An amalgamation of thoughts on defining reproductive justice & our roles as young activists
by Kirin Gupta and Brianna Suslovic
We heard people say “the movement” a million different times that weekend. We were at the Advocates for Youth Urban Retreat 2014, the only conference in the United States addressing a broad spectrum of reproductive rights/LGBTQ/sex education activism for young people ages 16-24. “The movement” this, “the movement” that, we heard. So whose movement was it? Who was running it? For whom? And where does “the movement” fit within the framework of “reproductive justice?”
On a more fundamental level, was reproductive justice, as a framework, ours to hold and use?
We’re making this report back to our community as Kirin and Brianna, Harvard College International Women’s Rights Collective’s co-directors. Urban Retreat allowed us to make our way through the DC nonprofit industrial complex and the tensions at intersections within the reproductive justice movement.
At Urban Retreat, we were constantly confronted with both triumphalism and dissatisfaction from every corner in different ways. There were those who would read a simple summary of movement events and histories and say, “Ah yes, now we have it: reproductive justice, a reproductive rights framework that includes it all. We have class, race, culture, ability, gender diversity, sexuality… what could it possibly be missing?” There were many voices we heard that used that tone. Sometimes it is too easy to get caught up in the beauty of such an expansive concept. By mentioning so many categories of identity in a single sentence, it must be impossible to exclude people, right?
But then there were the ever-critical, who said “the language isn’t right” and offered yet another set of critiques, claiming that “the movement” had already lost its way– that it had fallen into the wrong hands, again, that the power was located where the power had always been. Dominant identities speaking over marginalized ones, mirroring the very power structures that we were supposed to be fighting against. The critics asked, “who is speaking for, who is speaking with? Do we have a new mechanism to amplify standpoints instead of projecting upon them?” For us, criticisms raised questions of ownership, allyship, and our own roles in a movement for reproductive agency that expands far beyond contraceptive and abortion access. As women with varied degrees of privilege and oppression encompassed in our own experiences, what role do we have in our own liberation and the liberation of those we love? And does this movement belong to us? How can we enact a reproductive justice movement in truly inclusive theoretical and practical terms?
There are those who say the praxis couldn’t possibly align with the theory.
But it can, it can, when we acknowledge that we act within constraints. This is the feminism and the reproductive justice that our group, our little piece of the movement– the Harvard College International Women’s Rights Collective– wants to inhabit. We act within the power systems that form us, since that defines who we receive our resources from. It means that we acknowledge our positionality, first and foremost, and never presume to speak on behalf of others.
In this moment, we work to see ourselves for who we are. We acknowledge that we are situated at Harvard, in Manifesta, in our studenthood, and within our identities as queer brown women. We acknowledge that we are situated in the privilege of living within the boundaries of the US, with citizenship, with education, with food security, and with a roof that Harvard puts over our heads. We acknowledge our health access, which may not be a constant condition of our lives, but something of our current moment, our current process.
These aspects of our identities are undeniable. While they construct us as humans, they also constrain us as activists. We must acknowledge our constraints to take action, because this is the critique that most moves us. We are indeed limited in our praxis, but not by the self-paralyzing analysis; by the constraints within which any living breathing person/feminist functions.
But function we do. And function we will. Reproductive justice is indeed a concept that we will continue to work through, work over, claim and reclaim, give and make space within and for, but it is a framework we want to work with, and one in which there is certainly a role for us. Reproductive justice is an ever-expanding, nebulous movement open to broadening and narrowing forces. As a framework, it allows us to build both walls for safety and bridges to solidarity. We can reach to the environmental justice movement and the racial justice movement as we recognize that there aren’t really barriers between us. We can recognize our own limited standpoint as individuals situated within specific points of privilege, access, and oppression. We can recognize the webs of interconnectedness that tie movements and people together, despite failed attempts to remove ourselves from these constellations of power. We have learned that there is a role for everyone, because we are a part of the movement whether we want it or not.