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Questions Funders Frequently Ask About Funding Reproductive Justice Work

Vanessa Daniel, Program Advisor Tides Foundation

Q: Why is it important to fund Women of Color-led work?

Building the capacity of Women of Color-led groups working on reproductive justice represents one of the most exciting grantmaking strategies available to funders interested in reproductive health and rights. There are three important reasons to give this strategy careful consideration. First, the United States is projected to be a majority people of color nation by the year 2050.1 Many states have already tipped in this direction. As the demographics shift, we must recognize the importance of building leadership for a more pluralist society and of reaching those who are most effective in diverse communities.

It is now becoming tactically impossible to move the needle on any reproductive health issue without the participation and leadership of Women of Color. We are now at a point in history where we absolutely need a strong, multi-racial movement in order to win on reproductive health, rights and justice in the United States.

Second, if our objective as funders is to move resources to those with the greatest need, then it becomes important to address racial disparities in funding. Something is amiss when the segment of the population that is experiencing the greatest reproductive health disparities is receiving the least amount of resources to lead on reproductive issues? It is important to know that in the U.S., Women of Color are often more comparable to women in developing countries than they are to their white counterparts here at home. The fact that gaps such as the ones described below have persisted over the years calls the question: Should we be doing more to invest in and empower communities of color?

Compared to White women, in the United States:

  • Black women are four times more likely to die from complications of pregnancy2 and have 23 times the rate of AIDS diagnoses.3
  • Vietnamese women have five times the rate of cervical cancer.4
  • Latinas rates of unintended pregnancy and Chlamydia are two times higher, cervical cancer three times higher.5 Native women are nearly three times more likely to be sexually assaulted or raped. (U.S. Dept. of Justice) and lack even the most basic reproductive health care through Indian Health Services (IHS). For example, in the past 30 years, only 25 abortions have been provided to women through IHS nationwide.6 7

Third, Women of Color-led groups are leading the way in using a reproductive justice strategy – an approach that is proving effective at winning policy change. From creating the tipping point to defeating parental notification in California, to securing comprehensive sex education in New Mexico, Chicago and D.C., to banning the practice of shackling of pregnant women in all federal prisons, to winning millions in federal funding to  expand reproductive health care access through Indian Health Services, Women of Color have been essential to some of the most defining victories in the past decade – and they have ensured that those victories addressed the needs of those who experience the greatest reproductive health disparities.   

Q: How do you define Women of Color-led work?

In its creation of the Catalyst Fund, the Women of Color Working Group used the following definition of “Women of Color-led” as a criterion for organizations and projects that would be eligible for funding: Women of Color-Led Organizations: (1) organizations with a majority WOC board, staff, and volunteers in leadership positions; (2) a Women of Color-led effort that is a core strategic priority within a majority white organization. This organization must have WOC in decision making positions at the staff and board level; 3) a Women of Color-led coalition; or 4) a Women of Color-led effort within a majority male, people of color-led organization. This organization must have WOC in decision making positions at the staff and board level. In addition, the Working Group noted that when evaluating whether a project or organization is Women of Color-led, it is important to ensure that the Women of Color in leadership are not isolated or tokenized, but adequately supported and that the work they are advancing is centralized within the larger strategic priorities of the organization.

Q: What is Reproductive Justice and Why is it Important?

Reproductive Justice (RJ) is a dynamic new strategy that is proving effective in winning policy and systems change to advance reproductive freedom in the U.S. One of the most widely cited definitions of Reproductive Justice is as follows:

“Reproductive Justice exists when all people have the social, political and economic power and resources to make healthy decisions about our gender, bodies and sexuality for our selves, our families and our communities.  Reproductive Justice aims to transform power inequities and create long-term systemic change, and therefore relies on the leadership of communities most impacted by reproductive oppression. The reproductive justice framework recognizes that all individuals are part of communities and that our strategies must lift up entire communities to support individuals.” 8

RJ is a strategy that expands the movement for reproductive health and rights from:

  • A single issue focus on choice to a broad focus on the full range of reproductive issues that impact and resonate with women’s lived experiences.
  • From homogenous leadership to a leadership that is diverse and more reflective of our nation: economically, racially, and generationally.
  • From a top-down approach - that counts on change trickling down from professional advocates in the beltway -  to a grassroots approach that expects it to surge up from an organized base; a base that can provide direction and backing to professional advocates.
  • From an insular to a connected movement - bringing other movements like labor to stand up on key reproductive fights.

RJ is critical to revitalizing and re-energizing the movement for reproductive freedom by building a broad and organized base of support.

