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Unbought and Unbossed: The Racism That Comes With The Fight For Reproductive Rights

A year before the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its ruling in Roe v. Wade, Shirley Chisholm understood her revolutionary potential. She had been the first Black woman elected to Congress, and in 1972, she became both the first Black person and the first woman to seek the Democratic nomination for U.S. president. Though she lost, Chisholm’s slogan, “Unbought and unbossed,” captivated audiences across the country as she campaigned against poverty, racism and the criminalization of abortion.

Sunday would have been the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, but now the reproductive rights movement should take a page from Chisholm’s playbook. The leadership of radical Black feminists has historically been the movement’s best bet. And yet our voices are largely ignored.

Reproductive health care organizations have a well-documented history of anti-Black racism. In recent years, Black women working at Planned Parenthood have written open letters, leaked recordings and spoken with journalists about the hostility they faced on the job.

Now that we’ve lost the constitutional right to abortion, will leadership finally be accountable for its lackluster response to charges of systemic racism?

In October, I filed a lawsuit against Planned Parenthood after I was fired for speaking up about structural racism within the 106-year-old organization. In January 2020, I became the first multicultural brand engagement director at Planned Parenthood’s national office in New York. Like Chisholm, I felt empowered to use my status as “the first” to help others — to carve out a space where we could forge new bonds of trust between Planned Parenthood and Black and Latine people. To do this successfully, I needed an investment in my work. This role had to be valued.

Instead, I found that even with the future of abortion on the line, Planned Parenthood would rather celebrate Chisholm with a tweet than actually have someone on staff who embodied her boldness.

Black feminism is something that major reproductive rights groups like to say they practice, but there is still a tendency to use white supremacy and the mission of the movement to sideline, silence, scapegoat and suspend us. Planned Parenthood implores politicians to be bold and relentless in their advocacy for access and justice but expects Black workers to keep quiet about the harm they encounter in the office and on Zooms.

I used to say Roe was the “ground floor” of reproductive rights. In retrospect, it was a penthouse, built for those privileged and able-bodied enough to make it up to the lofty entrance. As a Black woman, once you made it in, either as a staffer or a patient, the air was often thick with anti-Black racism and white privilege. If you were outspoken enough to point out inequity, you were shown the door. The movement had become a revolving door of BIPOC women who wanted more from a movement than pink pussy hats and “The Handmaid’s Tale” costumes.

Now that the constitutional right to abortion has been overturned, at least 66 clinics across 15 states have been forced to stop offering abortions. The SCOTUS ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization means nearly one-third of women now live in a state where abortion is either unavailable or severely restricted. People who believe in the right to an abortion are numb and still reeling.

If a silver lining exists, it’s this: We now have an opportunity to reset. To create a movement that’s truly accessible and is more inclusionary and robust than it ever was, even when Roe was the law of the land.

As abortion rights advocates scramble to develop a new game plan, now is the perfect time to heed Chisholm’s radical call. We must disengage from traditional ideas of feminism and power that are rooted in white supremacy and domination.

“I have a theory about campaigning. You have to let them feel you,” Chisholm said. It’s time the movement gave supporters something they can feel. And who better than Black women — who are roughly three times more likely to die from childbirth than white women — to lead that charge?

With over 600 health centers nationwide and deep ties to powerful, mostly white Democratic donors, Planned Parenthood has a virtual monopoly on the reproductive health care narrative. But being unbought and unbossed requires us to stop buying into traditional notions of corporate hierarchy and white privilege. In the words of Black feminist writer Audre Lorde, “[W]e cannot use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.”

Instead, we must revisit our radical origins by making wholesale investments in Black-led grassroots organizing.

How do we get there? For starters, Planned Parenthood and other major reproductive health care organizations should embrace unionization. Unions and collective bargaining offer critical protections for support staff and frontline clinic workers, who are increasingly overworked and underpaid as patients from states with abortion bans travel out of state in search of care.

As of this writing, hundreds of employees at dozens of Planned Parenthood clinics nationwide have formed unions. But Planned Parenthood has an alleged history of anti-union activity. In western Pennsylvania last month, employees won their first union contract after 20 months of negotiations, with some claiming that Planned Parenthood dragged its feet. At its national headquarters in New York and San Francisco, contract negotiations have been underway for well over a year.

The days of union busting have got to end. Full stop.

Second, reproductive rights organizations must stop using diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) as performance art and start doing the really hard work of being anti-racist. Placing a few Black women in executive leadership roles and conducting anti-harassment training won’t cut it. Audit all of your policies and procedures through the lens of the communities of color that you serve.

Make rest and rage cornerstones of the movement. When Black women express anger over being undervalued and overworked, listen to them. Those of us doing the work of engaging, organizing and caring for communities of color are tired. Recognize that professionalism and workplace decorum are often used to perpetuate the racist trope of the Angry Black Woman. Now that Roe is lost, we have to channel our collective anger and make noise. We have to be defiant.

Donors, think carefully about the pro-choice organizations you support. Instead of throwing money behind name-brand national nonprofits, consider supporting independent clinics — especially in red states — which perform 55% of all abortions nationwide, according to a recent report from Abortion Care Network. There are plenty of other smaller, grassroots organizations led by Black radical women, like The Afiya Center, Yellowhammer Fund and SisterSong, that need our support more than ever.

And lastly, let me offer a radical idea: Instead of running health care centers like Big Tech corporations with one CEO calling all the shots, let’s invest in public health from the bottom up. Food co-ops transformed communities that were food deserts into quality food centers owned by the neighborhoods they served. Why not change models of power at Planned Parenthood and give employees working at affiliates a seat at the table? Let’s really root reproductive health care in the local communities they serve by not only giving people in these neighborhoods jobs but also the power to make decisions on how the centers are managed, how people are treated and the ability to profit from the care of our own.

If we are to resuscitate the movement and create new pathways of care, it will require all of us — executives, staffers, organizers, donors and supporters — to be unapologetically radical in our anti-racist stance. The time for prioritizing politics and power over people has to end.

As Trevor Noah said in his final sign-off on ”The Daily Show,” “If you truly want to learn about America, talk to Black women. Because, unlike everybody else, Black women can’t afford to fuck around and find out.”

We’ve already lost Roe; let’s not mess around and lose the fire that ignited this movement in the first place.

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