Take Root 2013: red state perspectives on reproductive justice

This past weekend I was excited and honored to participate in the Take Root conference in Norman, Oklahoma. It was the 3rd annual conference to focus on red state perspectives on reproductive justice, something near and dear to my heart.

Jen Cox, me, and Wyndi Anderson sitting behind a table, in front of blank screen. Wyndi is looking over at us and is speaking.

Left to right: Jen Cox, me, and Wyndi Anderson talking about new forms of media and organizing.

There were activists there from at least Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, Mississippi, Virginia, Minnesota, Missouri, and Alabama.

The conference was spearheaded by the group from OK4RJ (Oklahomans for Reproductive Justice), which is a favorite site of mine (and I often talk about wanting to directly copy their effort but do TX4RJ down here). Sandra Criswell, who is executive director of OK4RJ, said that Take Root was started after a group of students from the middle of the country traveled to the CLPP conference in Amherst, Massachusetts one year and they came away from it realizing that the problems and solutions offered up there did not mirror the problems and solutions in the red states. That even the urban/rural divide, which is real even in so-called blue states and an issue that needs to be pursued more, is different in the low-density states of the middle and southern US.

Part of what was so exciting for me about this particular conference was that I was finally able to meet a lot of people whom I’ve had lots of contact but never met in person, like Shark Fu, Tannis Fuller, Erin Matson, Robin Marty, and a whole lot of the OK4RJ crew including Sandra Criswell, Jen Cox, Pearl Olsen, and Mallory Carlberg.

The highlights for me were the keynote address by the amazing Loretta Ross from Sister Song and the final thoughts given by the inspiring Deborah Small from Break the Chains.

Here are some things that I heard over the weekend that I have been thinking about ever since:

Loretta Ross defined reproductive justice this way: “the right to have a child, the right not to have a child, and the right to raise your child in a safe and healthy enviroment.”

Loretta Ross standing at the podium, delivering her keynote address.

Loretta Ross

Ross discussed how the reproductive justice framework, which was drafted by 16 women of color in the mid 1990s, was based not on the US idea of equality but on the idea of human rights. As the Sister Song site explains: “Human rights provide more possibilities for our struggles than the privacy concepts the pro-choice movement claims only using the U.S. Constitution. Reproductive justice emerged as an intersectional theory highlighting the lived experience of reproductive oppression in communities of color. It represents a shift for women advocating for control of their bodies, from a narrower focus on legal access and individual choice (the focus of mainstream organizations) to a broader analysis of racial, economic, cultural, and structural constraints on our power.” Ross stated that in the US the idea of “equality” masks the very real way in which different people will need different things in order to have their human rights honored. Treating everyone “equally” will not result in everyone’s human rights being met.

Reproductive justice is a big umbrella. Valencia Robinson, an activist in Mississippi who is the executive director of Mississippi in Action, spoke about the initiatives in Mississippi last year for both personhood and voter ID. As someone who cares about reproductive justice, Robinson recognized that BOTH issues were human rights issues and needed to be fought in order for justice to occur. Many people in the reproductive rights movement, though, were only interested in personhood. In the end, personhood was defeated, which was good, but voter ID passed and for Ross and Robinson, this was NOT a win.

I was on a panel with Shark Fu (Pam Merritt) and she said, “reproductive health is not reproductive rights. And reproductive rights is not reproductive justice. And that’s okay.” In fact, she argued, we need all three, we just need to recognize the difference between them and not conflate them. Planned Parenthood does reproductive health and they have a lobbying arm that does reproductive rights. But PP is not reproductive justice. That’s okay as long as we are all aware of that. As Loretta Ross said, “We didn’t design reproductive justice to replace pro-choice. If you’re doing abortion rights work, pro-choice is a fine frame.”

Shark Fu also discussed the reality that when you are working in reproductive justice and you have privilege (I’m looking at you, white cis hetero women), know that you will at some point fuck things up. She asked that when this happens and someone else points it out to you, that you respond with open ears and listen, apologize, move forward, and change your behavior. This seems simple but I have seen so many people in the short time that I have been a part of the movement respond to good faith criticism with defensiveness and they dig in their heels. That changes nothing and only perpetuates a harmful, unjust system.

Ariel Dougherty from the Media Equity Collaborative talked a lot about how we need better media here in the red states and that one way to achieve that is to create alliances among activists in conservative states so that we can build networks. I want to do that. How do we start?

Wyndi Anderson spoke about the special space that those of us who grew up in or have lived for a long time in these traditionally conservative places occupy: we can navigate in between the conservative and the progressive because we understand both sides, we care about people on both sides, we exist in “the spaces that are split.” As she said, “I don’t wanna be at choir practice. I want to be in the spaces in between.”

Anderson is in center of room, holding microphone and talking. Behind her is a panel of speakers at a table. There is a screen behind her with images.

Wyndi Anderson

Deborah Small used the final talk of the conference to discuss how we each approach the activism we do and about the hard work of self-awareness that is key to this work: “You are reflected back to yourself the things you see wrong in the world. Where am I unjust? Where am I unfair? Where am I oppressive?”

Deborah Small standing behind a podium, speaking.

Deborah Small

Small also talked a lot about love: loving each other, loving our selves. Small said: “I want to be the strongest link that I can be in the chain of justice.” Small encouraged us to ground our activism not in anger but in love: “It is up to us to provide something different. And that something different is rooted in love.”

It was the perfect end to this wonderful conference.

Overall, it was a great, challenging, thought-provoking, and fun weekend. I hope to be at Take Root 2014. Hopefully you’ll join me there.


Here are the links to the storifies of the panels, workshops, and addresses (I *seriously* suggest you take the time to at least read through the one for Loretta Ross’ keynote address):

Queer Health Workshop: This workshop helps to educate participants on queer and trans* terminology, HIV/AIDS prevention, and related issues. This is our guide to why queer health IS part of our fight for reproductive justice and helpful ways to talk about it in your work and activism.

Nothing About Us Without Us: Red State Narratives in New Media: This roundtable discussion addresses new media platforms and strategies that are transforming RJ conversations and organizing approaches.

Plenary: Red State Perspectives on Reproductive Justice: This large session addresses all Take Root participants about red state challenges and solutions in reproductive justice, reflecting the organizing principles of the conference.

Keynote Address: Loretta Ross

Reproductive Justice Policy Roundtable: This roundtable discussion covers current pro and anti-reproductive justice legislation trends in red states along with strategies to address them.

New Tools in the Box: Remote Organizing in Flyover Country: This panel features stories and strategies from organizers in red states who take virtual organization beyond the symbolic and into the applied realm.

Depriving People of their Personhood: This mixed format session features discussion and individual panelist presentations about dehumanization experienced during pregnancy, transition, travel, and documentation processes.

Reproductive Justice At Any Stage in Life: Health and Service Provision within RJ Framework: This panel explores the ways in which service providers are giving comprehensive and full-spectrum care in least accessible and hostile states.

Consent, How Does It Work? Intimate Partner Violence Prevention Workshop: This workshop helps educate participants on how to negotiate consent, disclose STI status, and develop concrete communication strategies for healthier relationships.

Hostile Attitudes, Hostile Environments: From tense conversations with neighbors to clinic violence, how we all negotiate standing for reproductive justice in hostile environments.

Stories from the Movement: Powerful stories from members of all ages in this movement toward reproductive justice; wisdom from every step of the way, whether you’re just beginning or you’ve been here from the start.

Closing Remarks: Deborah Small


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