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Photograph: Bryan Mayes
Photograph: Bryan Mayes

Tanya Compas is changing the lives of Black queer young people in London (and beyond)

The youth worker’s recent crowdfunder raised more than £100,000 – and that’s just the start

By Paula Akpan

The word to describe Tanya Compas is ‘exuberant’. I’m sat with the youth worker on a bench in Peckham Rye Park’s Japanese garden, halfway between her place and mine. It’s the height of one of this summer’s sporadic heatwaves and the combination of the bright rays and her infectious energy is dazzling. It’s no wonder the 28-year-old has built a loyal following of thousands on Twitter and Instagram. When she talks about her work, you can’t help but feel invigorated.

Right now, Compas is overjoyed. A couple of weeks ago, a crowdfunder she created to help her support Black queer young people around the country smashed its initial target of £10,000, raising more than £100,000. That’s ten times what she’d hoped for it. The success was Compas’s most widely reported action, but it’s not the first time she’s made a huge impact within her community. In fact, while you might only just be learning Compas’s name, she’s quietly been changing the lives of young Londoners for years.

‘It’s hard to navigate the charity sector as a Black queer woman, even within queer charities with other queer people, because it’s still inherently white with so many biases,’ says Compas. ‘They don’t acknowledge that how they view these young people can impact the level of care they’re given. They see their Blackness and therefore, view them as strong [and needing less help]. Even within queer-run charities, you see young Black queer people being systematically failed and often reliving cycles of trauma – it’s so dangerous.’

As we sit and chat on our sun-warmed bench, Compas tells me that one area that this is especially troublesome in is when charities are dealing with young queer people who are homeless or who are getting back on their feet after being homeless. It’s something that many LGBTQ+ young people are at risk of. (A study by charity AKT in 2019 found that nearly a quarter of homeless people aged between 16-25 identified as LGBTQ+ and that three quarters of them felt that coming out to their parents played a part in it.) The result can be years of difficulty as they process the trauma of losing their family and finding a new community to support them as they grow up.

Photograph: Bryan Mayes
Photograph: Bryan Mayes

‘It’s all well and good getting the young person to a house,’ says Compas, ‘which is obviously really important, but there needs to be spaces to deal with what comes after that. They might have got their own space where they can feel comfortable with expressing and exploring their identity, but a lot of people aren’t quite prepared for dealing with drinking, sex and figuring out what a healthy community looks like.’

Compas speaks from experience: at 26, she found herself unable to stay in her family home when it became clear that her queerness had become too much. ‘My sexuality wasn’t a secret but the difference was when I brought my girlfriend to my family home to stay over; they couldn’t ignore the fact that I’m gay.’

Talking to me about this time, it’s clear that it was a stressful and dangerous period in Compas’s life. Her home situation soon became unliveable and she found herself sleeping on friends’ sofas or in spare rooms. But she remains buoyant as she describes how her community rallied around her. For her, it highlighted how hard dealing with homelessness might be for queer young people who haven’t quite built that yet. ‘I had people who could help me,’ she says. ‘But, especially those who become homeless at 18 or even younger, their friends don’t have their own houses for them to crash at.’

It was during this time that Compas had an idea. She’d previously used her social platform to do things like help create a series of mentor-matching sessions for queer young people and help young people get free tickets to events where they could find community. ‘For example, one young person was meant to go to UK Black Pride a couple of years ago,’ she says. ‘But she said she wasn’t going because she had no one to go with. I told her to come with me. She met us and immediately was just so comfortable and within about 20 minutes, she’d found a friend or someone she fancied and was like “Tanya, I’m leaving now...”.’ We both throw our heads back to laugh, we know just how raucous Black queer events can be. Compas adds: ‘My whole job is to make you feel comfortable enough to go off and spread your wings, so for me to see that with her was really lovely.’

Then she thought: could she do something bigger? Could she run her own events specifically targeted at Black queer people with similar home experiences to her own?

