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Can’t Slow Down: VA Pride Firework Award Honoree Zakia McKensey Is Getting Things Done

Marilyn Drew Necci | September 24, 2018

Here’s another article from our Fall 2018 Pride Guide, released in conjunction with 2018′s VA PrideFest. Get your copy of the print edition at your favorite shops around town, or check out the digital version here.

Zakia McKensey stays busy. From her work with Health Brigade and the Virginia Anti-Violence Project to her key role in bringing Black Pride RVA to the city, she’s worked tirelessly to advocate for the transgender community and those impacted by HIV/AIDS, as well as victims of violence and poverty, especially those from communities of color. In light of all the work she’s done in central Virginia and beyond, it’s no surprise that she’s been chosen to receive this year’s Virginia Pride Firework Award.

McKensey certainly appreciates the honor. As she puts it, “People always get a lot of accolades when they pass away, so to be honored while I’m able to enjoy it and be a part of it is amazing.” But where her work is concerned, she makes clear that it is not undertaken out of any desire for glory. Instead, it’s her concern for those she sees around her.

“I’ve always stood up for myself and what I believed was fair treatment of others,” she says. However, it was the loss of someone close to her that motivated her to act. “A dear friend of mine had contracted HIV,” she says. “Watching them go through the different side effects of all that comes with being HIV positive, and then succumbing to the virus, gave me the courage to want to learn more and want to give back.”

This desire led her to Health Brigade, which was known as Fan Free Clinic at the time. “I started doing some volunteer work with Health Brigade on their advisory committee, and helping them implement testing programs within the local gay clubs. Stuff like that was important,” she says. It eventually led to a full-time position. In 2001, when Health Brigade added an MSM (men who sleep with men) outreach program, McKensey became the program’s first coordinator.

Having struggled to access transgender-related health care during her own transition, regularly driving to Baltimore and Atlanta to find medical providers, McKensey knew how essential it was to bring transgender health care to Richmond. During her time at Health Brigade, she did important work to establish the organization’s transgender clinic.

However, between her time at Health Brigade and her years working as a Disease Intervention Specialist for Richmond City Health District, McKensey realized that it wasn’t always enough just to make sure care was available. After years of “talking to clients and hearing their barriers to coming in and accessing care and services” and beginning to understand that “there were other things that were needed that were hindering them from making their medical and their health a priority,” McKensey knew she had to do something more.

It was in this moment that Nationz Foundation was born. But to bring the organization from idea and reality would take years of fundraising. Fortunately, McKensey knew just how to do it. In addition to her extensive advocacy work, she has also had a long career in pageantry, winning such titles as Miss Black America Plus, Miss Godfrey’s, Miss Black National, and more. This experience led her to create the Nationz Pageantry System, which created the annual Nationz Pageant in 2012.

“We started it as a fundraiser, to raise some money so we could start the organization,” McKensey says. The yearly event sees male entertainers and female impersonators from around the country come together to compete for the titles of Mz Nationz, Mr Nationz, and Mz Nationz Plus. “They’re [Nationz] ambassadors for the year,” says McKensey. “[They] are doing a lot of community service, whether it’s in Virginia or whatever area they may come from.”

Over its first three years of existence, the Nationz Pageant raised enough funds that Nationz Foundation was able to incorporate as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in 2015. They immediately went to work on a variety of projects, through which the group tried to reach those within the community who had the most urgent need. They began with a food pantry and free rapid-results HIV testing. “The food [is] kind of an incentive for people to actually get tested so they can know their status,” McKensey says. “We believe that if everyone knows their status, and we get them the care, we can reduce the rates of HIV.”

But she’s also concerned about filling basic needs in the most marginalized and low income communities. She specifically highlights those who “don’t have access to health care, or aren’t able to have employment, or are ostracized from family members because of who they are or how they identify. To help these people is important.” For people in such a precarious position, meeting even the most basic needs can help them tremendously. “To give them a leg up to better themselves,” says McKensey. “Or to help them to concentrate funding on keeping a roof over their head and lights on, where they can access the food pantry and not have to worry about being hungry. It’s an immediate need.”

