There are so many aspects of health that disproportionately affect the Black community, and yet less than six percent of US doctors are Black — a deficit that only further harms public health. Many of the Black folks who work in healthcare have dedicated their careers to combatting inequities. That’s why, this Black History Month, PS is crowning our Black Health Heroes: physicians, sexologists, doulas, and more who are advocating for the Black community in their respective fields. Meet them all here.
In 2020, millions of people facing an emerging pandemic had no clue how to meet their everyday needs in the face of a looming shutdown. Whether it was arranging grocery and prescription delivery, providing hand-sewn face masks, or raising monetary donations to cover rent, communities all over formed mutual-aid projects to support each other during a vulnerable time. While many of these projects have disbanded since, The Okra Project has continued to provide mutual aid to Black trans people in various capacities — and it’s been doing so since 2018, well before the pandemic.
The aid has been vital. Statistics for Black trans women’s mortality are grim and point to a dangerous systemic crisis of transmisogynoir. But in the face of compounded systemic barriers, Black trans women have always found ways to care for each other through mutual aid. And since Gabrielle Inès Souza became executive director of The Okra Project about a year ago, the organization has operated a variety of funds year-round to support the holistic needs of Black trans folks — including a “joy” fund, a rental-assistance fund, and a rides-and-meals fund, just to name a few.
Like many people, Souza, originally from St. Louis, MO, first discovered mutual aid in a time of her own need. After quitting her job in part due to mistreatment during her transition, Souza moved in with her then-boyfriend. “Unfortunately, that situation turned into resentment, which turned into abuse, and I had to get out of [it],” she tells POPSUGAR. Souza was deeply aware that for Black trans women like herself, intimate-partner violence could escalate to fatal violence all too quickly. “I found myself once more in need, which came through mutual aid,” she says.
Mutual aid is often what helps us escape danger and skate by when jobs and public services aren’t enough. With high rates of missing, houseless, and murdered Black trans women looming over her every move, Souza has always known that her community must take care of each other. As she puts it, “I’m a product of mutual aid.”
“It shouldn’t take a Black trans femme being murdered to raise and rally.”
Yet despite experiencing community care, Souza was still exhausted by her experiences with systemic discrimination as a Black trans woman. She took to social media to raise awareness about her own experience, and that’s where her activism took off. Social media, however, can be a double-edged sword; hyper-visibility for Black trans women can bring both privilege and violence. Just for being Black, trans, and vocal, Souza dealt with numerous “men that sexualize you or that are in your DMs sending inappropriate photos, unsolicited things, or are sending you hate and death platforms,” she says. For many, social media activism in itself isn’t sustainable in the long-term.
Enter The Okra Project, which first brought Souza on as director of programs in 2021. Taking its name from a plant with a rich history in the African diaspora, this mutual-aid organization “envision[s] a safe, abundant, and equitable life for Black Trans people across the United States.” When Souza first joined the team, she immediately felt the weight of the work: “Not only are you creating a social safety net for your peers in your community, you’re also trying to create one for yourself as a Black trans woman,” she says. Ever up for a challenge, Souza dove headfirst into the work, driven by a desire to support her community above all else.
Since coming under Souza’s executive leadership in 2023, The Okra Project has run a full calendar of aid funds that range in purpose. With the core pillars of nourishment, safety, and wellness, the organization provides funds for rental assistance, transportation, food, and a variety of other needs. In 2023, it provided more than $81,000 in direct mutual aid, with even greater hopes for the future.
Black trans healthcare looks like community care. It’s making sure folks eat every day, get to and from work safely, have a roof over their heads, and are safe from intimate-partner violence — all of which The Okra Project funds or supports. With a growing mental health crisis on our hands, Black trans healthcare also looks like access to competent mental healthcare. Underscoring the importance of holistically caring for her community members, Souza is especially excited about the organization’s recent partnership with BetterHelp to provide three months of free therapy to Black trans folks. The organization has similarly partnered with companies like Uber, UberEats, Care With Pride, and others to provide goods and services for community members.
Souza also emphasizes information sharing as community care, given that navigating systems while Black and trans often means enduring unchecked mistreatment. “It’s difficult to find healthcare providers, good surgeons, that don’t just want your money,” she explains. Citing the struggle to find safe and adequate medical care as a Black trans woman, Souza is open about her medical history and experiences in the hopes of saving the next person time and stress. It’s an issue affecting many trans folks in the US right now. By the end of 2023, 22 states had passed bans on gender-affirming care, and nearly 300 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have already been introduced in 2024, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
For trans folks, sharing safety tips for navigating the medical industry literally saves lives. “A health hero who I really admire was my surgeon, Dr. Elan Horesh at Mt. Sinai,” Souza says, referencing the New York City hospital. Dr. Horesh, who specializes in gender-affirming procedures, made Souza feel safe and supported while in his care — an unfortunately rare experience.
Souza’s own experience makes clear that access to gender-affirming care is essential for the trans community. But according to Souza, The Okra Project goes beyond typical philanthropic models of only providing for certain needs or restricting what the funds can be used for. “When we talk about aid given to Black people, more specifically Black trans and queer people, it is so policed,” she says. “You have to use it in a very specific way.” Souza notes that The Okra Project, in contrast, prioritizes supporting the dreams and goals of Black trans folks. That’s why its Joy Fund, for example, provides money for Black trans folks to do simply “whatever brings them joy.” For one fund recipient, this looked like purchasing a gender-affirming professional outfit plus a nice meal with dessert to celebrate themself.
To bring these dreams and joyful moments to fruition and support Black trans folks beyond only moments of crisis, Souza emphasizes the importance of supporting mutual-aid projects year-round. “It shouldn’t take a Black trans femme being murdered to raise and rally,” she says. As all too often funds slow down when the news cycle moves on, Souza shares that when it comes to The Okra Project, her “dreams and hopes are that we are able to sustain ourselves.”
Souza also hopes that the organization will be able to provide mutual aid for Black trans folks globally: “I’m a huge humanitarian, I want all the people to have all the things they need, starting with my community.” Souza says she and the whole team at The Okra Project hope to fund, love, and care for Black trans folks consistently and holistically. In the end, she wants to be known for loving and caring for people, “no matter who they were or where they were.”
Image Source: Courtesy of Lexi Webster