This interview is part of a podcast series on faith and reproductive justice, a project of CAP’s Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative. The project aims to strengthen the leadership and increase the visibility of faith-based advocates who work on women’s reproductive health and rights. You can learn more about this project here.
Sally Steenland: Hi. My name is Sally Steenland, and I direct the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative here at the Center for American Progress. With me today is Cherisse Scott, the founder and CEO of Sister Reach—currently the only reproductive justice organization in Tennessee that works to educate and empower women and girls of color. Cherisse has worked as a reproductive health educator and advocate for nearly 10 years. She worked with the Black Women for Reproductive Justice, or BWRJ, in Chicago, where she partnered with churches to provide reproductive health education for black women and girls. Cherisse was also a founding member of Trust Black Women, which is a national collaborative set up to challenge racist antiabortion billboard campaigns that targeted communities of color. In addition, Cherisse is an ordained minister who integrates social justice advocacy and activism with spirituality and community education. Thanks so much for being with us today.
Cherisse Scott: Thank you guys for having me.
SS: Let’s get right to it. I want to ask you about the organization you started: Sister Reach in Tennessee. Why did you create Sister Reach? What needs did you see?
CS: Upon planning, I realized that there were no organizations that worked from a reproductive justice, or RJ, frame, which for me was problematic in itself. But I had identified an organization that was women centered, and I thought it would be a great start to work with them. I soon realized that Memphis was over 70 percent people of color, and there was a need for women of color advocating for ourselves around our reproductive and sexual health. So I conducted a needs assessment with local advocates, clinicians, funders, legislators, community groups, researchers, and professors. And they all expressed that there was a void in advocacy and policy by and for women of color. So reproductive and sexual health education was what I was most comfortable with, and I began building community relationships and trust with those services. Actually, my mother and grandmother are responsible for that final push to encourage me in starting an organization officially. It was very reminiscent of the elders in the village blessing the vision and endeavor. So I incorporated Sister Reach in the fall of 2011, and we have been going full steam ahead ever since.
SS: Wow. Congratulations. So tell us some things you are doing. What are some of your efforts to fill some of those needs?
CS: Some of what we are doing includes our Choose2Wait program. We were funded through Advocates for Youth and the National Institute for Reproductive Health’s Urban Initiative, and it’s a program where we train youth of color to understand and apply policy through an RJ frame. Our BRAVE—which is “Bridging Resources to Achieve Victories in Education initiative”—is what we’re doing in partnership with the University of Memphis’s sociology department to encourage enrollment and college completion for black and Latina women—who are least likely to graduate due to various things such as unexpected pregnancy, financial and health disparities, or lack of proper stewardship on and off the campus for these students—to help them achieve the best educational career outcome. We have engaged in teen pregnancy-prevention initiatives around the city, such as Memphis Teen Vision; with HIV reduction and prevention initiatives such as the Red Door Foundation and the South AIDS Fund; and also within the faith community regarding reproductive health education. We do grade school education, which is more of a comprehensive model. And we even work with a community police-relations group here because we are invested in the women we serve living in safe communities.
So, that’s just some of what we’re doing. We are currently about to co-locate with one of the domestic-violence organizations here that serves predominantly black and brown women just so that we can expand our reach, and they can include advocacy as a part of the work that they offer out of their organization as well. So we’re doing a lot!
SS: You’re doing a lot! I can’t believe you just got started in 2011—that’s amazing.
CS: I mean, there was so much that needed to be done, but we are just trying to take one piece at a time, doing as much as we can, as well as we can. We’re definitely trying to bridge those gaps around advocacy and policy and education, but more so we are doing those things through an RJ frame.
SS: So you’re the CEO; you’re the founder; you do community outreach; you do policy advocacy; you do education; and then you’re an ordained minister. So how does that affect your work? How does that filter through what you do?
CS: It really informs the work that I do. I do my work through that faith lens just because I am a Christian. I think of Hosea 4:6: People perish from a lack of knowledge. Our principles are founded in that understanding. That’s the principle that we employ because we realize that women and girls of color suffer the most from a lack of education and lack of access. So we definitely are trying to apply that faith lens to the work that we do and then just understanding that folks in the church are also concerned about what’s going on in the community. And so we just try to bridge those gaps; we try to bridge those resources.
SS: So, if I were in your church, and you were talking to me and connecting faith and reproductive justice for me, what if I didn’t quite see that connection? Tell me how those two words can belong in the same sentence.
