The sociologist on turning the focus of the reproductive rights movement from abortion to love, sex, family, and community.
Image by Whitney Losh
In the spring of 2012, the House considered the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act, a bill that promised to ban abortions sought because of the fetus’s sex. Among the legislation’s vocal opponents was Sujatha Jesudason, a sociologist and researcher at the University of California, San Francisco. In a piece that appeared on The Atlantic’s website the week of the House vote, Jesudason and her co-author argued against the bill’s passage, writing, “Sex selection may be…the operationalization of son preference, but the preference came first—and left unaddressed, isn’t going anywhere.”
Jesudason wrote that what was needed instead was a focus on gender bias and the impact of punitive policies on women and communities of color. According to her essay, this bill and similar ones proposed in state legislatures targeted Asian-American women, just as an earlier incarnation of the federal bill (whose symbol-heavy name evoked suffragist Susan B. Anthony and abolitionist Frederick Douglass) had targeted African-American women with its claims that race-selective abortion was creating a black genocide.
The bill, another conservative effort to ban abortion through back-door attacks on Roe v. Wade, was ultimately defeated. And the argument Jesudason made against it that spring was noteworthy. She wrote that “the language of ‘choice’ has left audiences cold” and that “the concept of choice no longer fits.” After all, she explained when we spoke recently, if “choice” is the highest form of a woman’s political expression, then what to make of her choice to select her child’s genetic make up? The op-ed was the evolution of ideas Jesudason had developed over a career spent working to prevent violence against women, as a staffer at Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice and as director of Generations Ahead, an organization she started to bring a fresh perspective to debates over new reproductive and genetic technologies.
“I was concerned that we were not preparing ourselves for the next generation set of issues that the [reproductive justice] movement was going to face,” Jesudason told me. “In particular, I was concerned that if as a movement we consolidated behind a ‘choice’ framework, that would not give us the political or cultural understanding to talk about genetic technologies.”
The reproductive justice campaign challenges mainstream thinking around reproductive rights and asks how race, class, and gender influence people’s decisions about whether, when, and how to form families. “Women of color fought to create the reproductive justice movement and have gotten a seat at the table in some form,” said Jesudason, a 1.5-generation immigrant who lived in India, her parents’ native country, between the ages of five and thirteen. “When I think about other movements, they don’t necessarily have that arm that says, ‘Hey, race really matters here.’ In racial justice, there hasn’t been an arm of that movement that says, ‘Hey, gender really matters.’ I think we’ve done well in that sense.”
These days, Jesudason, 47, directs an organization housed at UCSF’s Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health called CoreAlign. Through it, she brings together leaders in the reproductive health, rights, and justice movements nationwide to brainstorm about the innovations their work needs, and she’s leading a thirty-year visioning and strategy session to think through what comes next.
I spoke to Jesudason this past February in her office overlooking downtown Oakland.
—Dani McClain for Guernica
Guernica: You’ve written that CoreAlign is working toward a future in which everyone has “the resources, rights and respect to have all the love, sex, family and community that we desire.” What do you mean by that?
Sujatha Jesudason: It has seemed to me that a movement that grew out of conversations around sex and sexuality, and women having access to contraception and safe and affordable healthcare, has in the last forty years gotten very medicalized. It has focused on abortion, which is really just a medical procedure and not a stand-alone issue. So as I have committed more and more to this movement, I have been thinking about what it is that inspires me and why I care about this issue. Because it’s not so much about the medical procedure as much as what that medical procedure allows for some women and men, which is to have the love, sex, family, and community that they want.
But from an organizational perspective, often the focus has been on the public policies related to the medical procedures, and I think that has been partly what has not inspired folks. One of the things that we talk about in this movement is that one in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime. My question is, “What are we doing for the two in three who are not having that abortion?” No woman wakes up any morning and says, “Oh, I want to have an abortion today.” We think about the issue of abortion when we need it in our lives, and it really is a means to a broader end about what we envision for our lives. It’s not a goal in itself.
Our movement is in a cycle where it has been much more about protecting the policy wins of the past.
Guernica: How do you organize toward achieving these broader goals?
Jesudason: In terms of the organizing, Forward Together Strong Families is a great example of people really trying to reclaim the definition of family, to broaden the definition of family, to make it much more inclusive than what they call the “suburban white picket fence” model.
Movements go through cycles. I would say that our movement is in a cycle where it has been much more about protecting the policy wins of the past, particularly around abortion access. We have a strong and vast infrastructure of service provision, but we don’t necessarily have a political perspective and a culture-change perspective. We’re in the early phases of reigniting the movement in terms of what’s important to people.
I think it’s a little too early to talk about policy wins, although to the extent that there have been successful defeats of bad policy, I think Albuquerque [where a measure that would have banned abortion after twenty weeks of pregnancy was quashed] is one of them. In California we passed legislation around expanding abortion access. But it’s still not quite in the framework of a broader love, sex, family, and community.
Guernica: You focused on the social justice implications of genetic and reproductive technologies as director of Generations Ahead from 2008 to 2012. What made you decide to start CoreAlign?
