Renee Bracey Sherman is an activist from Chicago, Illinois. While studying economics and sociology at Northeastern Illinois University, she found her passion working to break down barriers of multiple oppressions that people face each day through story sharing. Renee identifies as a biracial queer ally and found that discussing her own abortion experience and identities has helped to build conversations across movements. Renee moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to serve in AmeriCorps through the social justice service program, Public Allies.
By day, Renee is a fundraiser for Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that runs Wikipedia, and in her spare time, she volunteers for ACCESS Women’s Health Justice, is an abortion doula with the Bay Area Doula Project, and serves on the Board of Directors of Young Nonprofit Professionals Network San Francisco Bay Area Chapter. Renee currently lives in Oakland with her cat Clark Fluffy Fluffington, III. This fall, Renee will begin her graduate studies in Public Affairs at Cornell University.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Renee Bracey Sherman.
Anna Sterling: You have your foot in quite a few spheres. With this background and as a woman with quite a few identities yourself, how do you think we can best come together and bridge disparate movements?
Renee Bracey Sherman: Growing up biracial, I always felt like I had a foot in several communities and I was a part of different conversations. It made me a bit of a bridge builder – connecting my families from different racial and class backgrounds and dispelling stereotypes and myths that each had about the other. When I started working in the queer community, it was that same feeling – a straight ally working to support queer youth to change their schools, while also opening up my straight community to their heteronormative and cisgender privilege in a supportive and teaching way. I believe that change can be brought by sharing experiences and stories. In watching the youth I worked with share their experiences with legislators to change California’s laws for the better, I realized how we all get lost in the political rhetoric and partisan lines, and forget that we can touch one another through story sharing. It was then that I decided I wanted to change lives through speaking publicly about my abortion and life as a biracial queer ally.
To create the change we want to see and come together, movements have to stop working on only ‘their issue’. Everyone has multiple identities, and we must not forget that being an ally is an identity as well. I think that my ally identity in several movements is very important to me because it is a constant reminder to stand up for those who might not be in the spaces that I am in and to keep my privilege in check. When allies work with us, we create an even safer space for everyone to flourish and build stronger movements. For me, as a person who has had an abortion, I find that allies can stand with me in solidarity by validating my experience and challenging stigma and stereotypes as they see them.
AS: You’re starting graduate school this fall. What changes would you like to bring about in the public affairs world? Any plans to run for office one day?
RBS: All too often, there is a huge disconnect between the constituents of state or locale and their policy makers. We don’t create space to bring all the necessary stakeholders to the table to think through the impact that a decision or policy would have on everyday lives. And policy makers could be checking in more on the ground to see who is already doing the work well and how it could be scaled. With my work in various movements, I hope to bring the grassroots conversations that are happening everyday to the meeting rooms and ensure that those ideas and voices are making it in to quality legislation. And yes, I would love to run for office and represent my communities…one day. For now I’ll stick to preaching from my soapbox. Don’t worry, I’ll let you know when you can start donating to my campaign.
AS: What recent news story made you want to scream?
RBS: Most recently, I’ve been steaming mad about Arizona’s SB1045 – the bill that would allow businesses to ban transgender people from using the bathroom that matches their gender identity or expression. I thought that the ability to pee in peace was a basic human right, one that didn’t warrant any discussion, but it seems that Arizona is more interested in creating havoc rather than supporting its residents. I’ve worked with so many trans and gender nonconforming young people who didn’t fit society’s narrow gender stereotypes and one of the places they most frequently experience harassment was in the bathroom.
A few months ago, I approached the HR department of my office and requested that we change the single stall bathroom to a gender neutral bathroom and place additional signs directing folks to it. I expected to get some push-back, but I got a resounding ‘yes’ and I created a sign that said ‘All genders are welcome’. Sometimes it can be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, especially with legislation like this one, but it was then that I realized how thankful I was to have such a supportive employer and a safe space to work and for my friends to pee. I believe that the Wikimedia Foundation and other organizations like it can lead by example.
AS: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
RBS: I think that feminism could use a bit of a re-branding campaign. While I love to shout that I am a feminist, I know that many of my friends and colleagues think that it has a negative connotation or is inaccessible. When I see ‘mainstream’ feminism working on issues around the right to go to work or stay home and parent a child, I can see why low and middle income and/or single women don’t identify with the movement – because they don’t have the privilege to choose whether to work or be a parent. We have no choice but to do both. Why would anyone want to be part of a group that they aren’t seeing fighting for or understanding their interests.
I’ve also found that a lot of men don’t even know what it means. “Wait, I thought it meant that women should rule over men. Does it not?” is an actual statement I’ve heard. I think the term has been taken from us and turned in to so many different things, that we don’t really know what principles it stands for anymore. For me, like the term queer, it has been reclaimed and indicates a way of life – one that I want to live and breathe the movements that affect all women.
AS: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
RBS: I have been a fan of The Little Mermaid since I was five. She was my first feminist hero. I still have Ariel pillows, blankets, tee shirts, even a snow globe at my desk. Ariel is a mermaid who lived in two worlds and wanted to bring them together. She’s a badass who stopped it nothing to get what she wanted, even when Ursula took away her voice. In real life, I am inspired by Audre Lorde because of her fierceness around fighting against multiple oppressions. And to be honest, I am always inspired by the heroines in my daily life, my mother, my aunts, and my friends – many of whom are doulas bringing joy and life in to this world. I think that they do the nitty-gritty fights each day and they never give up. They make the world go ’round for me.
AS: You’re going to a desert island and get to take one food, one drink, and one feminist. What do you pick?
RBS: Milk! I can throw down on some milk – like a gallon a day, no joke. And of course Chicago style deep dish spinach and sausage pizza! And for a feminist…is it too cliché for me to say my mother? My mother is the most amazing person. She’s a quiet leader – she prefers to lead by example, something I try to strive for everyday. She doesn’t attend rallies or put bumper stickers on her car, it’s not her thing – I get all that from my father. Instead, she has taught me how to be a strong and proud woman of color who deserves respect. Throughout my life, she always instilled in me that I had a seat at the table and that I had power to stand up for myself and for others. She taught me that my self worth comes from within, from loving myself, not in any store or my partner’s kisses. Plus, she’s the only one who can keep me from losing it on a desert island – I really hate sand.