Rev. Emma Akpan works for Blueprint North Carolina, in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she builds coalitions of charitable organizations. Blueprint North Carolina works to influence state policy through grassroots advocacy, focusing on reproductive health, affordable housing, and higher wages. Last year, Emma participated in the Moral Monday protests at the state capitol, offering a closing prayer on Reproductive Rights Advocacy Day. Emma has a master’s degree in divinity from Duke University, where she was co-coordinator of the Divinity School’s Women’s Center. She serves on the board of NC Women United and has volunteered with NARAL North Carolina, Planned Parenthood, and the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault. She is also an ordained deacon for St. Paul AME Church in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Sally Steenland: Let’s start with the Moral Mondays protests because they’re getting increasingly well-deserved coverage. You were there—give us a snapshot of what the protests are about.
Emma Akpan: The protests have been amazing. They began last April [in 2013] as a response to the attacks on education, the voter ID bill, cuts to unemployment benefits, and the repeal of the Racial Justice Act. So, the North Carolina NAACP organized a relatively small group of people, and Reverend William Barber decided he was going to speak out against these cuts to education and all the other things I listed. Then they would go into the legislature and practice civil disobedience. They did this by entering and remaining after they were asked to leave. Reverend Barber was one of the first people arrested that day.
Since the first Moral Monday it grew exponentially. I believe these Moral Mondays energize North Carolinians around important issues. It gained a lot of national attention and we’ve been focusing on the voter ID bill—which of course will hurt North Carolinians at the polls—and we’ve been focusing a lot on cuts to education.
SS: When you go to a protest, who’s there with you?
EA: Everybody is there with me! I usually arrive alone but I meet my friends there. Last week my friend was there with Planned Parenthood petitions. So I grabbed a clipboard and [asked people] to sign a card that supports Medicaid expansion in North Carolina. As you probably already know, our state decided not to expand Medicaid and we are rallying around that now.
So, when I go I always see my friends. We talk and we sing together. You think about all the social policies they’ve cut that are hurting our lives and the lives of those around us.
SS: It sounds very multigenerational, too.
EA: Yeah, it’s been really amazing. Most people bring their kids, people bring their dogs, and I’ve seen college students out there with petitions. We have different sets of workers come in. Social workers, doctors—everybody is concerned about these issues in North Carolina because they’re affecting us. They are direct actions against us.
SS: You talked about Medicaid as one of the issues. But the governor is refusing to expand Medicaid, which has serious consequences for people in your state, including women. Can you say something about that?
EA: Well, for Medicaid to be expanded there needs to be legislative action. Just today we had a press conference about Medicaid expansion and sent 25,000 petitions to Thom Tillis—who is the speaker of the House in North Carolina—asking him to expand Medicaid.
This affects women because without Medicaid coverage, women aren’t going to be able to get the prenatal care they need, the contraceptive coverage they need, and the myriad of health concerns that women have. Women across the state are worried about feeding their families and trying to go back to school and putting gas in the car. I think health care should be the least of their worries while they’re trying to raise families and provide a financial future for themselves.
SS: Some of the things you mentioned in terms of prenatal care are part of reproductive justice. You helped bring the issue of reproductive justice into the Moral Monday protests and you gave the closing prayer at one of the protests. Can you talk about how that happened and how reproductive justice is linked to the other justice issues you named?
EA: Right, well, I didn’t personally quite bring in reproductive justice! But our partners at NC Women United and Blueprint North Carolina asked the NAACP to talk about reproductive justice at one of the Moral Mondays. It came about last summer around July. Two bills were introduced in the matter of a week that were attacking abortion clinics and contraceptive coverage for North Carolinians. One of them we named the Motorcycle Vagina bill—it would’ve effectively closed abortion clinics across the state.
SS: Wait a minute, the Motorcycle Vagina bill?
EA: OK, let’s back up. Senate Bill 353. Originally it was a bill about motorcycle safety-helmet regulations, but they attached these other regulations on abortion clinics. It was little stuff like the size or length of the hallway or whether or not your clinic has an awning on it. They were trying to have the same regulations as a hospital for an abortion clinic, but we know that for abortion clinics you don’t need the same regulations as a hospital because an abortion is [often] not surgical. The bill passed and it effectively closed many of the abortion clinics in North Carolina. That was at the beginning of July.
After that, a group of women coalition leaders went to the NAACP and said that this issue is important to a lot of us and we should talk about that. So, Reverend Barber agreed to have one Moral Monday where we just talk about women’s issues.
That’s how the July 15 Moral Monday was planned. It’s sad [that it had] to even come out in that way, but I’m glad we were able to stand as women together against many issues, including [restrictions to] reproductive health.
