“I Believed in My Vision:” TransTech Empowers, Educates, & Employs the Trans Community
By Caitlin C. Schnur, Coordinator, National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity
Angelica Ross, the founder of TransTech in Chicago, calls herself an accidental advocate. “I got into this work as an advocate for myself,” explains Miss Ross, a transwoman of color whose year-old social enterprise prepares trans people for careers in creative design and technology. “When I was younger, I was really just trying to get by and work a job. None of the LGBTQ organizations that were focused on marriage were advocating for what I needed—safe and stable employment opportunities.”
While the transgender movement may have reached a tipping point, there’s still a lot of work to be done around advancing employment and economic opportunity for the trans community. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, trans people experience twice the rate of unemployment and are nearly four times more likely to live in extreme poverty than the general population. By empowering, educating, and employing trans people—and especially trans youth—TransTech addresses these issues head on. For LGBT Pride Month, National Initiatives chatted with Miss Ross about her vision for TransTech, why social capital is key to economic empowerment, and employment as restorative justice.
National Initiatives: What’s the story behind TransTech, and why are you excited about this work?
Angelica Ross: Every single chapter of my life has been leading up to TransTech. When I was nineteen years old, I thought I was confined to a street economy—sex work seemed like the only option for earning income. Then I discovered that by learning tech skills, I could carve out a different path. Working from a computer, it doesn’t matter what I look like or sound like: I can be valued for the work I do online. I’m self-taught. I watched videos about how to build websites, taught myself how to code, and built out a whole creative agency.
Then, a few years ago, I came back to the Midwest. I started working at a social service agency, connecting trans people to employment. The programming didn’t feel comprehensive to me—we were placing folks into low-wage jobs, and I felt like we were undervaluing and underestimating the trans community’s skills. I wanted to teach our participants tech skills, but my organization wasn’t receptive. Then someone suggested I start my own company. The idea simmered in me, and I got to see more and more clearly that I could to this, but it would be a huge leap of faith. I had no investors. I had nothing. And there’s no real expectation that a transwoman of color will leave a salaried job with benefits and go back to struggling. But I believed in my vision, I believed in my ability to create value, and I knew that because I had walked the path out of sex work and into tech that this could work for other trans people, too.
National Initiatives: What are the most significant barriers to employment for the trans community, and especially for trans people of color? How does TransTech address these barriers?
Angelica Ross: The biggest, biggest, biggest, number one barrier is lack of social capital. Having a network is highly valuable when it comes to looking for employment. When you’re trans, and especially a trans person of color, you don’t have the same networks as people who have more mainstream identities. Laverne Cox said that trans people need to be loved out in public—but we’re still not quite at a time when our families, our friends, and our colleagues are comfortable doing that. At TransTech, we’ve created a space for trans people to come together, work together, laugh together, go to lunch together. There’s strength in numbers. They’re building networks, and down the line they’ll think of each other when it comes to jobs.
National Initiatives: What’s a great example of some of TransTech’s work?
Angelica Ross: We’ve had an incredible response when it comes to getting projects. For example, there’s a new show coming out this fall called Her Story. It’s written by a transwoman, Jen Richards, and there are transwomen playing trans roles. TransTech is creating the logo and managing the project’s social media. This is what restorative justice looks like—we’re taking the places that are for us. We’re telling our own stories, writing our own stories, and being creative about how TransTech can get involved in projects.
National Initiatives: You recently announced a partnership with Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest civil rights organization working to achieve equality for LGBT Americans. What led to the partnership, and how will it advance your work to help the trans community connect to employment?
Angelica Ross: HRC has done work on behalf of the trans community, but this work hasn’t always been impactful enough for us to feel and notice it. They’re still learning how to connect to the trans community, and I’m someone who can build bridges. I got connected to HRC’s Workplace department, and talked about how a model like TransTech can be a solution to some of the issues that trans people face in the workplace. Within a few months, they gave me a DC-based office, and we’re discussing and developing new strategies to extend TransTech’s programming. I’m hoping to create models for other groups. I know there has to be more than TransTech doing this work eventually if we’re going to have a comprehensive impact.
National Initiatives: Many youth employment programs likely end up serving trans-identified youth, even if that’s not their target population. What are some steps social service organizations can take right now to be more trans friendly?
Angelica Ross: If I’m coming to get help with issues and challenges that seem very specific to being trans, what I would like to see is more trans people in visible spaces. I’d like to see that trans people are in charge, not just sitting behind the front desk. Being able to walk into an environment and see trans people giving help, not just getting help, is very important.
National Initiatives: What else would you like to add that I haven’t asked you about?
Angelica Ross: I’ve had people come into our space who aren’t ready to receive what TransTech is giving because they’re in so much pain, and they need to focus on healing first. Then other people come to TransTech who are ready for what we have right now—they were ready yesterday. In the space we create, whether online or in person, we try to create community that encourages people, wherever they’re at. At TransTech, we can teach you how to build the skills to do anything you want.
Photo credit: Lisa Predko
About National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic OpportunityHeartland Alliance’s National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity is dedicated to ending chronic unemployment and poverty. We believe that every person deserves the opportunity to succeed in work and support themselves and their families. Through our field building, we provide support and guidance that fosters more effective and sustainable employment efforts. Our policy and advocacy work advances solutions to the systemic issues that drive chronic unemployment.
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