Imara Jones: Welcome to the first ever TransLash Podcast. I’m Imara Jones, a Black trans woman, journalist, and storyteller, who will be your host. Y’all know that in this moment of anti-trans violence and political backlash, stories about trans people are all over the news. But we don’t have enough opportunities to talk back to tell the world who we are, what matters to us, and what we think about everything that’s going on. And I firmly believe that storytelling is life. It’s why I created this podcast.
In each episode, we and our allies will look at society through our own eyes to help figure out what we should be doing to be even more free, so that trans people can thrive. And even though this podcast is about transness, it is also for those who want to get to know us and follow our lead. So make sure that you spread the word about The TransLash Podcast and what we’re building here. This podcast will be unlike any other podcast you listen to.
Every other Thursday, we’ll be covering the news, sharing trans joy, and highlighting people in our community doing amazing work. But sometimes we might change it up because hey, we’re trans, we get to change our mind. Regardless, just come along with us on this journey of laughter and learning, which really just gives me the opportunity to be shady. I mean, awfully shady, through the microphone. And I’m talking Nancy Pelosi and Aretha Franklin-level shade.
Today, against the backdrop of the Democratic National Convention, I’ll be sitting down with Minneapolis City Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins, a Democrat, who is the first Black trans woman to be elected to political office in the history of the United States. And stick around after that because I have a fascinating conversation with Microsoft’s Ana Arriola about artificial intelligence and the need for a radically inclusive approach to technology. With that, let’s get into this podcast and tell some trans stories, so that we can save some trans lives.
First up is our Trans Joy segment. At a time of so much darkness and death, we feel it is important to start each episode with light and whatever is bringing us joy in this moment, created explicitly with the idea of trans joy. The artists collective Black Trans Femmes in the Arts is bringing us joy this week. Black Trans Femmes in the Arts, or BTFA, is the brainchild of Jordyn Jay, who created the organization last year as an NYU graduate arts politics student when she realized that the contributions of Black trans femmes were not recognized by the arts world. And, more importantly, as she told Forbes Magazine recently, she also created BTFA to, quote: “Focus on the things which make us happy around the goals we have, and the dreams we have, rather than working backwards from our death.” Given Jordyn’s vision, it is no surprise that Black Trans Femmes in the Arts has raised thousands of dollars this summer, and gained tens of thousands of followers. Here’s Jordyn, in her own words about what it all means.
Jordyn Jay: Black trans femmes have always been in the arts, and we’ve always been a leading creative force. Especially coming out of ballroom there’s been so much black trans creativity that has really shaped pop culture and what it looks like today. And particularly for myself as someone who grew up in the arts and who found herself through theater and began to understand who she was through expressing herself in the arts. I know firsthand, the transformative power of the arts, both personally and politically.
I think that I came to my trans awareness through the arts and I also came to a political understanding through being in the arts that has really changed my life. And I think that what I want to do with creating Black Trans Femmes in the Arts is open the opportunity up to others, to be able to have those transformative moments, those moments of liberation and imagination. And so how do we build those things and maintain those relationships that can keep us going and also keep us grounded in community?
Imara Jones: Jordyn Jay, you and Black Trans Femmes in the Arts, are trans joy. Listeners, you can find out more about the organization including various ways to support it at BTFACollective on Instagram and Twitter.
Next up, we’re returning to hot topics in the news with our segment called Well, the News. Democrats gathered virtually this week. Definitely a test of how many people you can get on a Zoom to officially nominate Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the party’s nominees for President and Vice President and to launch their head-to-head campaign with the Dark Lord-I mean, Donald J. Trump and his Vice President Mike Pence. But what does all of the ceremony and even the noise of the election mean for trans people? And if elected, what difference would it make in our lives? Here to help us unpack all of this is Minneapolis City Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins.
Andrea, elected in 2017 as a Democrat, is the first Black trans woman to be elected to public office in the history of the United States. And she is a leading voice, not surprisingly, for trans people in the party nationwide. She also co-founded the Trans United Fund, the first national political advocacy group that focuses on empowering trans and gender-expansive politicians. And if that wasn’t enough, Andrea is also an artist and longtime community activist. Andrea, thank you so much for joining us. I’m sweating, just reading off everything you’ve done.
Andrea Jenkins: Oh, my goodness. Thank you, Imara. I’m so happy to be here with you today.
Imara Jones: Thank you. Thank you so much. So first, I want to start out with Minneapolis, and to hear what you have to say, what your assessment is about where the city is, in the wake of George Floyd’s death and all that has followed. You mentioned, and have mentioned, that George of course died right down the street from your house, not far at all. And so I’m just wondering in this time in this convention week, how is Minneapolis in the wake of everything that’s happened in the last two months.