SS: You’ve talked about the importance of having the reproductive justice movement be inclusive. Can you say what’s happening in North Carolina to help make that happen?
EA: Let me just tell you my personal story. I work in [the policy sphere] and it’s difficult to remember women in rural areas. We are very aware that we are not the only people at the center of the movement, but we talk like we are. So, at the beginning of January, [a few of] the largest women’s coalitions attended an antiracism workshop. We are dedicated to being more inclusive in our activism. That includes focusing on relationship building with women across the state and making sure we are collaborating with and learning about what issues are important to them instead of staying in our own bubble and deciding for ourselves what issues are important to women.
So, we are going to do that in a few ways and one of the projects we are working on is a bus trip to stand in solidarity with Marissa Alexander. If you don’t know much about the Marissa Alexander case, she shot two warning shots while running from her abusive husband. She tried to use the Stand Your Ground defense, which is in Florida, but she was denied and was convicted with aggravated assault and now she is facing 20 years in prison. At the end of July, her case will be retried, and that is when we are going to go down to march and stand with her.
Sister Song is based in Atlanta and they are coordinating this bus trip to stand in solidarity with her. We are making it a reproductive justice issue because—since she has been tied up in the legal system for almost four years—she has been away from her three children.
It is a perfect opportunity for us to understand that reproductive justice is about race, class, gender. When you talk about women’s issues a lot of time we forget about the racial and economic disparities. A lot of times black women are handled very unfairly in the justice system.
It’s not only that they are taking away my contraceptives or my right to have an abortion—they are taking away the right to even raise children in a healthy manner especially when they’re cutting pre-K programs, food stamps, and education. We can decide to have children, but we want to bring them up in a world where they are going to be healthy and happy.
SS: You mentioned contraception and prenatal care. I want to take us back to the Supreme Court, which is going to rule this month on the Hobby Lobby case. It has to do [with] whether for-profit corporations can claim religious liberty when their owners object to providing contraceptive coverage in the health care plans under the Affordable Care Act. Contraceptive coverage at no cost is an important health benefit for women. What are your thoughts on the case and the possible decision?
EA: Well, in the Bible, it says to work out your own faith and salvation with fear and trembling. So, what the Hobby Lobby and other employers are saying about religious liberty is the complete opposite of religious liberty. They are using their religion to take away the rights of women who are working for them. These women need adequate access to health care.
I believe that covering contraceptives is about health. It is not about whatever assumption you have about contraceptives. It’s about making sure a woman is healthy. Women use contraceptives for many reasons, including regulating their cycles and treating illnesses such as endometriosis.
Even if women weren’t using it for that, that’s not really the point, right? We are not going up to men and asking them what they are using their medicine for. This should be a private issue between a woman and her doctor. She is capable enough to decide how she wants to live out her faith, how to pray to her God, and also [how] to do what’s best for her body, her family, and her finances.
SS: I like how you started that. Your response in terms of the Bible and working out your own faith on somebody else is not religious liberty.
A final question: As a leader in CAP’s Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute, you bring your faith into reproductive health rights and justice work. Often those two things are seen as opposed. Why do you connect the two? Why is that important?
EA: Well, I’m going to quote the Bible again. I was taught as a Christian [that] you are supposed to take care of people. Jesus says, whatever you do for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. So, as Christians we’re supposed to care about our brothers and sisters and when you are taking health care away from women then, that is not caring about them. Health care is important for the poor—the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in our neighborhoods—and when the state decided not to expand Medicaid, you’re literally killing people.
I don’t think that’s right, as a Christian. Also, I’m a young woman. I’m the walking beneficiary of having contraceptive coverage in my health insurance! This is not an amorphous, disembodied issue. We are living, breathing, and capable women, and we just want what is best for our financial, spiritual, emotional health and our futures. We know what we’re doing.
SS: Trust us, trust women.
EA: Yes, yes.
SS: People sometimes don’t see the connection between public policy and their lives. You just made that connection pretty clear.
EA: Yes, I remember the day when my birth control was free! That was a direct result of policy. This is not just something elected officials are just doing—they are doing it to me.
Health care should not be a debate. I will debate you about any issue, but when it comes to taking care of people, their bodies, and their health, we shouldn’t argue about it.
SS: In the richest country in the world we should be able to take care of people who are sick. What’s exciting about what your doing is it is faith in action and it is democracy in action too because that’s how you make change—by being involved.
EA: Right, right, exactly.
SS: Thanks so much for this work and talking with us today. It has really been terrific. Thanks, Emma.
EA: Thanks for having me.
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. You can learn more about this project here.