Raquel Willis is the epitome of a power woman. She’s writing a book, she just started a new role as director of communications for the Ms. Foundation for Women, all while clocking countless hours in the fight for Black Trans lives. At only 29, Willis has made a name for herself as a social justice activist in the trans community through her philanthropy and advocacy on the ground, behind the mic, and on social media.
After telling a crowd of thousands in Brooklyn that “we can no longer ignore Black trans lives”, Willis is busier than ever. Her continuous work is receiving the long overdue attention it rightfully deserves. Prior to the outpour of attention from the public, Willis worked as a national organiser for the Transgender Law Center and as the former Executive Editor of Out Magazine. In 2017, Willis spoke at the Women’s March on Washington and more recently appeared as a moderator in Disclosure, a new Netflix documentary about transgender lives in American culture. The Augusta, Georgia native is a figurehead for change, impacting people all over the United States to stand up, and show up, for Black trans lives.
You gave a very admirable speech at the Black trans Lives Matter rally in June. What was it like to speak your truth about something that you’re passionate about in front of thousands of people?
It felt enlightening for me in the sense of being confronted with the fact that there are more people who are interested in understanding the experiences of Black trans people than maybe I ever could have imagined before. It felt transformative and like a turning point in some ways for the Black trans movement.
What have you been doing to keep the conversation going around Black trans lives?
Well, to clarify, this was the work that I’ve been doing in almost all of my career. So it’s not that I feel like I or my peers changed but more so that the general public has changed in terms of being more receptive to what I say. I’ll be candid, I have to fight feelings of bitterness sometimes about feeling ignored for so long. And a lot of the people who are showing up now, who want to be allies or comrades to our movements, have to understand that just because these experiences are new to them in some ways, there’s a whole movement and a whole history to the Black trans community that they have to learn about and respect. Black trans people and gender-nonconforming people have been fighting for generations to be heard and to be respected as the masters of our own destiny. And I would be remiss to not name folks like Marsha P. Johnson or Miss Major, and the other Black trans ancestors and elders who really laid the foundation for a lot of what our generation is doing today.
So in regards to the general public, do you feel we are seeing an actual movement take place or just a moment?
I think that a collection of moments make up a movement. When I think about the movement for Black lives, it is really just the current iteration of centuries of Black liberation work. It is a descendant of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s the descendant of Black feminist movements, of the original abolitionist movement. We’ve got to stop thinking about all of these things as disconnected. The things that were happening during the Stonewall Riots of 1969 are completely fueling what is happening today for the Black trans community. So we’ve gotta get out of this idea that any of these movements are isolated, because they’re all connected.
Do you feel that people are being more receptive to justice for Black trans lives now that people are tapping into the Black Lives Matter movement as a whole, more than before?
Definitely. People are receptive in a different way now, but it’s almost impossible for us to know exactly why. There are a couple of things: I think in the wake of particularly the 2016 election people began waking up in some ways to systems of oppression like white supremacy. I also think we are in a different time given the COVID-19 pandemic and seeing the acceleration of these institutions falling apart that we have trusted for so long or been indoctrinated to trust. The truth is that institutions are really only as just, and as morally sound as the people that make them up and the people that leave them.
With so many resources populating social media, what do you feel allies need to know or might be missing?
The thing about being an ally is that there isn’t a simple answer. There’s no perfect list that any group can give you on how to be a better ally, which really is just, how to be a better, more informed, empathetic human being. It’s about you stretching your muscles, stretching your creativity, and understanding the ways that you may have power and privilege and access in ways that other folks may not. And knowing you have a duty to extend that to other folks who may just be more marginalised than you because of how society is set up. It’s really about doing that internal work of transformation and really examining your position.
You just landed a prestigious position that is perfect for creating change. What do you most look forward to doing with your new role as Director of Communications for the Ms. Foundation for Women?
I am excited to be quite possibly the first openly Black trans woman on staff at this organisation. So that represents the maturity of feminism in this moment, because we know that there has been a long history of exclusion, of various groups, of marginalised women, including Black women, and of course, including transgender women. And there still is. So in a time when there continues to be an uptick of murders of Black trans women, there continues to be violence, and anti-trans rhetoric coming from public figures, it is heartening to be a Black trans woman in this space and to work alongside the leadership of our CEO and so many folks on our staff who are committed to expanding the breadth of feminism. I’m also interested in us continuing to figure out ways to reallocate resources to women and girls of color in leadership. That’s key for me.
And on top of that, you’re writing a book! What do you hope readers will take from The Risk It Took to Bloom?
I’m excited to be working on this book and releasing it because I feel like we don’t tell our stories enough. We can never share our insights enough, and for me as a Black trans woman from Augusta, Georgia, it is important for me to elevate the ways that my life has been impacted by systems of oppression, but also the ways that I have figured out how to come up from under the thumb of oppression. And then also the way that the stories of the spaces and the movements I’ve been in and the relationships that I’ve had are complicated. I’m talking about the way that gender and identity is messy. The ways that our movements are messy, the ways that being empowered and successful is messy. I’m excited to put all that out there.