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Supporters of Oklahomans for Reproductive Justice at a rally in 2009 – Photo by OK4RJ Supporters of Oklahomans for Reproductive Justice at a rally in 2009 – Photo by OK4RJ

'The long emergency ahead': Reproductive Justice Organizing in Red States and Rural Spaces

By Pauline Holdsworth

Supporters of Oklahomans for Reproductive Justice at a rally in 2009 – Photo by OK4RJ

What does long-term progress for the reproductive justice movement look like? How do we create and sustain conversations that extend beyond major political moments and recognize the hours of unaccounted, exhausting work that make those moments possible? What does responsible, accountable reporting look like, when so many media outlets are based in cities and so much work happens in other places? What does the future look like from here?

These are the questions {Young}ist will be thinking through in our three-part series on building long-term, sustainable reproductive justice movements. Today, we’re looking at the challenges of organizing in isolation and across distances, particularly in red states and rural spaces.

The second installment will examine ways people can work on a daily basis in their communities to create cultural change, and the final piece will focus on intersectionality and accountability in reproductive justice organizing.

Distance, isolation, and organizing in red states

Every year in Norman, OK, reproductive justice organizers head to the Take Root conference – a gathering dedicated to creating space for activists working in red states to share resources and strategies, build networks for support and mobilization, and engage in critical conversations about the way organizing works where they live.

One of the things Take Root organizers are invested in is questioning the narrative that people from small towns and conservative districts have to leave home to pursue activist work. “I think that comes from a certain amount of privilege – that you have the ability to leave, that you have the resources, or that you even have the desire to leave,” said Sandra Criswell, an organizer with Take Root and Oklahomans 4 Reproductive Justice (OK4RJ).

These conversations offer a challenge to mainstream media outlets, which often fall back on easy tropes, naming red states exclusively in the context of disasters and failures. For some, it’s also a way of pushing back against stereotypes about red states and saying you love where you’re from.

Criswell recognizes that it’s often difficult for people to access the resources, training, and jobs they need to support yourself or their work in red states and rural spaces, something that complicates narratives around leaving home.

“I also don’t ever want to downplay people’s need to leave – like, if people need to leave a bad situation or an environment that they feel they can’t deal with, then they should feel free to leave without any kind of guilt,” she said. “And I think that there’s also a lot of people who leave and come back and then maybe leave again and come back, and those are all productive ways of dealing with things and you can still stay connected to your home, or wherever you feel is home, without being there all the time.”

Part of organizing across distance is “just creating that constant contact,” said Criswell, who currently lives in Kansas and works online with OK4RJ members based in a number of states. “You have to find ways to keep things intimate when the internet can be a little, I guess, impersonal if you’re just exchanging formal emails.”

Online spaces and resources can also facilitate relationship-building between people who don’t have access to activist communities where they live.

“As someone that grew up in Idaho and certainly didn’t always live in a hub for reproductive justice activism, I found online feminist communities and activist platforms to be immensely helpful in enabling me to engage in online activism and movement building,” said Sara Alcid, who works at the Reproductive Health Technologies Project. “Another great resource is CoreAlign's Network Map, which anyone can join and use to connect with activists and activism all over the United States.”

Today, Alcid lives and works at the in Washington, DC. “I think that reproductive justice organizers in major metropolitan centers can better support the work of activists in more rural areas or red states by expanding our ideas about leadership and what credentials make up a good leader,” she told {Young}ist. “Leadership and movement structures vary from community to community in so many ways, so I think those of us living in Washington, DC, for example, must challenge ourselves to unlearn much of what we think we know about leadership.”

For Jessica Luther, a Texan reproductive justice activist, writer, and historian who was heavily involved in the protests against HB2, creating a kind of constant contact is a crucial part of building the relationships that, in turn, build movements.

“All that kind of interaction, at least for me, has really closed the distance in a way that feels productive,” she said. “At the same time, those of us who live where the capitol is or in bigger urban spaces need to be aware all the time of how our experience of these things is going to be very different from what’s going on in El Paso and McAllen and really try to honor the fact that the struggle will look different in different places.”

Luther is also an editor at Flyover Feminism, a site dedicated to amplifying the voices of feminists who are geographically and socially marginalized by the movement.

“As far as social media goes, one of the things that I think has been the most effective in my own case is that people feel like I’m a person, and people became invested in me, and therefore were invested in what I cared about. I think that matters,” said Luther. “It’s always helpful for me that if something’s happening in Ohio, that someone from Ohio tells me how that affects them.”

“I think the way to draw people in is to really try to let them know what it means to you as an individual to have these things happening to you, and God, you just have to be ready for no one to care for a long time.”

The Feminist Justice League (FJL) is an online collective and community space that emerged out of the work being done to under various banners during the Texas Protests. They’ve since sparked local communities all across the country.

“We’re not appointing ourselves as ‘in charge’ of a movement; we’re more interested in supporting the movement that inspired us to create this site. We are creating a set of tools for all those in the struggle for a more just future – a hub for information and action,” a group of FJL organizers told {Young}ist.

For the League, part of the process of facilitating and sustaining a non-hierarchical movement is creating a space where it’s easy for people working in different parts of the country to connect and collaborate.

