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Codifying reproductive rights

A new generation of women political activists comes of age, redefining the landscape of reproductive freedom and reproductive justice

Photo by Richard Asinof

Sydney Keen, a young activist who worked with the Coalition for Reproductive Rights to enact legislation to codify Roe v. Wade in the state's laws.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 6/24/19
A young community activist shares her story about how she became part of the intergenerational effort to codify in Rhode Island law a person’s right to make her own private decision about abortion.
Do the young entrepreneurs being mentored at the Nelson Center at Brown need to be schooled in community organizing to better understand the economics of socially responsible investing? How would greater access to birth control and counseling at the high school level improve educational outcomes? How many community-organizing efforts involve an intergenerational network of activists? Who will write the history of what occurred in enacting the Reproductive Privacy Act in Rhode Island?
The decision by Missouri state officials to require all women seeking an abortion to undergo an unnecessary, invasive, vaginal examination three days in advance of having such a procedure amounts to cruel and unusual medical practices, what doctors forced to conduct such examination have likened to torture. The doctors are now refusing to perform such procedures. Such acts of bureaucratic-inflicted cruelty, without any medical purpose, are examples of the veritable war on women that is being conducted in many places across the U.S.

PROVIDENCE – For all the reporting on the historic vote to codify abortion rights in Rhode Island and the signing of the legislation into law of the Reproductive Privacy Act, one of the big missing parts of the story was what might be called the intersectional, intergenerational efforts undertaken in support of the efforts to preserve a woman’s right to make her own private decisions about her health care, in consultation with her physician.

Instead, much of the focus has been on an older generation of stalwart legislative advocates, and the maneuvering of opponents, mostly representing an older generation of entrenched political power brokers that once wielded power, in their attempts to prevent the legislation from becoming law.

What went unnoticed and unreported, ConvergenceRI believes, was how a new generation of young women activists had entered the fray and brought with them a new kind of political passion.

One such young woman activist is Sydney Keen, a 20-something graduate of Smith College who was also a Fulbright Scholar, who speaks four different languages, not so dissimilar in many ways to the next generation of young entrepreneurs being cultivated to launch new innovative firms in Rhode Island.

Instead, Keen has chosen to pursue, for now, a path of political activism and community organizing. She began as a volunteer working with the Coalition for Reproductive Freedom, conducting canvasses of neighborhoods, and soon graduated to becoming paid employee, and then spent almost every waking hour working in support of the proposed legislation becoming law.

Now, having won that piece of the struggle, Keen is clear that the battle is continuing, with a need to focus on what she called reproductive justice.

“Although Rhode Island has successfully secured our basic reproductive rights, there is a lot more work to do on reproductive freedom,” Keen told ConvergenceRI in a recent interview. “And there’s a long way to go on reproductive justice.”

The perspective that younger activists bring to this movement, Keen believes, “is more intersectional, because we are growing up in that conversation.”

ConvergenceRI had the opportunity to talk with Keen at Felicia’s in East Greenwich, following her participation in an all-day training in Hartford, Conn. Keen made it clear that she was speaking for herself, and not for any organization.

Her advocacy, Keen emphasized, was not about her. “It’s not about my external goals and ambitions; it’s not about furthering my personal career. What drives me is not for the sake of making a name for myself. I try to keep myself in the background.”

At the same time, Keen acknowledged, the politics of this work to enact the Reproductive Privacy Act, was, in a very real sense, “directly about me and my future, and the present realities and future of my peers.”

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Sydney Keen, a Rhode Island native who was a participant and an advocate in the historic enactment of a new state law to protect the rights of women to make their own personal choices about their reproductive freedom, and the road to achieving reproductive justice.

ConvergenceRI: What was the training you went to today?
KEEN:
The training was separate from what I have been doing. It was a training organized by Working Families; it was called, “Women Run Campaigns.” It was about campaign managerial skills, campaign strategy, training for women and other gender identities.