What RJ is not: RJ is a framework and strategy that was developed by Women of Color but is not exclusive to Women of Color.  In fact, it is now being used by a growing number of white led organizations, particularly those led by and for low-income women. RJ is not typically a message point for the media or key stakeholders; it is a term to describe a strategic approach to advancing reproductive freedom. RJ organizations share a common strategy but may describe and message their work differently depending on their constituency, geographic location, and the stakeholders they are addressing. RJ is not an isolated strategy or in opposition to the work of more mainline reproductive health and rights organizations. It compliments strategies to advance reproductive health and reproductive rights. For more on the distinctions between reproductive justice, reproductive health and reproductive rights approaches, see “A New Vision for Reproductive Justice”, the seminal paper on the RJ framework authored by Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice and available in the “More Resources” section of this toolkit.   

Q: RJ encompasses so many reproductive health issues. Isn’t funding this work diluting or scattering efforts to advance rights on single issues such as access to abortion?

In campaign after campaign, RJ is proving to be one of the most effective strategies for protecting abortion access and other reproductive rights. In California, Women of Color-led RJ organizations have been essential to the margin of victory to defeat multiple parental notification initiatives that would have blocked young women from accessing abortion without parental consent. It is important to note that the majority of these organizations do not lead with abortion rights in their daily work. This reflects the reality that abortion access, while certainly important to communities of color, it is not typically at the top of the list of reproductive health priorities. California Women of Color-led RJ organizations lead with reproductive health issues that are priorities to their communities, such as the reproductive health impact of environmental toxins, or comprehensive sexuality education in schools. Because they were able to organize a base of support around the reproductive health priorities most resonant for their communities, they had a base to mobilize when it came time to defeat parental notification. The leaders of these RJ organizations have articulated that if they had tried to organize their base by leading with the single issue of abortion, they would not have had a base to mobilize to push back these anti-choice initiatives.

A multi-issue approach has also been key in bringing other social justice sectors to take a stand in key reproductive rights battles. In California, for example, Women of Color-led RJ organizations campaigned not just to defeat parental notification, but also to defeat a threat to gay marriage and an initiative that would have criminalized youth. This kind of partnership with other social justice sectors, on a consistent basis over the years, has allowed them to develop relationships that they can leverage on key RJ policy fights. It was Women of Color-led efforts, for example, that finally moved the California Federation of Labor to endorse a “no” vote on parental notification in California – something no other organization has been able accomplish. Similarly, in Colorado, where the Latina-led organization COLOR ran a joint campaign to defeat fetal personhood and an anti-affirmative action measure, they were successful in moving many labor unions and immigrant rights groups to take a public stand to defeat fetal personhood. RJ groups across the country have been able to move social justice sectors to stand up on reproductive rights in unprecedented ways.

As we reflect on the effectiveness of RJ in winning on abortion rights, it is also important to examine its success in winning on other reproductive health issues that emerge as priorities for communities of color. It is important to acknowledge that abortion is only one of many reproductive health issues and that to truly build a multi-racial movement we must not only ask what Women of Color are doing to advance abortion rights, but must also ask, what all reproductive health and rights organizations are doing to advance the reproductive health priorities of Women of Color.

Q: Isn’t funding “Women of Color-led work” simply reinforcing racial divisions within the reproductive rights movement by separating Women of Color from white women?

In order to win reproductive freedom, we need to build a strong, organized, multiracial movement; one that represents the changing demographics of this nation and one where a diversity of women have an opportunity to participate and to lead. True unity and progress towards a multiracial movement will only come when the Women of Color who are already leading this work in their communities have the resources to have an equal seat at the table, to participate, shape the agenda and build multi-racial alliances.  Indeed, the strongest examples to date of multi-racial alliances in organizing and policy change have emerged in places where Women of Color-led organizations have had the resources to sit at the policy table with larger reproductive health organizations. Lack of equity in funding hinders their efforts and slows the progress of the entire movement towards a stronger, more unified and effective push for reproductive freedom.

Q: How can I tell if a small, grassroots RJ group is making an impact during the grant period? Don’t they have to secure a concrete policy victory to be considered successful? Are there other indicators for evaluation of such a group?

The lack of long-term investment grassroots base-building work for RJ is hugely responsible for the erosion of reproductive rights at the state level in particular. Conservative forces have understood the importance of such base building work and invested heavily in support of grassroots organizing at the local level.  And over time, such investments paid off in the power of the conservative right.  As funders of social justice, including reproductive justice and rights, we need to think in terms of long-term investment.

Grassroots organizing takes time. Some of the most notable policy victories of the past decade have been secured by organizations that have waged multi-year campaigns, and painstakingly built a base of leaders and support. For example, in New Mexico, Young Women United, a small organization founded in 2000 organized for five years without a policy win and then, in 2005 moved the entire state to adopt comprehensive sex education in the public schools. The effectiveness of an organization and the importance of continued investment cannot always be gauged by a very recent policy win. Factors such as geography and political climate must be taken into consideration as each group is evaluated. For example, while a group working in California’s more progressive Bay Area may be able to run a short campaign and secure a policy win within a few months, a group working in rural West Virginia or in a conservative Southern state like Georgia, may be running a very smart campaign and not achieve a victory for many years.

