Toni Bond Leonard is a reproductive justice rock star. She first came to the movement in 1990 as the volunteer medical advocate coordinator at a rape crisis center on the south side of Chicago. Since then she has been the first woman of color Executive Director of the Chicago Abortion Fund and is now the Executive Director of Black Women for Reproductive Justice (BWRJ), also based in Chicago where the community is currently fighting against a racist anti-choice billboard campaign. She is Board President of both the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF) and SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective as well as a leader of the Trust Black Women collective that formed to combat racist tropes about Black women and abortion. Bond Leonard was also part of the group of Black women who came together to coin the term “reproductive justice” in 1994. Yeah, she’s completely badass.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Toni Bond Leonard.
Jos Truitt: Can you tell me about your work with Black Women for Reproductive Justice?
Toni Bond Leonard: BWRJ was founded in 1996. Our work is to organize and localize Black women around affecting changes in public policies and institutions that seek to control our reproductive autonomy. We do that through our various reproductive and sexual health education initiatives. We have something called Safer Sex Educational Experiences where we do basic reproductive health education starting from OK, these are your ovaries, this is your uterus, this is the menstrual cycle and this is how it functions, because what we’ve learned and know is that many Black women don’t have a basic understanding of their bodies and many of them don’t understand how the menstrual cycle functions. If you don’t have that basic information, how can you be expected to know how to really control your fertility? Other reproductive and sexual health initiatives include our Sexuality Awareness and Women in Worship initiative, which is a project where we are working with Black churches to forge partnerships to have the dialogue about reproductive and sexual health issues. Working with them to do workshops for their Black female members and young women in the church, working with them to have that conversation with them in a faith-based context that acknowledges, for those Black women of faith, how we think about our bodies within the context of being sacred spaces. That is something that we’ve been working on for the past three years and having some really good success in reaching out to progressive members of the Black faith-based community. And then of course our policy and advocacy work where we work with groups like NNAF and their Hyde 30 Years is Enough campaign. We are a member of the network, we have a small abortion fund where we are able to assist women with funding for first trimester abortions as well as providing them with funding for practical support, which would be money towards transportation if they’ve got to catch a bus or the train, sometimes we may have to pay for a taxi there for them, and also sometimes helping them with hotel fair if they are going to a provider out of state. Also working as a part of our state based pro-choice coalition on things like trying to get legislation passed around comprehensive sexuality education in the public schools. We are just about at the final stages of getting our curriculum approved to do reproductive and sexual health education within public schools, so that’s a huge goal for us. And of course all of our other policy and advocacy initiatives, the big one of course being the billboard campaign that’s taken Chicago by storm.
We look at reproductive justice within the context of: what does it take for Black women to be healthy, have healthy families and live in healthy communities. We understand that, while abortion is an issue that many Black women have to deal with, we realize that that is not the top priority for Black women. There are all of these other extenuating issues. So for us it’s really important to be able to connect the issues with working with Black women whose day to day lives are filled with many challenges. So we view them all as linking to reproductive justice.
JT: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
TBL: I would have to say the Bionic Woman, because she had super human strength and she could do and move and lift anything and she could whoop anybody’s ass.
Loretta Ross of SisterSong because of her years of commitment to reproductive health rights and justice. She has a mind like a steel trap. She is a visionary and in my opinion a master strategist and has been someone that I have looked to as a role model. She is really a brilliant woman, her head is like this giant computer and we oftentimes joke about if we could just have a jump drive and plug it in her and download everything, just the wealth of information we could have. Angela Davis because she’s Angela Davis. I remember the first time that I met Angela Davis I was tongue tied. I’m thinking to myself, “Oh my God I am in a room with Angela Davis.” I was able to get a picture with her and I keep that picture in my office because I admire her for her courageousness and of course her writing and her intellect. And there’s an awesome black womanist theologian, Kelly Brown Douglas. She’s written the most amazing book on the Black church and sexuality. I so admire her intellect and the way that she has been able to make the case for what she calls a sexual discourse of resistance within the Black community and with the Black church around Black people’s bodies and how we can take control of our bodies and our sexuality.
JT: What recent news story made you want to scream?