ConvergenceRI: One of the reasons why I wanted to talk with you, following the successful campaign, was that you were part of an interesting dynamic, where you had a legacy of stalwart advocates, who were in their 50s, 60s and 70s, and yet, you represent a different generation. You bring to it an entirely different perspective, with what I perceive is a real passion.
KEEN:
Absolutely.

ConvergenceRI: You had an opportunity to work alongside many people of different ages. What did you learn from that experience?
KEEN:
The movement is intergenerational. And that is the beauty of it, that’s the strength of it, if we can really capitalize on that.

ConvergenceRI: What do you mean by intergenerational?
KEEN:
By intergenerational, I mean that you have many older activists who have stories, their own personal experiences from prior to Roe v. Wade, where they struggled to access safe abortion, and, in many cases, they were unable to; they had these horror stories.

I couldn’t imagine a world like that. Because, for people in my generation, it’s always been the law of the land. And so, that’s a really valuable perspective.

They were coming at it from the perspective of: we won’t go back; this is how far we’ve come, and we can’t go back to that.

Having the intergenerational activism as well as the perspective of people who have never known a world without safe legal abortion, working hand-in-hand, that is when it becomes a really powerful movement.

ConvergenceRI: What are the things that you learned from this experience?
KEEN:
Do you mean from the intergenerational perspective?

ConvergenceRI: Here you are, a participant in the midst of a huge political fight, and you won. It occurred during a time where there is a veritable war against women going on in the U.S. Here was a remarkable moment in Rhode Island history, and I’m not sure that people have fully grasped how remarkable it was.

You succeeded; part of the reason for that success was an intergenerational nature of the coalition.
KEEN:
I think what happened last Wednesday, what happened in this legislative session, could only have happened now.

Because we are living in this post-2016 world where people are galvanized in a different way.

I think the momentum was on our side. But I also think that different demographics and different generations brought different perspectives to the table, all worked together to create a success.

I don’t think the success we had would have been as meaningful to me personally, or to the younger generation in general, if we hadn’t been working alongside people who fought this fight for decades, and who have those stories of pre-Rowe to remind us of what we’re fighting for – and not to take things for granted.

The mix of generations brought different perspectives, different strengths, and different voices to the table. We had the traditional activists; we had angry and exhausted activists who had been doing this work for decades; and we had, like me,  the freshly passionate activists, for whom many this was the first time being an activist.

ConvergenceRI: How did your friends and family react to your activism? Was it welcomed with open arms? Did you get pushback?
KEEN:
I’m lucky that everybody in my life was supportive, generally speaking. Even if people were not supportive of the cause that I’m fighting for, they were supportive that I was throwing myself into [something] that I cared about and believed in.

But, to some degree, there was a limit to how much people were willing to welcome it.

The biggest piece of that is: at the core of this movement, it has been developing into an intersectional movement. We are talking about all different gender identities being affected, talking about how things affect different races, different classes, different elements of the societal makeup. That is a conversation that is newer to people.

ConvergenceRI:: Where do you go from here? Will you have a job with the Coalition moving forward?
KEEN:
I don’t know. That’s an unanswered question right now.

ConvergenceRI: Were you in a volunteer or paid position?
KEEN:
For about the first third of the campaign, I was a volunteer, and then, for the second third of the campaign, I was a part-time paid canvasser/organizer. And by the end of it, the Coalition had enough budget [resources] to bring me on full-time.

But now that the bill has been signed into law, I am not sure if I still have a job. I’m not really complaining, but the lack of clarity is a little frustrating.

ConvergenceRI: In terms of the canvassing work, what did that entail?
KEEN:
It was knocking on doors, making calls, and then dropping off literature at doors. You identify the voters in different ways.

It was not that different from running a candidate-centered campaign. But you are ID-ing people based on an issue. No candidate is going to have a 71 percent approval rating in the community.

But this issue had a 71percent approval rating. It just changes the calculus of the voters that you ID and how you spend your time and resources reaching out to them.

