Scholar. Researcher. Advocate. Proud black transgender woman.
These identities are just a few embraced by UCLA student Vanessa Warri, who is using her personal history, interests and skills to improve the college experience for LGBTQ Bruins and create pathways and opportunities for black trans women everywhere to become a bigger part of academia.
“So much research and work is done on oppressed communities or communities that don’t have a voice, but it’s always done by people who are not a part of that community,” she said, adding that this limits the scope of the research, the questions explored and ultimately the findings. “How do we empower communities to find their own voice, uplift those narratives as authorities, as legitimate sources of knowledge, and what can we then do with that and how would that help?”
This past academic year, Warri, in partnership with the UCLA LGBT Resource Center, where she works as an assessment and engagement intern, launched a research project designed to enhance campus services for LGBTQ students and improve policies that affect their needs.
The year-and-a-half-long project will culminate with a report and recommendations, she said. Surveying of students will begin this fall.
“Vanessa’s contributions to the LGBT Campus Resource Center through her thoughtful work on this research project are significant and their impacts are far-reaching,” said Andy Cofino, director of UCLA’s LGBT Campus Resource Center.
Cofino said that Warri’s research will help staff at the center better understand the unique needs of LGBTQIA students, particularly at the intersections of identities. The “I” stands for intersex and the “A” for asexual.
“This work will provide critical information to guide the future of the LGBT Campus Resource Center,” he said, “and will give all faculty/staff at UCLA an opportunity to explore how they can more holistically support LGBTQIA students, particularly queer and trans students of color and those with multiple marginalized identities.”
At the same time, Warri is piloting a social empowerment project with black trans women in Los Angeles that will teach them research methods and support them in identifying a personal interest to study.
“Academia is great, but it also has a way of gatekeeping knowledge and legitimacy, and dictating who can create narratives and who can author knowledge,” Warri said.
She would like to see the project capped by a conference or symposium where these women can present their projects and findings.
The project is being conducted as part of her role as a Point Foundation Scholar, an annually renewed award specifically geared to LGBTQ students from across the country. Warri is one of just nine Bruins to have received the award since its inception in 2001.
She said the scholarship is incredibly important for her because she knows how rare it is to find people like her in academia.
“Not a lot of black trans women get to UCLA, or go to college, period, so we’re hoping to create a world where that is normal.”
From homeless to hopeful
Raised in San Francisco, Warri, 28, was the only child born to devoutly religious parents. Her early years centered around going to school and Kingdom Hall, a place of worship for Jehovah’s Witnesses, preparing for her future and following strict rules.
“My parents definitely had an idea about who I was going to be and who I should want to be,” she said. “As you can see things could not have turned out to be more different.”
Warri’s emergence as a woman, researcher and advocate began at age 14 when conflict with her parents was growing and their assertion of control was “definitely over the top and escalating.”
Warri began pushing the boundaries, asserting an increasing level of independence, growing skeptical of religion, and finding herself attracted to boys — all major sources of friction with her family.
“I had questions about the world that I was being restricted from and conditioned to remain separate from,” she said. “Saying that things ‘didn’t make sense’ in my house under my father’s authority was not something that was wise to do. You don’t question what you’re told. You’re obedient. You have faith and you leave it at that.”
Warri remembers the day she left home. It started like any other; she packed her backpack and headed to school. However, by midday she decided to cut class — something she’d started to do more and more in recent weeks — to go have fun with her new and expanding community of friends. The hours passed, the sun set and her curfew passed. Knowing she was late, she called her mother. By the end of the conversation she had made a choice that changed her life.
“I made the snap decision that I wasn’t going back home,” Warri said. “It was a struggle for me to leave, but ultimately I wanted to be happy and just trust that things were going to be OK.”
For the next two weeks, she lived on the streets with a group of teenagers, some of whom had found themselves homeless after coming out to their families. According to statistics, LGBTQ youth have a 120% greater chance of being homeless than cisgender heterosexual youth. In addition, while just between 5 and 10 percent of youth identify as being LGBTQ, they account for more than 40% of the homeless youth population.
Without guidance or a place to go, Warri, who remains estranged from her parents, spent four years in foster care before aging out of the system when she turned 18.
“After that, I was living in a shelter and happened to see a job posting for an organization that served LGBTQ youth,” she said. “It was at a time when I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. I took this as my sign.”
She landed the job and later became a peer advocate for an organization serving foster youth who were preparing to age out of the system. She was also part of a team that successfully advocated for AB12, which extended foster care in California from the age of 18 to 21.
Warri then became a health education specialist coordinating a youth leadership and mentoring program, supporting a community-building project for transgender women of color, facilitating programming for transgender and gender non-conforming youth, and leading a support group for transgender women.
“My experiences were really the blueprint for advocating for other people with similar experiences,” she said.
Most recently, she was a research analyst with the UC San Francisco Division of Preventative Science, a role she held for more than three years. Warri worked to attract and support people participating in research studies, including HIV-positive women of color, incarcerated women, and those from marginalized communities living with mental health and addiction issues.
But street smarts, experience and a GED would take Warri only so far, so she enrolled at the City College of San Francisco. Warri graduated in 2018 with associate degrees in sociology, social and behavioral sciences, and arts and humanities, and decided that her next move needed to be to Westwood.
“I chose UCLA because I believe everyone needs to get away from their home in order to do personal growth,” she said. “I was 28 years old, a non-traditional student, and I’d been living in my hometown my whole life. I needed to challenge myself to grow. I also came here because no one I know has ever seen a black trans woman at UCLA. It’s about challenging what’s possible and providing an example of what’s possible so that younger trans women have a point of reference.”
Warri’s pursuit of higher education is as much for her community as it is for herself. She wants to represent her community and to be a source of perspective, knowledge and connection for people who have never shared space with a trans person or a person of color.
“They share classroom space with me, they hear me speak and engage in discussions with me and it changes their normal, and it changes their culture,” Warri said. “It leaves them knowing that trans people are capable of intellect and greatness. If I can lend in any way my experience to help with that for a future world, then that’s what I’m here for.”