Raquel Willis On Aria Sa’id: She’s Building Pathways To Power For Black Trans Women

After my years of activism in Atlanta, I moved to Oakland, where I worked at the Transgender Law Center. In San Francisco, Aria is an important and influential figure for trans activism, sex worker rights, and has been holding it down for Black trans folk for years. She co-founded Compton Transgender District, the world’s first transgender cultural district. It made sense that we would get connected, and she’s become one of my dearest friends. I believe in her vision of creating spaces of opportunity and empowerment for our people.
When I moved to Oakland, she remembered hearing my name a couple of times and was like, “Who is this girl?” We met and became friends over time, and now we’re in such important places in our career as peers in the Black trans movement. What’s beautiful is that both of us are living in a time where Black trans women are moving into our power in new ways, building upon the foundation laid by our ancestors.
Aria has created several initiatives, she has served in the mayor’s office of San Francisco, and she founded a collective called Kween Culture — which is about building up the cultural power of Black Trans women through different types of programming. I admire her for that. For Black women, beauty isn’t just how we look, but it’s how we navigate the world, how we show up for other Black women and our people, and how we build pathways to power that can last throughout eternity. 
Through my friendship with Aria, I learned a lot about the landscape of survival for Black trans women in San Francisco. My role at Transgender Law Center was focused on trans equality on a national level. One of the things about being an activist and organizer is that you need to be rooted in what is happening wherever your feet are touching the soil. For me, it was important to our friendship, beyond our general love for each other and comradery. That was invaluable knowledge, to understand the difference for our people everywhere. I was coming from a Southern perspective, and being in space with her, learning from her experiences, comparing our notes of what it’s like to be ourselves and our journey to being ourselves and living in our power — it was invaluable information. 
As a journalist, I was very grateful to be able to share some of her thoughts and expertise along with Serena Sonoma, who also helped write for the Trans Obituaries Project at Out magazine. Aria is featured there to represent the cultural work that the Compton Transgender District is doing in honoring our history. That was a powerful moment of overlap, and we’ve been in so many spaces together, focused on building up our own leadership, but also elevating the health, wellness, and self care of Black women — specifically Black Trans women. Being in those spaces with Aria has pushed me to think more critically about what it means to even show up for myself and the work that I want to do and make sure that it’s sustainable. 
I believe that Aria’s legacy is going to be about ushering in a period where Black trans women can really imagine what it means to be completely bossed up. She has such a fiery, immovable spirit around her value, purpose, and need for us to be autonomous and self-sufficient. Throughout her career, she has demonstrated that in various roles. Her leadership of the Compton Transgender District is really focused on making sure that trans folks of color have access to the necessities, but also to economic empowerment. In many ways, that is a new concept for our community to grapple with. 
Another part of her legacy will be showing up in all of her brilliance, beauty, glory and power. From a leadership development standpoint, she believes in Black trans women being respected, not only in our identity and experiences, but in our brilliance around skill and knowledge. 
Black Is The New Black is Refinery29’s celebration of Black women who are changing the game. Black women who are reminding the world that we are not a trend or “a moment.” We’re here — and we’ve been here. Check out the full list.

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