Fighting Reproductive Oppression As A Community Organizer A Reflection Piece by Tifanny Burks

This month, I will be celebrating nine months of being a Community Organizer at Power U Center For Social Change (Power U). This has been a journey of extreme growth, challenges, as well as trial and error. I’ve sharpened my organizing skills by canvassing in the community and deepening my understanding of the local political climate from residents who live in Miami’s School Board District 2. Throughout this journey, our organization has had several leaders transition from their roles to serve the movement in different ways. Our past Lead Organizer, Ruth Jeannoel, left a permanent impression on me with her vision in seeing that our organization adopt a reproductive justice framework in a real and intentional way. Reproductive Justice, as I learned through an organization called SisterSong, is the complete physical, mental, spiritual, political, social and economic well-being of women and girls, based on the full achievement and protection of women’s human rights. Reproductive oppression is the forced control and exploitation of women, girls and individuals through our bodies, sexuality, labor and reproduction.

Reproductive oppression is something our local communities face everyday and it traces back to slavery. During slavery, Black women were forced to produce as many children as possible in order to save slave owners from having to purchase additional slaves. This was known as slave breeding. Reproductive oppression evolved from slavery into the “welfare” system, which has essentially become a war on poor people. Black women and women of color were the first major targets of this war. The creation of the term “welfare queen” traces back to a 1976 campaign speech by Ronald Reagan. The trope of the “welfare queen” depicts an image of a lazy Black woman who does nothing but continues to have children to receive hand-outs from the government. This manipulation literally shames and guilts poor women from having children.

Through conversations with Power U youth and community members, I have witnessed reproductive oppression by being informed that Miami-Dade Public Schools does not have a comprehensive sex education program that includes topics around consent and sexual violence. Incorporating comprehensive sex education programs in the school system has proven reductions in unwanted pregnancies, sexual violence, and the spread of HIV and STDs. Data shows that young people are engaging in sexual activities therefore the school district must be accountable to the students they serve by giving them all the information they need to make the best decisions about their bodies.

A few months ago when I was co-facilitating a restorative justice workshop at St. Thomas University a mental health counselor shared a story of a Black girl and boy who were caught by security having sex in a stairway at the middle school where she worked. The girl was suspended for a couple of days and the boy was able to return to class the same day after speaking with an administrator. The school stated the girl seduced the boy and therefore her punishment was justifiable. This is just one example of how Black girls are over sexualized while reinforcing a toxic societal norm that “boys will be boys.”

Since gaining a deeper understanding of what reproductive oppression is, I can literally write a book about all the ways it shows up in my experience of being a community organizer. Even internally, working at Power U. One way I see it show up is by way of slut-shaming. Even though I am trained in restorative justice, which is a community approach to handling conflict, I constantly battle with how to handle these tough conversations. I know when I was a sophomore in high school, I was ashamed of my sexual activity and would participate in the slut-shaming of the Cardi Bs and Amber Roses of my high school who were not afraid to live in their truth. It was not until recently that I was able to own my sexuality and rid myself of that internalized oppression, but I still struggle with empowering others to do the same. Which makes me grateful of the language given to me via reproductive justice that makes navigating these difficult conversations much easier.

We live in a patriarchal society where power structures, cultural norms and customs favor toxic masculinity. We are also made to believe that men are suppose to lead and our role as women is to support them. So, fighting reproductive oppression for me looks like having an unapologetic leading role on the Florida March for Black Women planning committee and uplifting our Black Girls Matter Coalition work. On September 30th, 2017, the Florida March For Black Women gathered over 1,000 people across the state to March for the sanctity, stability and safety of black women and girls and their families. It was magical and it made me hopeful for the future. A future where all black women and girls are truly liberated.

“If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” — The Combahee River Collective”