Andrea Jenkins: Minneapolis is still very much reeling from the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, and it has impacted the whole nation. And in fact, I think it has changed the shape of the Democratic National Convention. I don’t think people would be talking about criminal justice reform and police accountability reform in the ways that they are now had not we as a whole world witnessed George Floyd with Officer Derek Chauvin’s knee on his neck. And so we’re still trying to figure out what kinds of policing we need to have to keep our entire city safe.
Do we need to have the same system of police that we have now? Or can we reimagine public safety in our community? That has been a very big question. Many people have framed it as “defund the police;” I like to frame it as re-funding our communities and making sure that we’re putting resources into programs and projects that we know can really help increase and improve safety in our communities. You know, we’re just grappling and struggling with so many issues and on top of that, we’re still dealing with the Coronavirus so it’s been some challenging times in the city of Minneapolis.
Imara Jones: Yeah, it’s definitely a lot and definitely so much to be actually concentrated in what relatively are small areas, in city council districts, there are a lot of national issues that are playing out, literally around you and in your neighborhood. I mean, talking about Black people and trans communities, these issues of policing and misconduct and reinvestment are always number one or number two, out of people’s mouths, but do you believe and do you feel that you’re being heard on those issues now?
Andrea Jenkins: So I think that’s a brilliant question. And I do think that there has been some entree into the national platform for police accountability reform. I think the party as a whole is really reluctant to discuss, you know, in the ways that Minneapolis is talking about defund the police. And that certainly is not a conversation that’s happening at the national level.
But you know, in the house of Congress, I mean, they their police accountability reform bill is literally called the George Floyd Police Accountability Reform Act, so certainly has elevated to the issue. You know, I think it’s going to have an impact on the party’s platform, probably not to the extent that we all want to see, but it will definitely have some impact on this presidential election.
Imara Jones: I’m wondering as a Black trans woman leader in the party, how are you feeling about the ticket?
Andrea Jenkins: I don’t think that Joe Biden is the absolute most exciting presidential candidate that the Democratic party could have put forth. But anybody that can take the fake president that we have in office right now out of that seat, is by far greater. I think the addition of Senator Kamala Harris has, in my opinion, has made this a much more exciting ticket. I will have to say that, you know, in 2014, when Laverne Cox appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, then-Vice President Biden said of the transgender movement, that it was the Civil Rights Movement of our time.
And so in terms of his awareness of the issues impacting the transgender community, his willingness to speak out and name those issues, and I think certainly Senator Harris coming from California, where trans and gender nonconforming people’s issues are really a big part of the conversation, I think that this ticket could potentially bring forth some really positive shifts in public policy as it relates to transgender people.
Imara Jones: Mhmm. And there were a variety of reactions when Senator Harris was announced as Joe Biden’s pick to be Vice President, from the trans community. Some Black trans women who expressed reticence, frustration, disappointment, with her history on incarceration of Black trans women and the access to medical care.
And others who said and have pointed out that her record is actually more mixed, such as that she eliminated the panic defense for the murder of trans women in California and other things, and that she herself has grown on these issues. I’m wondering how you would express your thoughts about Senator Harris on the ticket to Black trans people, in this moment, given the full range of her record?
Andrea Jenkins: You know, I certainly understand sort of the realities of public office, and you may walk into a situation having one idea about an issue, but then you meet with, you learn from community members, from activists, from educators, from people who are deeply engaged in those issues, and you shift and you move and you grow. And I think that has been apparent in Senator Harris’s career. And, you know, I think it will only increase moving forward.
If she were to become the Vice President of the United States, I think that her issues that she has championed around women’s issues, around disabled folks’ issues, around communities of color, says to me that she does have an intersectional lens through which she sees the world. I don’t anticipate that Kamala Harris, Joe Biden will be attacking the transgender community, will create policies specifically designed to harm our communities, and quite the contrary, I actually believe that they will be promoting programs, policies, issues that actually have positive impacts for the community.
Imara Jones: When people, when Black trans people come up to you or even people in your community as well come up to you and say, “You know, Councilmember, I have a lot of different feelings about this political system. Why should I vote?” What is your response?
Andrea Jenkins: So just ask yourself, if your vote didn’t matter, if it wasn’t important for you to vote, why would people work so hard to deny you that opportunity? The number of people who put their lives their bodies on the line; we just a few weeks ago, buried a great American, John Lewis, who literally spent his entire career fighting for and protecting the rights of African-Americans to vote.
