When I was young, everyone told me not to get pregnant, but no one ever talked to me about sex. As far as I could tell, pregnancy meant your life was over, and at 15, when I found myself about to have sex for the first time, I found I still did not have the tools to protect myself from becoming pregnant and I didn’t know how to ask. Like most teenagers, I turned to other teenagers to find answers. I was told to check out the free clinic, and this served as my introduction to birth control and the spectrum of pregnancy-related care that I would later come to understand as integral components of reproductive health.
When I was 20, I met This Guy. You could tell there was a story about him. His skin was a light brown and his eyes were like soft, earthy crystals that shimmered in the sun. He was young, but he made you feel like…everything. I was safe, right, because I took birth control pills? I did. Most of the time. But there was that time when I didn’t. I was sure it would be fine. And it wasn’t.
I started working in a reproductive health center and learned a lot about my body, women’s bodies. I learned that many of us didn’t really know, though we thought we did, and that a lot of the information out there wasn’t translating culturally or linguistically.
When I became a registered nurse, I witnessed the institutionalized biases of healthcare providers toward communities of color and low-income individuals, women in particular. Women of color were taken less seriously and considered incapable of making decisions about their bodies or health. It was not uncommon to hear my coworkers remark disparagingly about the number of pregnancies and abortions women had had by the time they were being admitted to the hospital (whether reproductive health had anything to do with their stay in the hospital at all). What I came to realize, however, was that women of color were often in positions in which, when faced with getting care for themselves, they often could not do this without sacrificing care they themselves were providing others. Many women of color that I worked with were raising children and also caring for aging parents, often on a single income.
At the time, I realized two things: 1) knowing your body is incredibly empowering, and 2) low-income women of color are often the least empowered. As I began to understand my patients’ circumstances, the health disparities I had noted between men and women and in communities of color became even more profound. Eventually, instead of asking why they didn’t take care of themselves I began to ask different questions. What were their circumstances? How were they similar to mine? Were they empowered to initiate change to in their environment? Was I? How do circumstances change, anyway?
A public health framework provided incredible perspective. It helped me explain change and the non-medical factors that influence health and behavior. I was able to consider race, gender, and class from a health perspective. I recognized the health disparities I had witnessed in the hospital and clinic settings.
Participating in the BRAVE Coalition, I became familiar with the Strong Families framework, which challenges the notion that families are defined by a working dad and stay-at-home mom, homeowners and married together with children. This framework emphasizes the intersection of gender justice, reproductive justice, and family security within the context of racial and economic justice, and it places us specifically at the center of that intersection. It explains why access to care is a start, but it’s not enough. It explains why securing our rights is important, but it’s not the only road that gets us there. Having strong families doesn’t come from championing reproductive rights while ignoring the circumstances that reinforce a generational cycle of poverty. Having strong families means all elements of our lives matter and we dismantle strategies of oppression by engaging with the intersectionality that makes us the best advocates for our communities. Because here’s the other thing I have come to realize on this journey: Good health care policy can save lives. Roe v Wade saved many lives, including mine, but like most policies, there’s room for improvement.
Why BRAVE? To build reproductive autonomy and voices for equity, in coalition, and reclaim the reproductive justice movement as one led by and for communities of color. To understand how to begin from a place of intersectionality. Personally, to challenge my personal assumptions about access to reproductive health, apply my experiences in the healthcare system as a nurse, reframe the issue as a woman of color who has had an abortion, and develop the skills to participate and account for my role within the reproductive justice movement. In unity, to challenge the status quo and make visible the inequities in existing policies that favor a few families over many others.
This is my story and it has led me to this moment. Your story looks different. As APANO members, we all want stronger families, stronger communities. Through our stories, we will continue to insist on the rights, recognition, and resources we need to make the best decisions for our bodies and our families.
APANO is a proud member of the We Are BRAVE Coalition of organizations and leaders of color committed to reproductive justice, and a broader statewide coalition focused on ensuring equal access to women’s health care. We are proud to announce that Senate Bill 894 has been introduced in the Oregon Legislature, groundbreaking legislation that supports all Oregonians, regardless of their income, geography or type of insurance – have access to safe and affordable reproductive health care. Join APANO and other partners for the BRAVE and United: Lobby Day on March 25th. Click here to register here and contact Kara@apano.org for questions.