The hotel ballroom is packed when the spoken-word poet Staceyann Chin takes the stage on a Saturday morning in late October. At least 1,100 mostly women and nonbinary people of color have filled the vast space in the Hyatt Regency in Atlanta in anticipation of her performance and of Stacey Abrams’ keynote address, which will come next.
Chin’s first poem is a polemic against President Donald Trump, which elicits yells of support along with sharp laughs and applause. But the second performance, called “Tsunami Rising,” is when the audience explodes. In a monologue describing how black women have been brutalized, beaten down and discarded since before the founding of America, Chin expresses both the rage she feels at being ignored and the adoration she has for her fellow women of color. “If you are itching to light a f-cking bonfire in the house of the white patriarchy, come stand with black women,” she says.
Many in the room are on now on their feet, tears streaming down their cheeks. When Abrams, who lost the Georgia gubernatorial race in 2018 but has since launched voting-rights and census-participation campaigns, steps up to the podium, she urges attendees to turn their pain into action. “My campaign began with the notion that you could center communities of color and you could speak to the marginalized and the disadvantaged,” she says. “More importantly, you could hand them the microphone.” By the end of her talk, the room is on its feet again. Everyone must help ensure that “justice becomes a verb in the United States,” she says.
This mix of fury and joy, celebration and action, defines the weekend at SisterSong’s biennial Let’s Talk About Sex conference, which despite its name is about much more than sex. It’s a training institute, healing retreat, information-sharing opportunity and 2020 strategy session for people working to advance the cause of reproductive justice. “My campaign was a love song to SisterSong,” Abrams says in her speech.
Reproductive justice, unlike the more mainstream phrasing reproductive rights, goes beyond contraception, abortion access and the idea of being “pro-choice.” According to the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, it’s “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” The framework demands consideration of all the ways reproductive health can be affected by other factors, from race, religion or sexual orientation to financial, immigration or disability status to environmental conditions. “It’s about liberation,” says SisterSong executive director Monica Simpson, “and it’s about dismantling systems of oppression that make our lives hard in this country but also that make it impossible for us to have the access and the choices that we want to have.”
While women’s-health groups like Planned Parenthood and NARAL attract the most national attention, today’s political climate, the country’s changing demographics and a growing recognition of the importance of women of color to progressive politics have combined to put new focus on the work and ideology of reproductive justice. In recent years, groups committed to this work have added chapters and attracted new volunteers and donors. And in June, SisterSong became the named plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging Georgia’s new law prohibiting abortion once cardiac activity from a fetal pole is detectable–sometimes known as a “heartbeat” ban. It was the first time the group has gotten involved in such a high-profile lawsuit, and it catapulted SisterSong into the spotlight.
As Democrats increasingly see women and people of color as key to their 2020 strategy, the leaders of the reproductive-justice movement believe they can provide a model for how to mobilize people across the country. “This is a moment for a reckoning,” says Kimberly Inez McGuire, the executive director of URGE: Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity, which focuses on mobilizing young reproductive-justice advocates. “It’s not enough for our progressive comrades to sit on the sidelines anymore.”
The reproductive-justice movement came into its own in June 1994, when a group of mostly white women gathered at a conference in Chicago to hear about the Clinton Administration’s proposal for health care reform, which de-emphasized reproductive health care in an attempt to head off Republican criticism. The few black women present were concerned. There was little focus on health services like pre- and postnatal care, fibroid screenings or STI tests, and seemingly no understanding of how black women’s “choices” around parenthood and reproductive care were often constrained by things like income, housing and the criminal-justice system. So 12 black women leaders gathered in a hotel room to discuss how to address these disparities.
The group called themselves the Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice and bought full-page ads in the Washington Post and Roll Call that featured over 800 signatures calling for any health care reform package to include the concerns of black women. Three years later, 16 organizations including black, Asian-American, Latina and indigenous women got together to create SisterSong, a collective devoted to the reproductive and sexual health of women and gender-nonconforming people of color, based in Atlanta.
