Kierra Johnson is the Executive Director of Choice USA, a pro-choice organization based in Washington, DC. Choice USA campaigns to make emergency contraception available, repeal the Hyde Amendment, uncover the deception of Crisis Pregnancy Centers and much, much more. Johnson has been with Choice USA for a decade; she started her career there by training at the Gloria Steinem Leadership Institute, and ten years later, she’s running the show. Kierra is also a member of the Women’s Health Leadership Network with the Center for American Progress and was a member of the Board of Medical Students for Choice from 2003 to 2006.
Johnson is responsible for the creation of Choice USA’s Generation Awards, designed to recognize young activists and to “show the world that young people in the United States are not only aware and interested in the social and political events that shape our lives and those of our communities around the world, but that we are actively thinking and strategizing about how to make a positive and lasting impact towards social change.” Sounds an awful lot like the Feministing community, if you ask me!
Incidentally, Choice USA is hiring! If you’re looking for a job with a great feminist organization, check out these openings.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Kierra Johnson.
Chloe Angyal: How did you become involved in reproductive choice activism, and what brought you to Choice USA?
Kierra Johnson: It’s one and the same. I came into social justice work doing access to higher education work at the University of Colorado Boulder, and I really got politicized around the recruitment and retention of students of color at universities in Colorado. I was involved with the United States Student Association, but I didn’t get involved in choice activism until I saw a couple of things happen. For one, I saw a lot of young girls of color falling through the cracks because they didn’t have the information and the access to services that they needed to finish high school or to attend college. My younger sister got pregnant at sixteen, around that same time, and she decided to carry the pregnancy to term, and I saw how difficult it was for her to gain access to the resources that she needed to be a good parent and also be a good student. So all those things were swirling around in my head: no matter what happens, girls have a hard time. You don’t want to get pregnant and you want to be in a healthy relationship, or if you do get pregnant and you want to be a healthy parent, or you want to be a good student and go to college, and no matter what path girls were taking, they were running into obstacles and running into judgment.
And that was around the time that I ran into Choice USA. I hadn’t really been involved in choice issues on campus, but it was running into an organization that had strong young women at the helm, in key positions, and who were talking about the cross-movement work before anyone else really was, that really appealed to me. I went to a training at the Gloria Steinem Leadership Institute in the summer of 1999, and then I started working for Choice USA in 2000.
CA: Who is your fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
KJ: My favorite fictional heroine is Wonder Woman, because I actually met Linda Carter. She’s an icon. She became Wonder Woman personified, and I always loved Wonder Woman. I had Wonder Woman underoos as a kid, and my mother baked me a birthday cake and had them make Wonder Woman Black, and it was over. I was like, “I can be Wonder Woman!” Not only did I love her, but I could be her. She is my first love, for sure.
My heroines in real life are women who break the mold, and there are so many of them. My mother, and my peers, like my predecessor Crystal Plati. Donna Edwards is a real life heroine, who I adore. I feel really lucky because I work in a diverse movement full of strong women, old and young, women like Silvia Henriquez.
CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?
KJ: The Superbowl Ad, that whole fiasco with Tim Tebow, was really difficult for me. It’s funny, because there’s been a lot of talk about the John Mayer interview, and it’s not that I’m not frustrated by that, it’s that I’m still stuck on the Superbowl Ad. I’m still stuck on how highly political a statement that was from Focus on the Family, and on how people responded to my criticism and to criticism by other feminists – the insistence that it was about free speech, when that wasn’t what it was about at all; it’s about choice.
It’s one of our stories, and we couldn’t even claim it. It actually is a story of a woman who made a choice and who flew in the face of people who were telling her to do something else. She took her own life and her own body into her hands, and there was a good outcome. That is our story. The problem is that it’s only one piece of the big story, and the reality is that no one is going to show a commercial about a woman who gave a kid up for adoption, and how wonderful that was for her. Or a woman who had an abortion and how awesome that turned out for her. Or a woman who’s been taking birth control for ten years, and how good that is for her life and her family. We’re not going to get those warm, fuzzy stories.
And it was frustrating because we weren’t attacking the story, but that’s how it came off. CBS’ hypocrisy was disgusting, but it was also frustrating that we didn’t come up with a response that could portray all of that. It felt like we had our hands tied our backs, and we came off looking exactly how our opposition wants us to. I was so sick, because I love the Superbowl and I was really rooting for New Orleans. So I half-boycotted it, and only watched the second half. It was actually perfect for a Saints fan to come in at the second half anyway.
CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
KJ: Looking forward. I think as feminists we’ve looked backwards for a long time, and when I say backwards, I mean we’ve really been stuck in winning old battles. Not that we shouldn’t continue fighting for them, but there are new battles on the horizon that need attention too. I think we focus on old strategies and we often get lost in idolizing our foremothers and not giving ourselves enough credit, or putting the systems in place to bring in new leaders and new faces and new voices. And not just bringing them in, but supporting them so that they can be sustained. And I also think that we’ve been reactionary. That’s not just feminism, that’s a liberal progressive problem. We’ve been so defensive, always responding to something our opposition is doing, and I think that’s part of looking back as well. I think the biggest challenge that we have right now is: how do we define ourselves now? What are the cutting edge issues now? What is the new voice? What is the new face? What are the new strategies and the new problems.
Reproductive technology is the new ground around bodily autonomy and reproductive justice. There isn’t an issue today that better asks the question of who owns women’s bodies. When you’re an egg donor or a surrogate, do you own your body? Does the person who bought your genetic material own your body? Does the researcher own your body? Does the doctor own your body? That’s going to require us to shake out of the box of any way that we’ve had to think in the last hundred years, and that’s just one of many examples of how we need to be looking forward.
CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you get to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you take?
KJ: My mom’s fried chicken, the best bourbon money can buy and my mom. She’s brilliant; she’d get us off the island.