Elle Hearns on Leading a Movement for Black Trans Lives
From the ArtCenter College of Design’s Bi-Weekly Podcast
ArtCenter College of Design’s bi-weekly podcast features intimate interviews with leading artists examining the ideas fueling their work and how the creative process can be a catalyst for change—personally, professionally and globally. Hosted by ArtCenter President, Lorne M. Buchman, these conversations examine the many ways in which artists and designers are enriching our lives. ArtCenter College of Design is a global leader in art and design education; and our mission statement—Learn to create. Influence change—lies at the center of all we do.
Elle Hearns did not set out to lead movements for social justice. Nor was it her lifelong dream to make the world a better and safer place for Black transgender communities. Growing up in Ohio, she imagined herself as an iconic singer, a chart-topping diva with a voice powerful enough to crack your soul wide open.
In the end, she did end up using the power of her voice to inspire people—just not in the way she originally planned. As one of the world’s most effective leaders in the movement for social change, Elle has dedicated her life to organizing and advocating for marginalized communities. She began her career working on campaigns for marriage equality and don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy change. She then transitioned to groundbreaking work as a leading voice for the Black Lives Matter Global Network. In her current role as the founder and executive director of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, she’s dedicated herself to protecting and defending the human rights of Black transgender people.
Under Elle’s leadership, the Marsha P. Johnson Institute has become a vital resource for Black trans women in particular, who have suffered an onslaught of violent attacks resulting in alarmingly low life expectancy rates. Elle has focused on raising awareness, advocating for policy change and marshaling resources to provide pathways to stability. Her work has generated widespread media attention toward the plight of Black trans women in the pages of Vogue and the LA Times. The Institute also recently received a $500,000 gift from Google earmarked for COVID relief.
Among Elle’s many remarkable qualities is her ability to apply a strategic mindset toward affecting change within her own besieged community. But it’s the strength of Elle’s voice—what she says and how she says it—that remains her most powerful tool in her efforts to build a better world for all its inhabitants.
Elle Hearns is an organizer, speaker, strategist, and writer. Elle’s voice as a strategist community organizer and speaker were formed from her upbringing in Columbus, Ohio as a youth organizer. Elle currently is the Executive Director of The Marsha P. Johnson Institute, an organization founded in 2015 that works to create a crucial entry point for Black transgender women to advocate for an end to violence against all trans people through advocacy, transformative organizing, restoration, civil disobedience, and direct action. Elle’s writings have been published by The CUNY Law Review and Ebony magazine. She has been honored with the Young Women’s Achievement Award for Advocacy and Organizing by the Women’s Information Network, the Black Feminist Human Rights Defender award by Black Women’s Blueprint, and as a Woke 100 honoree by Essence Magazine.