Over the years, SisterSong and other reproductive-justice groups have remained separate from more mainstream reproductive-rights groups. While they support each other’s work, reproductive-justice leaders have sometimes felt that the bigger organizations wanted to collaborate only when it was convenient. “We have the language, we have the connections, and we know how to talk to our people,” Simpson says. “For a long time it was very transactional.” But in 2014, there was a shift. After a New York Times story about reproductive-rights groups expanding their “pro-choice” message did not mention the efforts of reproductive-justice advocates, Simpson, joined by other movement leaders, wrote an open letter to Planned Parenthood. “This is not only disheartening but, intentionally or not, continues the co-optation and erasure of the tremendously hard work done by Indigenous women and women of color (WOC) for decades,” Simpson wrote. This forced the two movements to sit down and discuss how they could better work together.
SisterSong now provides training on the history and ideology of reproductive justice to local Planned Parenthood affiliates, and Planned Parenthood clinics provide medical care and services that SisterSong does not. There’s a need for both, Simpson says. “Organizations don’t have to be everything to everybody,” she adds.
Nia Martin-Robinson, director of black leadership and engagement at Planned Parenthood, says the 2014 letter was a learning opportunity. The organization has since deepened its commitment to “making sure that we’re giving credit, space, visibility and power to the folks who have been leading this work around the reproductive-justice movement,” she says. Planned Parenthood was a top sponsor at SisterSong’s conference this year. But the relationship could always be stronger. “We’re still on that journey,” Simpson says.
The SisterSong conference offered a range of workshops on a variety of hot-button progressive topics, including environmental justice, immigration and Palestinian solidarity, as well as training for medical providers, nonprofit leaders, lawyers and researchers, and how-to sessions on everything from campus organizing to the entrepreneurship of stripping. At one session, attendees discussed strategies for incorporating disability advocacy into their work. Another workshop concluded with participants chanting, “I am worthy of pleasure!”
On the second night, attendees let loose at a dance party that lasted well past its scheduled three hours. “There’s not a lot of places that the organizers in our community can show up to just be recharged,” says Danielle Rodriguez, SisterSong’s national conference coordinator. This feeling of solidarity was crucial for attendees like Bridgette Agbozo, a 22-year-old from North Carolina whose family came to the U.S. from Ghana. “As a young person who grew up in the U.S. South and coming from an immigrant background, these are not conversations I grew up having,” she says after leaving a workshop where she sought advice on how to square her love for activism with thoughts of going to law school. “It’s really reaffirming to be around people who get it.”
The increased influence of the movement was apparent at the conference. After the 2016 race, in which 94% of black women voted for Hillary Clinton, many nonprofits realized that they needed to speak more directly to women of color, who are instrumental to efforts to expand the base. SIECUS, formerly known as the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S., has historically not been part of the reproductive-justice movement, but it recently rebranded with a new mission of using sex education to push social change. “When you center these voices of those who are most at risk,” SIECUS president and CEO Christine Soyong Harley says, “you actually come up with the best solutions for our society.” URGE went from hosting chapters solely on college campuses to also building “city activist networks” in recognition of the fact that not all young people who want to organize attend college. National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health has seen a swell in grassroots involvement and other groups wanting to help their cause. And National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum is investing in get-out-the-vote efforts, after seeing people turned away when trying to vote in Georgia in 2018, says executive director Sung Yeon Choimorrow.
Reproductive-justice leaders are quick to note that people of color have struggled to access care for much longer than Trump has been in office. But since the election, the flood of new policies affecting immigrants, LGBTQ people, women and those relying on programs such as Medicaid and Title X funding has created a new pressure. This year alone, states have passed 25 laws that would ban some or most abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports reproductive rights, and the uninsured rate increased for the first time in nearly a decade.
