ChangeMakers

ChangeMakers: Reneka Evans has dedicated her life to helping Black trans women

A Black woman smiles for a portrait
Reneka Evans, LGBTQ+ lead at the Minnesota Department of Health’s Center for Health Equity, poses for a portrait in her Minneapolis apartment on June 8.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

In celebration of LGBTQ+ Pride Month, throughout June MPR News is featuring stories about transgender and nonbinary Minnesotans making an impact. See more at mprnews.org/changemakers.

Reneka Evans, 54, has been working in community health care in the Twin Cities and broader Minnesota for more than two decades, first at the African American AIDS Task Force, then as a community health coordinator at the Red Door Clinic, an STD and HIV clinic in Minneapolis.

Now she works as the LGBTQ+ community lead for the Minnesota Department of Health as part of its COVID-19 community response. In this role, she supports Minnesotans by providing information about COVID-19 that’s specific to her community, and also connects them with resources. 

Evans also works with The Aliveness Project, a local organization that offers HIV prevention and support services. She said she facilitates groups for a transgender wellness program the organization recently launched. She’s also trying to pursue a business of her own: Reneka’s Place.

Evans’ career in health care started during a difficult point in her life. In 1997 she was unwell and underweight at a medical facility. She said those caring for her motivated her to take better care of herself and others.

“I told myself, you know what? I'm gonna give back. The staff and volunteers here are so sweet that without them, if I would have been alone, I think things would have been different. So today I stand up and help others. That's how I started working in health care.”

In everything Evans does, she focuses on centering safety, care and elevating the experiences of Black, trans women.

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How would you describe yourself? 

Caring. I want to help others. Happy to learn. I like encouraging other people. Moving forward with some goals for trans people, gender non-conforming, with a focus on Black people, and what it looks like to be Black and trans. 

Just really focused in on the community I come from, the community I'm a part of. Not excluding anyone else, but that is a group of community members that … we got a lot going on. And you can probably say that for all communities. But with the highest rate of murder — no matter what state you go to — for Black trans women in particular is off the charts. 

And I'm above 50. That's a strategy. When you live that long being a Black trans person that's open and out and living our truth, to live to be here above 50 — not being murdered, beat, raped, all those things. You have a notebook and a pen in front of you at all times trying to figure it out.

What’s your proudest achievement, personally or professionally?

That would move me back to the [Transgender] Stellar Awards

I was working at Red Door. And there's a trans person named Bobby. Bobby and I had a one-on-one conversation about, like, what is different in our community that we don't see. 

And then we talked about, ‘You know what? Trans people have been doing this work, advocating for themselves in various moments of burnout.’ And there's moments of people just throwing their hands up. And then there's other people who are always grinding and never stop, and we want to recognize them. 

So, in the position that I was in, I was the transgender program coordinator, I was able to go ahead and spearhead the program, and the Transgender Stellar Awards. 

At that time, we went really big. We had 12 categories — and I can’t name them today, because it's been a minute since I talked about it or, you know, we had the award ceremony. So we had it two years in a row, and the second year was even bigger, and the turnout was even bigger. And the impact statements were even bigger. And so I really enjoyed that. 

Tell me about the idea for Reneka’s Place.

We will start with a Minute Clinic. And when I mean minute clinic, like, blood pressure, COVID testing. And there's a few other services, like whatever you can do in a minute, right? Or close to a minute. 

Where trans people can come in and seek services and show up as themselves and be appreciated for who they are. Be respected. Use their proper pronouns. Use a preferred name, whether it's legal or not. Just make sure that their basic needs are taken care of, not just physically.

Because what I'm noticing is that organizations will roll trans and LGBTQ+ people into their services, but not have anything for them, like actual trans programming. I know the conversation at some tables are: every community has an LGBTQ person in them, so you just kind of say, ‘we will serve everyone.’ But even with LGBTQ+ community members, everyone is not the same. 

And so by me being a trans person, I do understand that the needs are different, the services are different, and there's always needing to be a safe space for people to be seen and heard. 

