Trust Black Women
Trust Black Women is a national coalition that came together in 2010 to respond to attacks upon Black women around using contraception and obtaining abortions. BWRJ was a founding organizational member of this national coalition of Black women’s reproductive justice organizations and individuals around the country who came together to take a stance against the demeaning anti-choice abortion billboards that were erected around the country and to defend reproductive justice for Black women and girls.
BWRJ centered its 15th anniversary fundraiser around the film, “For Colored Girls” as a part of a nationwide fundraising effort of the Trust Black Women Partnership and used it to not only raise money, but to frame the issues in the film as reproductive justice issues. BWRJ bought out a theatre of 144 seats. Held on November 18, 2010, the evening included a panel discussion with activists and experts from various issues helping to create dialogue about the reproductive justice issues facing women.
Chicago became one of the locations in March, 2011. BWRJ quickly acted to pull together a strategy group of approximately nineteen local reproductive justice and ally organizations to respond to the billboards.
In April, 2011, BWRJ made a presentation to the Chicago Commission on Human Relations and as a result, the Commission issued a press statement against the billboards. In May, 2011, the Chicago Commission on Human Relations passed a formal Resolution against the billboards.
BWRJ co-hosted four Black Women’s Speak Outs on the south and west side. Each of the speak outs, except for the third, have been extremely well attended with approximately 30-50 attendees each. The third speak out at the Grand Cross Park was cancelled due to inclement weather and lack of participation. Thanks to the support of one of the strategy members, Affinity Community Services, the first speak out at the Chicago Park District-Jackson Park, was recorded on WBEZ’s Chicago Amplified. (Listen here). The fourth speak out at Austin Town Hall included participation from State Senator Don Harmon and State Representative Camille Lilly.
Sponsored by the late Illinois Congressional Representative Henry Hyde, the Hyde Amendment was passed in 1977. It prohibits the use of federal funds to pay for abortion service only under certain exceptions – rape, incest, or the life of the woman. Throughout its existence Black Women for Reproductive Justice (BWRJ) worked in coalition with other women of color and ally groups to get the Hyde Amendment repealed. Because of the Hyde Amendment, thousands of women and girls are forced to carry unintended and unwanted pregnancies to term because they lack the financial resources to have an abortion.
In 2003, AAWE published,Emergency Contraceptive Survey Report 2003 Based upon its survey of pharmacies in Chicago and surrounding suburbs, this policy report included several policy recommendations to increase access to emergency contraception (EC) (see Appendix F). The report highlighted the inconsistencies in access to EC and the need for greater education of pharmacy personnel. AAWE’s recommendations included cultural competency training for pharmacy personnel, the need to forge strategic alliances with other health activists such as HIV/AIDS advocates while awaiting the FDA’s decision, and the pros and cons of EC being over-the-counter. The report was distributed to grassroots community groups, allies, and the corporate offices of Walgreens, CVS, and Jewel Osco.
AAWE also created the above, AAWE Emergency Contraception PowerPoint, about the survey results.
The Healthy Vagina Campaign (The HVC) educated women about the health risks associated with douching. Despite the research pointing to various associated health risks and adverse effects, the sanitization by women of their bodies is still a regular practice. Through this campaign, BWRJ sought to effect policy changes at the national level around the regulation of harmful feminine douching products. In November, 2007, BWRJ got a policy resolution about douching passed at the American Public Health Association’s annual meeting.
Numerous studies continue to show links between the practice of vaginal douching (intravaginal cleansing with a liquid solution) and several adverse health outcomes. Some of these include, pelvic inflammatory disease, bacterial vaginosis, cervical cancer, low-birth weight, preterm birth, human immunodeficiency virus transmission, sexually transmitted diseases, ectopic pregnancy, recurrent vulvovaginal candidiasis, and infertility. Douching alters the normal vaginal pH and vaginal flora, weakening the vagina’s natural defenses and creates an environment more susceptible to the overgrowth of pathogens. In addition, the process of inserting fluid intravaginally can push harmful bacteria further up into the reproductive tract.
