Raquel Willis on What Being an Activist Really Means

She’s one of the most well-known transgender activists on the planet, but Raquel Willis is just getting started.

Willis, who tells Glamour she sees herself as a journalist, activist, and storyteller, has made her mark in every one of these fields, making a name for herself by fighting for the rights of people on the margins who deserve a seat at the table.

One of the best examples of this was the 2017 Women’s March, where she was chosen to speak to the crowd. During her speech Willis began to call for marchers to ensure the inclusion of every woman in the movement, saying in part, “As we commit to build this movement of resistance and liberation, no one can be an afterthought anymore.”

The crowd didn’t get to hear the rest of her speech, though. Willis’s mic was cut, and organizers moved on to the next speaker. The moment, as Willis recounts in her new book, The Risk It Takes to Bloom, was a reminder of what she was fighting for.

“I gleaned whatever lessons I could from the experience: that I needed to look more critically at the movements of which I was a part, that I needed to ensure that I wasn’t relying too heavily on anyone else to platform my voice,” she writes.

Her memoir, which comes out on Tuesday, begins with this story, demonstrating the power of Willis’s voice and the resonance of her message. Willis celebrates both the journey she has taken and the progress she has made in finding her true self, while writing a defiant call to action to make things even better for those who come after.

She tells Glamour that this work is for everyone.

“Our values have to be infused in whatever we do,” she says. “It’s not quite enough to necessarily see yourself as an activist. You’ve got to figure out what the particular gifts are that you want to lean into to move towards collective liberation. I think it’s more than a title. I do believe that we live in a time where maybe the titles matter more to folks than what their actual interests and passions are. That might be a little spicy, but I stand beside it.”

In this edition of Glamour’s Doing the Work, Raquel Willis shares more about what we all can do to fight for justice in our daily lives, why mentors are so important, and what she’d be doing if she wasn’t doing this work (hint, it’s on theme).

“The Risk It Takes to Bloom,” by Raquel Willis

$.00, Amazon

Glamour: I love the iconography of the book; the cover is beautiful. When and how did you get the idea to make your story analogous to a flower blooming?

Raquel Willis: The line “the risk it takes to bloom” is Alicia Keys’s from the opening of her album The Element of Freedom. I was in college when I was introduced to it. That name and title stayed with me as I started to think more about my childhood and think about the South.

I thought a lot about the beautiful greenery, but I also thought in particular about a magnolia tree in our neighbor’s yard growing up that stretched over the fence. Magnolias have these creamy white petals, and I remember being like, “Wow, these are really beautiful.” So that kind of idea stuck with me….

I would say the third piece is this idea of my roots and how they inform me and the ways that certain flowers and plants grow and bloom again and again. I love that idea of the cyclical nature of growth, and that felt very in line with coming into myself and coming into my activism and commitment to social justice.

What’s the main message you want people to take away from your story?

The general theme is that at each point in my life’s journey, I’ve had to take the risk to listen to my inner voice, to move into a space of curiosity about what else is possible outside of all of these expectations, and then ultimately to shatter those expectations. And so that has happened for me, of course, in these two major ways in terms of coming into my transgender identity in the South, but then also coming into my commitment to collective liberation and particularly Black transgender liberation through my work as a storyteller and activist.

Who inspires you, and what’s the best advice you have gotten, in career or just in life?

I would say similarly to how I kind of fall in between disparate movements and identities, I fall in between disparate industries and tracks. I consider myself someone who straddles storytelling and social justice. I use the words journalist or writer or cultural organizer, and of course activist. And so I think there’ve been varied sources of inspiration. One of course, a main one who I mention a few times in the book, is Janet Mock, and she is someone I’ve admired as particularly a Black trans boss, who has made strides in journalism and then of course in Hollywood. But she has given me advice around carving out space for those things that I want to hold for myself, and those things that I’m willing to share and relinquish to the world, and those are not always the same.

You’ve built your career on activism. I think sometimes people want to get involved but are worried they can’t or won’t make an impact. What advice would you give to them?

My advice to young people who are interested in storytelling is to create—figure out how to get through feelings of insecurity, inadequacy, and create. Even if those things that you create now are not exactly where you want them to be, or even if they end up being things that you don’t share with the rest of the world, they still help you get to that point where you can create those things that you still are ready for the world. When it comes to the activism piece, I don’t think most people set out to be an activist. I certainly didn’t. I think that we come to conclusions about systems of oppression, whether it’s white supremacy or cis hetero patriarchy and colonialism, and understand that we want our energy to go mostly towards lessening the impact of those systems of oppression. At least that was the case for me. And so I actually believe that everyone should be invested in collective liberation. So if you’re a journalist, you have a responsibility to impact how these systems impact our lives. If you are a videographer or photographer or a musician or an educator, there’s an opportunity for you to use that as your palette for collective liberation.

Part of this series is learning more about successful women’s routines in order to emulate their habits. So, what time do you get up and what’s your typical morning routine?

In general I get up around eight-ish. I definitely love to wash my face and put on a thick SPF moisturizer. I’m a big Kiehl’s girl. And then I’ll assess whether I’m going to do tea or coffee, because depending on the day, I might not be able to take all the caffeine. So a good cup of joe, and I’m usually listening to some type of podcast. Usually around nine, I’m heading off to CrossFit, which is three times a week, or I have a meeting that I have to prepare for iHeartMedia. [Willis is an executive producer for the network.] Those are on Tuesdays and Thursdays. After CrossFit, which usually lasts about 45 minutes, I come back and hydrate, and then I hop into some meetings. That’s my unceremonious morning.

Your first childhood dream job?

My first was to be a pediatrician, but a lot of that was indoctrination from my grandma.

That’s a pretty ambitious dream job!

I knew I wanted to help other kids. That was kind of the thought in my head. And I guess somewhere along the way that shifted to writing and storytelling and social justice.

What was your first actual job?

At a library as a library assistant. I was assigned the children’s book section, so the picture books were always chaotic.

How do you deal with rejection in your career?

It’s about not being too wrapped up in expectations, just focusing on the creation of something, the feat. When those moments of disappointment come, a lot of it’s talking to family, talking to loved ones, and just talking it out. I’m pretty relentless, so I don’t take no easily. So I’m always going to try and tinker a bit and see if there is a way to still make something happen, even if it’s not exactly what the initial vision was. But outside of that, I’m also pretty down to accept whatever the result is, even when it’s not what I expected, and to find some kind of silver lining. I think that perspective comes from my mom mostly. She’s always been one to stress looking on the bright side as a more generative state to be in than wallowing.

What’s the best piece of money or career advice you’ve ever gotten?

I definitely think finding peers and mentors are so key. I wish I leaned on folks a bit more. I can be a bit independent in a way that I don’t always ask for help when I need it, but I’m a bit better now than I was earlier in my career. It’s hard. That would be one thing. And not being afraid to create something that you feel like has already been done. I think if it does feel that way, of course, figure out how to cite your sources, be very clear on where the origin is from, but also remember that you put your own stake on it. And you’re a unique human being and your perspective deserves to be out there, particularly for folks on the margin.

If you weren’t in your current career, you’d be a…

I guess I would be a visual artist, but I always feel like there’s time for me to go back to doing more visual art because I loved drawing and painting and even graphic design when I was a teenager. And then along the way I was like, Okay, we’re going to choose the writing. So that piece, I think being more of a visual artist. And then the other thing is I do love planting and plants, so the idea of being some kind of farmer, weirdly enough, would be really cool.

I love that. It’s like you’re taking “the risk it takes to bloom” extremely literally.

It is. The risk I’m taking to bloom these crops I planted.


Originally Appeared on Glamour