I had the privilege of sitting down and having a conversation with Loretta Ross, a life-long advocate for reproductive justice and co-founder of SisterSong, a reproductive justice organization for women of color. She is one of the creators of the term reproductive justice and has been organizing for over 40 years.
Sage Fanucchi-Funes (SFF): What does reproductive justice mean to you, on a personal level?
Loretta Ross (LR): Reproductive justice on a personal level is a movement of self-determination. Not only do you get to decide what to do with your body but also you have the right to have the conditions that enable you to act on those decisions. I mean you can’t decide to use birth control if there is no birth control system. You can’t decide to make a birthing plan if you’re in a hospital that doesn’t respect birthing plans. You can’t just have knowledge; you got to have the conditions under which you can use your knowledge.
SFF: How is reproductive justice different from reproductive rights?
LR: Reproductive justice is different from reproductive rights and reproductive health as a matter of fact. Reproductive health is the service delivery framework, where you talk about actually helping individuals with their reproductive healthcare. Reproductive rights is the framework to defend reproductive issues within the U.S. constitutional framework. Reproductive justice moves beyond the constitutional framework, because it is a movement-building framework that looks at using the human rights framework. So in my writings, I talk about the differences between reproductive health, rights, and justice.
SFF: You spoke about how your definition of reproductive justice is inextricable from white supremacy. Why is that?
LR: Every since the white race was created in America to describe who was slavable and who was not, we have had different prescriptions for who should have babies and who should not. These prescriptions have differed over time because for black women there was enforced breeding during slavery, when having babies meant the white slave owners could increase their wealth. But after slavery, then we were discouraged from having babies because it was no longer a wealth-producing strategy for white men. At the same time, white women have always been encouraged to have babies because it was part of the process of populating this country. So it’s not hard to read racial codes in reproductive politics.
SF: I like this idea that you talked about, that the reproductive justice can be and should manipulated by and for individuals and how needs are specific to different identities we hold. Could you talk about that more?
LR: Just that, always use that image of the shifting lenses and so what you need as a young woman. I don’t know your race…
SF: I’m white.
LR: But I don’t know that you’re Irish or what you are?
SF: I’m Italian and Puerto Rican, but…
LR: Yeah, see, what you need from the framework is going to be different than what I need. And so what I encourage people to do is use their own intersectional identities to determine what are the things that are going to help me determine things about my sexuality, my identity, about my right to have kids or not to have kids, can I remain childless by choice, what do I need to do those kinds of things? Every human being has a different set of needs and a different set of answers to those needs. This is not to say that my needs are better than your needs or your needs are worse than my needs.
The other thing that I do with the reproductive justice framework is resist the trauma-drama syndrome. Which I call the syndrome that only believes that only if you’ve suffered through reproductive abuses do you have the right to say anything about reproductive justice. That’s bullshit. We are all trying to build a world where people are self-determining and do have choices over whether to have kids or not. So how can we even envision that world if we are not embracing people who have lived in it? If I had to describe a world from my experiences, I’d probably describe a lot of pain and a world of pain. I know this is so tripe. But hurt people, hurt people. My co-director at Sistersong, Laura Jimenez, and one of the most profound learnings she offered me, is that she had all of her children exactly the way she wanted, under the conditions in which she wanted to raise them, she parented the way she wanted, she had a partner that supported her and she negotiated her work life and her home life, and it was stressful. But she was so in charge of her choices. No woman in my family had that, that kind of decision making about their lives. No woman in my family ever had that. Without Laura’s example of what could be, I wouldn’t even have a developed world of what I am trying to build.
SFF: In trying to build this world you want, I feel like it takes so much advocating for those wants. It seems you are really good at advocating for yourself—
LR: I’m good at advocating ideas.
SFF: Well, advocating ideas. In the March for Women’s Lives in 2004, you advocated for women of color to be leaders and ensured they were paid for that work. How did you learn to be an advocate and what advice you might have for people who are trying to change these more mainstream women’s movements?
LR: By the time the 2004 March for Women’s Lives had come around, I had previously been on the staff of NOW. I worked both on the 86’ and 89’ marches. One of the things I learned is that it takes about five million dollars to pay for the logistics of those kinds of marches. So, NOW very logically says, if you are not helping us pay for this five million dollars, why should we listen to you? So advocating for women of color meant understanding the power of politics and how these things are actually produced. When they approached me in 2003 while I was at SisterSong asking me if SisterSong would endorse the march, I kind of knew how it had to go. I know that we didn’t have the money to put up to join the planning committee. So my job and opportunity was to be a bridge between women of color and the march organizers. We had to demand some changes. We demanded that the march’s name be changed from the Freedom of Choice to the March for Women’s Lives, which was actually the old name of the march. And that they had to buy out the time of the women of color they were adding to the planning committee.