Beyond the immediate connection between douching and reproductive tract infections, the sanitization of women’s bodies by the feminine hygiene industry brings forth concerns about toxins and/or antimicrobial agents in antiseptic douching products that are inhibitory to lactobacilli. The major bacteria in a normal, healthy vagina is lactobacilli. Douching can upset the normal vaginal flora creating a greater susceptibility to certain sexually transmitted diseases. Women who douche are at greater risk of contracting bacterial vaginosis. By attempting to treat the symptoms of bacterial vaginosis through douching, the healthy bacteria is killed and unhealthy bacteria is allowed to grow. If a pregnant woman has bacterial vaginosis and douches, chronic bacterial colonization of the endometrium may cause premature rupture of the uterine membranes and/or early labor.
A key reason why women continue to douche is the aggressive advertising by manufacturers of douching products. Major pharmacies and grocery stores have entire aisles dedicated to feminine hygiene products. Positioned directly next to the tampons and sanitary napkins, one can find a broad selection of “medicated” solutions, disposable douche products, and feminine sprays in a number of different scents.
Over the years, messages about vaginal odors, post-menstrual bleeding, and maintaining a “clean, crisp” feeling have been passed on to women by the manufacturers of douching products. These same manufacturers have, in turn, profited to the tune of approximately $144 million annually, as women add to their annual health care cost by spending as much as $500 per year for over-the-counter vaginal products that are not medically necessary. There are at least three major manufacturers of douche products. In addition, well-known pharmacies like Walgreens and CVS have their own brands of disposable douches.
In 2002, AAWE produced a video presentation called, “African American Mothers and Daughters: Sharing the Knowledge,” which featured mothers and daughters in an intergenerational discussion about reproductive health and sexuality. With an accompanying discussion guide, this video came to be viewed as a resource tool to begin and/or continue the discussion about reproductive health and sexuality for mothers and daughters.
BWRJ’s overall goal through its Health Education component was to educate Black women and girls about basic reproductive health issues. BWRJ believed there was an ongoing need to help women and girls understand basic things like their menstrual cycles, family planning, pregnancy options, self-breast care, etc.
Safer Sex Educational Experiences (SSEX)
BWRJ’s safer sex educational curriculum and training called “Safer Sex Educational Experiences” was modeled after the Atlanta-based SisterLove, Inc.’s Healthy Love Party. SSEX workshops taught individuals not only about HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infection prevention and transmission, but also about healthy intimacy alternatives. In addition to providing health education directly to women, BWRJ trained women to share the information with other family members and friends by training them to be peer educators. Facilitators received an intensive 12-hour comprehensive reproductive and sexual health training.
Pretty Girl Beauty Initiative
BWRJ worked with individuals in the beauty industry (hair salons, day spa, and nail salons) to forge partnerships to educate Black women about reproductive health issues. It also worked to educate both beauty professionals and clients about various reproductive health risks associated with some of the nail, hair, and skin products on the market and sought to move them to begin using and offering safer beauty products to their clients.
Sexuality Awareness & Women In Worship (SAWW)
Through SAWW, BWRJ sought to bridge the gap between reproductive justice and Black Christian theology. BWRJ was able to forge strategic relationships with the Black church to create a progressive religious voice and base, as well as broaden its educational efforts with Black women and girls within the Black church.\
For its AAWE 4th Health Symposium Registration, AAWE scheduled a full weekend of activities during the weekend of October-27-28, 2006, . The first event was a legislative panel discussion on Friday October 27th during the opening plenary session from 6:30-7:30pm. Two Black female Illinois state representatives agreed to serve on the panel. There were Rep. Constance Howard and Rep. Deborah Graham. The panel discussion was based upon AAWE’s five issue areas:
- EC Emergency Contraception– AAWE is interested in EC being available over-the-counter to young women under 18 and also ensuring that pharmacists follow mandates and guidelines to dispense EC or make referrals to a nearby pharmacy that carries it. We also believe that women seeking EC are at risk for HIV or other STI’s, and, therefore, should be given information regarding testing, treatment, and prevention.
- Microbicides and HIV/AIDS– AAWE supports research and development of Microbicides, which will aid in the prevention of HIV by giving women the power to protect themselves from infection.
- Public Funding for Abortion (The Hyde Amendment)-AAWE views public funding for abortion as an ACCESS issue. Black women are three times as likely as white women to have an abortion and also represent a large percentage of women living under the poverty line, thus are using already limited resources that would otherwise be used for basic living necessities to obtain an abortion. We believe that denying ACCESS, no matter what your personal beliefs are, is discriminatory. The right to have an abortion is a constitutional right, and rights can only be realized through ACCESS.