CS: Well, the Bible tells us to do justice, actually. Everyone may not work from that particular scripture or that particular frame, but we are admonished to do justice and then admonished to have a healthy temple. And so we start at the very basic level of this—Reproductive Health 101. We don’t have to get into talking about all those very weird hot topics such as abortion because honestly that just doesn’t work; not everybody is going to hear you; you’re going to be shut down. But what we can agree on is that that Lord wants us to prosper and be in good health even as our soul prospers—that’s scripture. And that’s the frame that we use when we go into churches and we do education.
The churches that we’ve been working through have been predominantly African American churches. That’s a common ground we can talk about. We can talk about heart conditions; we can talk about prostate cancer; but we can also talk about reproductive health. So the churches are situated in communities, and they understand. They have issues with young people who are dealing with teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. You have churches where they’re being forced to really embrace dealing with the LGBT community and, beyond just HIV, sexuality, and even civil unions. You are dealing with the fact that in many black churches, you have a predominant amount of females who are in the church, and these are single moms, single parents, and divorcees. There aren’t as many black men present in church as there used to be.
So we’re able to deal with some of those basic issues such as contraceptive health. Even if we can’t show the condom, we can talk about the condom; we can talk about gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis. These are issues that in Memphis are really serious. We have a syphilis issue. We are number one in country for new cases of HIV among black gay men who sleep with men. So these are issues that are going on within our churches, and these are members who are ministry leaders, the choir director, working in music ministry, the ushers, the deacons, and sometimes even our pastors. So it’s a very candid conversation that we’re having, and I think that I’ve been allowed to have the conversation because I am clergy. But then sometimes that’s difficult because I’m female. So I don’t necessarily wear the clergy title as much as I wear the social justice advocate who is empowering women and girls to lead healthy lives and live in healthy communities.
SS: Well, I really like that you’re referring to this work as “God wants us to have a healthy temple,” which is your body and the sort of sacred image in which we are created. That sounds like a really smart and sensible and spiritual way to start to have these conversations. When you talk about these issues and when you start with sexuality education and a lot of the challenges that are within these faith communities, what’s the response? Are people really eager to hear this? Do you have to keep knocking on the door before you get a response? What are you finding?
CS: Some are, some aren’t. I’ve been trying to really push this faith work since I was working at Black Women for Reproductive Justice in Chicago. You have to start with the low-hanging fruit. It’s easier to do this work in some denominations than it is to do in others. More charismatic denominations such as the Church of God in Christ or the Apostolic churches are a little bit harder. But if you have some Baptist churches, Unitarian Universalist churches, even Unity churches, they are more of the low-hanging fruit, and we go there first—and definitely to nondenominational churches as well. And what we learn is that if you have a pastor who thinks you’re doing good work, you can have that pastor vouch for you with another ministry. Folks talk: So these people came to our church, they helped our young people, they helped our single women, they helped our young men, and that kind of word of mouth just helps establishing relationships.
We did a faith panel last year for our one-year anniversary, and one of the things that one of our pastors on the panel said is that it’s just as important for advocates to build relationships with pastors and ministries and other ministry clergy—just as we do in any other aspect of our work. Folks have to be able to trust us to come into their churches—just as folks have to be able to trust us to come into their clinics and their schools and things of that nature. So that is definitely something that has been a great process. Slowly but surely, we’ve been able to get into more and more churches, and we’re getting more support just because I think that we’re being very humble about the way that we do the work, and I think very respectful. We are not trying to go around the pastors to get the word out, but we are going straight to the head of the church because that’s what works.
SS: You have to be respectful. You just mentioned your work in Chicago with Black Women for Reproductive Justice. So that was in a completely different state—Chicago is different from Tennessee—and it was several years ago. So what’s different regionally working in Tennessee versus Chicago? And it’s almost a decade later: is there a difference in time? Are things better or worse? When you compare the two, are there things that are comparable or are there things that you have to be like, “Oh no, one size does not fit all?”
CS: One size does not fit all, and Chicago, Illinois, is a more liberal state. Tennessee is a red state, so we’re in the Deep South here. I left Chicago in 2011, but the work began around 2005 or 2006, and it’s just a little bit different. It was easier as far as the faith piece goes; that’s pretty much the same. But the other pieces such as working in policy are hard because you’re dealing with predominantly Republicans here, as opposed to the other way around in Illinois. So it’s been challenging, but I think that it’s still been good because one thing that is true across the country is that there is a lack of black and brown women who are going to our state capitals and having conversations with legislators. And so that’s something that we are trying to change here in Tennessee. It’s something that, regardless of whether or not our state representative is a Republican, a Democrat, or an independent, folks are interested in seeing how we think, seeing how we feel, and just really trying to encourage the women that we serve to learn the process, as well as be empowered to go and share their stories.
