‘If they cannot hear you when you whisper, watch when you say a cuss word’ | Feature | Chicago Reader

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‘If they cannot hear you when you whisper, watch when you say a cuss word’

Black and trans activists build networks of support and mutual aid at Brave Space Alliance.

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LaSaia Wade - BRAVE SPACE ALLIANCE
  • Brave Space Alliance
  • LaSaia Wade

Flood's Hall is a nondescript building in Hyde Park, next to the back patio of Mellow Yellow restaurant, that houses nonprofit offices. I visited on a hot day in August, sweating under my cloth mask. There was a sticky note plastered to the front door, instructing people to bring donations to the third floor.

I exited the elevator and was greeted by a vibrant office. A colorful mural of Sky Cubacub, a nonbinary, queer, disabled, Filipinx activist, organizer, and founder of Rebirth Garments, covered the wall. This was, without a doubt, the right place.

Brave Space Alliance (BSA) is the first and only Black- and trans-led community center on Chicago's south side. The organization, which was founded in 2017 by LaSaia Wade, an Afro-Puerto Rican Indigenous trans woman, has grown exponentially in the past year and expanded its food pantry program and mutual aid network to include thousands in the city, moved into a permanent office, launched an $800,000 fundraising campaign, and hired two new full-time staffers.

BSA Office Manager Courtney McKinney, who connected with Wade through Chicago's ballroom scene, walked me from room to room. The space felt comfortable and professional, an office environment with a warm hum of activity. I imagined that normally the halls would be bustling with employees and community members, arms full of groceries and clipboards keeping track of supplies. Instead, because of the pandemic, it's a little quiet—just a few employees keeping things running.

Bags of groceries, tampons, soap, hand sanitizer, baby supplies, and other essential items were stacked on shelves and floors. It was a full-blown mutual aid operation.

"When I first came? It was hectic," McKinney told me. "We had a lot . . . a lot of donations everywhere. We had people coming in, going out, coming in, all with donations. And now, we're at the point we need to be."

I spoke to Wade over Zoom in August, shortly after she stepped back into her role as executive director after maternity leave. "I was talking to my partner while he was driving," Wade said. She was multitasking on our call. Her camera was off and I could hear her cooing to her crying baby between responses. "It was a few weeks before the [Trans Liberation March] happened, and I was like, 'I know for a fact that a collective cannot really hold a structural power complex, especially a nonprofit, accountable.' I thought, 'I need to create something different.'" Wade was inspired by a study on "brave spaces" that she had participated in during college. She dubbed the new nonprofit Brave Space Alliance. "It really hit the ground running," she said.

"For a long time, LaSaia had been talking about how there's so little space for trans people, especially Black trans people, in the world of LGBTQ centers," said Stephanie Skora, a white, Jewish, genderqueer lesbian trans woman, who is now BSA's associate executive director. Wade hired Skora shortly after founding the organization. She was the acting executive director when we spoke on Zoom in early August, when Wade was still on maternity leave. I paused for my next question while she took bites of her sandwich, in what I'm sure was a precious lunch break. "When it comes to organizations that are actually designed to serve trans folks and center the lives of Black trans people, there's nothing," Skora said. "LaSaia saw that gap. She saw that need."

For Wade, BSA has not only been a project to serve the needs of Black and trans folks, but to demonstrate what her communities are capable of when given opportunity and resources. "We're able to hire trans people to do this amazing work, where they have been displaced by other organizations and told they're not capable," Wade said.

Skora said BSA is an abolitionist organization that doesn't work with the police, "founded on the values of mutual aid and community good and collective liberation." BSA's vision is to empower Black and Brown trans folks with what they need to be brave, to carve their own spaces in a world where their safety is systemically compromised.

"BSA has meant turning the tables, it's meant showing that we can be a model of change," Wade said. "It's meant showing that we can be the tip of the arrow while everyone else is behind it. The method of organizing and the way people have made systems has failed us. And they need to go back to the drawing board."

Black and Brown trans folks "don't need to rely on the charity or the benevolence of cis people," said Skora. "We can have our own organizations; we should have our own organizations. When we're given our due, when we're given proper access to everything that trans people are owed . . . we can thrive."

BSA has not been spared the systemic inequities and oppressions. The organization was forced out of multiple offices before landing in Hyde Park. "It's about people trusting trans people and acknowledging that I'm a whole human. I'm a whole human with a master's degree," Wade said. "I'm not a child. And because they're fascinated with my transition, and not my personhood, I become an object to fantasize over and not to trust in leadership. That's what I want to challenge."

"But people saw us," said Skora. "People saw the mission. Slowly but surely the money started to come in." Skora said the organization launched with $5,000 and ended the year with $50,000. BSA has sought to not only be a center for resources like food or microgrants, but has manifested "a seat at the table of power in order to advocate for the needs of Black trans people." Soon after moving into the Hyde Park office in October 2019, BSA was awarded a grant from Gilead Pharma to run their HIV prevention program, which is based on a mutual aid network. "Black and Brown trans people are systemically underhoused or unhoused people," Skora said. "They have to worry about whether or not they have a roof over their head or whether they can feed themselves, rather than whether or not they have HIV."

BSA's existing foothold in the community and mutual aid network made it possible to pivot and expand programming during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted Black and Latinx communities in Chicago. The organization launched the Trans Relief Fund, which mobilized to assist trans individuals with getting microgrants, food, and other essentials within days. By Skora's count, BSA distributed over $120,000 before becoming completely overwhelmed with requests. The Crisis Pantry had similar success, servicing 3,000 individuals in its first two months.

And in late May when protests erupted after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, BSA expanded the food pantry and aided demonstrators with necessary supplies. The organization has also assisted in jail support efforts alongside other activist organizations, like Black Lives Matter Chicago and the Black Abolitionist Network. BSA is also finalizing a telehealth service in which people will be able to remotely access therapists to receive referrals for hormone therapy, gender changes on forms of ID, and other services specific to the needs of trans people.

Wade said the way to keep expanding and accomplishing these goals is to "go in with guns blazing." "What we're seeing now is over 400-some years of demanding change and nothing happening," she said. "So I have to change the strategy. We tell people—and this is so important, it's imperative—if they cannot hear you when you whisper, watch when you say a cuss word, the whole conversation changes." She continued. "It goes right into 'Why are you being belligerent?' 'Why are you against us?'" she said. "Now you have become the enemy because you are demanding your life to be sustainable."

The vision for BSA's future is about imparting, empowering, and uniting individuals to take on these challenges. "It's the complete act of changing the narrative when we talk about the particular bravery you need when you step in particular spaces," Wade said. She paused, took a breath. "It's about, 'How brave do I have to be to be in this space?'"  v

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