- Feminine Hygiene products and Black women – Studies show that African American women douche at approximately twice the rate of Caucasian women. The Center for Disease Control estimates that approximately 27% of U.S. women douche regularly, and over half of those women are African American. We at AAWE believe that women have been fed the lie, through effective advertising and marketing, that feminine hygiene products are a necessity to reproductive health. However, douching is no longer encouraged as a healthy or safe way of routinely cleaning the vagina. Douching can, in fact, leave a woman more susceptible to bacterial infections and introduce new bacteria into the vagina and cervix. Women who douche regularly also have an increased risk of developing more cases of pelvic inflammatory disease by 73%. Our campaign is to inform women of potential risks associated with douching, and to advocate for a stricter review and regulation of the companies that manufacture feminine hygiene products. We believe there is a connection between the environment and reproductive health that we have not begun to look at from an African American women’s lens.
- New Reproductive Technologies-Science is advancing rapidly around new ways to control fertility and to have children. Some questions that arise for AAWE include: What will cloning and sex selection mean to African American women in a society that discriminates against and devalues the lives of African Americans and women? How will these technologies infringe upon our right to make choices about our reproductive health?
For a minimal admission of $10 for adults and $5 for students, participants received continental breakfast and lunch on Saturday, and all workshop and conference materials. Free childcare was also available. The Symposium focused on the intersections between women and girls being healthy, having healthy families, and living in healthy communities. The weekend looked at the totality of women’s lives and the social and economic conditions which have a direct impact on B;ack women’s ability to live in a balanced state of health and well-being.
The weekend closed with African American Women Evolving presenting its “Mind, Body & Spirit” award to several Black women who have being working to transform education, religion, social movements, and media. On Saturday, October 28, 2006, AAWE honored Zerrie D. Campbell, President, Malcolm X College, LaDonna Redmond, President/Founder, Institute for Community Resource Development, Loretta Ross, National Coordinator, SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective, Reverend Stacey L. Edwards, Trinity United Church of Christ, Sharon McGhee, WVON radio personality and author of the “Pocketbook Monologues”, and Dr. Bernice Williams, First Pentecostal Church of God. The Gala was held at the HotHouse Center for International Performance and Exhibition at 31 East Balbo, Chicago from 8:00pm to 1:00am. V103 radio personality Tornado, Big Daddy Woo Woo as the hosted the evening. There was also a special performance by actor/singer Llou Johnson, who has appeared in films like “Barbershop I and II,” “Let’s Go to Prison,” and the HBO film “Normal.” Tickets for the gala were $45, which covered admission, light hors d’oeuvres and a silent auction.
BWRJ held five health conferences during its 15-year existence. The above conference was held in partnership with a Malcolm X College, a local community college. During that weekend, BWRJ also hosted a performance of “The Pocket Monologues” written and produced by Sharon McGhee, a local radio personality. This was one of BWRJ’s most successful conferences because it was able to secure sponsorship from the local NBC affiliate, Chicago Foundation for Women, and LifeStyles condom.
In 2009, AAWE underwent a major rebranding. The board of directors voted to change the name from African American Women Evolving, Inc. to Black Women for Reproductive Justice (BWRJ). This rebranding occurred as a result of Bond Leonard’s participation in the 2008 CLEAR: Communicating for Leadership, Effectiveness and Results training sponsored by the Communications Leadership Institute. AAWE was selected by one of its major funders, the Ford Foundation, to receive a technical assistance grant to attend the training and to hire a communications consultant to assist the organization with its rebranding. There were two reasons for the board decision to rebrand the organization. First, Black Women for Reproductive Justice represented a much clearer projection of the organization’s identity. Secondly, the board wanted to capitalize on the fact that the organization’s President/CEO was one of the women who helped to coin the phrase “reproductive justice” in 1994.
Although the name was changing, the mission and philosophical beliefs of the organization remained the same. The board felt that the organization could go through this rebranding process and successfully maintain its connection to the vast body of work it had carried out under the AAWE brand. The rebranding was a natural evolution for the organization as it spoke more accurately to the work it had been doing since it was founded in 1996. BWRJ understood that critical to a Black woman being able to control her reproductive health was having a thorough understanding of her body. At the same time, this level of understanding had to be placed in a much larger context that supported Black women in having the personal agency to affect changes in the social and economic policies that prevented them from being self-determining about their lives and bodies. Through its work, BWRJ sought to place the issue of reproductive health in a holistic framework that incorporated other social justice issues (i.e., environmental, HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases, economic justice, etc.) that also impact the lives of women of color. Its programming around health education, policy, and advocacy continued unchanged.
