Elevate Difference

Critical Intersections: Reproductive and Economic Justice Conference (9/22/2010)

New York, New York

On an unseasonably hot and humid day in September, I took the train from Brooklyn to 116th Street to attend the Critical Intersections: Reproductive and Economic Justice conference, which was held at Barnard College's new Diana Center. Having suffered a massive allergy attack due to the weird weather, I shuffled quickly across the Barnard campus and entered just as the conference's feature film and lunch break were finishing up. The film, Justice at the Intersections: Action for Reproductive and Economic Justice in NYC, captured many women activists discussing their projects, goals, and dreams; one phrase that stuck with me was "women as stakeholders and change-makers in the community."

Critical Intersections was cosponsored by Barnard Center for Research on Women and the New York Women's Foundation, its core focus on the inextricable link between reproductive justice and women's economic security. With a sampling of seventeen New York City organizations, the conference provided a wide array of interpretations of “reproductive and economic justice,” with that definition as a point of intersection for multiple struggles: economic, gender-based, racial, and community-specific.

It was tough to pick an afternoon panel to attend (three ran concurrently), as all of the subject matter and groups presenting were dynamic and vital. I chose “Community Leadership in Organizing” to hear about Sistas on the Rise, a South Bronx-based young mothers’ community and activist center, and a project I am partial to. The panel featured representatives from three groups, each centered on a fairly specific issue: Sistas on the Rise generally works for the empowerment of young, low-income mothers and women of color; Sylvia Rivera Law Project provides legal aid surrounding the notion of gender self-determination as a fundamental right; and DAMAYAN Migrant Workers Association fights for Filipino domestic workers’ rights.

While each group had their own specific goals, modes of action, and individual structures, strong threads recurred. Namely, the self-determination of a marginalized group proved to be important for every organization. Both Sistas on the Rise and Sylvia Rivera Law Project explained their collective models, highlighting that, for Sistas on the Rise, “all decisions…ultimately serve the interest of the young women involved.” For Sylvia Rivera Law Project, “people who are most effected determine their own policy” and all collective members serve on the board because “it keeps us accountable.” DAMAYAN is a nonprofit organization, rather than a collective, with both a Board of Directors and a General Assembly, but like the two other groups, DAMAYAN is completely self-determined. It was founded and mostly run by Filipina women who have experienced the abuses so common to the domestic work industry.

We sat in an intimate (and very fancy) classroom and discussed the ins and outs of organizing within communities for structural change, and what our struggles mean within a context of globalization, imperialism, and oppression. Inspired by the actions of these local women, I left feeling excited and more connected to a lively, diverse feminist community.

Soon, we were back in the auditorium for a closing panel on “Creating Systemic Change at the Intersection of Reproductive and Economic Justice.” A less intimate setting, it was still inspiring to see a room full of feminists and activists brimming with excitement at the sight of each other. Moderated by Laura Flanders, founder and host of GritTV, this panel featured remarks from Sylvia Henriquez, President and CEO of National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health; Lynn Paltrow, Executive Director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women; and Miriam Yueng, Executive Director of National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum.

Often when the focus switches from grassroots organizations to national ones, focus on the community can get lost—but not here. Sylvia Henriquez immediately mentioned the importance of autonomy and self-determination, noting that this “is far more than access to reproductive choice” for immigrant women, and that their role in communities and “family needs need to be met.” Lynn Paltrow reminded us that “the pro-choice movement must include mothers [because] most women who get abortions are mothers or will become mothers.” Miriam Yueng continued to emphasize the importance of the local and the national together: “Things look bleak now, but it is in rooms like this—on the local level—that things happen.”

One audience member shared her experience working for a feminist clinic in Tallahassee twenty years ago, where some of her cohorts worked on From Abortion to Reproductive Freedom. She exclaimed how happy it made her to attend a conference years later that is actually about comprehensive reproductive justice. By choosing to focus on the intersections, pairing groups on panels with similar processes of self-determination or collective modeling, emphasizing movement building from the ground up, and most importantly, placing women and trans folks at the center of organizing movements, Critical Intersections proved to be a strong showcase of the multiplicities and iterations of feminisms in 2010.

Written by: Kate Wadkins, October 8th 2010