Scholar-activists discuss racial and reproductive justice

By Julia Riordan

(Shannon Broderick/Daily Collegian)

Activist Loretta Ross and scholar Rickie Solinger met with students and faculty at the University of Massachusetts Old Chapel on Thursday to discuss building and maintaining collaborative partnerships to fight for racial and reproductive justice.

The duo highlighted the importance of centering trust as the foundation for personal and collaborative growth, as well as the necessity of claiming your history and power as activists.

Ross and Solinger described the origins of their partnership as coming from a place of admiration and respect for the other’s work, giving them foundational knowledge upon which to build coalition and activism.

“I trusted in her scholarship before I knew her,” Ross said. “I did not worry that I had to do the emotional and sociological labor of telling her to center whiteness and white supremacy in a way that can help bolster my world view [as a Black woman].”

According to Ross, authenticity with both yourself and with the people you are organizing political movements with is critical in establishing an organization of people who can depend upon one another for emotional support, while providing the concrete foundation to solidify the movement.

“I, as an activist, am very accustomed to being both on display and being self-disclosing about the epistemological origins of my knowledge,” Ross said. Although self-disclosure is vital to the construction of collaboratives and partnerships, upon which movements for justice are built, Solinger said that relying too heavily on personal experiences results in an erasure of the broader political contexts in which your experiences occur.

Solinger warned, “If people become drunk off of their own stories, that becomes a way of being separate from the political culture and from looking at inequalities and injustices that transcend one’s own life,” Ross elaborated on Solinger’s point of the necessity of historical, political and social frameworks in contextualizing experiences upon which strategies for the movement of justice are rooted.

“Sometimes people get so engaged in their self-disclosure, they think that’s all that they need to do. They don’t see it as a pathway toward another goal…This can create walls that keep everybody else out…When it is used as a pathway to get somewhere else, it can be pretty magical,” Ross said.

Ross shared her struggles in organizing women of color to participate in the first abortion rights march in the 1980s, highlighting the fact that power and synergy come from recognizing your history as not only participants in the fight for racial and reproductive justice, but also the catalysts of the movements themselves.

“One of the hurdles I had to overcome was that a lot of the women of color I approached were reluctant to participate in the march,” Ross said. “They didn’t know how generations of women of color had fought for reproductive freedom and autonomy so they had a vision that the movement was a white women’s movement.”

Ross and Solinger explained how activists and scholars can work in collaboration with one another to add their strengths to a partnership, giving both the relationship and the movement a multi-faceted approach to practical activism.

“We’ve always said that people who have ignored the role of white supremacy, patriarchy, transphobia, etc. in determining reproductive destinies were telling a very thin story,” Ross said. “The recent election woke a lot of people up to how thin the story had been.”

Ross discussed how the increase in people of color in America drives the amplification of white supremacy that now takes different forms. Ross described it as adapting to increase a racist, dehumanizing power that has existed in America for centuries. Additionally, Ross gave  insight to the future of reproductive justice in the context of white supremacy.

“[White supremacists] are actively deconstructing democracy right now because they know it will no longer protect white privilege when the majority of the voters are no longer white,” Ross said. “So those of us who are able to synthesize that analysis right now are advising people to come up with a 30 year plan for what happens when an embattled white minority tries to continue to exert disproportionate control.”

“That’s called apartheid. And yet we have no real examination of what that will look like in terms of reproductive politics in this country,” Ross added.

In a society in which white supremacy and patriarchy dominate institutions, Ross stressed the importance of activists reclaiming their power, which means setting their own standards so that their work cannot be manipulated and deemed useless and a failure, therefore removing the fight for justice through academic racism.

The activist concluded the talk by explaining how powerful the resistance to white supremacy is, such as how activists can use the Trump administration to their advantage in their  ability to draw support against it through organizing.

“Trump is the gift that keeps on giving,” Ross said with a chuckle. “Before, there were those of us who understood the nature of the fascist threat, but we were a very small group who were underfunded and mostly ignored.”

“It was really interesting to learn more about partnerships between scholars and activists and how you can build these really important partnerships,” junior public health major Becca Piscia said after the talk. “I didn’t really think about the schism between scholars and activists, so it’s interesting seeing a really high functioning pair talk about how they do their work and combine their strengths to make a bigger impact than they would have if they were by themselves.”

This talk was organized by UMass’ Institute for Social Science Research as a part of their Racial Justice Education Project and Initiative.

Julia Riordan can be reached at [email protected]