Housing is another basic need Nationz strives to meet for displaced members of the LGBTQ community. Their Aim To Inspire Project is an emergency housing fund, and it is an important resource that’s in high demand. “These first couple of quarters we housed [over] 20 people, and yesterday I had four calls for more people who are displaced,” McKensey says. This year’s Nationz Pageant, which will be held at the end of September, will help raise funds for the Aim To Inspire Project — and not a moment too soon.

Clearly, McKensey is very busy with Nationz Foundation. However, she somehow finds time for a variety of other activist tasks as well. In 2016, she joined with Rev. Lacette Cross, of New Beginnings Christian Church, and Luise “Cheezi” Farmer, of Diversity Richmond and Metropolitan Community Church, to create Us Giving Richmond Connections. “The purpose of that group was to uplift people of color who were doing work in the community, build unity within Richmond, but also create a Black Pride event,” says McKensey.

These plans came to fruition earlier this year with the first Black Pride RVA celebration in July — a successful event that McKensey intends to make the first of many. “I am so excited and proud of the love and support from that event, and looking forward to next year,” she says.

Through volunteering at Bon Air Correctional Facility, McKensey discovered a need for LGBTQ-related support within the juvenile justice system. “I started volunteering because there was a trans-identified youth that was there, and she had reached out to Side By Side,” McKensey says. “From mentoring her and meeting other kids who were in there who identified within the LGBTQ spectrum, I brought it back to our team that maybe we needed to step up and do a little bit more work.”

This led to the creation of a collaborative program between Nationz Foundation, Side By Side, and the Virginia Anti-Violence Project. In addition to creating support groups for those within the system, McKensey says, “We’ve done several trainings with the correctional officers and admin staff, about LGBTQ sensitivity and proper pronoun use. So we’re making some really major changes within the juvenile detention center that hopefully, maybe, trickle out into the state adult facilities.”

McKensey feels a little less positive about the current political climate in Virginia. Last year, during Equality Virginia’s ultimately unsuccessful push to get several LGBTQ civil rights bills passed by the General Assembly, McKensey volunteered her time to go talk to Delegates and Senators about the importance of passing the bills. “It was really disheartening, the mindset of some the people who have seats in the Senate or the House,” she says. “I heard a lot of biblical and religious stuff. Decisions should be made based on the welfare of people, and bettering the state of Virginia as a whole.”

She’s not sure she wants to take as direct a role in the campaigning next year. “I’m gonna always use my voice to make Virginia more inclusive for our community. I’m always gonna partner with Equality Virginia in any way I can to help,” she says. “But I don’t know if right now I’m in a place where I want to go and talk to Senators or Delegates again. Because it was really sad, just listening to them. And infuriating at the same time! So for my self-care, I need to step back from them.”

Right now, she’s concentrating her political energies on other things. “It’s so important for people to vote, and be aware of who is trying to represent your district or your area,” she says. “Really get the knowledge about who they are and what they stand for. And I think doing more of that work on the ground level, especially with our youth, helping make them understand that that’s how we will make a difference for our community, hopefully in the very near future.”

Despite the troubling rise of Trump, she’s trying to maintain an upbeat attitude. “I feel like we are in some scary times,” she says. “But I do not feel that the major things we have accomplished, they will take back. We have a lot of power and influence; [we need to] get out of that mindset that your vote doesn’t matter. That goes back to education, making sure that people know the power of voting, and understand about writing your Senators, and your Delegates and Congressmen, so you can make a difference.”

McKensey continues to try and make a difference every day, but she wants everyone to know that she and Nationz Foundation can’t do it alone. “I would like to see our community rallying more behind the work that Nationz does, help share the fundraising events that we’re doing, and come out and support those events,” she says. “We are only three years old, and funding is very difficult. We don’t have all those corporate sponsors and contacts. But there is such a need for our services.”

The best way you can help Nationz out right now is by supporting the upcoming Nationz Pageant. It will take place Saturday, September 29, the weekend after VA PrideFest, at Diversity Richmond. “All of the funds from the pageant go back into the foundation. We’re trying to sell ads and vendor tables this year, and all of the proceeds will specifically go to our emergency housing fund,” McKensey says. “We try to help everybody, but we also need the community to support us and help us out.”


Top photo: McKensey with Raul Cantu at Nationz Pageant, via nationzpageant.com