And if you can’t go—because a lot of times that’s the issue when black and brown women are at work or don’t have child care—so we just make sure that we can capture those stories, and we can go as women of color to speak on behalf of women of color. And that’s the lacking piece: There aren’t enough women of color speaking on our own behalf around the country—not just in Tennessee but around the country. You know the moment that we do that piece—that we conquer that—I think that we’ll really see things change in politics on our behalf. As far as I’m concerned—and this is something that my former boss at BWRJ used to say—if black women and Latina women get an opportunity to win, we can all win, right? And so we all win because we’re talking about folks who have the highest levels of health disparities. So you know if you can get undocumented women and poor women to be able to share their stories and for folks to listen, everybody wins all the way across the board. So, I have definitely taken that as wisdom in how I’m trying to organize and mobilize women of color here in Tennessee.
SS: So your organization is still kind of new, but you’ve done a lot of impressive things. Are people from other states peeking at you and saying “Oh, this is interesting; how are you doing this?”
CS: Actually, yes. For me, I think one thing is that SisterReach is just led by mostly volunteers. These are folks who are committed to seeing a change. I guess a volunteer could probably say it better than I could. I think that what they’re saying is that there’s finally a little bit more action and policy and advocacy that’s happening by and for women of color. So on the outside looking in, I feel connected to that national work that I was connected to when I was living in Chicago. So I’m still a part of the OCs OTC, which is the Oral Contraceptives Over the Counter Working Group, and involved with Center for American Progress, the new Women’s Leadership Network, Trust Black Women, National Raising Women’s Voices, and Advocates for Youth. The majority of our funding dollars have come from out of state, which is good, and but we’re still building and trying to teach what reproductive justice is in the state so we can actually be funded for reproductive justice in the state. However, our largest funding has come from the state of Tennessee for reproductive justice, so I’m excited about that. Good for the Tennessee Board of Regents.
Folks are taking a little bit more stock, and I think it’s come from maintaining those national relationships. I think folks are even trying to encourage other colleagues of mine within the city to participate on a national level. We’ve been doing a little bit more work with HIV nationally—more than we’ve been doing with just reproductive health or freedom or rights. So I think that we’ve been doing a little bit more of that moving forward. There’s still a lot of work that’s happening out of Tennessee on behalf of folks from Planned Parenthood, who are right here and are local in Memphis or Nashville. So I’m just excited to have support, I really am. Folks from all the way across the country from California all the way to New York are supporting us, and folks are trying to lend any type of wisdom or instruction—from the funders to the advocates, especially the RJ advocates. I definitely want to thank all of the reproductive-justice advocates, who have really been reaching out and trying to support the work that I’m trying to do here in Tennessee. Just understanding that we are one organization trying to do reproductive justice, and that’s a lot of work. So everyone’s been very helpful.
SS: That’s great; that’s very exciting. You mentioned the Trust Black Women Campaign, and that’s a national effort that you’ve been involved with, and that’s a success story. So I want ask you about that: That was a campaign that was set up to push back against the really horrible antiabortion billboards that were going up in communities of color. And you were saying that that kind of campaign—that right-wing campaign—seems to have stopped at least for the moment. They were going up in city after city, so it sounds like your efforts were successful. What did you guys do? And is there anything you learned that could apply to another effort as well? Are there things in general that you could pass along?
CS: To give a little context about what happened briefly: Trust Black Women began in 2009 when pro-life groups started a shaming campaign against black women who had abortions. I’m one of them; I’ve had three. The coalition was broken up into eight anchor organizations that worked in tandem with the main office, Sister Song in Atlanta—then led by Loretta Ross. I worked with the Chicago anchor while employed at BWRJ. The billboards basically vilified us and shamed us for committing acts of genocide in their eyes. I believe we ran a successful countercampaign in that our messaging was for America to trust black women: to trust us for making the best decisions for ourselves, our families, and our communities. Trust that we had taken the time to think our reproductive health decisions through, and that if abortion was our end result, then it was the best choice we felt we could make under the various life experiences that bring women and girls to the very hard decision of terminating our pregnancies.
