OK4RJ! Catalyzing Activism Along the I-35 Corridor

by Akira Céspedes Pérez, 2009 CLPP Conference Coordinator

I had been in Oklahoma for the whole of one week when I mentioned for the first time I work with youth and women regarding their reproductive health. The people sitting at the square table, mainly in their 20s, 30s and 40s, quieted down their conversations, processing, perhaps, my comment. “You mean to say you help people have sex?” asked the woman in front of me, her stern yet wise blue eyes fixated on mine. It was then when I started to fear that my move to the state where the wind comes sweeping down the plain might not have been the best decision I have made.

Fortunately for me, I came to find out not everybody harbored the same feelings my new acquaintances did. On January 21st, I had the privilege of joining Dr. Carol Mason and her students for a regional workshop discussing interdisciplinary perspectives on reproductive and sexual health at the Oklahoma State University (OSU) Stillwater campus. Quite unlike the folks at the square table, panel after invigorating panel provided an open arena for participants to be exposed to reproductive justice matters in a safe space. The speakers were incredible, the students were so motivated (and inspiring), and the event was unforgettable. After talking to several of the students, I am certain that the OSU event was just a small spark for what will surely become an engaging, hopefully open conversation about reproductive and sexual rights in Oklahoma.

It was an honor to represent CLPP (not going to lie, I kinda felt like a rock star — a bunch of people recognized or remembered me!). It was an even higher honor to have such motivated, persevering and progressive students want to model their activism after the sort of movement-building they encountered at the CLPP conferences. The students all mentioned CLPP as the catalyst of their activist curiosity, or as an “initiation” into the feminist and social justice world.

Amongst our guest speakers, we had reproductive justice powerhouses such as Lynn Paltrow, founder and director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), and Andrea Smith, co-founder of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. Furthermore, everyone, from local and national experts in the areas of public health, anthropology, sociology, and medicine, to students, community members, reverends, doctors and lawyers were present. In Dr. Mason’s words, through this workshop we were creating a “two-way learning venue,” because “national organizations have as much to learn from our students as our students have to learn from national leaders who have been thinking about these issues all of their professional lives.”

The students and participants—who were mostly from Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas and Missouri—indeed did a lot of learning. The day’s discussions ranged from the myth of the religion-sexuality paradox, to the criminalization of reproductive and sexual health, to even conversations regarding birthing rights and new eugenics. Even though these panels were engagingly revealing, I found the most enlightening of the panels were those led by the OSU students themselves. Andrea Smith had pointed out that to see change we “need to support further dialogue to see where the truths and the myths are.”

Keeping true to Andy’s words, the students embraced their opportunity to foster the “two-way learning venue” by facilitating panels that discussed the misconceptions they encounter when it comes to mindsets and resources on sex education and reproductive health in Oklahoma. In a very participant-driven discussion, local students shared their unique perspectives on the topic.

 

 

 

Dennis Rudasill and Amanda Renk, OSU students and activists, facilitated a revealing session on the way sexual education is conducted in Oklahoma. Stories of abstinence lessons laced with the purity rhetoric filled the room, as well as accounts of the lack of discussions about any type of contraceptives. What was most interesting for me were the statistics Rudasill and Renk presented on the incredibly high pregnancy rate of Oklahoma teens compared to the national rate (111.5 births per 1,000 in Oklahoma vs. 73.9 in the U.S., about a third higher). “The teen pregnancy rate here is high, but we are not told what [teens’] options are,” commented a student. Even so-called Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs) don’t seem to be of much use. Although many CPCs are listed online as abortion clinics, several don’t offer any kind of support (i.e. neither abortions nor any type of alternative resources or medical or mental health support). One student even mentioned the person at the CPC told her to “hope for a miscarriage.”

Although these and other stories startled me, it made me realize Dr. Mason’s two-way learning venue is exactly what is needed in conservative states. These students’ accounts opened up several national leaders’ eyes, as well as mine, to a very unique perspective on reproductive justice. These students were calling for support, for information, for resources that could aid their reproductive justice advocacy in Oklahoma, but for the most part they had to (literally) go undercover or secretively navigate around the state to get them.

 

 

 

As the event wrapped up, I witnessed local students openly making connections, networking, and strategizing their next steps with national organizations—a rare opportunity for Oklahomans, I’ve come to learn. It was then when it dawned on me this had been one of the best workshops I’ve attended. It was full of life, it was invigorating and catalyzing... and it gave me hope. It made me realize there was, perhaps, no need for me to fear my move here.

The winds sweeping down the plain could be blowing in a new direction.

A native Puerto Rican, Akira has worked with youth and women’s empowerment organizations in New Orleans, Massachusetts and Puerto Rico, including San Miguel Medical Group in PR and CLPP at Hampshire College. She currently continues her endeavors advocating for social justice as a language development educator with Teach for America in Tulsa, OK.

 

 ---return to newsletter index