When SisterSong sued Georgia over its ban on abortions as early as six weeks–before many women know they are pregnant–it was a big moment for the group and the movement. “A lot of abortion lawsuits erase women of color,” says Sean J. Young, legal director of ACLU of Georgia, which is serving as counsel on the case, along with the Center for Reproductive Rights and Planned Parenthood. (Feminist Women’s Health Center, Planned Parenthood and other Georgia medical providers and their patients are also plaintiffs.)
Many abortion lawsuits focus on doctors and patients. But in this case, the legal team is arguing that the law will also hurt SisterSong and the advocacy organizations and pregnant people it represents. “When the government bans abortion, it forces such organizations to divert their limited resources to combat the ban,” Young says.
Shortly after Kenyetta Chinwe joined SisterSong in January to start its Amplify project, which aims to build relationships with faith leaders, Georgia’s legislature took up its abortion bill. So rather than focusing on outreach to religious communities, she spent weeks at the state capitol with the group’s state director lobbying against the bill.
The staff also travels to provide training to other social-justice groups, to nonprofits and, increasingly, to service providers and even medical schools on how to incorporate the values of reproductive justice into their work. SisterSong now has 65 organizational members and nearly 500 individual members in its coalition. But with just seven full-time staffers and a budget that allowed for spending $1.7 million in 2017 (compared with, say, Planned Parenthood’s $318 million for the fiscal year ending in June 2017), the group is stretched thin.
People outside the movement have quietly adopted some of the priorities of the reproductive-justice community. In 2016, the Democratic National Committee added language advocating the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which bans the use of federal funding for most abortions, to its platform for the first time, something reproductive-justice groups had pushed for years. Kamala Harris has been using the phrase reproductive justice since at least 2017. Elizabeth Warren features a reproductive-justice section on the women’s-health policy page of her website. And Julián Castro has mentioned the term in multiple presidential debates. His campaign manager, Maya Rupert, spent most of her career as an activist and is familiar with this work, but says the ideas come from the candidate, who listened to women of color and wanted to incorporate reproductive-justice values into his policies. “It is a testament to the unbelievable organizing and activism work that black women have been putting in for years and years and years,” Rupert says of seeing more candidates talking about reproductive justice.
Some philanthropic foundations have reallocated their budgets to give more grants to reproductive-justice groups and help them build organizing capacity. The Ford Foundation, for example, has doubled some reproductive-justice groups’ funding to $1 million each year. And Groundswell Fund, which supports more reproductive-justice groups than any other foundation in the U.S., not only increased its own funding to such groups after the 2016 election, giving $2.9 million from its core fund last year, but also ramped up its work with other foundations to increase investments in reproductive justice. “Philanthropy has a hard time funding women of color,” says its founder and executive director Vanessa Daniel. “Things are moving in a good direction but at a glacial pace.”
For those gathered at the conference, there’s a tough fight ahead. Movement advocates fear the Supreme Court’s conservative majority could overturn Roe v. Wade or render another decision that would make abortion inaccessible in states with Republican legislatures. Choimorrow says she is glad to see the broader culture recognize the importance of reproductive justice, but wants to push some national organizations to do more work before the 2020 election. “I think the winning strategy is actually to expand your messaging,” she says. Women of color are already doing this, she adds. “Maybe it’s time for you to really get out of the way so that women of color can lead.”
Which is perhaps the point. At one of the most popular panels at the conference, four executive directors of progressive organizations, all people of color, spoke about the challenges of championing the concerns of their communities in historically white-led environments. The next day, attendees erupted in cheers when Georgia state representative “Able” Mable Thomas, one of the “founding mothers” of the reproductive-justice movement, announced she is running for the U.S. Senate.
These are moments that make Simpson optimistic. “Folks are ready to fight back, and they want to fight back with a movement that understands them,” she says. “We are creating our own stages, we’re creating our own tables, we are grabbing our own microphones to talk about these issues, to move our work forward. Folks are going to have to catch up.”
Correction, Nov. 21
The original version of this story misstated Christine Soyong Harley’s title. It is president and CEO of SIECUS, not executive director.
This appears in the December 02, 2019 issue of TIME.