“Why are all these people snapping? This is not a poetry reading.”
I walked into the conference room at our Women’s Center on Campus for the first meeting of SRJ (Students for Reproductive Justice) only to see a sea of White faces staring back at me. I was perplexed. It wasn’t like our campus was lacking diversity -- there are plenty of women of color on campus. They just weren’t in this room.
The group was not representative of the reproductive justice movement I was introduced to. The movement I knew was founded by women of color and recognizes the critical issues of race, class, and socioeconomic status that all work together to oppress a person’s ability to control their reproductive destiny. It valued the voices and experiences of marginalized people and encouraged them to lead. Why was the group on campus so monolithic when the movement as a whole was intentionally created to address the needs of a diverse group of people and perspectives? SRJ had existed on campus for two years already. Why was I the only Black woman in the room? I wondered what steps, if any, the group had taken to recruit other women of color.
I sat down nervously and the meeting started with introductions. Each person was to say their name, year, major, and why they were interested in the movement. After each person introduced themselves, everyone snapped their fingers and nodded their heads in approval, looking very thoughtful. Aside from the appropriation of snapping as a small gesture of praise (it became apparent to me that this was a common thing when I witnessed it in other majority White activist groups, too), this first meeting made me feel like an outsider in other ways as well.
Sitting in a room full of women who didn’t look like me, yet were indirectly talking about me, was unsettling. Some of the language people used to explain why they were interested in the movement was to the effect of “I think it’s really upsetting what’s happening to those women…” “I think it’s really important that we consider those communities…”
I wondered if they knew that I was one of those women, or if they were aware of how their othering of me made me feel. I’m sure they didn’t intentionally want to make me feel unwelcome. But sometimes privilege disguises itself in kindhearted, well-intended gestures. That doesn’t make it any less hurtful when someone throws it in your face.
I walked away from that meeting feeling upset and confused. I knew I had to do something, because this movement is about me, too -- and I have every right to feel like my voice should be included.
My first step was to have a meeting with the leadership. Over dinner one Friday evening, I told them exactly how I felt at the meeting, and I also gave them suggestions for how they could make the group more inclusive. Thankfully, they were very receptive to all the comments I made. Then, I worked with the leadership to develop a mini-training session for the rest of the group. I talked to them more about the history of the movement and how the framework was initially developed at a Black women’s caucus. I also showed them the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective’s Trust Black Women: We Always Resist documentary to give them an example of how Black women had mobilized in response to reproductive oppression.
The rest of the year was a whirlwind. The group gradually began to dwindle in numbers as the quarter went on and midterm season ramped up, but SRJ still managed to do great, impactful events during the year -- many of which featured amazing women of color. It was so great to see some of the issues I had raised being addressed and how that influenced the future of the group. I am glad that I spoke up to make sure that my voice was included.
Recently, I went to the first SRJ meeting for 2014. I arrived at the Women’s Center a little early, walked into the conference room and was greeted by the lovely, smiling face of another core SRJ member who was co-president of the group last year. Thinking back to the conversation we had over dinner a year ago, I was comforted to see her face again and so proud of how far both of us had come. We sat down and chatted before the meeting started, and as newcomers began to trickle in I smiled at them and did the best I could to make them feel welcome.
This time for introductions, the prompt was not to say why we are interested in the movement, but rather to share something we are interested in OUTSIDE of reproductive justice. That way, we got to see how diverse the room really was, not just in terms of race or background, but also in personality, habits, and activities. (Yes, there was still snapping after each introduction, but I ignored it and smiled instead.) It warmed my heart to see such a wide range of people from different backgrounds in one room.
After the meeting, the core members of the group stayed back to talk with the leadership about how the meeting went and to determine our goals for the year. I had a lot to say about how we should hold ourselves accountable to this movement. Although I was happy that during our first meeting the leaders acknowledged that the development of the reproductive justice framework was spearheaded by women of color, I pushed my fellow group members to do more than just throw around the term. When using words like “people of color” we should be acknowledging each of the groups that are represented by that phrase, not ignoring them and using the term as a catch-all. When we are talking about an issue that is specific to the African American community, we should say that. When we are talking about an issue that is very prevalent in Native American communities, we should say that.
When we are talking about immigration, or the school to prison pipeline, or sterilization we shouldn’t just say that those issues affect people of color and leave it at that -- we have to push ourselves to get specific. Which people of color do these issues affect, and how? Do these issues affect one community in a different way than they affect another community? How will we in our activism address that?
The women in my group listened to this critique and vowed to work with me to evaluate our own practices and make changes if necessary. We planned a longer, more thorough meeting with the larger group where we talked to them about the history of the movement and what steps we are going to take as a collective to truly be intersectional this year. At the end of the meeting, the group leaders expressed to me that my input was valuable and necessary. I finally felt included.
We have come a long way from where we were one year ago, and I am thankful for that, but there is still much more work to be done. This time though, I have the support of women who I can now call my sisters. They don’t look like me, but they listen to me. I am no longer a silent token. I am influential, powerful, welcomed, and appreciated.