“FJL is not looking to stand apart from, but rather to stand with other groups that have similar goals. Building the infrastructure to support and sustain a movement takes time and effort, and FJL can act as an online hub of information, communication, and inspiration for that process,” they said.

“We want to get people educated on the issues and involved in the strategies needed to move the meter towards a just society. We want people to do research, access media, create media, meet others with similar interests, join groups that are already doing great work, and in short, build a network of allies for the long emergency ahead.”

Similarly, the Take Root conference works to facilitate coalition-building between activists working in different places by giving them a space that’s designed to support their needs and experiences. They’re also interested in alternative models of training and support, where organizers don’t have to relocate to access the resources they need.

In North Texas, a collective of doulas have joined forces with the Bay Area Doula Project to share resources.“They’re going to start training full-spectrum abortion doulas, and the Bay Area folks are flying out at the end of August to help them with the training,” said Criswell. “I just thought that that was such a wonderful example of how collaboration can work, and how instead of expecting very select, privileged [group of] people to leave and go get training and bring it back – we think, why not bring a few of those people from elsewhere and train a large group of people [all at once]?”

Take Root drew some of its initial inspiration from CLPP, a reproductive justice conference that takes place every year in Massachusetts, and the two conferences maintain a mutually supportive relationship today. That relationship is one example of the kind of cross-country collaboration Criswell thinks is most productive. “They ask how we would like to be helped, instead of just doing whatever they think we should need help with, which I think is a really important part of allyship,” she said.

At Take Root 2014, Criswell hopes the question of responsible, accountable, and mutually supportive collaboration will lead to some interesting conversations.

“We’re really going to be trying to have a lot of conversations about cooperation between red states, blue states, coasts, and flyover states. How do we do that responsibly, and how do we create a two-way learning street where we can learn from them and they can learn from us, and how can we enrich each other’s activism with cooperation?”

Media narratives and misrepresentation

After Wendy Davis’s filibuster, Luther read an article in The New York Times that described those final moments of the day. It was written by a local reporter who had been covering the protests on the ground – but it wasn’t the scene she remembered.

“I just felt like he got that story wrong. Lt. Gov Dewhurst really wants people to believe that the protest was primarily [led socialist organizers], who were definitely involved, and I don’t want to minimize their involvement, I don’t want to erase them. But it wasn’t just them,” said Luther. “I felt like that telling of those final minutes sort of made it seem like they were the ones pushing everything that had happened. It kind of lost the organic nature of that amazing moment and I felt like the Texas GOP really wants people to believe it wasn’t organic somehow.”

When reproductive justice fights in red states make the news, said Criswell, there’s a certain kind of disaster-oriented reporting that comes along with them. Progressive media-makers working on the coasts might mention when restrictive laws get introduced or passed in places like Texas or Oklahoma, but they rarely stick around to see what happens next. The result is a catalogue of anti-choice policies divorced from their surroundings, and which ignores the proactive, long-term, day-to-day work organizers do in their communities to create slow cultural change.

“I feel so torn about it. Obviously, some of it’s very accurate about the kind of legislation that gets passed, but I don’t think it really captures the work that happens outside of policy, the work that happens even within policy outside of the legislative session. And it doesn’t capture the proactive work that people try to do,” said Criswell.

She’s frustrated by the persistent failure of national media to recognize that reproductive justice activism extends beyond advocating for policy change. “I just don’t think of the work that way. I think of it like this: we have this goal, and it’s in the far, far future, and I may never actually see it come it into fruition, but I am a part of that larger goal. I feel like it creates these unfair expectations of what a success is, and what a failure is,” she said.

In Texas, after the second special session was called and the anti-choice legislation passed, both Criswell and Luther said they encountered news stories that framed the protests as a failure – and assumed the activists involved hadn’t realized the legislation was going to pass all along.

“I understood that the bill was going to pass basically no matter what. So on some level I knew what we were doing was futile in that way, in that regard,” said Luther. “But it was like, look at us. Look at what we’ve done. We’re here, and we’re really angry, and we have affected what may happen in the state in the next ten years, in a really real way.”

Luther said while the protests were happening in full force in Austin, she’d see panels on MSNBC that would open their segments with a discussion of what was happening in Texas – but then use that as an opportunity to pivot immediately to a discussion of national politics.

“The whole point of what’s happened in Texas is that this is about state-level politics, and the effect that people can have on state-level politics and how big that can be, and how important that can be. I often feel like states like Texas or other red states especially in liberal media get pushed aside because we can’t have as much of an effect on what happened federally. Like, you can’t elect Obama, so why should we care about what you guys think or what’s happening to you?” she said.

Criswell said the national media coverage framing what happened in Texas as a failure missed the point – and undermined important work people all across the country need to learn from.

“What was important to me about it was mobilizing all these people and creating awareness,” she said. “It was a culmination of many, many years of many nameless activists working to get to a point where the networks could even be strong enough to call out and get thousands of people to the capital in a couple of days.”

For more on what the day-to-day work of creating those networks looks like, stay tuned for our second installment.

—Edited by Muna Mire

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Pauline Holdsworth

Writer/reporter & @UBCJournalism grad student. Interested in community health, consent, feminism, science fiction, & #yalit.

Catch up with me @holdswo.


reproductive rights



September 19, 2013

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