RightRides: Providing Safe Rides Home

Joe Veix

A service in Brooklyn provides free rides home, in an effort to combat gender-based harassment and sexual assault.

Anyone who has ever walked home through an eerie part of town can understand how frightening it can be. In September of 2004, Consuelo Ruybal and Oraia Reid responded to the high rate of sexual assault in Brooklyn (in some areas, it had increased as high as 200%, according to their website) by creating RightRides, a service that provides free late night rides home to women in Brooklyn, in an effort to end gender-based harassment and sexual assault. Their SafeWalk program offers escorts to those who don’t want to walk home alone.

The program functions exclusively in Brooklyn, and tries to cater to lower-income neighborhoods with limited public transportation. They are especially helpful considering New York City’s MTA recent approval of enormous fare increases and service cuts.

Their website says,

"Studies show that women and those in the Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Queer Gender Non Conforming (LBTQGNC) community typically make 5% to 15% less per year that their equally qualified male or heterosexual female counterparts due to bias. This can mean many do not have the extra funds available to take a taxi or a car service, choosing instead to use public transportation and walk home.  Walking home through desolate and/or poorly lit areas late at night increases the chance of being targeted for hate crimes or sexual assault."

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The service has been expanding gradually, starting with a single car and a dispatch cellphone. RightRides now has an agreement with Zipcar and a fleet of six cars. By October of 2008, the organization claims to have driven 1,500 people safely home.

Over at BikeBlogNYC there’s an interview with Leah, a SafeWalk volunteer, who escorts people home on her bike.  Leah says:

"I do remember one woman we walked with from a bar in Greenpoint to her home. She lived farther east in Greenpoint, where it gets very industrial, and there aren’t many people out. She said she never realized how sketchy her neighborhood could feel, but having us walk there with her helped her notice it for the first time."

RightRides is currently seeking volunteers to drive, bike, walk, and work dispatch, and needs donations.

Commentary Health Systems

One of New York’s 2.7 Million Uninsured Asks: Will I Finally Be Able to Afford Health Insurance?

Taja Lindley

Since January 2012, I’ve relied on healthy eating habits, home remedies, rest, and prayer: “Lord, please don’t let me get hit by a car when I ride my bike today. Allow for safe travels. Amen.”

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Strong Families project.

Click here for all our coverage of the health insurance exchange rollout as part of the Affordable Care Act.

I am one of nearly 2.7 million New Yorkers (approximately 16 percent of the state’s population) under age 65 who does not have health insurance coverage. Since January 2012, I’ve relied on healthy eating habits, home remedies, rest, and prayer: “Lord, please don’t let me get hit by a car when I ride my bike today. Allow for safe travels. Amen.”

I come from a family full of Black women who work as nurses and in other health-care professions, so visiting the doctor has been a habit and priority my entire life. That is, until it no longer fit into my budget. After paying for rent, ever-increasing public transportation in New York City, student loans, food, and utilities, not to mention my debt payments and household needs, there is barely enough left over to save, let alone pay for health insurance out-of-pocket.

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For the past couple of years, the combination of unemployment insurance benefits, part-time jobs, and side gigs has made me ineligible for Medicaid and other state funded health-care programs. And during the moments when I relied on unemployment insurance alone, my income was still too high for me to qualify for subsidized health care. When the Affordable Care Act changed the rules so that young adults could be covered through their parent’s health insurance, I was employed at a full-time job with health benefits. My job ended soon after I turned 27, a year too old to qualify.

While health care is a priority for me, I have anxiety about paying out-of-pocket for insurance. If I go to the doctor, something else will have to be sacrificed. What bill can be paid late? What can I do without? When money is limited, every payment becomes relative. So now my approach to health care is based on emergency, urgency, and resourcefulness. If I have an issue that will resolve on its own, I leave it alone. The best charity care I’ve heard of is in Manhattan, so if ever there is an emergency, I will be traveling outside of my borough, Brooklyn. And I’ve got Planned Parenthood in my back pocket in case of a urinary tract infection or severe yeast infection, because I know they offer affordable, sliding-scale options.

Whether searching for the most affordable public clinic or researching insurance plans, those of us who are uninsured aren’t ignoring our health—we’re making the best of what’s available.

