Risky Business

Catrina Otonoga, Case Western Reserve 

Across the United States, the reproductive justice movement is in a face-off. We’re facing off with our opposition on just how much legislation they can push at us, before we shove them back. We’re facing off on how far their messaging can go, before we finally go father. But most of all, we’re facing off against ourselves.

Even in the Midwest, generally known for our non-offensive accents, cornfields, and ability to get along with most everyone – we couldn’t always agree on just what issues our region was facing, whether we were red, blue or purple, or how to address the myriad of issues being thrown our way by opposition. In our afternoon plenary, this thought was manifested further. CoreAlign gave figures and facts to assumptions and showed us just how deep the divides are within the movement.

From Boston to DC, Atlanta to the Bay, the divides on how to approach the movement, the work, and the balances of needs and long-term change are scattered across the spectrum. But one consistency remains; we fail at taking big risks. While our opposition is great at flashy, pithy banners full of half (or less than half) truths, we’re struggling to find a way to please everyone. The RJ movement, and each of us in it, has to break free of habit and find ourselves in a place a little less comfortable, a little more risky, a lot more open to new dialogues, and a little closer to creating a whole new narrative.

Storytelling and a Reflection of RJ Blog Posts Past

Rosie Wang, Columbia

Culture is to softness as is policy to hardness. Cultural change is to a wave as legal change is to a solid object. No, this is not the return of the ye olde standardized testing analogies but some of the concepts used today at a storytelling workshop that explained the role of stories in the RJ movement. Basically, stories are engines of change for public sentiment, and subsequently political reality. Awesome, but admittedly, also a bit abstract to me. What made it click on a new level for me was Sujatha Jesudason of CoreAlign’s truly powerful closing talk to the LI. She said that to survive, the reproductive justice movement had to break its bad habits. This included no longer telling stories of victimhood, and instead writing a heroic narrative, in which the heroes include all people as people who have agency in their reproductive lives. She said that the RJ movement must craft something akin to Rosa Parks’ story, something both familiar in its everyday aspect, and yet with lasting potential for symbolism and parable. Looking back on the stories that I have helped tell this summer via this blog, I see myself falling into this very trap of bad habits. Writing about Bei Bei Shuai, a woman being charged with murder and feticide for attempting suicide while pregnant and mentally ill, I wrote that “her story demonstrates how even women who have conformed to the mainstream can become victimized.” And yet Ms. Shuai is a hero to me for facing with optimism and strength a legal system designed treat her body as first and foremost life support vessel for her fetus. But this is story that is yet unresolved, where victory is uncertain –how can it be a success story and not something reactionary? I concluded that the narrative of someone acted upon and then acting in response is not victimizing or teleological. Instead, it is empowering and can do important work in touching upon people’s common sense of humanity. I think it also serves as a rallying cry to people devoted to RJ to support Ms. Shaui in determining the course of her own heroic narrative. Because while anti-choice has it easy in that they can frame decades of reproductive oppression and the status quo as “tradition” for the dominant story they tell, we get to write our own rallying cry from scratch, with the very work we do every day.



Where Do We Go From Here?

JoAnna Smith, Emory

The last session of the weekend called “Where Do We Go From Here? The Future of Reproductive Health, Rights, and Justice,” challenged all of us to think about the history of the reproductive justice community, to analyze our successes and, more importantly, the bad habits we have formed, and to think critically about how to move the conversation forward.

One of the speakers was Ms. Sujatha Jesudason, the Director of CoreAlign Initiative.  CoreAlign did a study to analyze what was working and what needed to be improved in the RJ community. They found that the movement was extremely well-funded, but that we lack cohesive messaging, inspiring leaders and goals, and actions that are proactive rather than reactive. Instead of looking at the issues of rights, justice, and health as separate issues to be addressed by different experts, we needed to find ways to make connections, share resources, and to focus on RJ heroes rather than victims.

I thought back to an exercise we did the first day where we were asked to design a program around a reproductive justice topic. Many of us who were well-versed on abortion-bans, defunding of Planned Parenthood, and vaginal ultrasounds struggled with the assignment because we had never thought about some of the other RJ issues out there. Even those who had thought about them, had never before considered out to communicate them to a broader audience and in a way that included the voices of those RJ impacts the most.

