SisterSong could not afford to be silent. SisterSong surged into action in response to SB 529. We had to be active on two fronts: to challenge the massive marketing campaign of the billboards, and mobilize to defeat the concomitant legislation. While we did not anticipate this unexpected development in our own backyard, we also assessed that we were providentially positioned to challenge this new front in the abortion wars. We only had from February until late April to defeat the legislation. The Georgia Legislative session lasts only three and a half months, or more specifically, only 40 days.
We had to make decisions quickly and we had to get them right.
SisterSong had worked with Generations Ahead and the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum in 2008 and 2009 to respond to Trent Franks’ national legislation. This
collaboration, including the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, evolved into the Race and Sex Selection Working Group in 2010, bringing together dozens of groups concerned about the national legislation.
During the national debate over the Franks’ bill, the sex selection aspect of the legislation appeared to have the most salience and offer the greatest threat, because the concept of black women having abortions due to the race of the fetus was so implausible that even Franks’ staff tried to de-emphasize that aspect of the bill. Unfortunately, the Radiance Foundation and Georgia Right to Life did understand all too well the publicity value of accusations of racial genocide that could soften the emotional ground for anti-abortion legislation, even if the allegations were specious. In fact, there is no evidence at all that African American women have abortions because of the race of the fetus.
In addition to our previous national work on the Trent Franks’ legislation, SisterSong also has a long history of investigating the black anti-abortion movement, and had written about it many times in our newsletter, Collective Voices. In fact, because we frequently wrote about African Americans and abortion politics over the years, reporters found us through their research. Our partnership with Generations Ahead in the Race and Sex Selection Working Group addressed the sex-selection aspects of the campaign, but the race-selection aspects had to be addressed by African American women because the black community was specifically targeted in this campaign.
SisterSong’s core strength is our large membership base built through our convenings, trainings, and leadership development work. We have a base of 80 organizations and thousands of supporters we can quickly mobilize. We are the leading national provider of reproductive justice trainings and a major originator, developer and thought-leader on the reproductive justice framework. We also organize the largest gatherings and conferences of women of color working on reproductive justice in the country. We are very comfortable in using our reproductive justice framework intersectionally to examine issues of race, gender, and class in reproductive politics. Perhaps the largest miscalculation our opponents made was overlooking SisterSong’s presence in Atlanta when they decided to launch the national campaign here.
SisterSong is an inclusive women of color organization. In our 13-year history, we had never before devoted such resources to the needs of only one group of women of color: African American women. Moreover, members of SisterSong are pro-choice AND pro-life. While America generally sees differences on abortion as divisive, for SisterSong, our diversity is empowering. We are unique in that we bring women of color together to work on reproductive justice issues crossing boundaries of race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, etc.
We had to carefully assess the threat this Georgia campaign presented to all women of color, with African American and Asian American women on the initial front lines for the assault, although we expect other race- and ethnically-based appeals to other communities of color to appear in the future. For example, it would not surprise us if Latinos are advised to resist abortions to increase their numbers to fight the anti-immigrant movement, or Native Americans to desist from abortions to wage the struggle for Indigenous sovereignty. Our opponents are nimble and manipulative, and our communities are vulnerable and unfortunately sexist.
At SisterSong’s national office, we were not certain that we had the authority and the capacity to wage this struggle. We had to ensure that our multi-racial, multi-generational Management Circle (Board of Directors) agreed to revise our three-year strategic plan to accommodate this unexpected demand on our slender resources. This meant postponing other scheduled projects until later on in the year because of our limited capacity. Fortunately, they agreed that this work was urgent and consistent with the public policy priorities of our strategic plan. We divided up the primary campaign responsibilities with Loretta Ross, our national coordinator, organizing our national mobilization strategy; Heidi Williamson, our national advocacy coordinator, directing the legislative strategy; and Serena Garcia, our communications coordinator, organizing our communications strategy. This combination of seasoned and newer activists proved that a small organization could win a major policy victory by working strategically with allies from around the country.
1. The Funders Network on Population, Reproductive Health and Rights is the largest affinity group of foundations who support reproductive health, rights and justice.
It was clear that taking on this struggle would strain our limited capacity and risk our long-term survival. We also correctly suspected that we would not immediately receive a surge of funding from many pro-choice funders for this emergency policy work -- unlike more mainstream groups -- because of the historic disparities in funding provided to women of color organizations. According to research conducted by the Tides Foundation in 2007, the combined budgets of the four largest white-led national reproductive rights organizations was nearly $100 million in 2005. The combined budgets of the four largest women of color-led national organizations the same year was under $3 million. At the state level, the picture was not much better. Even in the states where women of color-led work on reproductive issues is better supported, there was a disparity. In California, the median budget of women of color-led organizations in this sector was approximately 9.7 percent that of white-led organizations, in New York the figure is 4.5 percent, in Georgia 4.6 percent, in New Mexico 11 percent. This resource disparity plays out as women of color groups attempt to have an equal seat at the table in coalition campaigns in each of these states. In 2006, of the $67 million that Funders Network members granted in the U.S., only 9 percent went to organizations “serving” women of color.1
We are accustomed to doing more with less, but this unexpected challenge was daunting because of the millions of dollars to which our opponents had access, while we did not even have the time to enter the funding cycles of many pro-choice foundations in time to make a difference in the short-term. Seeking new funding to expand our capacity would have to wait until after the legislative session ended.
We received grants from the Mary Wohlford Foundation, the Anderson Rogers Foundation, the Catalyst Fund, and the Irving Harris Foundation to fund our community educational efforts, and their support was invaluable. While many funders vocally supported our efforts, others were nervous about the policy work in which we were engaging and wondered whether their foundations could support activities designed to directly defeat legislation. Others knew they could not respond quickly enough to be of immediate assistance. We did receive a small surge of unsolicited individual donations sparked by media appearances. We also had to carefully comply with 501(c)3 lobbying restrictions and our grant agreements, and use only non-foundation revenues for our legislative work.