Trans Atlanta activist fights against injustice with light

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Toni-Michelle Williams’ Twitter bio says it all: “LGBT activist and advocate, entertainer, community mobilizer and motivationalist!”

The multi-tasking Williams is best known as the leadership development coordinator for social justice group Solutions Not Punishment Coalition (SNaP Co).

The Atlanta native chats with Q about her organizing origin story, the Atlanta Police Department and trans relations, advice for aspiring organizers and how she finds peace during crazy times.

How did you get into organizing?

My Gurlz — my village and tribe of black trans women and queer friends — witnessing and experiencing homelessness, domestic violence, police and employment harassment, sexual assault and death. Since then, I have been committed to building the power of black trans people through embodied leadership practices and transformative campaigns that move us toward self-determination, acceptance and wholeness

You released the 2016 report, “The Most Dangerous Thing Out Here is the Police.” What has Atlanta Police Department done since then to fix that relationship?

The Atlanta Police Department collaborates with the Atlanta/Fulton County Pre-Arrest Diversion Initiative, a program that offers alternatives to arrest. It prides itself for having a queer police chief and an LGBT Liaison. We are not talking about one good officer or one bad officer — we are talking about a culture shift in the ways that officers over-police and target our communities and neighborhoods.

The city and department can do more, like:

  • Close down the city jail so that working class black and brown won’t sit in a cage so that the city can profit from traffic violations and accidents.
  • Deprioritize arrest for sex work or “prostitution” so that trans, queer and cis women, people and femmes could thrive, rather than struggle to survive and care for themselves.
  • Release federal dollars to Housing Opportunities for People Living With HIV providers and serviced-based institutions. This has caused a hold on beds for many black, trans and queer people living with HIV. As we know, homelessness increases your chance of a police interaction that could be justified or not.
  • Provide resources so that trans and queer communities are able to partner with universities like GSU, Emory and Georgia Tech to tackle homelessness.
  • Invest in black trans-led, grassroots organizations and businesses to further establish and support a leadership development pipeline model and practice that already exists with organizations like SNaP Co.

What’s your best advice for someone looking to get into organizing?

  • Commit to your own healing journey towards wholeness and integration so that you can find the ones that are looking for you.
  • Remember that “it is not about me.”
  • In order to meet people where they are, I have to be comfortable with where I am.
  • Take care of yourself. The work may not be about you — but you are worthy of care, healing, love, time and space.
  • Stay grounded in the people who you are fighting for and fighting with. Stay away from the celebrity and tokenism that comes with leadership. A true leader is emotionally intelligent, accountable, perceptive, responsive, open, connected, vulnerable, authentic and true to self and their commitments.

It's hard to be a transgender woman of color. What gives you hope?

At almost every turning point of our lives, we are met with rejection and isolation. My hope is for all of us to lean into our knowing of what our magic truly offers the world.

What gives me hope is the limitless possibilities of transformation for all of us. The babies of the world give me hope. My family and their work to transform their hearts and minds so that they won't miss out on my brilliance and my love gives me hope.

Community, the movement, my partner and friendships sustain my hope and prepare me for all of the love that is to come for me and my sisters.

What's something people would be surprised to find out about you?

I am not a social butterfly! My favorite thing to do is to retreat. I love to disappear into the woods and bask in life that is beyond me. I love the trees and the stories that they share about evolution, connection and strength.

Find the SNaP Coalition online.Photo by Russ Youngblood

This article originally appeared in Q magazine. Read the full issue below.

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