Yes Ma’am Series: Mississippi Activist Laurie Bertram Roberts

Activist for Red State Justice

Call Laurie Bertram Roberts an activist, and within minutes of speaking with her, the word feels completely inadequate. As the Founder and Executive Director of the Jackson-based Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, Laurie is nothing short of a warrior goddess on the front lines of red state Reproductive Justice.

The Fund has recently leveled up with the purchase of a house in the Washington Addition area of west Jackson. The house, once renovated, will become the home of Mississippi’s first evidence-based, non-shaming and affirming pregnancy resource center, and only the second all-options center of its kind in the nation.

Last month, Laurie and I toured this little house, affectionately known as the Fund Shack, and sat talking on the side porch as the sun set. We spoke about the Fund’s work, their new location, and Laurie’s vision for its future in Jackson.

Deep South Voice: Tell me about this new Fund house, and how it came to be.

Laurie Bertram Roberts: I was chatting with Natalie [Offiah of Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition] one night, and I was trying to get her some condoms for MSSC. And I was saying you know, I have this crazy idea: I wish we could get a house. A house where we had enough space, where if someone needed to stay the night, they could stay the night. And Natalie was saying, we never have space for queer youth who are put out of their houses, and I was thinking that what would be cool is if we could find a space that was big enough, so if queer kids needed a place to stay, we could collaborate. So out of this conversation came the seed for this place. And this was last year, mid-2016. Trump was on the radar, but no one was thinking he was going to be elected. We were just planning for the regular hard work of Mississippi, which is already hard, right? We’ve been fighting the right wing forever, we’ve been in the trenches with this. I remember one of the first tweets I sent out after Trump got elected was, “Congratulations! We’re all Mississippi now.”

DSV: That’s actually another question I have for you — has Trump’s presidency registered in how you do your work here, or is it more of the same kind of hard?

LBR: I think it’s made it easier for the bigots here to be the bigots that they are. But Phil Bryant is still Phil Bryant, he’s no more different in 2017 than he was in 2016. I tweet a lot about people taking cues from red state resistance, because the work we’re doing hasn’t really changed. We’ve been battling all right wing Republican control, in some of these states, for ten to fifteen years. I’ve been doing this work now for seven years, and I’ve been in activism for longer than that. And I don’t think Republicans even believe most of the stuff they do. In fact, I know they don’t. They need abortion, that’s why they’re not going to get rid of it. I mean the hardliners really do want to get rid of it, but the Republicans in the party, no, they need it.

DSV: It gives them something to rail against. The supposed moral high ground.

LBR: Exactly. But back to the house. I love this location! Even though when I mention it to some people, they say, “Oh my god, in that area? That’s a lot of risk.” But let’s just break this down: this is Washington Addition. Historically, Washington Addition has always been black. This was a segregated community long before—

DSV: This was Gowdy.

LBR: Right, this was Gowdy. And Jackson State was placed here, specifically because Gowdy existed. There’s a historical significance to being here. And I want to be really intentional about how we design it. In this addition out back, I want to knock walls out, make more space. And in the backyard, you can tell someone really loved this property, it was very well landscaped. So we want to do some film nights outside. I’m hoping that we can maybe do free, for the community, fun family movie nights. Because there’s no movie theaters in Jackson. When my kids and I lived in west Jackson, there was nothing for folks to do on the weekend. So I’m hoping we can host some events. And why not have a children’s playroom, when you’re trying to be inviting for people who have children? We’ll also be ADA accessible.

DSV: So when did you all actually purchase this house?

LBR: Well, I told my board, I have this crazy idea for a house. And so we thought maybe four years from now, we would buy something and do an all-options pregnancy resource center. That was our long term goal. And then Trump got elected. And like manna from heaven, people bestowed money upon us! When I saw this house online, I could feel it. And when we rolled up in the driveway, I turned to my partner and I said, “That’s our house.” And I told my board, “That’s our house, I just know it!” We are two blocks off of Highway 80, right off of Ellis Avenue, right off of Lynch. Six blocks away from Jackson State, and right behind a high school. We’re going to be giving away condoms and doing sex education. We’re going to be doing free pregnancy testing. And also we’re going to have a little free library. We want to put a food box in our yard. All of the things we want to do, we want to do here. This is where we want to be.

