Introducing Elevate Equity: Interview with Karibu Ramos

By Myia Davar

Elevate Equity is Toronto’s first trans-led organization promoting employment access for #TBIPOC communities. Founder and executive director Karibu Ramos spoke with Shared Platform Mentorship Coordinator Myia Davar.

Myia: Who are you and what’s your work about?

Karibu: Elevate Equity came to be when I recognized how unoriginally unsafe employment is for BIPOC Trans Communities; there are countless racialized Trans and Nonbinary folks trying to access employment, obtaining the said position, and needing to or being asked to leave because of discrimination and unaddressed biases. The intersections of race and gender for Trans and Nonbinary communities are not only misunderstood but most often invisibilized or exploited by cisgender employers and service providers. After too many failed attempts at making it in Toronto’s nonprofit sector due to transphobia and racism in the workplace, I knew it was time to try something new.

During Elevate Equity’s early stages I sought out reinforcements from Community Programs that aimed to facilitate entrepreneurs and young leaders. It quickly became apparent that this was also not an option for my particular experiences or intersections. As an individual with varying levels of access and in-access at different times in my life (or what type of cognitive/body day I’m having) – having to explain my humanity to leaders and those in power positions, was an excruciating one. The reality is that even then, I had more access to exploring other options, there are folks in my community that do not. I knew I was positioned with a proximity to opportunity, and to me this meant I was responsible for gathering resources and securing funding so that BIPOC Trans community could get paid to build Elevate Equity with me, and for all us.

In order to create something that Trans people would be proud of I knew I would have to find the right people to support Elevate Equity’s conception. Orion Mayas and Ty Sloane have very quickly and effortlessly become my new favourite people. Orion Mayas is Elevate Equity’s Engagement Director, and Ty Sloane is our Education Director.

One year later, Elevate Equity exists to provide racialized Trans artists and gender-expansive communities the space to hone in on their already present skills and talents, whether that be through arts-based mediums, entrepreneurship or discovering something completely out of the box. We then bridge an educational gap for those hiring us/working with us. We work through an accountability model that holds each of us as the leaders of our own lives wherein recognizing that although free food, tokens, and community access support our growth it doesn’t always support long-term thriving.

Myia: What did you do in the last 3 months that you’re most proud of, or that felt like it had the biggest impact in community?

Karibu: I can say that Elevate Equity is very much still in its infancy, and although we have been working tirelessly to build a platform that carries a myriad of gender expansivity and opportunity back to Trans folks in the GTA – what I am most proud of is the community we are building, we are reimagining workplace culture where producing isn’t the number one priority. Our Advisory Committee holds us to this in really beautiful and transformational ways. On a soul level we know instinctively what it means to be the first trans-led org promoting employment/financial access, our biggest challenge and success is doing that in ways that honour our complicated relationship to capitalism. To put it more bluntly, our biggest challenge turned success is when we give ourselves and each other permission to leave work early (in fact we encourage it), or the moments during staff meetings when we can celebrate incredible community partnerships and envision a new world together. It may sound intangible, though to me this is where the work really starts. In decolonizing our workplace first, in honouring ourselves and each other first, so that we may continue to do this work from a place of knowing and action as opposed to assumption or performativity.

Myia: How do you feel about being in a leadership position in your initiative/community? What are your dreams/aspirations? Where do you want to go?

Karibu: I ask myself this question on the daily, I measure the discomfort of it all with the responsibility I have been so blessed with. When I give myself credit for the years of hard work and trauma I endured in the workplace, I continue to land and rest in that I never went through anything on my own, and I didn’t build this beautiful platform on my own either. Leadership was always demonstrated to me in ways that didn’t sit right, today Elevate Equity functions as a non-hierarchical collective. What this means is we all work the same amount of hours, and our paychecks look the same across the board. Don’t mistake my humility for submissiveness or passivity, I am often reminded what it means to lead through consensus based practices – but lead nonetheless. I am still learning, at times I feel more insecure than not, most days I go to bed overflowing with gratitude, in the mornings I dance to prepare for my day.

My dream for Elevate Equity is to expand into a physical space, where racialized Trans and Nonbinary artists and entrepreneurs come to co-create and thrive in their respective fields. Right now, there aren’t any physical spaces explicitly made for TBIPOC Community to expand professionally AND artistically while also being a training centre. We want to be the first. Initiating this work has asked that I take accountability for my participation in spaces where my voice has influence, and maybe for the first time ever – I’m speaking and people are listening. It’s a strange feeling! I am both humbled and motivated to continue this work and bring back something worthwhile to the community I am part of. Ultimately, my hope is to build wealth amongst our communities, and to provide a launchpad for talented folks to get paid doing what they love. I am cognizant of abolishing capitalism, and how I hope that day arrives but until then, it would be my greatest life honour to witness the community I belong to be safely employed and go so much further than meeting their basic needs.

Myia: From your perspective as a young leader, what do you think needs to change in the arts & culture sector in Toronto? Where do you see yourself in that change?

Karibu: I think we need to change the ways in which we idolize and then discard artists, young leaders, and folks that came to their individual success in less conventional practices. I won’t go into detail on how the Arts sector has failed so many of us into intimidation and rejecting the Arts – but I will say, there are brilliant, breathtaking, out of this world artists that have no idea what they are capable of because nobody ever gave them the choice or option to explore. I say this from my own experiences in accessing arts-based mediums as well as my community who I have witnessed create an entire sunrise on their eyelids. We want to explore what art means to us in the first place, art has taken on too many forms of white supremacist ideals that for some of us – it’s not something we “do”. Let’s decolonize the arts and culture sector in Toronto first, then and only then is this conversation going to include the voices of all artists and young leaders.

Myia: How can people support your work?

Karibu: Folks can support our work by staying connected to us on Instagram by sharing our content and program updates!

In May 2021 we are rolling out our first series of community gatherings for BIPOC Trans community. Imagining New Futures will invite BIPOC Trans community members to do just that, strategize on what it means to collectively envision and action a world where Black, Indigenous Trans and Nonbinary communities of colour are not just seen but uplifted, but a world where we value equity in action as opposed to striving for equality. Each person will receive $100 for showing up, build community, and embark on planting seeds towards a new way of life.

For our allies and those that stand with us, we invite you to support our work by donating at www.elevateequity.ca – any donations go straight to our community for redistribution, specifically donated funds gives Elevate Equity the opportunity to prioritize mutual aid efforts to Black and Indigenous Trans and Nonbinary communities in the GTA.

To keep up with Elevate Equity’s work,  visit their website at www.elevateequity.ca and follow them on Instagram @elevateequity.

Editorial note: Post-publishing of this article, Sapphire Woods asked for their name to be removed as they are no longer associated with Elevate Equity.