Before this recent lapse, the last time I had been uninsured was in 2008. A recent graduate from college, I needed a series of vaccinations and tests so I could travel to Ghana for a fellowship. I spent over $300 on a bare-bones health insurance plan and still paid out-of-pocket for some of my bloodwork, medicines, and tests. When it felt like paying for private health insurance was out of my reach, I did some research on public health-care facilities and community clinics. When it came down to it, there was no way around the expense. Want to see a doctor? You pay extra. Can’t pay it all up front? You’re not off the hook. Need to see a specialist? It’ll be a part-time job just to file the paperwork. When you’re uninsured, the decision often becomes one of life or death. If it isn’t either, why bother?

As I prepare for the New York state health insurance exchange roll-out as part of the Affordable Care Act, I am filled with both anxiety and hope. The idea of having coverage again is exciting. Wow—is it possible I can see a doctor without compromising my other financial obligations? It’s been too long. But will it be time-consuming to navigate the exchange? Are competent people available to accurately answer my questions and help me figure out the best insurance plan? What, if any, subsidies do I qualify for? Will the subsidies be enough?

In my first perusal of the New York State of Health website, my anxiety is mildly relieved. The language on the website is easy for me to understand, and the website seems easy enough to navigate. Open enrollment begins October 1, so there is little information about the insurance plans now; however, how the marketplace will work is clearly spelled out. Insurance plans that will be offered through the marketplace fall into four categories: bronze, silver, gold, and platinum. While every plan is required to provide ten “essential health benefits,” the plans have different values to accomodate various health-care needs.

New York’s exchange seems promising. It anticipates enrollment will take about an hour to complete online or on the phone (and less time for people who do not need subsidies). Community organizations are partnering with the exchange to enroll individuals and families.

As a person who manages multiple sources of income, it is a relief to know health insurance premiums may be reduced further if my income is below 400 percent of the federal poverty level. And as an activist, I’m excited to see health disparities acknowledged as part of the framework of the exchange.

Perhaps the conundrum of earning too much to qualify for public programs like Medicaid, but not enough to buy coverage on my own, will be resolved. We’ll see. Time will tell.

Commentary Family

Choosing Jonah: A Family History of Abortion, Choice, and Love

Kristen Zimmerman

The words "pro life" have been pitted against "pro choice," as if they are opposites. In my experience it’s a false dichotomy, and while politically difficult and messy, our truths are much more complicated.

This post is part of Still Wading: Forty years of resistance, resilience and reclamation in communities of color, a blog series by Strong Families commemorating the 40th anniversary of Roe v Wade.

Originally posted at Autostraddle.

I have a photograph of my mother that I love. She is 21 standing in her graduation gown beaming expectantly at the camera. Round belly poking through dark drapes, it’s the first portrait of us “together”—me nested inside of her, a sliver of white pressing through the black folds that usually conceal its opening. As if I am graduating too. At this threshold you can see that she (we) just barely made it to this moment. While I irrevocably altered her life, she was fortunate that I arrived in the world about a month after her commencement.

My arrival was not a given. I came at a time of great change, upheaval, and risk, born in 1968, five years before Roe v. Wade became law. Politically the world was volatile and in the throws of great social movements. Two important leaders—King Jr. and Kennedy—assassinated.

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My mother did not want a baby. With her eyes set on international relations she was ambivalent at best about her relationship with my father. I was not the plan, and so, like many young women of her time and class, she sought a way out.

She found a doctor in another town who performed abortions. In my mind she had to climb a dark stairway, grey with creaky steps, to get to the door. My father was with her, and still it took great courage for her to get to this point. But the doctor refused to let her in, or even acknowledge what was about to happen. He told her to come back alone. The feeling of the place and the demand that she come back alone scared her. She turned around and decided that she could not go through with it. Several months later I arrived.

Growing up I always had an inkling that there were pieces of my story I was not putting together. It wasn’t until I was 21 and pregnant, like my mom had been, that I was ready to wrestle with it. Despite identifying as queer and primarily attracted to women, I found myself in a relationship with a man and pregnant in Northern India, far from home. Like my mother, I too had big, emerging plans for my life that did not include a baby at this age. I assumed I would have an abortion when I got back to the United States. Instead, just before I left India, I had a dramatic and humbling miscarriage.

The experience created an opening between my mother and me that allowed for deep honesty. We shared stories as equals—feeling the circularity and changes of time. While happy to be alive, I was sad my mom had been in that position in 1968. Twenty years of marriage to my father, an abusive and dysfunctional relationship, forgoing her dreams—it all seemed like something that did not need to happen. I did not take personally the idea that I could have been aborted.

I didn’t know that the story, my story, and the nuance and questions about choice would get even more complex with the coming of my son 14 years later.

