Five Questions for HRC’s New Director of Community Engagement, Tori Cooper

by Sarah McBride

Sarah McBride talks with Tori Cooper, director of community engagement for the Human Rights Campaign's transgender justice initiative, about her work and what she hopes for in these uncertain times.

Last fall, the Human Rights Campaign announced a significant expansion of our transgender justice work in order to meet the unprecedented challenges facing the trans community. Falling into four key pillars - economic opportunity, capacity building and leadership development, anti-violence efforts and public education - the initiative was one of the first announcements made by HRC President Alphonso David in the first months of his tenure.

To help lead the expanded initiative and deepen HRC’s community engagement within the transgender community, the HRC Foundation was proud to welcome health and equity advocate Tori Cooper as the organization’s first director of community engagement for the transgender justice initiative. I recently sat down with Tori for a conversation about her background, her work and what she hopes for in these uncertain times.

Sarah: We’re so excited to have you at the HRC Foundation as the new director of community engagement for our transgender justice initiative. Tell us about the path to this role and why you decided to take on this new adventure.

Tori: My path probably began when I started living as an out transwoman. I have been fortunate enough to have “come out” on the job and not lose my life, lifestyle, career or advancement opportunities. That doesn’t mean it was all rosy. But operating from my privileged position, I soon realized that I had to use that to ensure that others like myself had those same opportunities. 

Sarah: Last fall, HRC announced its expanded trans justice initiative with a focus on ensuring economic empowerment, supporting trans leaders, ending the epidemic of anti-trans violence and educating the public around the humanity and full diversity of the trans community. What’s your vision for this work moving forward?

Tori: My vision of the work moving forward consists of removing systemic barriers in every part of our life. Ensuring that laws and policies are inclusive of all trans and nonbinary folks is a priority. Challenging negative stereotypes that contribute to increased violence and death for trans people is a priority. Changing hearts and minds to be intentional about inclusivity is another priority. And empowering transgender and gender nonbinary folks to excel is yet another priority. 

Sarah: The trans community can only make progress by working together across organizations and coalitions. What are some of the partnerships that HRC is forging while we deepen our work in trans justice?

Tori: HRC is committed to working directly with the community to help the community. We have current strategic partnerships with TransCanWork, Black Trans Advocacy Network, the National Trans Visibility March, Arianna’s Center among others, to increase visibility and viability of the trans community. We are working with HRC regional staff, steering committees and local trans advocates in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Kansas City, Cleveland, New Orleans and Dallas to create justice & advocacy summits throughout the year. I don’t think it’s appropriate for me working out of the national office in D.C. to dictate priorities in our focus cities. So we enlisted the help of trans leaders in each of these cities to direct our engagements there. This is what true collaboration looks like.

Sarah: What is your biggest hope moving forward?

Tori: One of my greatest hopes in this moment is that COVID-19 does not create an additional barrier for trans folks. From a public policy standpoint, we are already fighting against systems that never consider our physical, emotional and legal needs. We are fighting every day to maintain policies created under the Obama administration while fighting against new policies that would seem to erase our very existence. COVID-19 will certainly leave many people with pre-existing health conditions. Record unemployment will leave many of us fighting for some level of economic stability. And increased violence against transgender and gender non-binary persons leave us in a continual state of anxiety. I hope and pray that as the pandemic eases, we will be included in recovery efforts and won’t have to start all over again.

Sarah: Thank you so much, Tori! We are so lucky to have you on the team.