This weekend, I attended the Congressional Black Caucus’ 41st Annual Legislative Conference (ALC) where I spoke on a panel about African American women and reproductive healthcare and rights. I was recommended by Advocates for Youth , and invited by Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA). This panel, sponsored by PPFA, was the first of its kind at this ALC as no panel about reproductive health has been presented before. I’m excited to have been a part of it, and even more excited that it was a packed room filled with congressional members, constituents, and students who were interested in what this panel had to say.
I was charged to speak on young women and reproductive health activism. I was on a panel with esteemed individuals such as Loretta Ross (National Coordinator of SisterSong ), Dr. Vanessa Cullins (Vice President for Medical Affairs for PPFA), Rev. Alethea Smith-Withers (Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice), and Jill Morrison (National Women’s Law Center). The panel was moderated by comedienne Aisha Tyler and actress Gabrielle Union, both whom are active spokeswomen for PPFA (and Aisha is on their board of directors). It was awesome see so many African American women and men in the room who care about this issue, and even more awesome that Planned Parenthood is devoting time and attention to hearing the voices of the African American community through their African Americans for Planned Parenthood Initiative (and there’s also a Latinos for Planned Parenthood Initiative). It’s always great to see African Americans galvanizing around Planned Parenthood, especially women. The men who were in the room, for the most part, were receptive (except for these two African American men who were planted (so to speak) in the audience to bring negative attention to Planned Parenthood and the “genocide” of African American babies (…and that’s another blog post entirely).
This is a portion of what I told the audience during the panel. I didn’t come with statistics or data, but I did come with an agenda: to help more adults hear the voices of the young African American women and girls whom I have worked with and worked alongside in the past several years. Oftentimes, we adults tend to bring in our own agendas on what we feel young women want. We create these programs and initiatives that we feel “speak” to young women, but all they do is demean them, trivialize their voices, and use entirely too many slang words that are just embarrassing. While it would have been better to have a younger person on this panel to really get to the essence of what young women of color really want, I feel honored to do what I could to make the adults in the room hear them. This is what young women of color really want:
Why Am I Passionate about Reproductive Justice? (The Story of Me)
In November 2003, I was a sophomore at Spelman College . I volunteered for SisterSong’s first women of color reproductive health conference. At this conference, I was introduced to reproductive health and justice work, and it was awe-inspiring to see so many women of color in one space with a shared vision of a world where reproductive freedom would be recognized. At this conference, I was introduced to Advocates for Youth’s Young Women of Color Leadership Council , and throughout the years I became involved in activism work through the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Helping Our Teen Girls In Real Life Situations, Planned Parenthood of New York City, Pro-Choice Public Education Project, and the Young Women of Color HIV/AIDS Coalition. I have been fortunate enough to lobby at the United States Congress for comprehensive sex education in schools, talking with congressional leaders and their staff about the Responsible Education About Life (REAL) Act. Ultimately, this work paved the way for me to become a social worker, focusing on the clinical study and implementation of social work methods as well as program design/implementation/evaluation of organizational programs that have a young woman or people of color focus (dispelling the myth that all we social workers do is come into your home and take your children.
How Does This Connect to Young Women of Color and Activism? (The Story of Us)
My story is simple: Young people are not apathetic. They have their passions and care about many issues, and go about expressing their concerns and angst in a variety of ways including protests, signing petitions, through social media, texting, and demonstrations. This has been evident in recent years as students on college campuses take a stand against their school’s administration, or expressing anger toward societal ills. Secondly, while I became involved in activism by way of a college campus, it’s important to recognize and develop approaches for engaging young people who aren’t on a college campus. Additionally, it’s important to gather as much information as possible on what matters most to young people and their overall health, not just reproductive health. This can be done through focus groups, personal interviews, surveys, and organizational needs assessments.
Why does this matters and how can we help take action or build awareness? (The Story of Now)
Here are three key ways to do so:
Relate: We need to meet young people where they are in order to identify their issues. We need to see what their interests are, and what they are passionate about. This helps adults to see just how powerful young women’s voices really are and it shows young women that adults can be trusted to come into their spaces without agenda. We may want to galvanize attention around abortion rights, while the young people in our community want to create awareness around HPV and cervical cancer. If that’s so, then start where they are. This will help create trust and also get young women to see that many of these issues are interconnected, and can create a domino effect.
Connect: We need to recognize the power of social media and the messages that young people are getting from the media, their peers, families, and communities. We need to utilize social media (Facebook and Twitter these days, especially). These networks can help young people learn more about causes, build interest, and galvanize support and motivation to take action. This was evident in the execution of Troy Davis. I saw countless young people tweeting numbers and email addresses to key individuals at the Georgia Parole Board and links to online petitions to advocate for Davis’ stay of execution. If you or your organization are not on these networks, then you’re doing yourself and your organization a disservice. There are many people out there that can help you learn about social media. Some key ladies that are consultants in social media are Natalie Gouche and Rosetta Thurman. These social networks have grown tremendously in the last 5 years, and it’ll be amazing to see the growth in the years to come (and also now young people utilize them.)
Step Aside: This is one of the most important aspects of what young women of color really want. Adults need to step aside and engage more youth in leadership roles within the sexual and reproductive justice movement through organizational hiring practices and Board of Director selections…all without tokenizing them. In order to avoid tokenism, adults have to commit the time AND financial means for leadership development. As Aimee Thorne-Thomsen says, in each stage of any movement, it’s important to remember to reach out to, engage, and LISTEN to our young people. It was true during the Civil Rights movement, and it rings true today.
Today’s young people are going to be making the decisions tomorrow. This is what young women of color really want. Let’s help them get there.
P.S.: Big shoutout to Jamia Wilson for telling me about The Story of Me/Us/Now thought process!