In this episode, you’ll hear Dena Stanley, activist and executive director of TransYOUniting PGH, on the emotional and mental labor it takes to defend equity and the protection of human rights for the Black and trans community.

We discuss how protests inform community organizing, how she feels about her “radical” reputation and the vulnerabilities of being a visible public defender of human rights in Allegheny County.


Jourdan: Representative John Lewis’ philosophy on activism with simple. If you see something that’s not fair, that ain’t right, say something, do something, get in some trouble over it, get in good trouble over it in Allegheny County. Dena Stanley is doing all three of those things and more in defense of your human rights. 

Dena:  I just go, I was I was put here for a reason. And this is one of the purposes and the reasons I’m not questioning. I’m just gonna do it.

Jourdan: You may or may not already know her.

Dena: I can do this, but there’s so many folks that can’t do it.

 Dena speaking at a rally: Thank ya’ll for coming out to Trans visibility Thursdays, which will be happening for the next six weeks , all the way up to the election. We’ll be out here just talking about trans issues… 

Jourdan: She’s a graduate of South High School, originally from Beltzhoover, is the executive director of TransYOUniting, is an activist and current resident of Etna, and a new appointee to Etna’s new Commission of Human Relations Board of Directors. When we spoke, we were prepared to discuss the importance of municipalities and cities passing ordinances that supports the protection of marginalized residents. But with the trial of Derek Chauvin going on in the background, it was hard for us to keep our conversation grounded and just in that topic. 

Dena:  You know, just imagine our our ancestors who were burning in trees so their kids could get away. Martin Luther King’s kids had to lose their father, you know, in order for us to even be in a situation where we can speak up a little bit. 

Jourdan: This episode, we’ll talk about the vulnerabilities of being a visible public defender, being a woman with a radical reputation, and how protesting is a stop, not the destination for making change happen. The first piece of material that I want to share is Dena and I’s discussion of protest and protest culture in Pittsburgh. Dena’s identity in our region is her activism and her ability to create community by bringing people together. So for the life of her, she cannot understand how Pittsburghers will come out and be visible in protest and support, reform and change around national issues, around national social issues, but won’t come out in those numbers for Pittsburgh issues and situations. 

Dena speaking at a rally: There’s so much infighting a lot of times, we’ll come together and we’ll march forward for situations like here in Pittsburgh. And sometimes it just it blows my f- , it blows my mind. We will go out there, not that we shouldn’t, but for Breonna Taylor. This is just one instance. The streets were lined. There were three trans folks of color and one that died just from lack of health care; 20 people came out and that was in our own backyard. You know what I’m saying, like there are folks that are being murdered in our own backyard by police and folks really don’t come out like that. Unless it’s publicized on a national level. 

Dena: So ya’ll are only out here  when it’s trending. No, that’s the problem. Stop coming out when it’s a trendy thing. Come out, because guess what? If they see us out in mass numbers all the time, every single time, hundreds of us, a lot of this what’s happening ain’t going to happen. 

Dena speaking at a rally:  We need people out here, right? Right? They should be out here listening. They’re the ones that need to be making the changes. But if they’re not, we have the power to change their seats. 

Jourdan: OK, let’s talk about protesting for a minute. So I come out and maybe I get swept up in the energy of protests because they can be electric. But I’m able to shove my ego away from that and focus on the matter at hand, the injustice that I would like to bring attention to. So I’m protesting, I’m exchanging information with people I’m meeting, following people on social media, talking about resources that I have. So after that, what comes next? 

Dena: Now, we have made all these connections. We got all these people riled. We start educating them, getting them into these these different roles within government, you know, educating them where they can go back into their families and to their friends and different situations and start educating them, disseminating information on, you know, local, local things like judges and magistrate judges and, you know, seeing if we can change things where, you know, local folks can, you know, get into the police academy, you know, changing things on a local level. So it’s not only about being in the streets, but it’s about what after the streets we can do. What actions can we take after being in those streets? So being in the streets, is that bringing people together, you know, to jumpstart, to kick off what needs to happen and what needs to happen is change. How do we get to that change? We get to the change because we start implementing things where folks can get into different positions, where we can start changing policies, where we can start changing legislation. That’s how we get to that change. So but to rally the crowd, the crowd of people together is the first portion of the whole book, which the book is to start really getting our people and places where we can make effective change. 

