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.