Photograph: Bryan Mayes
Photograph: Bryan Mayes

In December 2019 she launched Queer Black Christmas, an event that brought 30 queer Black people from around the UK together for workshops, games, food and more, started because she knew, all too keenly, the ache of not having a family to spend the festive period with. It was a huge success – and was paid for by a crowdfunder, which got more than £7,000 in donations after Compas posted about it on social media. Then, during lockdown amid recent Black Lives Matter uprisings, she decided to create an entire programme called Exist Loudly, packed with day activities and retreats. ‘I was quibbling over how much to crowdfund,’ she says. ‘With about £10,000, I knew that I’d be able to pay for workshops, outings and all the other ideas I had.’

With that in mind, and her experience of managing budgets in tow, Compas went home to crunch the numbers, create a fleshed-out breakdown for a year’s worth of programming, and then set up her crowdfunder page. ‘I put the page up at around 9pm and the crowdfunder got about a grand in the space of the first few hours,’ she laughs and slightly shakes her head, still in disbelief. ‘It was actually ridiculous – within the first day, it got about £40,000. It meant that I could actually consider making Exist Loudly a charity and for this to be my job. It’s hard to put into words how much this means to me.’

Compas doesn’t need to put it into words. Over the course of our two-hour hour chat, we cover everything from how she almost went to university to study child development to how newly learned Photoshop skills have come in handy with creating Exist Loudly, but when she talks about the crowdfunder, her joviality gives way to incredulity. As children race past us on scooters – loudly and gleefully soaking up the sun – Compas takes a second to absorb the enormity of Exist Loudly’s future. ‘I would never in a million years have thought it would’ve grown that much, but as it grew it allowed me to reimagine what I would do with this.’

Compas tells me that as the momentum behind the crowdfunder grew, she decided that anything raised over £62,500 would be split between five organisations across the UK – Unmuted, Rainbow Noir, Colours Youth, Humblebee Creative and Gendered Intelligence – all committed to working with queer and trans Black and POC young people. This decision was a no-brainer for Compas as she reiterates that she is not the only one doing this kind of work and has no interest in being lauded as such. ‘I know that I was able to get as many donations as I did because I’ve got a big social platform, which makes things easier to share and market,’ she says. ‘Whereas other organisations doing similar work to me aren’t afforded the same. I believe in distributing wealth, I don’t believe that one individual or organisation should monopolise funding.’

Photograph: Bryan Mayes
Photograph: Bryan Mayes

When the crowdfunder closed on July 1 at £110,956, Compas was able to give each of her chosen organisations more than £11,000 each towards their work.

That impressive fundraising aside, what does the future of Exist Loudly look like? ‘You can expect day workshops and retreats led by other Black queer people from the community,’ Compas says, clearly excited. ‘From storytelling to performance, I want to introduce young people to all these incredible people and provide them with a space to explore and express their identity.’ Not only that, but Compas also plans to deliver a research project about the lives of queer Black young people, from experiences within the education system to encounters with police and social services: ‘All the research on queer young people that exists in the UK at the moment doesn’t expressly talk about the implications of race, and if it does, it’s under BAME – it’s not specific to queer Black experiences and because they are nuanced, they require specificity.’

Everything about Compas and her work is direct and intentional. It’s that directness that makes her so good at every youth work project she undertakes. The success of her recent crowdfunder, as well as all the events that she’s produced in the past, demonstrates that there is a clear demand for charitable services and infrastructure where Black queer people are not simply an afterthought. Exist Loudly deliberately and firmly places the needs of this community at its core.

As Compas cycles off after our interview to pick up some hair-related bits and bobs from Rye Lane for her girlfriend, the warmth of her passion and energy lingers awhile. We may not know what a post-Covid world will look like, but one thing is for sure: Exist Loudly will be there to create another desperately needed space for queer Black youth.

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