Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
The newly-formed Swarthmore Womyn of Color Collective kicked off its first year with a panel on Reproductive Justice. The talk featured executive directors of three major reproductive justice organizations: Aimee Thorne-Thomsen of the Pro-Choice Public Education Project, Mia Mingus of Spark: Reproductive Justice Now!, and Kierra Johnson of Choice USA.
The panel, moderated by Sable Mensah ’11, focused largely on issues concerning grassroots feminist organizations but also touched on topics relevant to broader activism in general. Each woman’s journey to leading their respective groups began in college but in wholly different ways. Johnson claims that her college years were central to “helping communities analyze their oppression, feel it, critique it, even own it.” All three agreed that experiences in higher education were essential to understanding true analyses of power, promoting social critical thinking, and navigating oppressive structures.
Thorne-Thomson cited specific groups and communities of color as central to her experiences as a developing activist; these groups helped her to “not only talk about racism and oppression but to go do something about it and look to actually solve the struggles,” she explained. Johnson was active with many activist groups on campus but was tipped specifically into a broader sense of fighting for reproductive justice as she watched her 16-year-old sister deal with the struggles of teen pregnancy and the social system that rejected her.
Mingus said it was easier to grasp at her political identity as a queer, disabled, transnational adoptee when she was outside of the rules and comfort zones of home. That being said, Mingus still had to work to find her place in the feminist community. Feminist activism “is separated into two main branches; you either get involved with reproductive rights or violence against women. [The movements] were focused on either criminalization [as with sexual violence] or with choice and the right to privacy. Reproductive justice builds a coalition that looks at reproductive rights and health in a much broader way.”
The discussion then led to the actual meaning and significance of reproductive justice. Choice and privacy issues have made feminist activism artificially narrow. When asked, each panelist had a different answer All three responses illustrated just how flexible, broad, and all-encompassing reproductive justice is meant to be. The movement is, in essence, supposed to be navigable from intersections of several contexts, be it gendered, racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, or otherwise though Thorne-Thomson said, “reproductive justice is not a message; it’s not something you put on a poster. It’s not neat and simple and digestable.”
Johnson explained that, “it’s not just about we need access or need birth control. It’s about why certain forms of birth control are being pushed or taken away from certain groups of people.” Asking the right questions is crucial.
At one point, all three panelists urged students to be careful about being close-minded when caught up in passionate discourse. Thorne-Thomson stressed the importance of “being intersectional in your analysis” rather than solely coming form the persuasive “I’m-right-you’re wrong” frame of mind. This call to honesty and open-mindedness nearly mirrored similar campus grumblings about lack of true discussion after the Wendy Shalit modesty lecture last year.
The panel wrapped up with a strong emphasis on the importance of constantly renewing activist organizations to keep flow of ideas moving. Panelists also offered up critiques of the institutional structure of the non-profit sector and the dying support of grassroots movements (as compared to policy and advocacy movements).Mingus remarked that groups “shouldn’t have to pry the torch from cold, dying hands” and stressed the importance of intergenerational leadership. Thorne-Thomson and Johnson cited fears of the RJ movement drifting away from actual community experiences to heady theory, a common complaint among progressive leaders on this College campus.
The ensuing Q & A session tackled concerns around the male place and queerness issues in feminist activism. The camaraderie and spirit of the panel was overarching-ly positive and stressed the importance of remaining aware and sensitive of different dialouges while pursuing institutional change rather than simply the symptoms of societal discord.
The talk declared an overall success, Swarthmore Womyn of Color Collective now look to host several discussion-oriented and topical events throughout the year.