When you come face to face with the reality of racial health disparities in the United States — a reality that many women of color confront on a daily basis — it can be hard to stay positive. Since the 1940s, African American women have faced maternal mortality rates three to four times higher than their White counterparts, and today, they are four times as likely to have an abortion as White women. In 2003, African American women were 20 times more likely to be infected with HIV than White women, making AIDS one of the top three causes of death for Black women between the ages of 35 and 44 in the United States. Even within progressive social movements, Black women's needs and rights often get sidelined: the mainstream (White-dominated) reproductive rights movement, for example, has tended historically to focus their advocacy on preserving a woman's right not to have a child by making sure that women have access to contraception and safe abortion, but African American women often struggle with an additional dimension of reproductive oppression: assaults on their right to have a child through scarcity of healthcare, sterilization abuse and racist population control initiatives, which continue to this day.
Amidst these overlapping oppressions, however, Black women have always played a key role in the struggle for reproductive freedom in the United States, even if their contributions have often been made invisible. Today, countless autonomous organizations run by women of color are shifting the historically narrow discussion of reproductive rights to encompass a broader reproductive justice approach — one that includes the multiple dimensions of reproductive health, and that links the struggle for reproductive autonomy with the need to address the social and economic injustices that circumscribe so many women's reproductive decisions. In Chicago, an organization called African American Women Evolving (AAWE — pronounced "awe") has spent the past decade pursuing a positive, holistic vision for reproductive health and social justice — by and for Black women, and based on a deep personal commitment to promoting Black women's health.
AAWE was founded in 1996 by two Black women in leadership positions at the Chicago Abortion Fund (CAF): Toni Bond, who was the CAF's Executive Director, and Winnette Willis, the CAF's Board Chair. The CAF, like abortion funds across the country, helps low-income women obtain safe abortions through negotiated discounts, small grants, and advocacy on removing economic barriers to abortion access. The vast majority of women the Fund serves are African American, and Bond and Willis noticed this imbalance during a review of client data in 1995. In response to that discovery, they convened a series of meetings with Black women who supported the CAF, designed to identify ways that the organization could address Black women's broader reproductive health needs. The meetings culminated in a conference during which, according to Bond, Willis famously commented that she was " ‘in aawe' of every woman at the meeting and the commitment we had to Black women's well-being." AAWE was born.
Despite its small staff, AAWE's vision of reproductive justice has always been both deep and broad, based on a commitment to "full knowledge and total access," and grounded in critical analysis of the intersections between race, class, gender, and reproductive health. For AAWE, achieving reproductive justice means making sure that women have information on "various methods of contraception and some of the harmful side effects, preventing HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), understanding and learning how to chart menstrual cycle, infertility, prenatal care, infant and maternal mortality, menopause, breast care, accessing safe abortions, etc." But reproductive justice also goes beyond strictly reproductive issues, since, in AAWE's words, "woman's ability to lead reproductive healthy lives is closely connected to her ability to overcome other social and economic barriers." To this end, AAWE works not only to educate and inform Black women about their reproductive health, but also to promote and support Black women's activism and leadership on reproductive health and related social justice issues.
Throughout its history, AAWE's direct link to the women it represents has shaped its holistic approach to reproductive justice, as well as set it apart from many of the higher-profile national organizations working on reproductive rights issues in the United States. As Bond explains,
Quite simply, the women who are representative of the women who face the greatest barriers and disparities are a part of the leadership and decision-making with AAWE. We really look at this work from the standpoint of what does it take for women to be healthy, have healthy families and live in a healthy community. We look at the totality of women's lives, understanding that she is not just a walking uterus, but that other social and economic forces impact her ability to be healthy in all areas of her life.
AAWE works to achieve its mission of helping African American achieve true reproductive justice in collaboration with women's groups, community groups, schools, parent organizations, churches, and other social justice groups in Chicago and across the country. They conduct workshops and advocacy trainings, organize community meetings, convene health conferences, and facilitate sex-positive Safer Sex Educational Experiences©. Their health and wellness center and online factsheets offer information on various topics in reproductive health, and their original research provides cutting-edge information on African American women's reproductive health experiences. AAWE's policy and advocacy work is closely linked to its educational work. Current priorities — which are based on the most pressing reproductive health issues confronting the communities that AAWE serves — include HIV/AIDS and microbicides, the Hyde amendment and public funding of abortion, the feminine hygiene industry and the sanitization of women's bodies, new reproductive technologies, and emergency contraception.
AAWE's campaigns have multiple goals: to disseminate accurate information, dispel myths, spark reflection on how different kinds of oppressions (social, economic, racial, and reproductive) intersect, and advocate for systemic change. For example, the Healthy Vagina CampaignTM came about in response to numerous studies that linked douching to an increased risk of pelvic inflammatory disease, STDs, ectopic pregnancies, low-birth weight babies, and cervical cancer. Research conducted by the CDC had revealed that Black women were twice as likely to douche as White women. AAWE followed up with their own research, and their survey of 300 African American women revealed that over half of them douched. In response, the Healthy Vagina CampaignTM aims to inform women of the potential risks associated with douching, as well as advocate for stricter review and regulation of the companies that manufacture feminine hygiene products, based on a critical analysis of the feminine hygiene industry's aggressive marketing tactics, which target women with the false message that their bodies are dirty.
Of course, holistic advocacy that is people-centered and grounded in a deep commitment to social justice takes time, and AAWE is up against a great deal. Even in light of the well documented social and economic inequalities and health disparities between Black women and White women across the United States, Bond reports that some members of the Illinois pro-choice community "still do not understand why there is a need for an African American centered organization to work on reproductive health issues when there are other mainstream groups here." Despite these challenges, however, AAWE's impact among its constituency is clear. When asked to point to AAWE's greatest success to date, Bond answers, "It's creation. Every time a new woman comes in contact with AAWE, she is so very happy that we exist."