Like many lesbian couples, my partner and I were faced with the other side of reproductive “choice” on our road to parenthood. After years of planning, looking for a donor, changing our plans, then trying to conceive, Adrienne became pregnant. I was elated, scared, and deeply aware that my life was about to change.

The early stages of pregnancy were fairly typical. As Adrienne’s body was transforming, I continued my work in youth development and organizing. During this time I became close to a group of young activists who all had disabilities and worked together through a group called Kids as Self Advocates (KASA). They opened my eyes to a new community, perspective, and questions about choice.

The KASA youth were all individually powerful, bright spirits. Getting to know them opened my eyes and heart to think about how medical practice, the deep cultural value of “individual choice,” and our fears lead many of us to abort babies with disabilities. Through abortion we edit our society—and experience—of humanity. I began to question why we choose to keep some babies and abort others, and I considered what I would do if my child had a disability.

Adrienne and I went to the required class for prospective parents of children with genetic disorders and procedures to terminate pregnancies. As a queer person, I was disturbed by how many disorders highlighted in the class simply altered the sex of the child. I had a sinking feeling that this medical and cultural practice was also about editing out intersex babies from our population. I thought about sex selection practices around the world. The parallels made my head spin.

Despite growing skepticism, a series of events led us down the path of pre-natal testing. A small sign in the ultrasound led to more screenings and then to amniocentesis. It was intuition as much as clear medical evidence that ultimately landed us in the waiting room with doctors from Kaiser’s genetics department. Our child had Down syndrome. Stunned and disoriented, we were unsure of our next step.

We had pushed testing back. Now we only had seven days until the 20-week mark when the fetus is considered viable. I would be lying if I said I did not feel pressure from the medical system, and elsewhere, to abort. So we did what I hope anyone would do. We left town, stayed with close friends, called our wisest advisers, and searched for the answer that felt right.

That weekend was among one of the most vivid in my life. We talked with friends and took long walks. We each imagined what it would feel like to have this baby, versus abort it. I realized I felt more connected and open to life choosing to welcome him into the world. We agreed, even though it was scary and unknown, choosing Jonah felt like inviting life and love in.

The words “pro life” have been pitted against “pro choice,” as if they are opposites. In my experience it’s a false dichotomy, and while politically difficult and messy, our truths are much more complicated.

We left that weekend having made the choice to have Jonah. The power of making this choice is that we knew, our community knew, and the medical team knew that we were welcoming him into our life. This made all the difference. I could see it the moment he was born and the entire team—midwife, nurses, doula, even the doctors—were jubilant. You can see it in the photos. There was no doubt, no hesitation, no fear or grief present in the room.

This is not true for many families who give birth to babies with obvious disabilities. Often a sense of mourning, shame, anger, and guilt sweeps over the room instead of joy. But this is not the baby’s problem, or the mother’s or the families’. It’s ours.

After he was born we struggled to find community. Many of the parents who choose to have kids with Down syndrome and genetic disabilities are devout Christians. Other communities secretly (or not so secretly) cannot understand why you would “choose” to have a child with Down syndrome. The magic for us has been trying to find people who will be courageous enough to walk a different path with us.

I cannot describe the gift that it is to have Jonah in my life, although it has not been easy. Sometimes the gulf between my own experience and “typical” parents is the same as that between parents and non-parents. And yet, on a fundamental level it’s also the same joy and the same challenge that we all face.

In Jonah I have learned to see the light of a child’s spirit, the patience and full acceptance that allow him to thrive, the ways my own baggage gets in the way, and the gifts, brilliance, and love embedded in each one of us. Jonah is smart, funny, and deeply curious about other people. He is an emerging actor, DJ and musician in his own right. At seven going on eight, he is reading and writing, learning math, ice-skating, and attempting to ride a bike. He is part of a family and a community that loves him and which he loves. He has introduced me to my own joy, deepest sense of love, connection, and self-acceptance. Is there anything else that is important?

As the years pass and Jonah grows, I encounter the same fundamental lesson of parenting, a lesson my mother had learned many years before: we do not know who our children will be or what they will teach us; but we have our own stories and expectations of who they are and who they will be. The more we try to control or alter this, the further apart we become. The more we accept and embrace who they and we really are, the more magic and life we are able to embrace. Some of us get this lesson early and often; others bump up against it unexpectedly or resist it all together.

For Jonah and all of us, I long for a world that values humanity, one that supports us to thrive together—not survive individually, one where we value difference as part of the natural condition of things and where we see our choices as part of something larger than ourselves.