While a policy victory may not occur every year, there are benchmarks for assessing the effectiveness of organizations. A few indicators against which progress can be measured include:

  • Expansion of primary constituency/membership. It is important to make the distinction here between primary constituency, which includes the people actively and consistently involved in the organization – for example members that can be counted on to participate in campaign activities – and a secondary constituency, which may include non-active members on a large list serve or people that are not involved in the organization but who will be positively impacted by a campaign win. The progress of the organization can be mainly measured by the growth and engagement of their primary constituency.
  • Increased capacity of a group to mobilize its constituency to action. For example, the ability of an organization to deliver a large number of calls, letters or petitions to pressure a key elected official or other target; to marshal large numbers of people to a rally or demonstration; to deliver spokespeople to key hearings; to orchestrate letter-to-the-editor campaigns from its members, etc. 
  • A growing number of leaders.  Grassroots organizations typically have a broader membership base that can be mobilized and engaged and a much smaller cadre of leaders who are respected by and accountable to that base. These leaders are the chief spokes people during campaigns. They make the call on campaign strategy and direction; forge alliances with key community leaders; invest large amounts of time in the organization and in deepening its relationship with its members/constituency. If they are maximally effective they also replicate themselves by cultivating other leaders to expand the cadre. The growth of this cadre demonstrates the strength of an organization and its ability to advance change. Organizational strength can be measured by the degree to which a group is investing in these leaders, through training, development, and providing them opportunities to lead. The number of leaders – on a site visit for example – who can clearly articulate the goals and strategy of key campaigns and that reflect a strong sense of ownership for the organization and its direction, is an important indication of the effectiveness of a grassroots organizing group..
  • Increased alliances and/or coalition work with other social justice sectors. Moving labor unions, environmental justice groups, or criminal justice reform groups to take an active stand on key reproductive justice issues and policy fights. Examples of an “active stand” include ally organizations making an official endorsement of a reproductive justice policy campaign; turning out their members to actions/demonstrations to pressure key targets; including RJ issues in their organizational platform and/or member education; leveraging their relationships with key decision makers to advocate for good decisions on RJ; campaigning alongside RJ groups in key policy fights.    
  • Increased linkages to national RJ organizations. Organizations and the movement as a whole are strengthened when local and state-based groups connect their work to that of national “grasstops” reproductive justice organizations. It is important to note that this does not mean that the strategic direction of state-level groups is driven by national organizations working in the beltway. To the contrary it means that the priorities of local communities are reflected in the platform of national organizations and that state-level organizations receive the information they need to create a tipping point on federal policy fights by pressuring members of Congress in their home districts.
  • Increased reciprocal partnership with traditional reproductive health and rights organizations. Reaching this benchmark takes cooperation from both RJ organizations and RR and RH organizations; however RJ groups that are effective at building power are often better positioned to demand and secure a seat at the table with larger organizations and more importantly to shape the priorities that come out of those tables.
  • Evidence of greater leadership and visibility in the field. For example positions on key coalitions and leadership bodies.
  • The ability to increase and sustain higher levels of grassroots funding and revenues. While an organization may be effective at winning campaigns without grassroots funding, developing a diverse funding base that includes grassroots donors is an important measure of organizational strength and sustainability.
  • Growth in infrastructure and systems. While an organization may be able to win campaigns without strong infrastructure and systems, it is unlikely to sustain its winning streak without them. To be strong for the long haul, they need comprehensive databases for tracking members and donors; compelling websites, materials, and external communications; strong financial systems including annual audits for larger organizations; systems for staff training and development, etc.

1 U.S. Census Bureau News.Press Release. “An Older and More Diverse Nation by Midcentury”.  August 14, 2008.

2   American Medical Association. State-specific maternal mortality among black and white women: United States, 1987–1996. The Journal of the American Medical Association. 1999; 282(13):1220–1222.

3 Center for Disease Control, “CDC HIV/AIDS Fact Sheet – HIV/AIDS Among Women”. August, 2008; Pg. 2. www.cdc.gov/hiv/topics/women/resources/factsheets/pdf/women.pdf

4 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Minority Women’s Health – Cervical Cancer”.  November, 2009.

5 National Cancer Institute, Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) Cancer Statistics Reviews, 1975-2003, available at seer.cancer.gov/csr/1975_2003

6 Patricia Tjaden & Nancy Thoennes, US Department of Justice, Full Report of the Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence

Against Women, 2000.

7 For more statistics on racial disparities in reproductive health please see the UN CERD Shadow Report, “Unequal Health Outcomes in the United States - racial and ethnic disparities in health care treatment and access, the role of social and environmental determinants of health, and the responsibility of the state.” CERD Working Group on Health and Environmental Health. January, 2008. reproductiverights.org/sites/crr.civicactions.net/files/documents/Unequal Health Outcomes the U.S.pdf

8 Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice. “A New Vision for Advancing Our Movement.” 2005.