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We Must Uplift Black LGBTQ People Through Economic Empowerment

SEAN COLEMAN

There was no shortage of Pride coverage in our beloved New York City this year, given that it simultaneously commemorated Stonewall 50 and hosted WorldPride.

But I was exceptionally proud to open my print copy of The New York Times on June 29 and see Black LGBTQ individuals highlighted in a feature article about the Bronx-based organization I lead.

This visibility gave me an extra jolt of enthusiasm about the importance of our mission and the incredible resilience of the people we serve, individuals like Shyloh Mugler, who told the Times,“You don’t have to explain over and over when you’re in a place that understands. … It’s a sense of home … a sense of safety, a sense of comfort, a sense of acknowledgement that we exist.”

Not long ago there was a dearth of resources for our communities in the Bronx. The previous center had long since closed, leaving LGBTQ people without a safe space to call our own. That all changed when Destination Tomorrow opened a new space almost one year ago to the day.

Economic empowerment is our bottom line.

It’s at the heart of everything we do. It’s the best way to push back against the systemic discrimination that disproportionately impacts LGBTQ communities of color. Gratefully, we’ve been able to grow the agency from absolutely nothing to a million-dollar organization today. 

Our work is crucial. There’s no getting around the challenges confronting our communities, particularly the trans community. The 2016 U.S Transgender Survey paints an in-depth portrait of the obstacles: “The findings reveal disturbing patterns of mistreatment and discrimination and startling disparities between transgender people in the survey and the U.S. population when it comes to the most basic elements of life, such as finding a job, having a place to live, accessing medical care, and enjoying the support of family and community. Survey respondents also experienced harassment and violence at alarmingly high rates.” 

The survey additionally reveals that African-American trans people face the highest rates of discrimination in all areas of life, as well as staggering violence. We know all too well how Black trans folks are still in danger and how that negatively impacts the larger community. Black trans women are targeted most.

And as one of the few Black trans leaders of a major LGBTQ organization, I am compelled to change that narrative and lift folks up one by one. 

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We do that by focusing on education and practical life skills that take our clients off the path of emergency treatment, housing, and health care services. We believe it’s much better to help them avoid crisis situations through offerings like a financial literacy program in collaboration with TD Bank, a four-week job readiness program, and sexual health education.

Most of our clients are unemployed or underemployed, which is why we conduct money management workshops, professional development, and GED programs, all in our friendly surroundings and out of harm’s way.

These tools will make a huge difference in the long run. I continue to hear more stories about LGBTQ senior housing programs. I absolutely applaud these efforts and see their necessity for our elders who depend on extra support in their later years as well as LGBTQ-friendly environments filled with community.

But as I look down the road for the youth we serve, I have also come to realize that we wouldn't need so many LGBT senior housing programs based on economic need if we taught our young people the importance of building your credit and building wealth through homeownership.

I believe our center can be an example for the nation. We can replicate this idea across the South, the Midwest, and the West Coast. It’s The Destination Tomorrow model of direct services that are tied to economic achievement. I see it as a game changer for LGBTQ communities, especially communities of color.

We believe that if you give folks the tools that they need to succeed, they'll be successful. This is my life’s work. This is our mission. We have only scratched the surface. Keep an eye out for us.

There’s much more to come. 

Sean Coleman is executive director of Destination Tomorrow, a grassroots agency located in the South Bronx that provides services to and for the LGBTQ community.

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