So, I would say to them that your vote matters. And I’m generally not in the role of telling people who to vote for, but in this instance, I will say that we have to support this ticket. As it stands right now, our entire democracy is at stake. And Black people’s lives, marginalized people’s lives, disabled people, women, all the oppressed communities will continue to suffer if we stay home and allow this maniacal administration to continue forward. I’m not sure if if we survive another four years of Donald Trump.
Imara Jones: Mmhmm. And I am wondering if you are cognizant as you move forward or if it occurs to you, that you are a historic figure that you are making history and living at a time of history. I’m just curious about about that in terms of your experience. I know that you’re overwhelmingly focused on the things that are in front of you, which are being Vice President of the Council, you know, serving the constituents of your district, you know, responding to the crises. But there’s a larger context here that I just am wondering how it factors into the way that that you think about yourself?
Andrea Jenkins: Imara, it’s funny, I was at a community meeting a couple of weeks ago, and a person asked me who do I think will play me in the HBO movie about this situation? And I laughed out loud, just like–
Imara Jones: MJ Rodriguez, that’s my answer.
Andrea Jenkins: MJ, okay. Well, I was thinking more Laverne Cox, but you know, MJ would probably do a very, very wonderful job. She’s beautiful.
Imara Jones: Okay. So Laverne, that’s your next contract, okay.
Andrea Jenkins: But at any rate, you know I really just try to focus, as you said, on what’s right in front of me. Certainly my election was historic and I recognize that and I think it’s a really positive thing for young trans people to be able to see a person like myself, a person like my colleague Phillipe Cunningham, who also serves on the Minneapolis City Council, a Black trans man; Danica Roem in Virginia; Brianna Titone in Colorado, so many trans-identified leaders all over the country. It’s really important to see that kind of representation. You know, I’m trying to do the work today. I think history will take care of itself. But I really try to make my decisions based on what is important to move progress forward today, and not necessarily thinking about the historic implications of the future.
Imara Jones: Well, thank you so much for taking the time amidst so much that’s happening both nationally, politically, and in your district and in your city and in your state at this moment to talk with us on the inaugural episode of this podcast. You are living history and we appreciate you. We acknowledge you and thank you for your, for your service and for being willing to step out as you know, Teddy Roosevelt said, and as Nancy Pelosi says all the time “in the arena,”–
Andrea Jenkins: Yeah.
Imara Jones: –because it is not easy, but it is so necessary if we’re all going to thrive. So thank you so much for taking the time.
Andrea Jenkins: You’re very welcome. And I do want to just say congratulations on TransLash this new podcast, I’m so thrilled and honored to be a part of it. And you know, thank you for stepping into the arena. The media plays an important role in our democracy and I’m really, really honored and thrilled that you are in this space and that you invited me to be a part of this conversation and thank you for centering my voice in this conversation today.
Imara Jones: Thank you so much.
That was Andrea Jenkins. She is a member of the Minneapolis City Council and Vice President of that body. Andrea is also the first Black trans woman elected to political office in the history of the United States.
Our last segment today is Transform. Trans people, both high-profile and at the community level, are innovating and creating the future for all of us. Transform takes us into their world.
Joining us is Ana Arriola, who is a Latinx queer lesbian trans non-binary mother and craftswoman. And if that wasn’t enough, she heads up NExT at Microsoft, where she is the general manager and partner for AI design and research. Yep, that Microsoft. Before joining Microsoft, Ana also oversaw artificial intelligence or AI at Facebook. Ana’s pronouns are they and she. Ana, thank you so much for joining us.
Ana Arriola: My pleasure. So happy to be here with you.
Imara Jones: Yeah, thank you for taking the time on our premiere. So first off, I’m wondering if you can just explain to us, as trans people, as people of color, whether or not we should be concerned about the way that artificial intelligence is unfolding. And specifically thinking about facial recognition, which I believe is a form of artificial intelligence, you tell me if I’m right or wrong in that, where there is we’ve learned there’s misgendering often times in the way that these machines are learning from faces, and also not recognizing certain features of Black and brown people. So is this something that trans people of color should be afraid of?
Ana Arriola: I think regardless, no matter what community, marginalized community, like ourselves being Black and brown, you know, we should all be concerned about this. And I think that’s just case in part unfortunately, due to the nascence of the technology. Now at its current state, it’s growing in terms of capability at an exponential clip. But historically, it’s around it’s a technology that’s been around for the past 65-plus years, originated in Dartmouth, Dartmouth University and really was trained by let’s just say it’s not folks that represent us, it’s sort of the traditional patriarchy of the time.
