When I first heard about Law Students for Reproductive Justice (LSRJ), the strong ties between the national office and its campus chapters struck me. LSRJ is not just resume filler. The Easy-Events-in-an-Envelope and travel stipends for students to attend conferences are just two examples of dedication to cultivating active campus chapters. The annual Leadership Institute (LI) is another. Before the conference, I felt ill equipped to handle the challenges unique to doing reproductive justice work in the South. However, I now feel prepared and excited to help bring an LSRJ chapter to a conservative state.
The conference featured workshops on how to start a new chapter, how to talk to people about reproductive justice, how to diversify membership and how to leave a legacy through cultivating new leadership and institutional memory. With nearly one hundred attendees, the campuses represented were diverse. The schedule accounted for that with events ranging from how to address “social justice burn out” to how to organize on conservative campuses.
Social justice conversations on the coasts are sometimes dismissive of conservative states especially when people refer to residents as backward or beyond hope. But from Sabrina Andrus’ opening speech on moving past an “us versus them” mentality, it was clear that this would not happen at the LI. She asked us to be mindful of ways the word “crazy” can be alienating to both people with mental illnesses and to conference attendees who have family members with so-called “crazy” beliefs. Although it can be difficult to do this work in the South, there are amazing, dedicated law students working here, and I felt the LI took into account the needs of chapters from conservative states beautifully.
Some of the most helpful discussions occurred between the formal workshops as attendees shared experiences over pizza or coffee. Through these conversations, I learned that flexibility is key to effective organizing. Decisions about leadership structure and which issues to discuss need to differ with each law school, depending on the make up of the student body. The friendships formed at the conference will continue online throughout the year and at regional LSRJ conferences. I am grateful for the opportunity the LI provided to learn, grow, and plan for the academic year with such inspiring attendees and speakers.
Nearly 100 attendees and 15+ speakers from all walks of life, professions, and law schools around the nation packed Berkeley law school this past weekend for an exciting and inspiring discussion of reproductive justice and campus activism at the fourth annual LSRJ Leadership Institute (LI). Perhaps the most inspiring part of the LI was that it provided a safe environment for like-minded advocates to come together and speak on issues they may not be able to on their own campuses or in their own communities.
This past weekend was about sharing knowledge, building skills, and forming coalitions, but above all I feel it was about learning how to treat each other with the respect we all so deserve. Sabrina Andrus, the mind and soul behind the LI, so lovingly started the weekend with a speech reassuring us that the national office strives to make the LI a safe space for all, and reminded us that as part making the space safe, we needed to refrain from speaking in terms of “us v. them” and needed to focus on not using “we” phrases. It is important that we do not speak on behalf of an entire community, as we all coming from different experiences. This is an imperative practice to implement into our daily lives. We must begin to replace that “we” with phrases that start with “I.” Such things as “I feel…” are less hurtful and more accurate.
The weekend was full of emotion and kindness, and as a result many friendships were built. “I” am so incredibly grateful for being able to take part in such an amazing and inspiring experience. There are so many thank you’s that are in order – a thank you to all of the knowledgeable and kind individuals who took time out of their schedule to educate and speak at the conference – a thank you to all of the individuals who traveled long distances to take part in this weekend – and a GIANT thank you to LSRJ for organizing and hosting such a successful and important event. I am so thankful I was able to help this weekend as I have a life time of debt I will be repaying to LSRJ for all of the support, guidance, and love they have shown me in such a short time. THANK YOU to you all!!
Perhaps the best part of the Leadership Institute for Law Students for Reproductive Justice (LSRJ) is the inspiration gained from learning about what other chapters, students, and lawyers are doing to advance the movement. Lillian Hewko, a 2011-2012 Equal Justice Works Fellow at Legal Voice and member of the LSRJ Board of Directors, is one such inspirational graduate who is working to end the shackling of incarcerated mothers. She created a project called Incarcerated Mothers Advocacy Project (IMAP), which helps to connect imprisoned mothers with the legal resources that are often out of their reach.
She shared her invaluable insight into how to start a reproductive justice initiative as a law student as well as how to continue that work through fellowships after graduation. Even more than simply giving a “How To” presentation, she dove straight into the heart of what it means to create a reproductive justice initiative—serving the community and focusing on its needs. Unfortunately, information is a privileged resource, and oftentimes people, especially incarcerated women of color, do not know their rights, let alone the services available to them. After careful and patient planning within the community, Lillian founded IMAP in order to combat that problem.
