Alexis Rai interviews Bryanna about her work and mission with transgender rights while navigating her experience of becoming a lawyer and building her legacy.
Bryanna Jenkins, a proud Baltimore native, is a third-year law student at DePaul University College of Law in Chicago, IL. She is the founder and first executive director of the Baltimore Transgender Alliance. She organized and then the first Baltimore Transgender March of Resilience. She is also an alumna of Baltimore City College, Morgan State University, and University of Baltimore.
Her legal writings examine the intersections of racial, gender, and queer identities under the law. Her article 'Birth Certificate with a Benefit: Using LGBTQ Jurisprudence to Make the Argument for a Transgender Person’s Constitutional Right to Amended Identity Documents' was published in the Winter 2019 edition of the CUNY Law Review. Upon completion of her legal studies she plans to practice law with a passionate focus on civil rights, employment discrimination, LGBTQ rights, and medical malpractice.
Where does your interest for civil rights and combating discrimination stem from?
I worked for Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development with property owners, helping them to comply with city code and regulations. I discovered that I was good at explaining the law to people and getting people to comply. Before I left for law school, I started my own nonprofit, The Baltimore Transgender Alliance, which does advocacy work for the Transgender Community in the Baltimore area. Doing that work, I got to see firsthand the different legal issues that trans people must face. I became interested in the law because when you are a trans person, your life is so heavily determined and defined by the law and that could create a lot of issues. Once you decide that you want to transition, you must interface with the legal system in order to get some things done or if you have a situation. The law was always a part of my life in the background, but the combination of those experiences made me feel like law school and becoming a lawyer was the next logical choice for me to be a better advocate for my community. Being here has really opened my world up.
I love that. You mentioned Baltimore Transgender Alliance, your nonprofit organization. Can you highlight what the mission is and one of your most recent initiatives?
The basic mission of the organization, when I started it, was to have a safe space for the transgender community to come together as a collective or a think tank and come up with ways to address the many things that we go through as a community so we can have the voice to engage the outsider community really get some things done. I started it in 2015 and then I stepped down in the middle of 2015 right before I moved to Chicago. I knew I wasn't going to run it forever; I knew that I was leaving Baltimore, but it was very important for me to establish something that could still be there. A couple of the events that I did were big when I was there. We had the first ever Transgender Resilience March. We had one march the Friday before Gay Pride that was heavily attended and covered locally, then we had the Transgender Resilience March and a celebration for Transgender Remembrance Day. We had a community meeting with state's attorney Marilyn Mosby and that was a big deal because she had just got into office and that was during the start of the Freddie Gray situation which was a big thing at the time. For her to reach out to the community and really want to be a part of it was a big deal and it was another heavily attended and publicized event. My role there when was to use whatever connections I had to get the word out there and to build the foundation's infrastructure. Before I left, I identified people to run it, then I gave them everything they needed. I gave them the best advice that I could at that point. They've taken it to a whole new level. They've continued the Transgender March of Resilient Celebration Weekend and they've also done work nationally. I know they have another side project, ‘Host Home’. It’s an app that connects people in the community that are experiencing a homeless emergency with people in Baltimore that are willing to give space in their homes for a couple of nights. They have done some amazing things. The executive director that I appointed is about to step down and she's passing the mantle to somebody else in the community, somebody of color. That was my vision for the organization; come into leadership, play your part, do what you need to do, contribute your part and then when you're ready to move on, move on but while your leading, make sure you are building other people up behind you. That type of work is very emotional, intensive, and traumatic and you're not supposed to do it forever. Step down and leave to explore other parts of yourselves and grow in different ways. That was my vision for the organization; to have something for the community, something revolving so everyone gets a chance to lead at some point.
Thank you so much for having such a big heart to move in the ways that you're moving to support your community, but also to lead by example. That’s beautiful.
What's the most valuable lesson that you've learned in your life or career so far?
