Laurie Bertram Roberts is President of Mississippi’s chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW). She is also a board delegate for the Mid-South Region of NOW. Roberts is a doula, mother, activist, clinic escort and feminist. She is also a regular contributor at the Jackson Free Press.
Roberts is on Twitter: @smartstatistic.
1. How do you view the relationship between your work as the president of Mississippi NOW and your work as a radical doula?
First, I think the state of birth in our country is a huge reflection of the state of women in our country. Even for something that is suppose to be so revered and respected as motherhood, women are STILL not given respect or seen as capable to think on their own. That said, I really don’t think they can be separated primarily because pregnancy and birth, how you do it and if you do it, is a human right. As a full spectrum doula, I work with women and families regardless of their pregnancy outcomes or their reproductive choices.
As president of MS NOW, I advocate and work on behalf of feminist/women’s issues. Both roles require me to listen to women and honor their choices. I cannot be an effective doula and not respect my clients and their abilities to choose what is right for them. The same goes for leading Mississippi NOW. I cannot in my leadership role work on behalf of women in my state without first listening to their voices, their concerns and respecting those concerns.
Especially as a woman of color who does this work, I am constantly aware of intersectionality and the effects of multiple oppression. If I lose that focus I think I will be doing a greater disservice than a service to the state. Mississippi NOW also recently started an abortion fund. Miriam Perez just wrote a great piece in RH Reality check saying that doulas and abortion funds have many commonalities, primarily that both are stop gap measures stepping in to provide additional services where they are lacking.
2. What has been your most effective tool for connecting to the people and communities you are looking to help? What has been the most effective tool for connecting to other activists doing similar work?
Historically, feminism has fallen short of reaching out to women of color, low income women, single mothers, trans women, stay at home moms, and working class women. We don’t talk to our male allies either. We often fail at communicating that, as bell hooks says, “feminism is for everybody.”
I think one of my greatest tools is that I am a member of many of those communities but I am not uncomfortable talking across diverse lines. I have found that meeting people where they are is a great start. You have to know your audience. I don’t assume everyone already knows what I am talking about. I can go around and ramble on about feminism, intersectionality, Violence Against Women Act [VAWA], reproductive justice, and classism and some people may understand me. Or I can just talk about fairness, equality, women/people having a fair chance, individual rights, the right to give birth and raise children, and people having multiple challenges. The language is different, the message is the same.
It is the same way for understanding that just because a upper/middle class white woman is “progressive” doesn’t mean she understands race and class intersections or multiple oppressions; it also doesn’t mean she doesn’t. You have to give people room to grow, work with their failings and not expect them to come activist-ready.
This is important to understand, especially in the south because we are highly religious and people have been taught that feminism is a bad word. To many, it is what causes families to break up and women to be uppity. Yet if you talk to people about feminist ideals many will agree with you.
Don’t get me wrong I am a feminist and I wear the title proudly. I just understand I have to walk softly in many circles.
A big thing is you have to get out of your comfort zone. Some groups I am not naturally comfortable with are vital to our success and frankly I can’t work on issues like domestic violence, comprehensive sex education, sexual assault, and defeating personhood without them.
I can’t stress enough that social media has been extremely helpful not only in reaching out but keeping activists updated and connected. Mississippi is largely rural and NOW members/allies are spread out across the state. We are not a well-off state either. So I can’t ask members to come to Jackson every month but i can webcast, tweet, and Facebook. In fact Twitter and Facebook have been extremely helpful in keeping people posted on legislative issues and calling them to action as far as sending emails, making calls to lawmakers, and organizing around issues. It is how I keep up with other clinic escorts and legislation in other states. Nothing happens in a vacuum so we need to pay attention to the struggles of our sisters across the country. Also social media allows those of us at the grassroots level to be the media. Like what happened in Texas leading up to the filibuster and the new blog that some of the clinics escorts (who are mostly NOW members) just launched covering the last abortion clinic in Mississippi.
3. What are the one or two pressing issues around reproductive justice in Mississippi that you wish people were paying more attention to?
I think everyone knows Mississippi is trying to close down our last abortion provider but the anti-choice bills haven’t stopped. Personhood legislation has been presented each session since it was voted down and Personhood MS has started a new petition drive to put it on the ballot again. So we won but the fight isn’t over.
I think something lost in the conversation regarding reproductive justice in Mississippi is that the state of maternal health care here is so bad. We have a c-section rate approaching 40%, and we have the worst maternal and infant health outcomes for African Americans in the country. Mississippi is a dangerous place to give birth, not to have an abortion. And yet our lawmakers want you to believe otherwise.
I also feel that many people think that because we now actually have sex education required in our schools the battle is won. I will say the opposite is true. The bill that was passed was not even close to good enough. It still allows schools to use abstinence only as sex education. True comprehensive sex education isn’t even an option. The choices are just ab-plus and ab-only. That is almost like no choice. Especially in a state with some of the highest STD/STI rates and teen pregnancy rates in the country while also having some of the most restrictive laws regarding abortion for teens.
I know you said two but I feel Mississippi is a prime example of why the reproductive justice model is needed over the choice model. In Mississippi, legislators and politicians aren’t working on jobs, they don’t want to help fund programs for poor children, they don’t want to help poor women parent their children. They are, however, really good at slut shaming.
We don’t fund health care, sex ed, or education and we restrict abortion. And still our lawmakers scream at poor women to “choose life.” To which I say “what kind of life”?
4. Why do you love Jackson and/or Mississippi? Why are you working so hard to make it a better place?
I fell in love with Jackson, Mississippi when I came to visit Jackson State University to pick my school to transfer to. I can only say that it felt like coming home in a way. As a biracial child raised in an all-white city in Wisconsin I have never lived in a majority African American city. I love that I feel connected to my ancestors here.
I love this state. People are straightforward, warm-hearted, and, while many of us may not be highly formally educated, we are smart, hardworking people (it drives me crazy to see Mississippians caricatured as idiots).
I am working so hard because there is so much work to do and frankly, if you can be a grassroots organizer/activist in Mississippi, you can organize anywhere. You can’t work somewhere that has seen so much struggle for equality and change and not know that the work you do has meaning.
Last, working in the south and Mississippi specifically is hard but with the many challenges come great triumphs and Mississippians are survivors.
5. Favorite under-the-radar writer and/or blog.
Not flattery: I love Flyover Feminism.
I also love http://thelastabortionclinic.wordpress.com/ which is the blog of the clinic defenders in Jackson.
[Editor’s note: more people than just cis women need and want access to abortion care.]
This is part of an on-going series of interviews with activists around the world who are putting their feminism into practice.
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