However, there’s a radical sense of rallying and really amazing and beautiful love and energy that’s being put into state of the art as it relates to AI or machine learning, like you said, and also who are working on its future, the future of AI called AGI, artificial general intelligence. And I think that the this like beautiful energy that’s taking place within the queer, especially the Black and brown community where we have now voices at the table where we have spokesperson-ship that are basically writing papers and creating the academic research that is going to make this future a better future for all of us.
Imara Jones: Yeah, how do we begin to correct some of those ways in which AI kind of got off to the start that you mentioned in terms of not being represented of us? You just mentioned that there are people at the table right now who are working on thinking about sort of the next iteration next generation of AGI.
But do we need to try to correct what’s already been done what’s already in use, or you really do think that these interventions on AGI really are going to take us to a new place with respect to how AI is folding out for people of color, trans people non-binary, across the spectrum?
Ana Arriola: There’s a lot of work that has to happen and I don’t think any of us should be complacent. We basically have this vigilance and resilience that we’re going to continue always making things better. But as it relates to the algorithms, in particular the topic you brought up, algorithms that are used in the decision-making tools by the power holders in particular sectors, across banking, housing, health and education, hiring, especially given the COVID time that we’re going through right now, loans, social media, policing, and military, as well as your grocery store.
It’s a technology that we really need to make sure that is inclusive, and the model is only as good as how the model and the data set have been trained. So what we need to do is we need to make sure that those of us that are in the professional world, those of us at Microsoft, those of us at Google, those of us at Facebook, those of us at Apple, etc, are making sure that we are acting as stewards with our scientific researchers that are building these models and datasets and that these models and datasets reflect a truly intersectional segment of our of our general population. We can’t capture everyone, but we need to make sure we get every outlier and that that outlier represents the larger population of and amongst our own community.
If you haven’t, you definitely should be speaking with a good friend of mine, Dr. Safiya Noble at UCLA and the work that she’s done looking at algorithms of oppression and how this sort of manifests itself and shows up in the matrix of domination through misrepresentation of marginalized communities, especially within search. And this is something that is really important that we’re working on, in particular, my own team here and helping make search even better. And I know Google has a team that’s looking at this, but it’s an ongoing effort.
Imara Jones: Mmhmm. One of the things that you mentioned, is the importance of focusing on this phrase, this body of work, the institutions that are working on making sure that we don’t have, quote: “algorithms of oppression,” close quote, which I think is really important in that how do we avoid algorithms getting away from us, kind of the unintended consequences of algorithms?
I am thinking about what happens on search. I’m thinking about what happens, for instance, on Facebook with regards to algorithms and the way in which they are prioritizing certain types of content that in some ways sometimes is anti-trans. And even in search the way that if you search certain words looking for trans, things like conversion therapy come up. And that’s because the machines that are evaluating that is what they come up with. How do we avoid that? How do we avoid the algorithms getting away from us even after they’ve been created?
Ana Arriola: Yeah. I mean, it’s diligence. Everyone that’s working in this space–and it’s not to say that Facebook isn’t working on or letting those particular instances slip by. I’m sure they’re working feverishly on these areas. That’s my old team, Facebook, AI research. Fair. There’s so many people that, unfortunately, as you know, have a different perspective on who we are as humans and how we, as humans show up in the world within our queer community. It’s like we just have to stay on top of it.
It’s literally whack-a-mole. And it makes life interesting and challenging. But it’s also gets tiring after a while. And I think, now that we have these texts, and we have these these folks that are working on these areas, and people that are passionate, people that are studying this in school right now, people that are activists outside of the professional area and outside of academia that care about this, there’s more access to learning about this space. It’s no longer this dark art.
One of MIT’s faculty Sasha Costanza-Chock wrote an amazing book and it’s a book that honestly everyone, y’all that are listening, you need to go out and buy this book right now because it’s the only authoritative compendium that really looks at folks of color, marginalized communities and how this relates to AI. The book is called Design Justice. We just have to remain resilient and diligent. We cannot think that it’s done because something else is going to happen next.
You know, we’re moving beyond just like understanding of images through computer vision. We’re moving just beyond like talking to our Google assistants and our Alexas to like, having those systems that are like vision and voice, which also need to be worked on because right now, they don’t do justice for the trans population, especially folks who don’t pass, like, we really need to basically get that bias out of those datasets and models. There’s lots of work. There’s lots to talk about.
