Growing up in Garfield Park, Zahara Bassett remembers having to frequently travel to the North Side of Chicago to access gender-affirming spaces and receive medical care, food and housing assistance. Despite loving her neighborhood, it was clear to Zahara, as a Black transgender woman, that it lacked necessary resources for her and many others, especially services specifically tailored to Black transgender and non-binary residents.
Zahara knew that things needed to change, so she began conducting direct community outreach on the West Side of Chicago in 2015. During the holiday season, Zahara worked with her friends to cook and distribute warm meals to people experiencing homelessness on Christmas day. Zahara continued providing meals for people without permanent housing over the next few years, but she knew that there was more work to be done.
In 2017, Zahara increased her community-driven service by founding Life is Work, a nonprofit organization dedicated to addressing the gaps in services for transgender and gender non-binary communities of color in Chicago. Life is Work is also part of AIDS Foundation Chicago (AFC)’s 2021 Learning Circle Collaborative (LCC) cohort, a program that helps Black- and Latinx-led organizations increase fundraising capacity and develop strong connections with other agencies in Chicago to support people of color and people living with HIV.
“I’m a visionary and I know what my community needs,” Zahara said. “I’m looking forward to growing with the collective, sharing resources and connecting to streamline clients as a whole.”
One of the ways Life is Work is addressing the needs of their community is by increasing access to HIV care for transgender and gender non-binary people. HIV rates are staggeringly high among transgender women of color. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 42% of all transgender women are living with HIV and 62% of Black transgender women were living with HIV in seven cities. According to the Getting to Zero Illinois Dashboard, less than two-thirds of transgender women in Chicago were retained in care or virally suppressed in 2019.
Life is Work is trying to change this reality. Through a partnership with Cook County Health, Life is Work quickly and effectively refers clients who have tested positive for HIV to care services and arranges appointments with health care providers for clients who are interested in starting PrEP. So far, Life is Work has been able to schedule an appointment for every client who has expressed interest in PrEP within five days of their initial request.
In addition to offering HIV care referrals, Life is Work also operates a thrift store in Austin called Solidarity Resale. Solidarity Resale not only provides the public with gently used clothes, shoes and accessories, it also gives Life is Work’s clients the chance to work four to eight hours per week, earn a stipend and meet with a career mentor to discuss their goals and how to achieve them.
Solidarity Resale is designed to connect clients with consistent economic support through employment. According to the CDC, people who have steady employment are more likely to have access to health care, healthy food and housing, all of which contribute to a person’s health outcomes.
All the services Life is Work offers, including rapid rehousing and referrals, employment training, placement and non-medical case management, aim to comprehensively address each client’s health needs. While Life is Work was created based on the needs that Zahara witnessed for LGBTQ+ communities of color on the West Side, anyone in Chicago is eligible to receive assistance from the organization.
“Our services are geared towards LGBTQ+ (people), specifically trans people, but we tell everyone we’re open,” Zahara said. “If you need assistance we’re here to help. We’re not turning anyone away.”
Moving forward, Zahara hopes to expand Life is Work’s capacity and continue to provide accessible, affirming services for people across the Chicagoland area. As a member of this year’s LCC cohort, she plans to exchange knowledge and resources with the cohort’s other organizations in order to best support one another and the communities they are serving.
“I’m looking forward to learning and seeing what they have to offer to Life is Work to help us grow,” Zahara said. “My advocacy is not built around reinventing the wheel but creating unification of the wheel.”