In any case, whether it’s a candidate or an issue campaign, at the end of the day, it’s all about reaching out to voters.

ConvergenceRI: What was the biggest takeaway in your learning experience?
KEEN:
I learned that Rhode Island politics is much more gnarly than I could ever could have imagined. I mean entrenched powers; I mean twisted political identities, and blurred lines between red and blue. I mean, crazy legislative rules that thwart the actual will of the people from being implemented.

ConvergenceRI: One of the issues for those involved with the dynamics around economic development in the innovation ecosystem is how to attract and keep talent here in Rhode Island? Perhaps the same could be said about attracting and retaining talent in community organizing.
KEEN:
My perspective on it, and it may be a skewed perspective, is that I’ve felt, especially in recent years, Rhode Island is doing a very good job in promoting design, arts, culture and innovation. There is a very robust design community.

I also think that Rhode Island does a pretty solid job of promoting socially conscious entrepreneurship. The only lens I have for looking at that is through the Social Enterprise Greenhouse, and I believe they do a great job.

ConvergenceRI: How does the world of choice – and I am using that word deliberately – fit together with the ability to make decisions and to control your own destiny?
KEEN:
Reproductive choices and life choices, they go hand in hand, don’t they? I’m going to get a little philosophical with this answer. I think as an American, having total freedom and choice in one’s life is essential. It feels fundamental to the identity of being an American. Freedom and choice, they go hand in hand.

ConvergenceRI: My son and his friends, if they walked into a restaurant and if there was a sign that said, “seat yourself,” they would get stuck in making a decision. They called it “seat yourself anxiety.” In a world where there is too much choice, they wanted to be directed.
KEEN:
I love seat-yourself restaurants because of that choice, because I have very strong preferences for where I want to sit. I don’t like to be in certain positions, in a public space. And on the other hand, I can get paralyzed by menus with large amounts of choices. If it’s a small menu, perfect, I’m happy, But, if it’s a large menu I’m notorious in my family for being the last person to order.

ConvergenceRI: You are conversant in four different languages. Given that dexterity, what do you believe are the important contexts to be aware of in the choices of words we use moving forward, in talking about reproductive freedom and reproductive justice?
KEEN:
Thank you so much for asking this question. The importance of the choices we make in language cannot be overestimated. It is paramount that we be intentional as possible with the language we use. Intentional in being inclusive, in recognizing all the different factors that affect the movement we are building, because it is still being built, it is evolving all the time. It is not a static movement; the pro-choice movement of the pre-Roe, from 20 years ago, from five years ago, even a year ago, it’s not the same.

Words mean different things to different people. I differentiate between rights, freedom, and justice.

Rights are relatively narrow, in a sense, linguistically speaking, which has primarily to do with the law, with what we accept to be human rights and civil rights, tied to law and societal agreements, at a fundamental level. They are not necessarily egalitarian by any stretch.

Freedoms – that is a more socio-economic term for me. You have the rights, and then, in order to get to freedom, you have to put in place the structures and the mechanisms that facilitate those rights playing out in society. People have to be able to access those rights.

You can pass a law that says: yes, abortion is legal. But if you have no abortion providers in the state, or in the country, if a person can’t actually access an abortion, in reality, what good is that right?

In this current reality, here in Rhode Island, we now have the secured right to an abortion, and, to some degree, we have the freedom [to access that health care], because we have two abortion providers in the state.

Granted, they are both in Providence; anybody who needs an abortion has to get to Providence.

That’s the first hurdle; they may also have to take time off from work; they may also have to find childcare, etc.

So there is further to go in the realm of securing those freedoms, but there is a very long way to go when it comes to justice.

Because reproductive justice has to do with dealing with the inequalities of social [disparities], tied to class, tied to race, tied to legal status, and tied to employment status.

When you are talking about reproductive justice you are talking about a much more fundamental shift in the way that society functions in that domain.

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