Politics of Poverty

Healing and Joy: Centering Black Leadership and 30 years of the Reproductive Justice Movement

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From L - R: somatic practitioner and teacher Panya Walker, author Dr. Keecha Harris, and historian Dr. Dee Dee Cooper Owens share during the working session at The Mothers of Gynecology Monument in Montgomery, Alabama. LaCheston Moore/LaPic Visuals

Celebrating the founding contributions of Black women to the reproductive justice (RJ) movement, highlighting the landscape’s current needs and opportunities, and looking ahead to a vision of healing and joy in the RJ ecosystem.

Thirty years ago, 12 visionary Black women gathered to address the need for healthcare reform that centered the experiences of women of color and other marginalized women and people. They coined the answer to this need “Reproductive Justice” (RJ), a critical framework for human rights and social justice calling for “1) universal coverage and equal access to health services; 2) protection from discrimination; and 3) comprehensiveness” in benefits and freedom of choice. (It is recognized that there is variance in the definition of RJ, and the work has shifted and evolved as part of its responsiveness and expansiveness as a movement centering humanity.)

Black women leaders have always centered the entirety of the human experience. This means seeing RJ not only as the decision about whether or not to have a child, but also access to childcare and paid leave, having safe housing and living conditions, strengthening our ability to express our voting power, achieving financial and economic security, and everything else needed to fully live into our humanity. In fact, this mirrors the four focus areas of Oxfam’s A New Era for Black Women Initiative: the care crisis, climate, democracy and civic engagement, and financial and economic security.

Race, Healing, and Joy

In preparation for this milestone anniversary, Black women leaders in the reproductive arena, have come together to reflect, celebrate, and (re)discover the ways to advocate for collective action that (re)authenticates Black sovereignty for a movement deserving of true reverence and celebration. The resulting body of work, entitled “Race, Healing, and Joy: Centering Black Leadership,” encompasses a research study, a call to action, a set of convenings, conversations with funders to inspire a change in funding practices, and co-creating spaces for healing and joy. This project builds upon the incredible resilience and perseverance of the twelve founding mothers and Black RJ activists and practitioners.

This comprehensive body of work explicitly names the racialized history of the movement, including the fact that Black bodies have been exploited for experimentation for hundreds of years under the guise of advancing reproductive medicine. It also uplifts the voices and experiences of those closest to the work and seeks to simultaneously react to the changing needs of the movement while dreaming in service of what is possible. It acknowledges the significant personal and professional toll that this work exacts and seeks to counter the experiences of harm, injustice, and hate with the creation of spaces that promote healing and joy.

Especially in this increasingly violent political and legal climate, we deserve a vibrant reproductive ecosystem of contributors -- including a funding community that puts its money where its mouth is.

The landscape for RJ practitioners today

To deepen understanding of the current landscape of Black RJ leadership in post-Dobbs America, our consulting firm, Keecha Harris and Associates, Inc (KHA), conducted a series of listening sessions, direct inquiry interviews, two "Circles of Accountability" (one group of Black RJ practitioners and one group of grant makers with RJ portfolios - both dedicated to understanding strategies for future support) and quantitative analysis of the data from Candid, a nonprofit that uses data to provide insights about the social sector. Conversations were held with a diverse set of BIPOC leaders, practitioners, and advocates from the reproductive health ecosystem whose work intersects directly with RJ.

One interviewee’s words echoed the findings beautifully:

“Both healing and joy need a more central seat in the movement. In RJ, so many of us here have been harmed, and we’re here because we’ve been harmed and we’re still being harmed. We’re at these legislative meetings or when we are out in community, there are constant threats to our safety, to our autonomy, to our livelihood. And so healing justice needs to be centered. So whenever RJ leaders or folx in the movement are present, there needs to be some type of healing justice component, some type of centering, ground, and there needs to be joy. There needs to be opportunities for us to go into a room and scream.”

Another interviewee spoke to the fact that Black women have long been at the struggle for rights, including in the RJ movement. “All the people who were caught off guard are caught on their heels at the destruction of the Roe decision; Black women were not. And we’ve always been the canary in the coal mind, the voice crying out and trying to save America, save ourselves, save this idea of humanity, while others are not very supportive of those efforts.”

The full report can be found here, and a brief summary of the actionable needs and opportunities that emerged includes:

● A need for funders to practice responsive, radical, and trust-based grantmaking that supports the health of the whole at the individual, organizational, and sectoral levels. This includes financial support through reparations funds, for general operating funds, and provision of transparent tracking for Black RJ.

● Increased collaboration across the reproductive ecosystem (i.e., groups focused on reproductive justice, reproductive health, and reproductive rights), across organizations at different levels, and throughout the country (i.e., nationally and regionally), which would lead to less competition, more inclusion of full identities, and greater unity across the sector.

● Pipeline development and the cultivation of young Black leaders, including professional development such as coaching, webinars, continued training, and increased funding for these efforts.

● Developing leadership models, wellness models, and policies and processes aligned with RJ values that allow time and space to take guilt-free breaks and offer much-needed restoration among leadership and staff in the RJ movement.

Fatigue infiltrates every kind of social change work, but the flavors of that fatigue are different within reproductive justice. Black leaders are often forced to make painful choices between their organizations’ viability and their own humanity and personal or familial needs. This begs the question: "How do we transform the RJ ecosystem into one that promotes sustainable healing and joy?"

A vision of healing and joy

One of our touchstones at Keecha Harris and Associates is “relationship before task.” We have begun the work of building relationships and co-creating spaces to dream in service of what is possible. The concept of “non-closure,” knowing that this work won't be wrapped up in a neat and tidy bow at the end of each work session or gathering, and that is OK, is an important element to this work; we know we may not come up with all the answers but we will leave with deeper connection to our wholeness, to our truths, and to each other. That, in and of itself, is magic.

Building trust and connective tissue - especially in relationships traditionally tilted by power (such as funder and grantee) - creates the alchemy required to soar into a just future. Instead of being distracted by what’s not working, we are creating spaces to build a core connectedness as embodied beings and see what emerges. It’s not always clear if the deep personal invitations for connectivity through vulnerability in our work will actually stick. Yet when it does, you can see a wholesome relationship developing from a mile away. Going beneath the surface to meet each other in our humanity is essential for any equity and justice centered work. It has already been powerful to witness funders acknowledge the harm philanthropy has done and hold their peers accountable to move money more rapidly while uplifting Black leaders’ humanity.

In closing, we must be true to ourselves. We must find the good and praise it. And, we must continue finding the commonalities between us, collectively, while dealing squarely with our differences. We can approach hard things with ease - especially when we are in beloved community. There are infinite possibilities for healing and joy in the reproductive justice ecosystem. This is the right timing. In fact, this work is long overdue.

Everyone has a role in developing the scaffolding for more healing and joy in the reproductive justice sector. What's your role?

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