February 18, 2015
I’d like to share a story of inspiring and creative organizing from Josephine County that experiments with connecting the dots between reproductive justice and gender justice and racial justice. An intergenerational group of Josephine County folks have been organizing together for racial justice for over a year now, building a base of folks engaging in hard, but meaningful conversations around what human dignity truly would look like in their county.
Below, Eliot Feenstra, a 26 year old Illinois Valley resident who teaches theatre and integrated arts, shares his story of how a few folks reached out and meaningfully engaged on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
Let us know what you think. What does their story stir in you?
Every time I drove down 6th Street in Grants Pass, I saw the big banner: “March for Life. Pray to End Abortion.” As I drove through, it nagged at me. I knew that probably in this town there would be a lot of people gathered on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade with pictures of mutilated babies; plus, now, with a newly Republican-controlled Congress, there was a bill up to further restrict access to abortions. The introduced legislation would particularly affect lower-income women who already have limited access. In the little town of about 1,200 that I live in, Cave Junction, the only service for pregnant women is the “Pregnancy Center” which is a Christian service–not a lot of options.
As I did errands and thought about it, what bothered me most was the idea of one side of the issue being presented without conversation. It feels like there’s a big separation in this town between the few progressive folks and the broad spectrum of conservative and libertarian folks, many of them Christian. Where are the places where people meet up and dialogue about issues that affect all of our lives? Doesn’t seem to happen often, at least for me.
I put out the word to some friends about getting together to broaden the conversation at the March for Life. What compelling rhetoric–who isn’t for life? I started thinking about all the ways that people work to protect and nourish life–raising kids, growing food, building homes, providing public services… Amidst a culture/civilization that seems increasingly deadly: cancerous chemicals and pesticides, police brutality and systemic racism, school curricula that perpetuate hierarchy, patriarchy, and genocide, corporate pharmaceutical industries, increasing fossil fuel infrastructure that promises ecological crisis sooner or later… Ugh.
In particular, we reached out to the Unitarian Universalists, the local queer community, and to people who had come to our past ROP and Racial Justice Working Group events to come and join the March to march for Black lives, women’s lives, and all the ways we nourish life. With such a ridiculous rhetorical divide (life vs. choice?!), it made a lot of sense for us to “co-opt” or ride on the advertising of the March organizers, using it to advocate for women and Black lives, rather than putting a lot of energy into organizing a separate event–plus, that promotes dialogue.
A few of us made signs that said “Protect Life:” and then something else…”black lives matter,” “protect women’s rights to choose,” “care for our wild lands.” A few of us had handcuffs and gags and signs that said “No Choice,” performing a visual spectacle of life without choices. We all deserve both: life and choices. What is one without the other?
At first we joined the lines of the March for Lifers along 6th Street. Folks were quick to read our signs and we engaged in great conversations trying to find common ground around systemic racism, generational poverty, and more.
We moved to the other side of the street and skipped and danced our way parallel to the March (about 8 of us, about 2-300 of the March for Lifers). We sang and waved: “on the voice of the wind / I hear my daughters’ daughters singing…” We got lots of cars honking in support of us, waving out their windows, and a few people even got out and joined us! By the time we got to Riverside Park, we were hoarse, but felt great. We stood by the prayer circle for a bit and people came to block view of us and our signs by engaging us in conversation, and we had some more great conversations.
I was surprised by what people had to say. One man came up and said, “I don’t really want to be marching with all these Evangelicals–it’s not my thing. But my girlfriend had an abortion 5 years ago and I really wanted to have a child. As a single man, it’s pretty much impossible for me to adopt, so I have a lot of grief. That’s why I’m here.” Another woman came to speak to us, saying, “I had an abortion and I wish I had had that child, even though at the time I wasn’t ready. I feel sad about it every day. I’m with you guys–I think women should have the right to choose, but I don’t want anyone to have to feel the way I have.”
This was a different kind of conversation than pictures of mutilated fetuses. Peoples’ stories are complex, multifaceted, not straightforward. What are they to do with their grief? To me, this was a much more interesting conversation to be in. These folks weren’t saying, “we want to outlaw abortions.” They were confused about where else to go to share their personal grief. I talked with a lot of people that day about that, what do we do with our grief?
When the reporter asked us why were out there, we told her we weren’t with a particular group. We were all people who saw the big banner and came out to broaden the conversation. To promote critical thinking and dialogue. It’s a funny paradox that in this culture where people value freedom so much, there is a narrowing of choices and perspectives. What is life without choices? Without the freedom to choose for yourself?
I’m not sure who we were marching for–the people in their cars, who were so glad to see us out, though they couldn’t join us; to hear the stories from March for Lifers who didn’t know who else to talk to about their complex feelings and grief; or for each other, to remind each other that there ARE other voices here besides our small-town “mainstream.” We have diverse life experiences, but we could come together to sing and dance to protect all lives, all choices.
– Eliot Feenstra, Josephine County Racial Justice Working Group