Imara Jones: Yeah. I wanted to ask, Where, right now, is there AI technology at work that you believe most people don’t know about, but that’s really pivotal to their lives? So what’s that? And then, what do you think are some of the most important uses for AI in the future that people may not necessarily be thinking about?
Ana Arriola: I’m going to give this from the lens of us in our own queer community, right?
Imara Jones: Yeah.
Ana Arriola: And if we look into the long term future, we can use these models to create interesting clothing. And you can imagine if we’re going to create clothing with AI, we can ingest all sorts of body shapes, like shapes of gender queerness. And so that when we create the silhouettes and the flow of clothing, it can take into consideration these body types and generate clothing that will look good on all sorts of body forms.
So that’s one interesting area that from a creative way AI can be used. And we should have nutritional requirements for every AI model and data set that’s out there. So when companies or individuals or academics use this, they know exactly what they’re getting, and they know where the deficiencies are when using that content.
Imara Jones: Mmhmm. Speaking of which, you mentioned all of the the people that you have working at NExT who are both allies and LGBTQIA as well, I’m wondering how transness, how your own personal transness, helps you in your job?
Ana Arriola: I mean, it’s a lived experience, right? I live it. I mean, I am a six-foot-two, unfortunately white-passing Latinx individual that, you know, and I’m not completely passing and I walk out onto the street and I scare little kids as well as parents and I definitely have that impact on work. And so it’s more like bringing visibility to how I show up as a human being in the world and apply and it rallies me, it sort of it galvanizes me to make sure that I’m doing a better job for our community.
For the folks that have yet to transition or live their life authentically or the folks that are late bloomers that are doing that or the folks that are living their life trying to live their life now, that we at least from the work that we do, and the surfaces and the canvas, digital canvases, that we touch really are something that people will ideally fall in love with, and find delight and joy in using and ideally sharing that practice with like-minded peers across the design and research community as well.
Imara Jones: Amazing. And lastly, what do you think is the future for trans people and in tech?
Ana Arriola: Hmm. Well, I mean, I don’t think it’s necessarily just for trans folks. I think that it’s, it’s for everyone that’s part of the queer community or any community, the Black community the Latinx community, like the able-minded community. And that’s something that we’re rallying behind right now in Microsoft.
Imara Jones: Great.
Ana Arriola: That the technology and the user experience, right, that the OB of onboarding, the onboard experience, or out of box experience of like engaging with technology should be what we like to say is more of a love story. Like when you encounter a surface or a canvas or a product, it should be amazingly magical and delightful, and it should never cause harm, whether it’s psychological or emotional. And it’s this personalized experience.
That is the type of fit and finish, the thinking that we need to sweat the details for the future experiences of technology, and experiences for our community going forward. It just takes blood, sweat, and tears, just a lot of persistence.
Imara Jones: Thank you so much for ending on that incredibly magical note of technologies that actually reflect who we are and inspire us and cause no harm. I want to thank you so much for taking the time to join us today, Ana, I really appreciate it.
Ana Arriola: Likewise, thank you so much Imara, and I hope those of you that are listening, you know, this is a dialogue. We’re starting this together. And so we can build this future together, but it just takes a lot of effort. Be resilient, don’t give up. Keep pushing forward, keep hustlin’.
Imara Jones: Thank you for joining me on the first episode of the TransLash Podcast. Now listen all the way through to the end of this show for something extra. You don’t want to miss it. I’m Imara Jones. If you like what you heard, please go to Apple Podcasts to rate and review us. It really helps. Also, you can listen to TransLash on Pandora, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcast.
Check us out on the web at translash.org to sign up for our weekly newsletter. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram at TransLash Media, like us on Facebook, and tell your friends.
TransLash Podcast is produced by TransLash Media by Futura studios. The TransLash team includes Ruby Fludzinski, Oliver-Ash Kleine, Montana Thomas, and Yannick Eike Mirko. And the Futuro studios team includes Nicole Rothwell, Jess Alvarenga, Stephanie Lebow and Leah Shaw. Our digital strategy is handled by Daniela Capistrano.
The music you’ve heard was composed by Ben Draghi and also courtesy of ZZK records.
Alright trans, fam we’re going to end each of these episodes with me being a little bit more informal and telling you what I am looking for in the time between now and our next podcast two weeks from now. For me it is the celebration of Marsha P. Johnson’s birthday which is going to be on August 24th. But on August 26th, we are going to have a celebration of her birthday on the program that I host with WNYC called Lives at Stake. If you go to translash.org you can find out all about it.
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Listen to/read the ‘Unpacking the Election’ podcast episode as a follow-up to this one here!