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Alana Banks made history as the first Black, transgender woman on a school board in the United States. How is she doing now? 

Decatur Public Schools Board of Education member Alana Banks

DECATUR — Alana Banks made history two years ago as the first Black and transgender woman elected to a school board in the country.

Her election win holds importance for the transgender community in her central Illinois school district.

Zelda Tindell, a transgender assistant teacher at Decatur Public Schools, said that Banks’ most important contribution has been her authenticity and visibility.

“I’m absolutely overjoyed to know that we have somebody on the school board that’s fighting for us,” Tindell said. 

Besides the personal impact she has had on her community, Banks has played a key role in appointing a new superintendent for Decatur Public Schools and negotiating a contract that increased wages for assistant teachers.

Banks however acknowledges the challenges in meeting the diverse needs of the communities she represents.

“A light at the end of the tunnel” 

At 28 years old, Alana Banks balances a busy life. By day, she works at the Empowerment Opportunity Center in Decatur, a social service organization. In her spare time, she’s a member of the school board and is currently working on starting a shelter for queer youth.

She went through her own transition at the age of 22, having identified as a gay boy during her time in school.

“There have been many situations where I felt outed by administrators or felt unsafe, even walking to class to and from class,” Banks told The 21st after her election. 

She never knew what peers would say to her, and now she wants to be the hope for current students like her. 

“There is light at the end of the tunnel for students who are struggling with these issues.”

“Trans people are just as normal as everyone else”

Although her election in 2021 made headlines across the country, Alana Banks hasn’t received any hate mail. Instead, she pointed out in a recent interview that the most challenging aspect of her term has been doing enough for the communities she represents.

“When I first started, everyone assumed that I was just going to primarily work with Black issues or queer issues. Those two communities actually, I wish that I could do more work for. There’s just been a whole whirlwind of other things that we’ve had to focus our attention on,” she said. 

This ‘whirlwind’ included unexpected tasks like relocating students over the summer when two school buildings in the district were found to be structurally unsound. 

And that has led to frustration from some in the LGBTQ+ community who feel their issues aren’t being addressed quickly enough. 

“To explain to folks that, unfortunately in this political climate, nothing happens overnight. All of the change, whether it’s progressive or not, takes a while to actually be tangible. That’s the hardest part.”

The leaders of Black youth groups are also reaching out for help. 

“They come to me, expecting that I am African American and that I should be able to articulate their interests and concerns. But they struggle with my identity,” she said.

Those groups are often organized by the same Black churches Banks grew up in. She said they often have an implicit, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy about being gay or lesbian – and are more hostile to trans people. 

Banks said she often has to fight stereotypes that Black trans women are uneducated, have a mental illness, or are sex workers. 

“I am a professional. I’m working on my degree,” she said. “For the community at large to witness that trans people are just as normal as everyone else, it’s an adjustment.”

“This too will pass”

In tough times, Alana Banks finds support in her social circle. This includes the superintendent and the board secretary, both of whom she has known since childhood. The current school board president is also a great listener, she noted.

“I can always call on someone if I just need to decompress or vent,” she said.

Banks said her optimism helps her too.

“I just tell myself, this too, will pass and tomorrow is a new day,” she said. “That’s the best I can do right now.”

Alana Banks’ term on the Decatur Public Schools board ends in 2025. She’s already planning to run again. 

The photograph for this story was updated on Jan. 9, 2024.

Emily Hays is a reporter for Illinois Public Media. Follow her on Twitter@amihatt.

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Emily Hays

Emily Hays started at WILL in October 2021 after three-plus years in local newsrooms in Virginia and Connecticut. She has won state awards for her housing coverage at Charlottesville Tomorrow and her education reporting at the New Haven Independent. Emily graduated from Yale University where she majored in History and South Asian Studies.

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