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Moving trans advocacy forward in Jamaica
August 18, 2020

By Jewelle Saunders

“The fuller you are, the more you have to give back,” says activist Neish McLean. “Invest in yourself, and your hard work will blossom.”

2017 YLAI Fellow Neish’s hard work of creating a sustainable trans rights movement has blossomed far beyond his expectations. As the Co-Founder and Executive Director of TransWave Jamaica, Neish is succeeding in his mission to increase the visibility of transgender Jamaicans, provide resources to change the narrative towards a positive reflection of the community, and emphasize the need for improved healthcare and safe spaces that meet the needs of the community.

In the years since the YLAI Network team first spoke with Neish about the importance of entrepreneurs focusing on their health and well-being, Neish is taking his own advice and is concentrating on soon stepping back from the role of Executive Director at TransWave. “I believe stepping back can help propel you further to where you’re able to go,” assures Neish. Celebrating his success in building a sustainable movement, the YLAI Network spoke with Neish recently for background into TransWave’s beginnings and for an update on its future.

While he is stepping back, Neish aims to look at TransWave Jamaica’s mission at a more regional and global level, to see how best to expand, and to focus on new advocacy projects. In the time since TransWave’s beginnings, Neish has made sure to focus on setting up roles of ‘ambassadors’ to support the work of the organization and provide more opportunities for the local community. “I saw the need to provide space not only for myself, but for other young trans leaders to emerge,” says Neish.

TransWave has come a long way since its formation in 2015. After finishing a degree in psychology, Neish participated in a fellowship in Washington D.C. supporting young adults with mental disabilities, and soon after attended an advocacy workshop in Trinidad. This workshop culminated with Neish’s own trans identity journey, where Neish remembered that it “happened like magic.” Neish returned to Jamaica and found there was a lack of resources and information on trans issues. No sole organization existed in Jamaica advocating for the rights of the trans community. TransWave started out as a 30-day project to provide this information through a blog, and it blossomed from there into a full advocacy organization, far exceeding his initial expectations. Equality for All Foundation Jamaica Ltd (J-FLAG) provided support to get TransWave Jamaica running and they held their first campaign in 2015.

“We have reached many milestones that we did not think possible five years ago. Our team has increased forms of communication and outreach, from speaking at conferences on panels talking about their experiences, to discussing trans issues and rights through writing guest articles in the paper, to being invited to participate in conversations on the radio.” Neish states that he is thrilled with the increased visibility and increased communication support, and that he is proud to facilitate opportunities to LGBTQ youth in the community through this movement.

Through this outreach, media attention, and through events, TransWave is exceeding its mission to “promote diversity and excellence within the community.” “To be able to feature these voices, it has been incredible to see,” Neish explains. One major moment of impact for Neish was being featured on the cover of the Sunday paper in Jamaica. He was proud to have the opportunity to reach many Jamaicans and start a conversation about trans issues, something he never thought he would be able to see when he was growing up. “It’s amazing to see the response we’ve gotten, and to know that we have been able to share our stories and have people listen.”

While he is stepping back from the day to day role as Executive Director at TransWave, Neish is expanding his work with LGBT organization, OutRight Action International. One of Neish’s other main priorities moving forward is mentorship. “It’s a responsibility and a privilege,” Neish believes, “to be able to give back to others who do not have the resources and knowledge to navigate their own journeys. It’s a privilege to know that I have impacted others to live their dream.”

Neish credits the YLAI Fellowship as an influential opportunity to learn and invest in himself and his organization’s mission. “YLAI brings such diverse people together, and that rich learning experience is something you can’t quantify,” he assures. Neish’s key advice for aspiring social entrepreneurs is to treat the start-up phase the same as one would for a for-profit business, to focus on the importance of creating business plans and budgets, as well as contingency and transitional transitionary plans. “Leaders should build sustainable processes to ensure their hard work exists beyond them and long after them,” he advises.

Thank you, Neish, for giving the YLAI Network an update on the growing impact of TransWave Jamaica and for reminding Network members of the importance of reconfiguring and expanding your goals, particularly in this time of uncertainty.


The views and opinions expressed here belong to the author or interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of the YLAI Network or the U.S. government.

Este artículo está disponible en español.