Now, my advice might seem unconventional, but I have never applied for a job. I have either been sought out because people know what I bring and they want to add me to my staff. Or I started by doing the work for free. What someone counseled me to do was become a volunteer and make myself invaluable. That’s what I did. I volunteered at NOW for three or four months doing everything they ever asked me to do. Even when I was typing thesis and dissertations at night to keep the bills paid. Eventually, Molly Yard [political director for NOW from 1985-1987] asked me if I wanted a job because I became indispensable. I kind of decide what I want to do and then I make it happen and then I figure out how to get paid for it. It’s the opposite of how most people approach job hunting. That’s a different approach and it’s higher risk.. If you do the work, the money follows. Money always follows. You may end up waiting on tables while you are figuring out how to get your art and activism project off the ground or something but eventually it will happen. No non-profit director has unspent money. We don’t live in that world. But if you demonstrate to any of us that you are an asset to the organization before we even spend a dime on you we will fire someone to get you a job. I have done that, I’ve done that.
SFF: Why did you start doing this work? I’m also curious about how your southern identity and if it has influence over the way you approach your work.
LR: Well, I started doing this work, once I had words to attach to my experiences. I had the experiences before I had the words. After experiencing rape, incest, sterilization abuse, and abortion, I found the words by working in the women’s movement in Washington D.C. And that became very important to me because without those words, I was deeply suicidal and my self-esteem suffered. I was trying to parent my child but I didn’t really have the knowledge I needed. So finding the women’s community, made all the difference in my life and it is certainly why I am still around.
Now being a southerner is a privilege. I love being a southerner because in the South, we have extremely normalized human relationships and you see it in the way we speak to each other and the way we smile at each other. So I always felt that being a southerner is a privilege, but it’s also a site from where you can see the worst of America, too. Coming from our history of segregation and lynching and the way that the neo-confederate movement is coming about. I mean people are saying that America is getting “dixy-fied” and so that the values that the south should have forgotten are now becoming national values. You see it in the rise of the Trump movement. So, It’s a special location because it offers some of the most beautiful country in the world. I mean the most beautiful state in America is Mississippi and I have been to 49 of the 50 states. Mississippi is drop-dead gorgeous. But it masks so much ugliness. America is a land of contradictions. That’s the only way to call it.
SF: I like that, America as a land of contradictions. On another note, much of your work is really accessible…
LR: Because I have no other writing style— they try to make me write in post-modern and I just can’t get it, I can’t get it.
SF: So how do you negotiate being in academic spaces but also being involved in grassroots organizations?
LR: I am a public intellectual. A public intellectual is different. Our job is to do pop education and make it accessible. That’s quite different from being an academic intellectual. I think it’s an art form to make things accessible and I’m actually getting worse at it. The more I write within the academy, the less clear my writing becomes. I am really pained by that. I think in my mind, I conceptualize that in order to be seen as rigorous and scholarly, that I have to write in a certain affect that is making me stray from my normal, clear voice. So I’m trying to resist it. As a matter of fact, I got a scholarship offer to go back to graduate school and I realized, I didn’t want to go to grad school and be brought further down this path of inaccessibility. So I turned it down. Which was probably turning down a 50k a year privilege, because it was fully funded, but it just wasn’t for me. It wouldn’t produce the writing I want to produce.
SF: I feel like all of this work can get really tiring for people. Burn out is real. I’m wondering how you manage to take care of yourself.
LR: Well, I’m not good at self-care. So no one should ever use me as a role model for self-care. I am amazingly suicidal still and self-destructive. So, through obesity, through smoking, I’m not good at that stuff. But I do believe in having a political circle of friends and a non-political circle of friends. Both are equally dear to me. And every moment I get, I try to spend with my apolitical friends because they keep me balanced, they keep me sane, they keep me present, and they keep me from seeing the word through a binary lens. You know, cause, they are really people of integrity. Some of them, while I was doing marches against the Iraq war, some of them were doing yellow ribbon campaigns in support of the war. And yet, we have so much more in common than we have dividing us. They are infinitely freshest to me. But I also, when you serve as a bridge and you are invisibilized, you have to have some place for your own discharge, your own healing, and your own moment to be seen. And so, I have a circle of friends who also work in the movement in that way. So we will call each other and talk about how rough life is and how tough this is. We rely on each other so that we can go out and do what we do. It is very important to establish these support circles for me. I establish support circles that are political, non-political, spiritual, some that are just sometimes about playing pinochle. That’s my favorite hobby, playing pinochle. I play competitively in tournaments. Like I said earlier, I love Twilight and sometimes you got to turn the brain off because if you don’t turn it off, it’ll contaminate everything. You walk around with the world at a tilt all of the time and that’s what leads to the burn out. One of my mentors is a man named Lenny Zeskind and he is probably the best anti-fascist researcher in America. He once told me, “Loretta, lighten up. Fighting Nazis should be fun, being a Nazi is what sucks.” And I have never forgotten that. We got it reversed; we think fighting Nazis is thankless, painful work. We got to party as hard as we work.
Sage is from rural, Northern California and is passionate about reproductive justice. She spends a lot of her time in Sarah Doyle Women’s center, where she works, thinking about the intersections of medicine, race, class, and pregnancy in the U.S.