By: Emily Faber, Summer Creator
“Reproductive Justice is about centering those most vulnerable and providing opportunities for them to thrive, not just survive,” said Cherisse Scott, Founder and CEO of SisterReach, the first of two Reproductive Justice organizations in the state of Tennessee.
SisterReach is a 501c3 non-profit grassroots organization dedicated to supporting the reproductive autonomy of women and girls of color, poor and rural women, LGBT+ and gender non-conforming people and their families. At the forefront of their mission is the empowerment of women and girls and supporting their human right to lead healthy and safe lives.
While SisterReach is a woman-centered movement, the organization has expanded its reach to LGBT folks, young men, elders, and people on all scales of the public health spectrum. SisterReach intentionally adds the lenses of sexual violence, discrimination, and economic and racial inequity to discussions about Reproductive Justice. For SisterReach, Reproductive Justice is not achieved without comprehensive access to a person’s human rights.
“What does it really look like for a young girl who’s had to deal with sexual assault before she got her first period? How does that inform her health decisions and behavior, which leads to circumstances that she’s quickly demonized for without anyone taking the time to ask her how she arrived at her situation in life?” said Ms. Scott.
A large focus of SisterReach is addressing the systemics of reproductive injustice and ensuring that legislation and policy makers hear their platform and support bills that are in the interest of whole communities. Between the 2014-16 legislative sessions, SisterReach worked with state and national partners to victoriously defeat HB 1660, which criminalized mothers struggling with drug addiction.
Ms. Bettye Boone, immediate past president of the Memphis Chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, is one such partner who works alongside SisterReach on their mission. The Coalition of 100 Black Women is a national coalition of Black women which advocates for the health, education, and economic empowerment of black women.
“We encourage women to exercise their right to vote because this will be the only way they will be able to put people in positions that will have their best interest at heart and by supporting legislature that will maintain and their rights,” said Ms. Boone.
Ms. Boone shares that, while the Coalition of 100 Black Women was addressing many of the systemic issues surrounding injustices and inequality experienced by black women, it was not until meeting Ms. Scott that she saw these issues through the lens of Reproductive Justice.
“[Scott] educated me and I was able to educate my organization, and then those women could take that knowledge and spread it further,” said Ms. Boone. The two organizations have worked together on several fronts, ranging from supporting women voting issues, participating in health task force discussions, comprehensive sexuality education to specific focuses of HIV & AIDS awareness initiatives. During our interview, the two women frequently interjected ideas for how they could collaborate on projects in the future.
As part of Ms. Boone’s personal understanding of faith, she states that she does not personally support abortions. However, she supports a woman’s right to choose the course of care for herself and her family. “God gives us the right to choose to accept or not accept him, so let a woman have that same choice. You can’t tell me what I can do with the body I live with.”
For Ms. Boone, Reproductive Justice is not just about abortion - it is access to mammograms for those women who do not have access nor can afford health insurance, sex education and counseling about birth control— it is addressing a woman’s ability to feel safe in her own home, be financially independent, and raise a family safely. “It is so much bigger than [abortion]” said Ms. Boone.
Ms. Scott began her work in Reproductive Justice while living in Chicago before coming to Memphis to start SisterReach. In Memphis, Ms. Scott was struck by the lack of woman-of-color-led work, or funding allocated toward programs that also informally doing the work of Reproductive Justice. Before starting SisterReach, she conducted a thorough needs assessment of work being done in the city, needs identified by its community-centered advocates and holes in movement building needing to be filled. It was advocates like Ms. Boone among those Ms. Scott inquired about needs SisterReach might fill. “My mom encouraged me to bring the work I was doing in Chicago, to Memphis. My needs assessment revealed that Black women and women of color were at a deficit in visibility on the policy level, so that became one of the points of entry we addressed as paramount in our organizational strategy and work,” said Ms. Scott.
Ms. Scott says that her path to working for Reproductive Justice in Memphis began at age five, when she became a victim of sexual abuse. That abuse continued from age five until age fourteen; Ms. Scott went from being a straight-A student to making F’s and D’s and not being able to explain why.
“I am compelled to do this work because my innocence was snatched away from me, and it’s only in the last four years that I’ve been able to step out of that place of victimization and be empowered within who I love, how I love, what I do, what I don’t do, how I worship and how I don’t,” said Ms. Scott. “It all started that moment when I was introduced to something I wasn’t ready for.”
“There are so many reasons how Reproductive Justice found me, but when I talk about why SisterReach was founded I can’t leave that little girl and all she experienced out of that discussion because she is the reason why it exists.”
For Ms. Boone, a woman’s right to choose [Reproductive Justice later learned] affected her while she was in an emergency room after she had been raped in her early thirties; a nurse offered her an emergency contraception pill in case she wanted to prevent pregnancy that could result from the rape. “If we did not have Reproductive Justice support back then, that never would have been offered to me,” she said.
SisterReach works to ensure that women and their families continue to have opportunities to make the choices that are right and healthy for them - whether through sexual education, contraceptive equity, or centering black and brown women’s voices and experiences in conversations about Reproductive Justice.
“I take great pride in Memphis and the work that we’ve done here,” said Ms. Scott. “I believe we’ve made an impact here and that folks’ lives have been changed and will continue to be changed because SisterReach exists in this community.”