‘Be the Change’ Creates Network of Care in Tennessee Prisons

Editor’s note: The author of this piece is a member leader in the Nashville chapter of Southerners on New Ground, which partners with Be The Change.

Tavaria Merritt is a community organizer, a pastor, a dreamer, and someone who loves her people deeply. Tavaria, who also goes by Varia and T, has lived that truth all her life, even in the most unstable of circumstances.

When Varia was incarcerated at South Central Correctional Facility in Clifton, Tenn., she saw the ways that she and other LGBT+ people in the prison were treated both by staff and other inmates, and she became passionate about organizing within the prison to help folks find supportive community, build power, and fight for better treatment inside.

“I was born to bring people together and show them what real love is about,” reflected Varia. “I had a desire to create something, and that is a community for the LGBT inmates here. If nobody was bold enough to do that, I was willing to stand against the odds. On June 8th, 2014, I started something that had never been heard of within Tennessee prisons.”

Photo of Tavaria Merritt. She is Black with shoulder length hair wearing blue jeans and a blue top.

She began by distributing a letter to everyone in her unit who she knew was LGBT. They came together to share their concerns and identify changes they desired to see within the prison. Together, the group became known as Be the Change LGBTQ Community. They began working to shift the culture at South Central to one where inmates and staff were more respectful of LGBT folks.

Today, Be the Change offers programs inside like support groups for trans women, addiction and recovery support, and those facing lengthy or lifetime sentences. They work to prepare folks for release by connecting them with outside resources and supporters. They host weekly services in affiliation with the Unitarian Universalist Church where all are welcome to connect with their spirituality — it’s the first and only affirming religious service at the prison. Varia uses her experience as a pastor and preacher to motivate the community.

“It’s my faith that has kept me strong,” she said. “I still believe in my faith and my Pentecostal movement, and they can’t tell me that I’m wrong, I know what’s right in my soul. I was called to lead people who have been let down, put down, people who were talked about when they were kids, people who were told they would never amount to anything, those who are outside the box and told they were not normal.”

Varia also works with administrators and staff to create a safer environment for Be the Change members, such as collaborating with the medical staff to ensure trans inmates receive appropriate care. Be the Change also advocated for a “cell with care” policy at the prison to ensure LGBT inmates would not be placed in cells with individuals not known to be accepting, as well as a policy to allow trans women to shower safely.

The organization has a safety team dedicated to protecting members from violence, and they share food resources among one another, in part with the help of outside donations. They also have members who are able to be informal counselors and confidants for folks experiencing anxiety and depression while inside.

To guide Be the Change, across all their activities the group uplifts five core principles: Believing in the worthiness of every person, accepting others for who they are, growing through a personal search for truth, working for justice, and understanding that everything is interconnected.

“Whatever your lifestyle, whatever your baggage, wherever you came from, you are welcome,” Varia said. “We can do this thing together as a team.”

Part of what has allowed Varia and Be the Change to be successful at getting policies in place to keep the community safer is their deep knowledge of the prison’s existing policies and procedures.

“I know this prison like the back of my hand,” Varia said. “I’ve worked the grievance board, I’ve worked laundry, I’ve worked the yard, I’ve worked the education department. They can’t get one over on me. If you come to me you better know the policy or I’m gonna tell it to you.”

Be the Change is also networked outside of South Central. They send mail to other prisons and partner with outsider organizations like Southerners on New Ground and No Exceptions Prison Collective. Varia and her team work to keep up with inmates who get transferred to other prisons as well as those who are released. By sharing pamphlets, art, and messages of hope, they are building a network of mutual support, encouragement, and resource sharing.

A drawing featuring the word love surrounded by hearts in the center. The quote around the image says "Radical love dances with those left in the corner, sits at the table with the nerds, the geeks, the gays. Its arms are open to those the world has left behind. It looks inward not outward and knows that all people are God's children.

An image from one of Be The Change’s informational pamphlets.

Varia doesn’t just help others — her community helps and supports her too. Having a strong community of support with members who share diverse experiences helped her come into her identity as a transgender woman in 2019.

“I’ve always been outspoken and did me and didn’t care what people thought, but I still need support to grow,” she said. “Being part of a community made transition so much easier. More than they realize or know, they helped me! When I came in, I didn’t know I was a girl. Now I walk around with my eyeliner on, my hairbands on, I don’t worry about no say so. Words don’t hurt me, I overcome the words.”

As Varia blossomed into the fullness of herself, she became even more passionate about educating prison staff and protecting and uplifting her community. Now, Be The Change members call her Mama T because “they’re my kids, I cover them. I will always stand with them, I might correct them, but most of all I’m going to show them love.”

As an organizer, Varia has worked to create a safer environment for her community. As a pastor, friend, and mentor, she has remained committed to helping others.

“A broken person brought together a lot of broken people over the years. I’ve been let down many times. I’ve been discouraged. I’ve been at the place that most of my people have been in, it’s why I can understand,” she reflected. “Every day I wake up and look forward to doing what I do best. We as a body and as a family are coming together stronger than ever. One of the things I often say is ‘we don’t die, we multiply.’ We are the chosen people, we are special, unique people. I don’t care how many people tell us that we’re not, we are.”

To support Be the Change or to learn more, visit their website btclgbtq.com

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Adrian is a writer, a Texan and a Presbyterian pastor. They write about bisexuality, gender, religion, politics, music and a whole lot of feelings at Autostraddle and wherever fine words are sold. They have a dog named after Alison Bechdel. Follow Adrian on Twitter @adrianwhitetx.

Adrian has written 153 articles for us.


  1. I love the community of BTC, Varia is a wonderful woman and she is great at what she do. I really believe,she was called to do this and I hope the RIGHT person see this and reach out to her. Everyone need to know about this community and help in every way.

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