TBL: It’s these damn billboards in Chicago. Being a part of the Trust Black Women coalition that’s based in Atlanta we knew that they were targeting Chicago and that at some point we would get a form of a billboard. But we never in our wildest imagination anticipated that it would be a billboard that basically accuses Black women of killing future Black leaders by having an abortion by putting an image of President Obama on the billboard. We thought it was going to be some of the same billboards that they’ve had, “Black children are an endangered species,” as if we’re exotic animals, or “The most dangerous place for an African American is the womb.” But this one, I have to say, took us a bit off guard, and for us, given that this is the home of President Obama, that they would put such a vile statement about Black women and then put the president’s image next to that statement and then slap it up on a billboard in the Black community, and they’re going to 29 more Black communities, is just unconscionable. It’s so offensive. I have to say Black women here are angry and visibly angry and I’m so proud of them because they are really letting their rage show, they are speaking loud and they’re not holding back.
From the woman who may be working a minimum wage job, she’s angry, this is the range of it, up to the middle income woman who may be making a living wage but still struggling to get by check to check, to the woman in academia, I talked to some Black women in academia and they were like, “Yeah we saw those billboards, what’s the plan? What are we going to do? We are so angry about that.” It’s been really good to see Black women have agency and give voice to their feelings and emotions about these billboards.
We’re asking folks here in Illinois to contact your public officials, all of your public officials. We’ve been in touch with some of them, calling them and saying, “The billboard that is in one area, we want it down, and we don’t want any other billboards to show up in Black communities.” One of the legislators in New York sent a letter to Mayor Daley saying listen, you’ve got to work to get those billboards down. We need that kind of support form people. So send letters to Illinois federal officials and say hey, we’re watching what’s going on in Illinois.
JT: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
TBL: I have to think about that within the context of the various populations of women working in the feminist movement. I would say for women of color groups and young women’s groups the biggest challenge is issues around capacity. It feels like the attacks are coming fast and furiously. Every time we look up it’s a new attack, it’s a new piece of antiabortion legislation. The attack on Title X was just like what, are you serious? I think in order for women of color groups and young women’s groups to be able to respond in the way in which they need to, because certainly their voices have to be lifted up because women of color and young women are facing the greatest impact as a result of these horrendous pieces of legislation and attacks on safety net programs like Title X. But it’s hard to fight back and lift our voices when we’re trying to do it with minimal capacity. I’m not talking about capacity as just financial resources, although that is hugely important because we need that in order to build our organizations and hire staff and make our organizations sustainable. But I’m talking about folks volunteering their time. Sometimes the greatest resources come with people lending their areas of expertise. If you live in an area, for instance, with a young women’s organization or women of color organization and you are this fabulous web designer, offer your services to help design a web page. If you have some great financial management skills or accounting skills, volunteer your time as a bookkeeper. It’s those kind of services that many nonprofits struggle to be able to have, many small groups. I also think we still have to be very conscious about how we create spaces for young women and women of color to be in leadership within the movement. I think we have to still be very intentional about it.
Finally, I think it’s beyond time for the feminist movement to work to forge some solid relationships with the progressive faith-based community. I know that’s a scary fact and I know that we do have groups like Catholics for Choice and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, but we still need overall as a movement to get past the fear of if we reach out to the faith-based community we open ourselves up for attacks. What we know at BWRJ is that on any given Sunday the Black church is filled with Black women and that it’s Black women who actually keep the Black church thriving.That’s why we decided we’ve got to figure out how to have these conversations with the faith-based community. Certainly there’s those members of the Black faith-based community that are staunchly conservative and absolutely abstinence-only and nothing else. We’re not trying to change minds but we’re trying to find common ground.
What we know is that from the research that Trust Black Women has been doing, the research shows that most African Americans believe that when it comes to abortion we really have to trust Black women to make these personal decisions. The other thing that we know is that most African Americans believe that God gives women and men free will and that a woman should be able to make the decision to have an abortion depending on her own life circumstances. There is this tremendous myth that the entire Black community is staunchly conservative when it comes to this issue. But it’s all about language and it’s all about who the messenger is and it’s all about how you ask questions and how you have the conversation. We know that as we’ve spoken to women and asked them, “How do you feel about the issue of abortion, and how do you feel about what the church says?” They say, “Well yeah, I know what the church says and I am a Black woman of faith but I also understand that I gotta do what I gotta do.” Many have said I can make this decision that’s the best decision for me in my life and still be a woman of faith. I think that that’s why it’s important for us to figure out how to forge these partnerships and reach this common ground.
JT: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take on food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
TBL: Sushi, Jack Daniels Single Barrel, and Loretta Ross.