You’re pursuing so many different goals. How do you keep it all together?

Just being organized. And being mindful of other people’s time, and your time, because that's something I have learned over the years we cannot get back. And just kind of stay focused. 

Yeah, just prioritizing time and space. And safety is a big deal for me. Mostly trans people’s safety is one of the things that we want to keep upfront at all times.

What do you want people to know about trans or nonbinary people? 

Gender is a huge thing. And I know there's a lot of concerns about safety and what that looks like to some people — then we have to plug in the religious beliefs, the spiritual beliefs … it's a lot stacked against trans people, against gender non-conforming, nonbinary people that some people don't stop and think about.

They don’t want to move away from male or female. Like, they're not understanding the difference between gender and sex at birth, and that assignment and how harmful that could be to someone later on. And not interested in changing it so that everyone can be happy. That's it. Everyone has the right to be happy, right? No matter what you're assigned at birth, just let people be who they are, right? 

My dad told me as long as I'm not hurting anyone, or hurting myself … have a good life. Help people laugh and smile. Yeah, open the door for the old ladies. You know, stuff like that. Like, it was kind of interesting, like, still be a girl but still be a gentleman at the same time, right? 

And I wish that people would think that way. As long as you're not hurting anyone else, or hurting yourself, and you're being respectful to others. Let me be happy. 

Who are your trans or nonbinary heroes? 

I would most definitely say my friends that are trans. In Minneapolis and Memphis, the ones that get up every day. I talked about safety earlier; they step outside of their homes, when they leave their safe space and step outside, those are my heroes. 

The ones who can get in an Uber, the ones that can ride the bus, the ones that can walk their dog around the corner and just face all this craziness, and have the courage to do it and make it back home. Those are my heroes. The ones that gather, show their faces, show up for each other, show up for themselves. Those are my heroes. 

Who’s a rising trans or nonbinary leader?

I think I am. 

I've been being a background singer, and I think the work that I'm doing no longer allows me to be in the background. Whether I want to or not, it's kind of moving me to the front. 

Is there anything else that you want to say?

I do have a good question that I heard a few people asked in interviews that I think is an interesting question. I don't know how to come up with the age or anything, but it asks: what would you tell your 16-year-old self? 

What would I say to Reneka? There'll be a lot of joy, diversity, tears and laughter, but you will live a happy life. It'll be OK, it’ll be OK. That's what I’d say to Reneka.

Audio transcript

INTERVIEWER: All this month, as part of our ChangeMaker series, MPR has been profiling trans and non-binary leaders making a difference in Minnesota. Today, we'll hear from Reneka Evans, who has been working in health care in the Twin Cities for more than two decades at the African-American Aids Task Force, the Red door Clinic in Minneapolis, and now at the Minnesota Department of Health.

MPR News Health reporter Michelle Wylie spoke with Evans about her life and her goals for the future.

MICHELLE WYLIE: How would you describe yourself?

RENEKA EVANS: Hmm. Caring. I want to help others. I like encouraging other people, but it's not about me, right? I just want to--

SUBJECT: I mean, it is about you.

RENEKA EVANS: [LAUGHS]

SUBJECT: It's very much about you. But I think the fact that you said that tells a lot about you. You know what I mean? This interview about me? It's not about me.

RENEKA EVANS: Right. We're going to talk about--

SUBJECT: Right. This is something we've got to talk about.

RENEKA EVANS: And the service is how-- and how we want to move forward on some goals for trans people and gender nonconforming. We have a lot going on, and you probably can say that for all communities. But with the highest rate of murder, no matter what state you go to, Black trans women in particular is off the charts. Yeah.

And I'm above 50. That's a strategy. When you live that long, being a Black trans person that's open and out and living their truth, to live, to be here above 50 and not being murdered, beat, raped, all those things, you have a notebook and a pen in front of you at all times trying to figure it out.

MICHELLE WYLIE: What's your proudest achievement, personally or professionally?