It’s important to know how to lead. It’s also important to know how to fall back and be a part of something and support someone else. That's something I try to practice every day. I know I'm a leader and I know I have great qualities, but I know in some situations, it’s more appropriate for me to be the background for somebody else and help behind the scenes. What is important to me is using my skills and my talents to be of service to somebody else and to build others up. Another lesson I'm learning, especially in my personal life, is that it's okay to take time for myself. If I don't get everything finished in a day, that is okay. I'm human.
The ‘rest versus work’ topic is ongoing within society right now because we all have so much information being thrown at us and multitasking has become the default setting. Being able to say, “Today is for rest. Today for self-care. Today is for work and that's okay,” and making the time for it all is very important.
What is your favorite thing to do for self-care?
As of recently it’s cooking. I like burning essential oils. I like listening to music. Simple things where I’m by myself.
What is the greatest piece of advice you've ever received from another woman?
Advice from my mother. “Everyone is not your friend.” You should gravitate to the people that really want to be your friend. That's one thing that she's told me that I have taken with me and it reoccurs all the time. I'm mindful of how I move and who I connect with.
I appreciate you sharing that great piece of advice.
What are three things that you do every day to set yourself up for success?
I have a board that I write affirmations on. I'll read the board and then shower to start my morning. I try not to watch anything or to listen to music. I like to be in silence to sit with my thoughts. The third thing I do is speak intention over my life and my week.
So many people don't pay attention to those small variables that are in our control which can have such a large impact if we are mindful and our intentions are set correctly. Knowing that those are things that you are already doing is golden.
What has been your greatest challenge in your career and how have you overcome it?
Being in the legal world and giving myself permission to be myself. One thing I didn't anticipate when I came to law school was exactly how conservative law culture is. I have a lot of great mentors, but
none of them are black, trans, and women at the same time. I have more black mentors than anything and I feel like a lot of them have good intentions, but sometimes, the things that they tell me about how I should carry myself in reference to conflict, especially trans issues, kind of gives me the message that I should be quiet and just try to like skate through and not really be “the problem person” because if I do that, then that'll take opportunities away from me in the future; I’ll have a bad reputation. I don't think they mean it like that, but that's how I take it. I think I'm more sensitive to that since I'm the only one like me in the room. I’m not disregarding what they say - I take it in respectfully, but I still give myself permission to have a voice and not let status or prestige strip me of my voice and my identity. I’m learning the balance. I have to be true to myself because at my core, I really believe in the things that I say, and people are inspired by the things that I say. I’m trying to further develop my voice, develop my confidence as a black trans woman lawyer, and stand my ground while also knowing that I will still get opportunities. I respect what my mentors say but the reason that I've been able to get so many opportunities is because of my perspective and the fact that I'm always speaking up. The universe is showing me that being myself and speaking up has gotten me through so many doors. It’s been a battle.
I think the way that you are approaching it is great. They're only coming from their own perspective and they've never been you. You are here to experience your unique vantage point for the next set of black trans women that want to do what would they see you do and are inspired by what you've done.
I can tell that you are aware of the experience that you're having and the way that you choose to conduct yourself as a Black Trans woman. I think that the work that you're doing, the being that you are choosing to be and continue to build up has already inspired so many and you're just getting started. I already know that you are a change maker.
Do you consider yourself a leader?
I do. At this point, I know that other people are watching me; both in the community and outside of the community. Any opportunity that I have to mentor and share my experiences, I do. I'm all about creating other leaders.
What has been your most memorable or favorite moment in your career or life thus far?
Getting my article published in City University of New York Law Review. The article is about transgender people being able to get amended identity documents without having to have surgery - it should be a constitutional right.
That's major. Congratulations.
What is your life's theme song?
Bilal – Butterfly. “The struggle makes you beautiful, the struggle makes you fly. Spread your wings and be new again. Butterfly.”
Wow. Beautiful and fitting lyrics.
Thank you so much for interviewing with me. Your story inspires me so much.
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