans kids of color maybe didn't have the access or support.

"We really shifted more into a racial equity and racial justice lens," Jenson said.

We know people of color historically have had less access to resources than white communities. The same is true for the trans community.

"This month, in Pride, we're about to announce our shift to be an organization that is specifically for capacity building and leadership development among trans people of color," Jenson said.

Pouring resources into trans women of color allows people like Nyla Foster to be regarded as the experts they are in a variety of realms.

"We're leaders, we're strategists, we're artists, we're all these different things," Foster said.

Foster is one of the original leaders of Transformations KC.

She's a Kansas City native, who's been homeless and experienced discrimination in school.

Despite that, she's been living her truth since the age of 14, participating in pageants, leading youth groups and doing advocacy work ever since.

"In the past, we were not the ones that folks came to when it came to trans issues," Foster said. "Although they would report about us, we were more of a statistic or participant, but we weren't in leadership roles."

The National Center for Transgender Equality's most recent survey tells it all: Trans people are more likely to be living in poverty, be assaulted, forced into survival sex work, experience discrimination, and be denied services than the U.S. population.

And the stats are even worse for trans women of color.

"Four of my friends of the Black transgender experience have been murdered," Foster said. "Right now, I'm 33 and speaking to you, so for me, that means a lot because a lot of my peers did not make it past that age."

The Human Rights Campaign says more than 200 trans people have been murdered since 2013. Several of those murders happened in Kansas City.

These acts of violence are often under-reported and many times the victims are misgendered in initial reports.

Being upfront about this reality is at the core of Transformations' work but also making sure it intersects with empowerment.

"Often, society will tell you you're just going to be a sex worker, you're just going to be a drag queen or you're just going to be a low-paid individual, and that can't be our only narrative," Foster said.

Transformations is launching a microgrant program to award thousands of dollars to trans women of color and young people.

They're bringing back their national virtual summit, "The Dolls are Thriving."

They're also starting a mentorship program, Hey Sis — "Hey Sis, like 'Hey girl hey,'" Jenson says — where young women can get the affirmation they're not getting from their families or society.

"It's important for organizations like Transformations to exist because we wouldn't have an opportunity for us to see ourselves elevated," Foster said.

Transformations KC is looking for donations to fund their new programs. They are expanding to serve the Ozark Mountain region in northern Arkansas, as well as Kansas and Missouri.