Jourdan:  One thing that I took from my time with Dena was seeing the lengths that she was willing to go to defend human rights and the high cost she’s willing to pay to make change. It’s because not everyone is willing to pay, she said. Her personal information leaked online. Her activism and visibility became the topic of discussion of hate groups online, charged with making terroristic threats and rioting, arrested and her good name tarnished. 

News Clip:  A community activist accused of pepper spraying children and getting into a physical fight with the teenager says she’s the victim. Dena Stanley’s family spokesperson, Darnika Reed, says Stanley was attacked by three people and hit in the head with a brick because she’s transgender. With the language used in the names that Dena was called, it was obvious Dena was not the aggressor and Dena is an advocate for her community. This happened on Bieber Road at Ambridge on Tuesday.

Jourdan: Dena, you keep paying the cost and you won’t settle. 

Dena: By changing, that will give us the people that are suppressed the most. A little bit of a little power, a little leverage, if that makes any sense. And, you know, the oppressors are afraid of that, you know, like why, why? Why do we need to change? You know, why do we need, everything’s perfect. Ya’ll can vote, can’t y’all? Ya’ll can get on the bus and sit where you want to can’t you? You can buy a house, can’t you? Even though it’s difficult, you can still buy houses, buy cars and you know and do all of that. 

Jourdan: Though the process to you getting the job, getting the house, living in a neighborhood may cost you your life or your dignity or your respect, they may take 10 times. 

Dena: Or your mental health. 

Jourdan: Or your mental health. You could still do it. And that’s not enough. 

Dena:  That’s not enough. But it’s the struggle getting to any of those places is a lot of folks give up because it’s so hard and, you know, and in the oppressors, the oppressor tells us all the time, well, you know, just keep on fighting. But do you fight, like how we fight? Do you have to endure what we have to endure? Your mental health ain’t what our mental health is. Because of what we have to endure to get to where you where you’re at. And all you had to do is say, hey, daddy, I want to be in this position. You know what I mean? Like, they don’t understand that. In the city of Pittsburgh, what I’ve noticed is and this is for me, my personal is, a lot of times, you know, they put certain people in places like certain people, like Black folks, there are minorities. And if we fail adding which they they are, you know, they really want us to then are going to say, well, we gave somebody a position, we gave them an opportunity and they didn’t work out. So we don’t think we want to fill that what these type of people again. That happens often here in Pittsburgh. You know, there is opportunity sometimes that are given, but if there is one tiniest glitch, they’re getting rid of you and they’re going to replace you with somebody that looks more like them because now you had that tiny glitch. But if they replace you with somebody who looks like them and they have that same glitch, it’s OK.

Jourdan:  I mean, for me, it just seems like a mess. Like a person, a person will be born. And then they’ll show up as themselves who they are. And people will look at the way they’re doing humanness and say, you’re not doing it right or that doesn’t belong like that, you don’t belong like that. I mean, I believe you’re born worthy. So that just don’t sit right with me from jump. But then those same people will turn around and call you radical, label you as radical or extreme for existing, for wanting to exist as yourself, who you are. 

Dena:  I don’t think it’s extreme, you know, everyone should have equitable rights, equality, period. So it’s not extreme at all whatsoever. We are here, it’s 2021. There shouldn’t be all of this. I don’t know, just this hate. It shouldn’t be like this — this oppression on our people still, and then we oppress ourselves a lot of times just because we’ve been bred into our DNA and I just, it’s amazing to me because a lot of times it’s like when your eyes are opened up and you’re seeing it in a different light, it enrages you to see what’s happening with your people. Like, you know, I’m saying like sometimes our people get into places and situations and you’re looking like my brother, my sister, my sib, what are you doing? 

Jourdan: Accepting the conditioning, like, just putting it on, like, freely and freely, like, putting the conditioning on. 