Jesudason: I worked for four years at the Center for Genetics and Society and then four years at Generations Ahead on these issues. I realized that given the attacks on abortion and how under siege the movement felt, there was very little oxygen to have more nuanced conversations about today’s complex issues and the complex issues of tomorrow. So part of the vision for CoreAlign is: How do we address these issues in a substantive, comprehensive way that’s not just about how we get the policy win tomorrow, but also how we’re preparing ourselves for the next thirty years of this movement?
Guernica: Groups within progressive movements are often focused on rapid response efforts that follow the news cycle. What are the barriers to creating this kind of strategy?
Jesudason: We’re a field that has a lot of organizations. We have the Planned Parenthoods, we have the NARALs, we have the reproductive justice groups. Organizations tend to have an annual work plan. Maybe they have a three-year strategic plan. If they’re lucky, they get maybe two years of funding from any one funder at a given time. That’s not a long enough horizon for anybody to say, “What is substantive change that we can take on?” So the default mode has been, “What’s the quick victory?” That becomes the rapid response. Organizations are rewarded for it and they are not given the space to think long term.
This is a movement that is built around preventing a return of the coat hanger.
So the idea of the thirty-year [plan] was to get out of that space of saying, “Nothing is possible because there’s not enough time. There aren’t enough resources.” Let’s move into the field of what is possible. A thirty-year horizon is both long enough and short enough to really think about substantive change happening.
Guernica: You provide space for leaders within the reproductive health, rights, and justice movements to come together and have difficult conversations. Some might argue that a better use of time and resources would be to rally in the streets and lobby in the halls of power. How do you respond to these criticisms?
Jesudason: We are a movement that is struggling to be relevant, particularly to younger people. Younger people’s experience of race and of gender and of sexuality is different from the experience of the folks who framed this movement, which is really around—the image that comes to mind is that coat hanger. This is a movement that is built around preventing a return of the coat hanger, and that is not where younger folks are. Frankly that’s not where I’m at, either. So leaders within the movement have to figure out: What is it that we care about? How is it that we can be relevant before we can mobilize folks? Otherwise, we’re only mobilizing folks around defeating bad legislation.
I think the Wendy Davis case is a great example. It was a moment that galvanized—I can’t even remember how many hundreds of thousands of folks were on Twitter that night. But our job as movement leaders is to say, “OK, so you did that on that night. The next day this is what you can do to keep your activism going.” And we don’t have that agenda. We don’t have that infrastructure in place.
For me, having [Occupy Oakland] right outside the window and seeing it every day, I learned that it’s not just enough for folks to gather and have an unarticulated vision and agenda. Because you look at Frank Ogawa Plaza right now and there’s nobody there. Our job as movement leaders or people who care about this movement is to be able to articulate a compelling vision, to be able to build a sustainable base around it.
One of the things that I love about the immigration rights movement, and I follow it very closely, is that every day there’s an action going on and that means that there are organizations making those actions go on. It’s not just people who are waking up and saying, “OK, I’m going to do a fast for families,” or, “OK, we’re going to stop the detention bus from taking folks.” There’s a lot of organizing that’s happening that’s not always visible to the general public. But if we don’t have that infrastructure, we’re not actually giving folks forward momentum.
Guernica: Do you want to see young people lead this effort?
Jesudason: Yes. There’s been a lot of conversation in our movement around the generational divide, particularly going back to what I said about the coat hanger generation. The initial impetus was, “How can we set up a project that by definition requires intergenerational working together?”
But more importantly for me—and this is where I just love social media—is that there are so many emerging new voices that are talking about race in a different way, that are talking about sexuality in a different way, and that I am learning from every day. They are in a much more technologically savvy world than I am, and it’s ridiculous for me to think about building a movement for me, because I’m not going to be the one who’s carrying it forward twenty and thirty and forty years from now. My job as a responsible movement leader or as a person who cares about this movement is to say, “How am I thinking about building something that is sustainable in the long term and that includes voices that I might not find comfortable or that challenge my perceptions of myself and my role in the world?” There’s just been so much rich conversation around race and privilege and power in this social media space. We’re talking about a generation that’s not writing books on these things, but it’s actually putting out some of the smartest stuff I’ve seen.
I sometimes wonder if the moment for identity politics has passed.
Guernica: What are new perspectives on race and sexuality that are informing your work?
Jesudason: I think of myself as part of the generation that came of age with an understanding of intersectionality. I don’t only think of myself as a woman. I don’t only think of myself as an immigrant. I don’t only think of myself as Indian or South Asian. I think of myself as all of those things. There’s some premise underlying the way our movements have historically been structured which says you’re either in the women’s movement or you’re in the civil rights movement or you’re in the labor movement, but that those are not overlapping movements. And at some point, all of us choose. We’re like, “I’m not a feminist,” or, “Race is not my issue,” or whatever it is.
I sometimes wonder if the moment for identity politics has passed, and are we required to come up with a new organizing and movement-building model? Because people can care about four or five different aspects of their identity equally and in any one day take action on all five of them, and then what? We don’t necessarily have movement participants and movement leaders who are involved for forty years. But they may be in the movement for thirty minutes today, and then tomorrow they’re in another movement, and they still care just as much.
