My Sistas Have Spoken! Now It’s Time to Act: The 2011 SisterSong “Let’s Talk About Sex” Conference

By Francesca Witcher
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Last week, Feminist Majority Foundation afforded me an amazing opportunity to attend the 2011 SisterSong “Let’s Talk About Sex: Love Legislation and Leadership” conference in Miami, Florida from July 13-17.

SisterSong is a reproductive justice non-profit for women of color that is a conglomerate of 80 local and national grassroots organizations that target minorities.  The mission of the conference was to “to secure reproductive rights by amplifying and strengthening the collective voices of Indigenous women and women of color” and focused on sex, sexuality, self-love, abortion rights, birth justice, family planning, consciousness raising, immigrant rights, indigenous rights, persons of color who are LGBTQI, and more.

I will never forget the experiences I had at this conference for the rest of my life. From the plenaries to the workshops, to the amazing speakers to building a network of sisterhood in the reproductive justice (RJ) movement, I not only grew as an organizer, but found a clearer vision of my purpose in the RJ movement.

There were 75 workshops, 7 plenaries, open-mics, and evening events to build sisterhood. There isn’t enough space on this blog to talk about all of the amazing workshops and experiences that I had at the conference, so I will only be able to touch on a few.

Cynthia Greenlee-Donnell, a professor at Duke University, hosted a workshop called “The Uses and Misuses of History: What you Should Know about Abortion and the African American Past”. She presented the history of African Americans and abortion, a topic that is rarely researched and rarely a part of the dialogue in the abortion movement.

The presentation centered around black abortion doctors, the black press’ messages about abortion, pro-choice black activists and scholars, and the racist anti-abortion billboards that have popped up across the country targeting black women and babies with the hopes of increasing the stigma about abortion in the African American community. This workshop opened my eyes to how common abortion has been in the African American community and how anti-choice groups try to exploit that history in order to take the right to choose away from black women and families.

Another workshop, “Bad Chicks, Bust It Babies and Abortion: How Billboards and Rap Silence Reproductive Justice” explored black media outlets and their messages about abortion. It was interesting to hear the messages about abortion that many artists such as Common, Lauryn Hill, and Tupac have talked about through their music. The messages about their stance on abortion vary. For example, in Common’s song “Retrospective for Life” he talks about abortion from a pro-life standpoint mentioning, “The start of somethin, I’m not ready to bring into the world. . . turnin this woman’s womb into a tomb. . . I’m sorry for takin your first breath, first step, and first cry. . . from now on, I’ma use self-control instead of birth control”. In contrast, the lyrics of Tupac’s song “Brenda’s Got a Baby” spoke more to the real issues of abortion by articulating the struggles of young black women and the difficult choices they have to make when they have an unexpected pregnancy.

I realized after attending these workshops that these media images and the mixed views artists have about abortion, reflect the ever-present conversations and dialogue that goes on in the black community about abortion and abortion rights.

Moreover, I thought it was great that SisterSong included workshops that talked not only about the right not to choose to have a child, but the right for a woman to have a child and to have the resources to care and support her child. So often women of color are not able to choose how they want to have their babies because of institutional failures and gaps in the health care system.

Leslie Grant, the Operations Coordinator for Sistas on the Rise, spoke at one of Legislation plenaries. Grant wanted to have a natural in-home birth with a midwife. She had searched for months to find a plan that would be able to cover the costs of having an in-home birth.  But, a week before her due date the insurance plan she found said that she had not been covered under the plan for the last 90 days and could not get picked up until after she had her child. The midwife that she had been working with said she would not support her without insurance to cover the costs, therefore leaving her to have her baby in a hospital. Frustrated and upset, she reached out to an activist and helped her find another midwife and a new insurance plan.

This was one of many powerful untold stories about birth rights. Too often the “pro-life” activists forget the pro-choice and reproductive justice movement supports those women who choose to have children. In fact, reproductive justice and feminist leaders pushed for maternity coverage with President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, the first time this has ever happened. Beginning in 2014, women who have insurance with a private company will be guaranteed access to prenatal care, delivery, and postpartum care.

In addition, to Grant’s story there were several workshops that focused on birth justice and midwives present and speaking throughout the conference, giving  voice to the right to have a child in the reproductive justice conversation.

The most important aspects that I took away from the conference were the ideas and sources of information that I can share with the students, particularly with students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. I gained new ideas of action plans and initiatives that I can share when I visit campuses in the fall.  The issues discussed are too important to the woman of color community for HBCUs and women of color on predominately white campuses not to take action and educate their communities about reproductive justice.

If you would like to learn more about SisterSong and their affiliate organizations, please visit the SisterSong website.

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