One thing that worked for us was getting African American people’s views about abortion. We did that through the help and the funding of the Ford Foundation, and Belden, Russonello and Stewart were our opinion-research team for Trust Black Women. We learned basically what we knew: African Americans support—we support—legal access to abortion, including instances when women may be harmed or in danger and cases of rape and incest. And we also learned that we cannot know all of the reasons behind a woman’s decision to have an abortion. Therefore we should respect that woman’s ability to make that decision with dignity, period. So, I think that because the campaigns weren’t necessarily started by black people, the shaming campaigns didn’t come down even though there were African American pastors who unfortunately bought into the rhetoric. It goes to show again: It was political posturing where it’s not necessarily about black women, and it’s not necessarily about our babies. Because that was the resounding thing—since when did folks start caring about black babies? There are other issues surrounding black children. We’re talking about health care and education. And not just sex education; we’re just talking about education. We have an influx of public-school closings across the country that are affecting black and brown children—and black children specifically.
SS: If you want to reduce the need for pregnancy, what about providing support for child care or a living wage?
CS: Absolutely. Let’s talk about a living wage. There are so many other hurdles that women have to endure just to be able to bring a child into the world; because once a child gets here, then what? The same money, time, and effort that these folks put into trying to shame us, I don’t see that same time, effort, or money being utilized to resource us to raise these children in healthy communities. Most black communities don’t have great grocery stores. It’s a place for pollution and for crime. I think that there is not an equal investment. And so that shaming piece doesn’t cause us to have any type of positive outcome if shaming is what you’re going to be able to do.
One thing that happened during the Chicago protests—when the right-wing folks were doing the press conference—was the president of the Prolife Action League was there, and black women were standing out there and were angry. We were really basically trying to shut down the press conference. And I’ll never forget that the president of the Prolife Action League stepped over to me, leaned down in my ear, and said, “It was your black child who broke the window in my house this week.” And I said, “So what are you doing out here? If you’re concerned about my black child growing up to put a rock through your window, then why are you out here?” And later on, I remember hollering out, “Clergy to clergy, let’s sit down and reason together. Let me give you back the word of God, preacher. And see, are you willing to sit down and have a conversation?”
You know we can’t stop. At that point there was only one billboard in Chicago; there were 29 more going up. This was just the first location. They weren’t willing. So to me, no, this was not about black women. No, this was not about black children. This was about continuing to push these shaming messages that do not cause a positive outcome. It doesn’t help our communities. It further hurts and divides our community. So it’s almost 2014, and the ballot is coming. So what do we do? It’s not about taking sides. You could talk about abortion until the cows come home, but are you going to make sure that I understand my body? Are you willing to help me understand my fertility? What are you willing to do besides shame me, preacher?
CS: So that’s one of the reasons that I don’t necessarily lead out with my title as clergy, because I realize that unfortunately the church has a stigma attached to it because of shaming. And we need to continue to push these messages of love and of support. That’s just where I stand on it because I’m passionate about it and emotional about it because it hurt to hear him say that in my ear. But it only let me know that they weren’t out there for the reason they said they were out there.
SS: Wow, that’s astonishing; that’s a shame. It just feels so cruel to deny women the basics they need to be a parent and to raise a child such as medical health care and a living wage—to just strip all that stuff away. And then when a woman is forced into a situation when she may already have children and can’t afford birth control, and she makes a decision that is right for her and her family under really difficult circumstances not of her choosing, and she then gets demonized for that. She gets pushed into a corner, and then she gets stigmatized at the same time. That’s just really cruel.
CS: And unfortunately that’s just how it goes
SS: That is how it goes; you are right. I just want to pick up on one thing you just said about the bad reputation that faith leaders have and how they’re often on the other side. I totally understand that, and I appreciate that. At the same time, I just think that makes your job as a clergy person in some ways even more important because you’re pushing back against that stereotype by talking about love and support and by offering another public view of what faith can be in supporting women and justice and reproductive justice. Unless you’re there, there’s a vacuum. And people just think “Oh, all religion is this.” It almost makes your voice more important than ever.
CS: I agree and, to be fair, there are clergy who are committed to social justice. There are clergy who are committed to supporting our voices and to supporting there being education around HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, reducing teen pregnancy, and unplanned pregnancy just in general. There are folks who are committed to the justice piece and some who reside right down here in Tennessee. And I’m thankful for them. Their voices are very quiet because it’s only a few as opposed to the larger scope. And as far as I’m concerned, it comes down to transparency as a church. We just have to be willing to be more transparent. The pastor who ordained me and brought me into ministry, that’s how he trained me—to be transparent. And so you’re absolutely right there has to be more folks such as myself; you have to be willing to speak up. And let me tell you, there’s an army, if you will, of seminarians who are committed to social justice and who also see that as one in the same as far as doing ministry. So, you have the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice that has adopted an RJ frame and is using that to train people as we speak in the country. This is different from 10 years ago. I know you asked me that earlier. What’s happening now that wasn’t happening 10 years ago is that RJ is happening now on a different level.