I also thought about the session I attended on chapter strategic planning. I attended but was skeptical that a campus club like mine would benefit much from a strategic plan; it seemed too formal for what we were. But after hearing Ms. Jesudason talk about how the RJ movement is doomed to stagnation and repetition of bad habits without close self-examination and a plan for success, I am a convert.

I pledge (and I challenge you to pledge) to examine how my organization is doing RJ work. Do we sacrifice a broader message in the name of an easy event? Could we reach a more diverse group of people by spending more time coalition building on campus and in the community? Can we acknowledge the successes of those who came before us while doing something different, better, more successful?

I am so excited to get back to campus this fall to get started on our strategic plan. I wish you good luck on yours!

Leadership Institute Day 1: A Compass for Choosing My Own Adventure

Rosie Wang, Columbia

Sullivan and Cromwell makes it possible to own a beautiful apartment on the East River if you make partner. Cravath gives you two computer screens to double the documents you can absorb in a glance. Wachtell cares primarily about your grades and rank. Little tidbits about firms and firm life imperceptibly filtered into my knowledge by the end of 1L year with little to no effort on my part. If only the material in my casebooks functioned on the same osmosis-type learning process. Attending a school known for setting students on a well-oiled track to BigLaw, I found information about firm recruiting inescapable, but heard much less talk about what exactly happens with public interest minded law students and on what timeline. Lucky for me, the LSRJ Leadership Institute comes to the rescue.

In a workshop appropriately titled “Choose Your Own Adventure,” we attendees got to pick the brains of four LSRJ alums with fellowships galore. Hearing them share their stories and wisdom, I realized they were answering questions, confirming hunches, and assuaging worries that I didn’t even know that I had. Some quick highlights:

  • If you suspect that you might not be a great fit for a fellowship, let them decide that, not you! Peruse the bios of their current fellows to glean what it is they want.
  • Take the bar in the state you’d like to end up in. Even if that isn’t where you actually end up, this usually won’t preclude you from work if you’re not appearing in court.
  • Start thinking about fellowships a year in advance, especially to build relationships if you’re in pursuit of a project-based fellowship.
  • Going into firm work for a few years is indeed good training and does not necessarily pose a hurdle to transitioning to public interest.
  • Don’t worry so much about your resume, do what you’d be doing anyway.

This last point, I think touches on the most valuable takeaway of all: Be able to trust your passion, be patient and open to surprising roads it may take you down. Following your heart is a platitude perhaps rendered cheesy by repetition in other times and contexts. However, it really resonated with me, hearing Lillian, Dipti, Amanda, and Erin speak about how the very different paths they took to doing work they were passionate about – some of them direct and with a specific goal at the outset, some of them meandering and full of phases of  further self-discovery, and many of them leading to unexpected geographical and strategic areas.  They also told us to insulate ourselves, for our own emotional and mental health, from the barrage of news and stresses radiating from the firm job hunt, which operated on a different timeline. As my both my Facebook newsfeed and inbox have been brimming with Early Interview Program messages, this was a message I needed to hear, and suspect that others do too. It’s a message that I’m sure it can’t hurt to have reiterated continually, and the mentors and support networks of present and future LSRJ members are here to help.

Reproducing Reproductive Justice at Home

Ash Moore, University of Oklahoma

The Leadership Institute just became a memory. After two days of talking about reproductive health, rights, and justice we are heading back to our home schools carrying with us what we learned about the issues and policies.

As I was waiting to board my plane (wearing my new LSRJ shirt), a soon to be 1L came up to me and asked, “so what, exactly, does reproductive justice mean? Like, you care about abortions and stuff?”

I couldn’t help but smile. I gave her the one-minute-or-less elevator speech I practiced in a workshop earlier today, wrote down my contact information, and the contact information for a California chapter leader I met this weekend. When she walked away, I realized I had learned so much more this weekend than the status of abortion laws in different states.

The LI spent most of the weekend teaching us universal leadership and messaging skills. It was truly one of the most amazing programs I’ve ever experienced. The national organization’s back seat approach to the individual chapters’ agenda and structure speaks volumes about their faith in their members. While it’s scary to be imbued with so much responsibility, there are so many amazing tools and resources available not only from the national organization, but from fellow chapters as well.

It’s nice to know you’re never alone. Especially when you’re leaving a place of acceptance and open discussion, and going back to a place that recently passed draconian laws to restrict a woman’s control over her own body.

