The Catalyst group at a Trans Day of Visibility in 2022. Left to right: Catalyst cohort Dawn Hunter Strobel, co-facilitators Jo Doyle and Seth Johnstone, cohort Danni Mar. Courtesy of Basic Rights Oregon
In November 2021, global consulting giant McKinsey & Company released a report on the experiences of transgender people in the workplace. The findings painted a portrait of inequity, discomfort, and often hostility and harassment. For instance, only a third of trans respondents to McKinsey’s survey said they feel comfortable being fully out at work. Even fewer felt comfortable being out with clients or customers. And only 14 percent said they see leaders above them at work who look or seem like them.

LGBTQ+ rights nonprofit Basic Rights Oregon is determined to change that. Several years ago, it launched Catalyst: a free, yearlong leadership program for transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming adults from across the state. Catalyst is now at the close of its third iteration, with 19 cohort members set to celebrate completion of the program in July. For the last year, they’ve met monthly on Zoom for sessions that co-facilitator Jo Doyle said have been just as much about creating a network of support as building leadership skills.

“First and foremost, [Catalyst is about] community building,” Doyle said. “To be in exclusive space with only other trans folks is really special. Even though I’ve been out for several years, there are still times when—for my own safety—I will not come out. It’s really hard to explain the relief, the joy, and the ability to breathe.”

This was the first Catalyst cohort for Doyle, who joined Basic Rights in December 2020 and oversees both leadership development and workplace education. Doyle took pains to include a wide variety of backgrounds: BIPOC and white, urban and rural and coastal, visibly and non-visibly disabled, neuro-diverse. (In 2023, Doyle will run a BIPOC-specific cohort.) When the group convened for the first time last summer in a two-day virtual retreat, Doyle and co-facilitator Seth Johnstone invited everyone to recount their leadership journeys.

“That was a really powerful day,” said Johnstone, whose work at Basic Rights focuses on transgender justice. “We don’t see a lot of ourselves in leadership roles, so a lot of folks moved into this cohort expressing imposter syndrome. People got really vulnerable, and it propelled us into what we want to do now and how [to] build that confidence and skill.”

Doyle and Johnstone worked with each cohort member to develop a leadership plan that included both professional and personal goals. For Stina Wood, that meant identifying her desire to be an advocate for others. That’s something she was already doing as a case manager with the Oregon Employment Department’s Trade Act Unit, where she supports workers who’ve lost their jobs due to foreign competition. Since joining Catalyst, she’s also begun working toward her bachelor’s degree in social work as well as a project management certification. She’s part of emerging manager trainings at work, too. Next she hopes to find volunteer and mentorship opportunities in the LGBTQ+ community in Salem, where she’s lived for five years.

“I thought leadership meant you had to be at a podium,” Wood said. “Catalyst has turned my way of thinking around. Now I think, what can I do next? How can I better serve others next?”

Cali Avila applied to Catalyst on the recommendation of his leadership team at tech nonprofit Free Geek, where he’s recently been promoted to manage the human resources and operations department. Avila took to activism young: Growing up in California just north of Tijuana, he began protesting border patrol sweeps when he was barely out of elementary school. As a teen, he canvassed against Proposition 8, the California same-sex marriage ban that passed in 2008 and was later overturned. Later, he joined the Occupy movement.

“As a young anarchist, the culture is that you martyr yourself past exhaustion,” Avila said. “You have this belief that there won’t be a tomorrow anyway, so why take care of yourself? I did that for so long it burnt me out.”

The pandemic and the 2020 racial justice protests woke Avila up to the need to find a more sustainable way to push for change.

“My mission has always been and will always be the protecting and uplifting of BIPOC and trans bodies,” Avila said. Catalyst, he said, helped him pinpoint that he wants to bring that mission to the workplace specifically: “How can we make that space feel good and feel rewarding and also be part of the healing? How do we transform that?”

Avila didn't waste time making change: In late 2021, he and other gender nonconforming colleagues helped raise the base hourly wage at Free Geek from $15.50 to $18.50. He's now moving into Basic Rights Oregon's Training of Trainers program, and he’ll start facilitating workshops for employers on how to create more inclusive workplaces.

Catalyst included workshops with gender-diverse facilitators, three of whom were program alums. Lukas M. Soto gave a two-part workshop on supporting Indigenous communities, with specific attention paid to making land acknowledgments more than merely performative. Ulysses Harmony Garcia spoke about disability justice and access to space as a trans person, while Madeline Oiseau led a workshop on organizing oppositional campaigns.

For all of Catalyst’s action-oriented components, conversations with cohort members consistently returned to the same theme, the one Doyle and Johnstone also kept emphasizing: community. For Ezri Meier (they/them), a contract enforcement organizer with SEIU 503 in Ashland, the opportunity to meet other trans and nonbinary people was the program’s main draw.

“It can feel very isolating,” Meier said. “I always thought I was the only one who experienced this thing or the other. Knowing other people have had similar experiences, [we ask] what we can do to make it better for someone coming up behind us. Having this opportunity to learn more about myself—to unlearn things about myself—it’s just blown the world open for me.”

Ari Rain (he/him), a care coordinator at OHSU’s Northwest Clinic for Voice and Swallowing—he refers to himself as the center’s “unofficial trans liaison”—described Catalyst as a “supergroup.” Prior to participating, his support system counted just a handful of folks. Now, he’s got 20-plus people who would have his back “at an email blast.”

“A lot of us are still reeling from the pandemic, from the past administration, from feeling really unsafe and being targeted,” Rain said. “Only a couple years ago, I had a lot of fear around being fired without reason for being trans, so I wasn’t out at work. Now if something were to happen, I have these connections. I can’t tell you the weight that lifts to know I have that.”