SS: You’re right. That’s where the energy is.
CS: Yeah. It’s on a different level. And I think that folks are more willing to learn and more willing to hear those really important stories of the women who are most affected.
SS: But I think that you’re right: When the numbers are so small, it’s risky because that’s a job. And if you have a congregation and if you offend the powers that be or if your name gets associated with something, you’re taking a risk because there aren’t that many of you so that is part of it too.
CS: What I’m finding is that for the pastors—and I’ll say specifically for pastors who are committed to this more liberal type of understanding and frame a lot of them—if they weren’t founding pastors, they don’t necessarily have an opportunity to make a stand. That’s across denominations; it doesn’t really matter. You have the Episcopalians first: We already know that they’re our friends. You know that the Disciples of Christ are our friends as far as adopting that understanding. But then you have some of those pastors who stand alone under the umbrella. For example, Father Michael Pfleger in Chicago stands alone because he is committed to pushing the envelope and because he believes in the justice piece that the Bible talks about. So there are folks, but they also need our voice and our encouragement. I say “our” as in the advocates who are committed to faith and are committed to helping their voice be heard. That’s something that I’ve learned over the past five or six years. They need our voices as much as we need theirs. And because many of these folks who I’m talking about are female, that’s a whole different dynamic even within the structure of Church.
SS: This does sound encouraging and hopeful. Is there anything else you want to add that gets you up in the morning and gives you some hope as you get through the day because certainly you’ve got challenges?
CS: I’m a mother. I have got to make this world as friendly as I can for my son. I’m trying and I’m committed. What gives me courage in the morning is that I know there are people who believe in the work that I’m doing. There are folks who believe in the work that you guys are doing. If we’ve only affected one person, then we’ve done our job. So for that one person, that’s worth getting up and doing this for. With Sister Reach—especially for the first year and a half—we’ve had more as a labor of love without much funding. I understand that somebody’s got to do it. As far as women of color, this is our life; this is how we live on a day-to-day basis. So for us, this is just helping our communities because we don’t have a choice. That keeps me motivated: that I don’t have a choice; that I am responsible for my sisters, my brothers, my community. It is my duty to do what I can to make a difference, not just for my specific community but for the greater community.
That’s what Sister Reach is committed to; even though our work is committed to women of color, we don’t discriminate. I don’t care who you are if you need help, and you need advocacy—as long as it lines up with our values, then we have your back. That’s been reciprocated across the city and across the country, so I’m excited, and that keeps me motivated. If one young woman understands—if she understands her fertility after a session with me at school or at church—then I’ve done my job, and hopefully she can pay that forward just the way it happened for me. That’s why I do the work. Someone taught me to understand my fertility, and I feel that it is my job to make sure that I do the same thing. I am not just fighting for the right to be able to have an abortion, but fighting for the right to be a parent, fighting for motherhood the way we fight for all of our reproductive health rights, fighting for food sustainability and being able to live in the environment. That is what’s wonderful about reproductive justice: It has the intersectional component. It is all of those things that make that woman be her best self, as Oprah says. I want women and girls to be their best selves, and so that keeps me motivated and in this work.
SS: And just one final thing: You say you’re a mother, and you said at the outset that your mother and grandmother urged you to start Sister Reach. So I hope you made them proud. Are they proud?
CS: I think they’re proud. I think my mother gets a little nervous because I like to make a lot of noise and stomp up and down a little bit to make folks really pay attention to women of color. I think what she’s learning is there’s a scripture that says the kingdom of God suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. And so that’s it for me. We can’t do this thing quietly. We’ve got to make noise; we’ve got to stomp up and down. I think that she’s accepting it little bit by little bit. I’m her daughter; I’m her firstborn, and so she just wants me to be safe. But she’s proud of me. She’s very helpful—both of them are. They make sure they support me as a parent and help me co-parent my baby so that I can go around this country—in and out of cities around the states—and say what needs to be said and do what needs to be done. So I’m thankful, and I appreciate them and love them so much for supporting me.
SS: Well, you are doing amazing, amazing work. Thank you for doing that work, and thank you for talking with us today. It really was an honor to talk with you.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.