Liberty, Equality, Sorority

Catrina Otonoga, Case Western Reserve University

From the first moments of meeting the LI attendees at the hotel, until the last drinks of the day, there was a flurry of hugs being passed around the conference. Old acquaintances and friends from home schools and across the country were meeting up sharing stories, and bonding – like partners, and sisters. Although a few men, who offered great and much needed perspective throughout the day, joined us, the feeling of sisterhood was palpable.

Women began comparing their chapters to their experiences in a sorority, and were concerned with how to create a lasting legacy, recruitment of new 1L “pledge classes”, and making sure the work they had begun was continued long after their journey though the law school. The vibrancy and energy of being surrounded by so many people, with so many viewpoints and ideas was overwhelming. But, underneath each of those ideas, was the knowledge that here in front of you was your ally, your sister, your kindred spirit that you could turn to throughout not only the LI and law school, but far into the future.

But, don’t let all this talk of sisterhood fool you. Each of the women was passionate about integrating more and more voices to the movement – men, women of color, people who identify as LGBTQ, people with lived experiences in poverty, immigration… the list went on and on. RJ is far more than just a women’s movement or a women’s issue, and the people of LSRJ recognize that more and more each time we convene with each other. The feeling of sisterhood, is not just that shared between women, but a bond shared between people who are so passionate, so invigorated by working toward shared goals that there is nothing you can do except smile, hug and know that the legacy will be there, building upon itself, riding waves of ups and downs, for years.

Doula-ing the Movement Forward

JoAnna Smith, Emory University

During the first day at the Leadership Institute, we discussed how the reproductive justice model differs from other frameworks for reproductive rights or social justice.

It made me think back to when I was working as a labor doula before law school.  A labor doula is a trained and experienced professional who provides continuous physical, emotional and informational support to a woman before, during and just after birth.  A doula learns that she is there to help the woman have a safe and satisfying childbirth as the woman defines it. It is not the role of the doula to discourage the laboring woman from her choices, nor to project their own values and goals onto her.

As a doula, I was required to listen more than I talked.  I learned to encourage women to ask questions and get information rather than doing it for her.  I learned that I couldn’t possibly understand all the circumstance of another woman’s life that drive her to make the decisions she does, but that I should do everything in my power to hear her and help her achieve those choices.  I learned to work behind the scenes, providing valuable skills and resources when needed, but never taking the spotlight away from those who really mattered: the woman, her family, and supporters.  Outside of the birthing room, I advocated for changes in a complex system of institutions, laws, and circumstances that make it difficult for women to have the birth they knew was best for them.

What I heard during the RJ 101 session made me think hard about the role of an RJ lawyer.  In law school we learn how to be the interpreter of the law and the one who gives advice.  We are taught to stand up in front and speak confidently.  We are taught to be, or at least act like, the experts our education prepares us to be.

But the reproductive justice framework asks us to focus on the intersections of race, class, sex, age, sexual orientation, gender expression, immigration status, and ability and how they impact access, agency, and autonomy in shaping one’s reproductive destiny.   It shifts our role from achieving a right or winning a case for someone to one that requires us to listen and to act only once we attempt to understand those we serve.  It asks us to work with communities as allies, strategists, and advisors to overcome the complex systems, laws, and circumstances that make it difficult for people to have the reproductive destiny they know is best for them.

We must be doulas in the reproductive justice movement.

I am incredibly honored to be at the L I with so many soon-to-be lawyers who will continue to doula this movement, and those it affects, forward with compassion, grace, and integrity.

We Don’t Say the “F” Word in Oklahoma

Ash Moore, University of Oklahoma College of Law

When I signed up for this weekend, I wasn’t too sure I was going to enjoy it. From the first moment I stepped in to the LSRJ Leadership Institute, I knew I was in for a bit of a culture shock. People were throwing around the “f” word like it was perfectly acceptable language.

I’m talking about “feminism,” of course. That word scares folks in Oklahoma and surrounding states. Everyone gets an immediate picture of bra-burning, man-hating, bleeding-heart liberal vegans. And I have to admit, I came here with some preconceptions as well. Even I was expecting a much higher vegan attendance (there’s only one here).

It was really refreshing to see a room full of people from different backgrounds coming together and civilly talking about reproductive issues (and it ain’t all about abortion folks. I know, color me surprised). But even in this group, we had disagreements over the issues. Astonishingly though, there was no yelling and, as far as I know, no one was offended. It was truly amazing to have an open, honest, discourse about these issues and not be vilified. Day one is at an end, and I can’t wait for day two.