As law students, we have the ability to serve the critical function of connecting members of the community to the legal resources that should be available to them. Where we see a gap, we can fill it, and that is precisely what Lillian has done. Hopefully law students, inspired by her incredible journey of advocating on behalf of incarcerated mothers, can take their passions and create similar projects back on their campuses. Together we can make inroads into fighting against reproductive injustice.
One of the most important aspects of reproductive justice is how broad the topic is and just how many issues it encompasses. But the expansive nature of reproductive justice means that reproductive injustice is just as extensive. Jill Adams, the Executive Director of Law Students for Reproductive Justice (LSRJ), described this paradox perfectly when she presented at LSRJ’s 2011 Leadership Institute. She simply stated that reproductive justice could only come about when the structures and systems that sustain and support the reproductive oppression that takes place on the surface are changed.
In other words, ending the reproductive oppression that comes about from certain laws and policies means attacking the root causes that allow for those laws and policies to be implemented in the first place. After all, the best way to bring down a building is to blow out its foundation. If the reproductive justice movement wishes to help immigrant women obtain health care, it means attacking the local, state, and national policies that combine to effectively deny access to government-funded health services for immigrant women and their children. For example, it must address laws like Arizona’s Proposition 200, which makes it a misdemeanor for public officials to fail to report individuals they suspect are undocumented.
Furthermore, we talked about three methods that can help address the root causes of reproductive injustice: (1) demonstrating links between individual reproductive health and rights and the broader structures of inequality (2) addressing cultural assumptions and ideas that breed reproductive oppression and (3) empowering marginalized communities. The creative organizing and clever litigation that will be promoted by the individuals attending LSRJ’s Leadership Institute is yet another way to attack extensive reproductive injustice and what makes me excited to be a part of this movement.
The most powerful experiences I had today involved discussing the role of law and lawyers in the reproductive justice movement. I came to law school to fight for justice. When I told 2Ls, 3Ls and seasoned lawyers this, many replied that I’d soon lose my idealism. Now a year into my legal education, I see why.
Legal rights can exist in name only. Governments sometimes do a poor job of implementing a law or fail to implement a law altogether. People can lack meaningful access to a right, depending on intersections of race, class, gender, sexual identity and orientation, and ability. Additionally the make up of a law school’s student body is usually not reflective of the people the reproductive justice movement prioritizes. This means that engaging in the movement in a respectful way requires care. It’s easy to feel discouraged after encountering example after example of these obstacles in law school.
During a session today, we were told that getting or keeping a law on the books is not justice but just the beginning. Establishing a legal right to something will never be adequate to realize reproductive justice. However, the law is a required tool. We also saw examples of how lawyers, particularly those with multiple privileged identities, can engage in the movement and remain true to its focus on amplifying marginalized voices.
Addressing reproductive issues from within a system that often perpetuates reproductive oppression can be disheartening. That is why conversations the Leadership Institute fosters are crucial to encouraging idealism among law students.
Does your campus’s LSRJ chapter face opposition in regard to facilitating a comprehensive conversation about reproductive justice? Well mine definitely does! While my campus has a mix of people with different backgrounds, and a rich liberal arts community, the Midwest doesn’t exactly scream bleeding liberal. Some LSRJ chapters at conservative campuses face opposition in the form of other, more conservative, student run organizations; some face it from their administrations, and others from their peers, or the community in general. Whatever the opposition is, it can be incredibly frustrating and disheartening.
The question is, how do we combat this conservative opposition and oppression, in order to facilitate a discussion and educate others about the RJ movement? I am obviously not alone in facing these problems, as Sandra Fluke of Georgetown lead a packed room in a discussion on this question at the first Issue Caucus that I attended at the Leadership Institute, LSRJ’s national conference at Berkeley.
While no solution was definitively reached, and I personally don’t begin to have the “right” answer, I was really charged by the discussion and feel many great ideas were presented. Some campus chapters decided to take an adversarial approach, feeling it important to use those “scary” words the opposition fears. They feel it important to speak out because there are so many that are ill-informed. Others, including myself, have chosen to take a more middle-ground approach on our campuses. Such chapters feel it important to use an intersectional approach in order to highlight common ground; while we refuse to apologize for our stance, we understand this can be most effective given the types of opposition we face.
Whether it is forming a coalition with an unlikely ally, finding a faculty member to back your cause, or a hosting a fundraiser to bring in members of the community, it is important that we find which avenues best fit our campuses. There is not only one way to approach this problem, but there are a variety of steps we can take to advance our cause and educate others about RJ issues. For me, I strongly feel that as we keep in mind the LSRJ/RJ vision, and keep the discussion alive, we will ultimately find the avenue that best fits our campuses and communities at large.