We try to be really conscious about the decisions we make, we try to be ethical and shop local first, we try to do business with black-owned businesses, we only hold our organization meetings in Jackson at local restaurants. We hold our events locally. That doesn’t mean we don’t host stuff in the Delta for outreach, that’s not what I’m talking about. This is our home base, we support Jackson.

As a black-led organization, in a city that’s 75 plus percent black, why wouldn’t we? Why would we be in the suburbs? I feel here, this house, is our space. And we’re pretty unapologetic for that. And we get flak for that. We have white people who will not support us because of that. We’ve had potential donors say they won’t donate to us because we don’t have white members on our board. I had someone tell us that if we wanted more funding, we needed to include middle class people on our board, because the reason we were missing out on funding was we didn’t have the proper connections. And if we wanted those connections, we needed middle class women on our board. They meant white women.

The thing I find so offensive about that is, if you’re so worried about us having the proper connections, you could just make them for us. You could just connect us. I find that to be so problematic! And also why we need to be who we are unapologetically, and why we need to keep our model the way it is. We want this org to be led by women who reflect who we serve, and we serve low income women. We serve primarily low-income working class women. That’s what our Fund’s leadership will reflect. Period, full stop.

DSV: Your org’s work is centered on reproductive justice, a movement pioneered by women of color. How is reproductive justice different from reproductive rights? And why is it important that allies understand this concept and get the terminology correct?

LBR: So reproductive rights is more centered on access to reproductive healthcare. It’s focused on access to birth control, access to abortion. It starts and ends there. Reproductive Justice is not that. Women of color looked at reproductive rights and said, “No. That’s not good enough and that does not encompass the reality of our lives as women of color.” Our needs don’t end and begin with access to abortion, and yes, we need access to birth control, but what about coercion? What about sterilization? What about the fact that, y’all are talking about access to abortion, but y’all don’t care about the Hyde Amendment? White feminists who were all about reproductive rights had left all of these other things off the table.

So women of color started looking globally, asking, what are other women doing globally to get their rights? And they weren’t working from this constitutional framework. This is a key that a lot of people totally miss, and Loretta Ross will tell you every time that reproductive rights comes from a constitutional framework, whereas reproductive justice looks at it from a human rights standpoint. These are human rights. Abortion is a human right. Birth control is a human right. Reproductive justice is a human right. Having a safe neighborhood is a human right. The right to parent is a human right. The right to parent in safe surroundings is a human right. The right not to parent is a human right. The right to comprehensive sex education is a human right. The right to be safe from domestic violence. The right to have sex for pleasure is a human right. That all of these things are human rights, and that they’re all connected. That you can’t have one without the other. They all intersect.

What good does it do me to have access to an abortion, if five years from now when I want to have a child, I can’t have a child? And I can’t raise them in a safe environment, and I can’t raise them with full support? So that’s the difference. To me, the importance in understanding this difference is in the way white feminists even talk about abortion. You have a lot of women, especially women from certain classes, who have ideas about who have should babies, and who should have babies when. That’s not Reproductive Justice. You can hold these ideas for reproductive rights, because you just care that they have access to care. You can hold these very eugenicist ideas and say you’re a champion for women, but which women?

DSV: Can you describe how you got into Reproductive Justice activism?

LBR: In the 90s, I was fighting for needle exchanges in Indiana. This was my baby activism days, this was when I signed up to be a peer educator for condom demonstrations. So it’s 1997, I drive to Gary, Indiana to this HIV/AIDS treatment place, like a house. And I’m so naive, the face of HIV/AIDS to me was still white dudes, and a couple of black guys. So I’m expecting to see dudes. And almost everyone who was there waiting for care was black women. And their kids. And they were my age, all in their 20s. That just fucked me up. Like, why have I never heard? I feel like this was one of my Reproductive Justice awakening moments. I always say Reproductive Justice was made by women of color, but it’s for everyone. I very much feel like there’s room in the RJ movement for low income white women.