Dena: Oh, my goodness, so no it’s not radical at all whatsoever or anything. It’s just us trying to get to a place where we are looked at the same way as everyone else. Like we are all equal across the board. Are we ever going to get there? Like, it’s like I see the tunnel, I see the light, but it’s just slow steps. You know, what I’m saying and in some people’s eyes, it is radical because they don’t, they can’t see past all the bullcrap and in their eyes , like we’ve made enough strides. We made enough steps. We are here. We have arrived like, no, we have not arrived. How many times have you seen these gentrifiers coming into our neighborhoods and take out everything and then eventually take us up out of here? So the same radical,this is just the equality. This is equitable equality, and that’s what we’re fighting for. And then it gets even deeper when you get into trans rights because we don’t have no rights, you know, so it’s like we’re fighting, we’re fighting for our civil rights right now. We’re fighting to have a voice from a voiceless place. You know, like they are really still attacking us, you know, on so many different levels and trying to make us feel like we’re not human enough to be a part of this society.

Jourdan: One of the questions I was most eager to ask Dena was what would she be doing with her time if activism was not necessary, if there was not injustice and inequity to fight? What would she be doing? Come to find out she’s a culinary chef. A whole baker, Le Cordon Bleu-trained and Atlanta, Georgia-tested, Dena’s worked for many bakeries, has her associate’s degree and specializes in pastries and baking. And owns her own catering company, MadDez Sweetz. 

Dena: My favorite is just like chocolate on chocolate, honey. That’s just that’s the time when you’re having a good day, bad day is just chocolate on chocolate for me. But some of my favorite items that I make are my soul food cupcakes. So it’s a cornbread cupcake filled with baked macaroni and cheese, the frosting of sweet potato, a piece of fried chicken on top, a little bit maple glaze, it is off the chain. Whew, child. 

Jourdan: Are you as comfortable with your culinary skills as you are with or in your activism and vice versa? 

Dena: I would get into the kitchen and it’s just like, this goes here, this goes here …OK, we’re done. It comes natural to me. Not to say this activism, it doesn’t really, it’s just I’m telling my story, my life on a platform. And I question myself sometimes because right now I’m talking about the activism. I question myself on that stage sometimes because to me it’s, am I saying it right? Am I doing it right? And I question myself about every single thing. I’m really, really hard on myself when it comes to that, because in the kitchen, it’s so flawless like you could put in front of me, I’m like, oh, I’m gonna create you this magnificent… and I don’t even think about it. When it comes to my activist work, you put something in front of me and I’m looking at it and how it relates to me, I got to fight back the tears and then have to articulate that. And sometimes it’s hard to do both of those. 

Dena: Even when I was in school, when I was in culinary school, I have like a little bit of stage fright. I’m not really good with public speaking. You wouldn’t even know. But I mean, sometimes you would. I can have conversations all day and I get up in front of them crowds and I just I’m like, damn, I just sound like a complete idiot. That’s how I feel but everyone’s like you did amazing. But like, to me, I think every single everything it doesn’t matter every single time, you know, it’s just like what I do flawlessly is get into that kitchen. But, you know, when I step out and talk to people and do all of that, that ain’t nobody but the ancestors because you know, that’s outside of my realm. 

Jourdan: And on stage, you’re tasked with sharing uncomfortable things about your life in a way that causes people to connect with it emotionally and mentally, yet present yourself in a way that isn’t too radical, right, or that pushes people away. 

Dena: You have to humanize your trauma. That’s the best way I could put it. 

Jourdan: Who else has to do that?

Dena: Girl, listen. Nobody. That’s what it is that when you when you start talking, that’s what clicked in my head. You have to humanize your trauma.

Jourdan: But you’re human. 

Dena: Exactly. And that’s part of the problem. A lot of that material is triggering to us. You know, when we’re talking about it, we have to figure out how to humanize our trigger points for other people to kind of feel empathy or sympathy towards us.

Jourdan:  That was Dena Stanley. For more information on the work that TransYOUniting is doing in the Pittsburgh community, you can visit them at Before we depart from this space together, I would like to close out with a question: At what point and at what cost would you stop fighting for justice or start? And once you divest, who pays for the protection of your rights and your access to justice? 

This podcast was produced by Jourdan Hicks and Andy Kubis and edited by Halle Stockton. If you have a story you’d like to share, please get in touch with me. You can send me an email, Public Source is an independent nonprofit newsroom in Pittsburgh. You can find all of our reporting and storytelling at

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Jourdan is a senior community correspondent at PublicSource. Previously, Jourdan was engaged as a community-based educator in the Hazelwood section of the city. A lifelong Pittsburgh resident, she’s...