One of its last notable accomplishments under the AAWE brand was to present remarks to the Obama-Biden Transition Team in December, 2008. AAWE was a part of a national effort to craft a national reproductive health agenda for then President-Elect Barack Obama. Bond Leonard was tapped to present remarks on the state of Black women’s reproductive health and need for access to abortion services.
Picking up from the October, 1996 convening where initial group of Black women met at the Harris YWCA Women’s Services Center, this meeting started with self-help. Every woman was asked to share her experiences around reproductive health and sexuality education. Most of the women said their education about reproductive health and sexuality education was incompletely at best, and happen as they went along in their lives. The discussion of sex was taboo in many of their homes, with warnings to “keep your panties up” or “nice girls don’t do that [have sex before marriage].” They also talked about the taboo around discussions of rape and incest in the Black community. There were numerous ideas put forth, including creating a think tank that would craft policy and position statements or developing a speakers’ bureau of Black women as experts about reproductive health and rights issues, sharing their lived experiences. The women at the table wanted to create an organization that recognized the intersectionality of race, class, and gender in the reproductive lives of Black women. The group decided to plan Chicago’s first-ever Black women’s reproductive health conference.
“AAWE is trying to reconnect [Black] women’s health and bodies with the rest of their lives.”
LaDonna Redmond, AAWE Former Board Chair
“I’m in awe of every woman in this room right now. The courage you all have shown in sharing your stories and experiences has been amazing.”
Winnette P. Willis, AAWE Co-Founder
Co-Founder Winnette P. Willis’s comment of being “in awe” of the women at the meeting would become the acronym for the organization’s name. From that moment on, the group called itself African American Women Evolving (AAWE).
After the second meeting, the group began to meet monthly to plan the health conference. During the months of the conference planning, Bond Leonard was able to secure a multi-year grant of $20,000 per year from the Ms. Foundation’s Reproductive Rights Coalition Fund to support AAWE as a women of color initiative operating under CAF. This grant was to be used specifically to build grassroots support for AAWE, to engage Black women in its work, to identify and explore alternative modes of grassroots organizing, and to, at some point, transition AAWE from operating as a local initiative of CAF. AAWE Founding member, Sheila Baldwin, was a professor at Columbia College. Baldwin secured Columbia as the conference site by bringing in a Black female student group called “Tongues of Fire” to help with the conference planning. Columbia provided the space free of charge. Monies from the Ms. Foundation grant were used to cover the costs associated with the conference.
The arrangement between CAF and AAWE was never one of ownership of the initiative by CAF. CAF’s role had always been understood as serving as the incubating organization for this women of color initiative to grow and flourish and to, hopefully, bridge the gap between Black women and the reproductive health and rights movement in Illinois. In July, 1999, AAWE joined the National Network of Abortion Funds and incorporated under its group tax exemption. Doing this enabled AAWE to solicit additional foundation support and to carry out some of its programming. AAWE leadership crafted the following mission for the organization:
“The mission of [African American Women Evolving, Inc.] AAWE is: (1) to increase the activism and leadership of African American women around reproductive health and (2) to examine and draw the connections between other social justice and basic human rights issue (i.e., violence against women, substance abuse, HIV/AIDS, economic development and sustainability, etc.) that directly and indirectly affect African American women’s ability to exercise complete autonomy over their lives and bodies. AAWE was started in response to the barriers that impede access to adequate reproductive health care and as a vehicle to begin engaging African American women at the grassroots level in local and state advocacy efforts around reproductive health.”
At its January, 2002 board retreat, AAWE solidified its grounding philosophy about reproductive health.
“AAWE believes women need information about methods of contraception and information about some of the harmful side effects, preventing HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, understanding and learning how to chart the menstrual cycle, infertility, prenatal care, infant and maternal mortality, menopause, breast cancer, accessing safe abortion, and exploring our sexuality….”
AAWE received its own nonprofit status, becoming recognized as a 501(c)(3) in August, 2002. During this same period, it was able to raise enough foundation support to hire Bond Leonard as its full-time President/CEO. AAWE carried out its mission through three components: Health Education, Policy, and Advocacy. From 2002 to 2008 the organization developed programs and activities that met the direct reproductive and sexual health needs of Black women and girls of low- to middle-income.