DSV: It’s sort of like when you elevate the status of the person that needs it most, the whole thing can’t help but shift.

LBR: We all rise.

DSV: You see this playing out now, with women victims of sexual assault coming forward. When we believe women—

LBR: Imagine that! Shocking.

DSV: Right? So. Funding abortions in a red state Mississippi sounds a lot like your mission is making something impossible possible. Do you agree?

LBR: A lot of days, that feels like it! Our easiest cases are people who need money for gas. So then we send them $50 for gas, and they get $50 for gas, and they get to their appointment.

DSV: This is all centered around Jackson? I read on your website that if you need funding, your funding goes with you?

LBR: We fund everywhere! Funding goes with the patient, and we’ll fund anywhere people will take our money. So we have currently funded in seven or eight states. Let me go from west to east. New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, DC, West Virginia, and Hawaii. In the last four years, that’s where we’ve helped people.

DSV: What’s a really common misconception about your org’s work, and what’s your response? So, what people think you do, versus what you actually do?

LBR: I think what people think we do is recruit people to have abortions? Like I’ve literally heard that before, that we’re looking for people to have abortions.

DSV: I expected you to say a lot of wacky things but I did not see that one coming.

LBR: No I’ve heard it! As if I drive around in a van, like an ice cream van, with TWO FOR ONE ABORTIONS painted on it, like I’ve got a megaphone and I’m like, “Get your free abortions y’all! Abortions for everyone!” I mean, I joke about being the Olivia Pope of abortions, like, “It’s handled.” But I’m not coercing anybody. People have to find us, and ask us for assistance, which means they’ve sought us out. We’re not running up on pregnant women. Most of the people who come to see us are like seven or eight weeks pregnant. How would I even know they’re pregnant? I think people have such a discomfort talking about abortion, and such a discomfort with people wanting an abortion and being okay with wanting an abortion, that they expect us to be shaming. And because we don’t shame, then somehow that equals we’re out here recruiting people to have abortions. It doesn’t make any sense.
And we also get the pro-abortion thing. “Oh, y’all are pro-abortion.” And my response to that is, I am pro-abortion access for everyone who needs it, and everyone who wants it. I am pro people having access to abortion in their own communities, at their own doctors’ offices, with their own insurance, through their Medicaid. I am pro all of that. I am pro no shame, no stigma. If that makes me pro-abortion, I don’t care. That’s not a pejorative to me.

DSV: Finish this sentence: Mississippi needs more…

LBR: So many things. More healthcare access, more Reproductive Justice. More water justice, housing justice, economic justice, birth justice, racial justice. Like literally, if there’s a justice out there, we need it. All of it. There’s so many layers. When people out of state shit on us, like saying, “Why are they last in everything?” Do they realize this criticism comes not only from a privileged place, but from a classist and racist place? Why these injustices and disparities exist comes from layers of oppression.

DSV: What’s the story that you want to be your legacy?

LBR: I feel like that story is probably this house! And I hope that story is this house.

DSV: How can readers support your Fund’s work here in Mississippi?

LBR: Tomorrow is Giving Tuesday, and we’d love support for our Fund Shack Housewarming! A lot of the items we need for the house are under $10. Folks can also help us add books to the Fund’s parenting resource center. Or if a donation is more your style, please visit us online!

Find Laurie and the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund online, on Facebook, and on twitter @FundMSAbortions. To read more about the US’s first all-options pregnancy resource center located in Bloomington IN, see All Options PRC. To learn more about Reproductive Justice, visit Sister Song and Trust Black Women.

YES MA’AM is a new Deep South Voice feature series spotlighting women-identified activists in Mississippi. Join the conversation online with #YESMAAM.