RENEKA EVANS: Oh, proudest achievement. Oh, my. The transgender Stellar Awards. I was working at Red Door and there's a trans person named Bobby. Bobby and I, we had a one-on-one conversation about, what is different in our community that we don't see?

We talked about all types of things. And then we talked about, you know what? Trans people have been doing this work, advocating for themselves. And there are moments of burnout, and there are moments of people just throwing their hands up. And then there are other people who are always grinding and they have to stop, and we want to recognize them.

And so in the position that I was in-- I was the transgender program coordinator-- I was able to go ahead and spearhead the program. So we had it two years in a row, and the second year was even bigger. And the turnout was even bigger, and the impact statements were even bigger. And so I really enjoyed that.

And so being able to-- all the back work that I enjoy doing, the PowerPoints and having other people tell me about the impact statement, was actually hosting a show and watching individuals who had no idea their name was going to be called for an award, for their names to be called and for them to stand up, it's a lot of hard work. And some people don't pay attention.

MICHELLE WYLIE: Tell me about the idea for Reneka's Place, the business you're starting?

RENEKA EVANS: Reneka's Place will be a place that will start with a minute clinic. And what I mean, minute clinic, blood pressure, COVID testing, like, whatever you can do in a minute or close to a minute, where trans people can come in, seek services.

And this is not a referral place. This is a place where you can actually go to--

SUBJECT: Like a walk-in.

RENEKA EVANS: --for a service. Yeah, for services. And again, show up as themselves, be appreciated for who they are, be respected, use their proper pronouns, use their preferred name, whether it's legal or not, just make sure that their basic needs are taken care of, not just physically.

But it'll be a mini clinic. But then, I mean, we can branch out to other things. But I really want to start with that. Because what I'm noticing, that organizations will roll trans, LGBT+ people into their services but not have anything for them, like, actual trans programming.

So I know the conversation at some tables are, every community has an LGBTQ person in them. So you just kind of say we'll serve everyone. But even with LGBTQ+ community members, everyone is not the same.

And so by me being a trans person, I do understand that the needs are different. The services are different. And there's always needing to be a safe space for people to be seen and heard.

MICHELLE WYLIE: What do you want people to know about trans or non-binary people?

RENEKA EVANS: It's a lot stacked against trans people, gender non-conforming, or non-binary people that some people don't stop and think about. And they don't want to move away from male or female. Like, they're not understanding the difference between gender and sex at birth and that assignment and how harmful that could be to someone later on and not interested in changing it so that everyone can be happy.

That's it. Everyone has the right to be happy, right? No matter what you're assigned to at birth, just let people be who they are. Right? As long as you're not-- my dad told me, as long as they're not hurting anyone or hurting myself.

Have a good life. Help people! And I wish that people would think that way. As long as you're not hurting anyone else or hurting yourself and you're being respectful to others, let people be happy. Let them. So I think-- I guess that would be my message today.

MICHELLE WYLIE: Who are your trans or non-binary heroes?

RENEKA EVANS: Hmm. I would most definitely say my friends that are trans, the ones that get up every day.

And I talked about safety earlier, that when they step outside of their homes, when they leave their safe space, which is their home, and step outside, those are my heroes, the ones who can get in an Uber, the ones that can ride the bus, the ones that can walk their dog around the corner and just face all this craziness and have the courage to do it and make it back home.

Those are my heroes, the ones that gather, show their faces, show up for each other, show up for themselves. Those are my heroes.

MICHELLE WYLIE: Is there anything else you want to say or that I should have asked you?

RENEKA EVANS: What would I tell Reneka as a 16-year-old, if I looked back? And what would I say to Reneka? There'll be a lot of joy, diversity, tears, and laughter. But you will live a happy life. Yeah. It'll be OK. It'll be OK. That's what I'd say to Reneka.

- Well, that was Reneka Evans speaking with MPR's Michelle Wiley. You can find our whole ChangeMaker series of interviews and beautiful portrait photographs at MPRNews.org/ChangeMakers.

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