Guernica: Do social media and technology give people these different ways to access the movement?
Jesudason: What I love about social media is how much it provides access to voices that historically just have not been heard. They’re the people who don’t get the magazine articles and don’t get to write the books. But right now anybody with a computer can put their ideas out there.
Whenever CoreAlign does events, we encourage people to tweet. In the room we usually have a big screen where there’s a Twitter feed. So people outside the room can participate in the conversation, and people in the room are sharing their thoughts with the outside and responding to what people outside the room are doing. Some people find it incredibly distracting, and other people love it because it gives them another way to participate where they’re not taking up group space with every thought they have but there’s still some kind of record and documentation of it.
Guernica: I would think that helps guard these conversations against criticisms that they’re elitist, that you just pulled in these chosen people to decide the future of the movement.
Jesudason: Yes. It’s very much about transparency. Anybody can participate. Folks who are not in the room can be feeding ideas and questions and thoughts into the conversation in the room. It’s also about bridging some geographic divides.
Guernica: I’ve heard Oakland called a hub for reproductive justice organizations. Is it important that CoreAlign is based here, and how does location impact your work?
Jesudason: When CoreAlign started, we did surveys with some two hundred folks in the movement. Then we followed that up with forty interviews with key leaders. After we did that, Tracy, who is the co-founder, and I did a thirteen-city tour sharing this data. What we found is that geographic areas are very culturally distinct. One of the distinctions is New York and the East Coast tend to be very results-oriented. They’re like, “We don’t want to talk about values. We don’t want to talk about relationships. What’s the tactic? Let’s get to it.” On the West Coast and in the Bay Area in particular, the culture is a little bit more, “What is it that we hope can happen?” It’s a bit more visionary. It’s a bit more open. There’s less pressure to produce, and that has definitely informed CoreAlign.
What for me is interesting about being in a place like Oakland is that even though there’s diversity, it doesn’t necessarily mean that people’s closest friends are that diverse. And so there’s a certain comfort and hypocrisy of saying, “I live in a very diverse city, but I don’t actually have to talk to them.” I think that’s one of the challenges, and I would say that then goes back to how we don’t actually have the capacity to have conversations around race and power.
Part of my hope for what we’re able to do is acknowledge that there’s structural inequality. Take that as a given. But then have the conversation about how race and power show up in our relationship right now in this room. What does it mean for you to be a black woman, what does it mean for me to be a South Asian woman, what is your class, what is my class, immigration [status], education? How do all of those things play in how we show up in the room? How do they actually affect how we talk to each other? Until we have those kinds of relationships where we can have those really difficult conversations, I don’t think the stuff around race and power will change. Either people will deny it and say, “I’m not a racist in my interpersonal relationships,” or they’ll say, “Let’s just have the structural conversation that doesn’t hold any one of us accountable.”
People in our movement are much more used to and comfortable with being victims and we have a much harder time claiming power.
Guernica: Are internal conversations around race and power of particular importance to the reproductive health, rights, and justice movements?
Jesudason: It’s interesting. The easy answer is yes, to the extent that we understand these issues as some of the most intimate issues of our lives. Who are we having sex with? Who do we get to love? Who are we stigmatized for loving? What kind of families do we get to create? Those are all about really intimate issues where power and privilege play, and any time any of us have been in an intimate relationship, we know that. So that’s one part of it.
I also think that at a more structural level, people in our movement have a really hard time with power. We’re much more used to and comfortable with being victims and we have a much harder time claiming power. So for example, there’s a lot of, “We need to tell our stories around abortion. We need to come out about our abortion stories.” Oftentimes when people talk about abortion stories, they’re actually talking about somebody else’s abortion, and that woman gets, “Oh, this poor woman. She needed an abortion. She didn’t have access. This is how her life got screwed up.” So we are speaking on behalf of other women, but we’re not speaking on behalf of ourselves.
It requires a certain level of courage to tell your personal story, and I think if there’s anything that the immigrant rights movement and the marriage equality movement have shown us recently, it’s the power of speaking about personal, intimate, scary things. Coming out about it requires a tremendous amount of courage. It’s been easier for folks to speak on behalf of other people than to tell their own personal stories.
In all of our CoreAlign events now the introductory prompt is: Share a current success or concern related to your sexual or reproductive life. Don’t tell me about the abortion that you had when you were nineteen. Don’t tell me about your sister. Tell me about what’s going on in your life now. If we’re not building a movement that addresses your concerns or successes now, then it’s not a movement, because it’s not on behalf of ourselves, it’s on behalf of somebody else. That’s advocacy and that’s philanthropy and that’s charity work. So we have to be able to be courageous, tell our stories, and claim the power that goes with it.
We’ve tried doing storytelling work around how to shift the narrative of women as victims to pro-life people, to men, to patriarchy, to red state legislatures, to instead talking about how we powerful women are taking charge of our lives. That’s actually a really hard shift to make. Because the truth is, if we’re saying, “These poor women. They need help,” then we’re not saying, “And they’re powerful women in their lives.”