Commentary Abortion

New Film Tackles South Dakota ‘Battle of the Abortion Ban’

Cynthia Greenlee

Young Lakota chronicles the story of Cecelia Fire Thunder, who, after South Dakota passed the nation’s most restrictive abortion measure in 2006, proposed what seemed to be a neat workaround: open an abortion-providing Planned Parenthood on her property on the Oglala Lakota reservation.

When South Dakota passed the nation’s most restrictive abortion measure in 2006, Cecelia Fire Thunder proposed what seemed to be a neat workaround: open an abortion-providing Planned Parenthood on her property on the Oglala Lakota reservation. Part of a sovereign Indian nation, her land was out of the reach of state authorities.

As the first female chief of the Oglala Lakota, Fire Thunder became embroiled in the fight of her political life and was eventually impeached. Veteran filmmakers Rose Rosenblatt and Marion Lipschutz (the team behind 2005’s The Education of Shelby Knox, among other films) chronicle her struggle in the new documentary Young Lakota. It airs November 25 on PBS’ Independent Lens series.

The Pine Ridge Lakota (commonly known as Sioux) reservation became a battleground when the South Dakota legislature passed HB 1215, the “Women’s Health and Human Life Protection” bill, which banned all abortions in the state, even for survivors of rape and incest. The bill also declared that life starts at conception, made performing abortions a felony punishable by five years in prison and fines, and included questionable language about when and whether abortion would be allowed in life-threatening medical situations. Opponents forced a public referendum to decide whether the state—which then only had two abortion providers, according to 2005 statistics from the Guttmacher Institute—would launch this unprecedented and blatant state challenge to Roe v. Wade.

The embattled Fire Thunder was battling a many-headed hydra of opposition. As the first female Oglala woman chief, Fire Thunder could draw on traditions of Lakota women’s leadership and invoke White Buffalo Calf Woman as her people’s most powerful mythic figure and prophet. But she was also pushing back against a predominantly male tribal establishment and the intensely local, dysfunctional-extended-family nature of much tribal politics. Not to mention abortion stigma and managing the avalanche of national media attention and activism sparked by the South Dakota ban.

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Tall and plainspoken, Fire Thunder didn’t shy away from tackling her detractors head-on or placing the abortion ban in the long history of damaging U.S. intervention in Native America. Young Lakota shows her pointing a finger at supporters of the proposed abortion ban; in one scene, the camera pans to a few white men standing in the back of the room and holding signs that say abortion kills sacred life. Throwing them a challenging glare, Fire Thunder calls them out and tells them to “keep your white hands off my brown body.”

It’s difficult to assess, from the film’s standpoint, whether Fire Thunder’s charge of a racism- or colonialism-driven anti-abortion influence is a valid accusation. Given the recent rise of “pro-life” marketing campaigns targeting multicultural communities and the forced sterilizations of Native women in the 1970s, it’s believable. However, Young Lakota doesn’t back up this allegation convincingly. This is the film’s most glaring unanswered question, though it’s undoubtedly difficult to trace players in an abortion dogfight where operating in the dark is key to successful political maneuvering.

But it is clear from reports by the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics that multiple state and national interest groups poured millions into swaying South Dakotans to vote for or against Referendum 6. The South Dakota Vote Yes for Life campaign raised more than $2.7 million and was joined by the Catholic Chancery and the National Right to Life Committee. On the other side, the South Dakota Campaign for Health Families reported more than $2.5 million in contributions; the regional Planned Parenthood affiliate raised more than $800,000 to defeat the bill, while the American Civil Liberties Union and the Feminist Majority also chipped in.

Beyond the influence of big money on the “battle of the ban,” there are also small details about Cecilia Fire Thunder and tribal politics that don’t come to light in the documentary. It would have been helpful to know that Fire Thunder was a nurse, with a track record of managing community health programs, to understand her longstanding commitment to comprehensive reproductive health care. Neither do we learn that her impeachment was only the most recent volley in a continuing conflict between Fire Thunder and her councilmates.

Ultimately, Young Lakota doesn’t dwell on the minutiae of Fire Thunder’s rise and eventual ouster because it doesn’t need to. It is a shapeshifter of a film. Though it begins with Fire Thunder, the documentary shifts its lens to some of her young tribe members: 21-year-old Sunny Clifford, one of Fire Thunder’s most steadfast supporters; her twin and less vocal partner, the single mother Serena; and their friend, Brandon, a lanky college student and part-time radio announcer who struggles to keep his two children in diapers.

The filmmakers give us a glimpse of what it means to be American Indian, living on a reservation, and young. They do service to the idea of reproductive justice by decentering the abortion narrative and problematizing the language of choice. Being in constrained economic circumstances limits the choices that you can make, and all choices are not created equal. Young father Brandon goes deeper into the morass of tribal politics, taking a $30,000 a year job as the new chief’s mouthpiece. For a kid on the reservation and a parent who’s got to buy those $20 packs of Huggies, that’s an attractive salary when about a third of Pine Ridge residents make less than $15,000 a year. Brandon imagines himself in fancy cars and slick suits, but later realizes his income upgrade comes with uncomfortable costs.

The true heart of the film is Sunny Clifford, who left college in Oklahoma and now works as a cashier. “We’re not really expected to do much,” she says, speaking of young Lakota women as she stocks pregnancy tests on a shelf. But they are expected to bear much, including children and astoundingly high rates of physical and sexual violence.

Sunny sets herself on a course of “Organizing 101,” going to hearings and canvassing door-to-door on the reservation. In the film’s most moving moment, she asks a visiting Seminole rapper what he thinks of the Pine Ridge abortion controversy. He responds with a monologue about the sacredness of Indian women’s lives and how they shouldn’t debase themselves. His message of ethnic solidarity and uplift is a masked dismissal and rebuke, a message not lost on Clifford. She leaves, crying and upset that he doesn’t understand what it’s like when you’re young, when your parents are absent or alcoholic, and you’ve got to make your own way in the world.

Young Lakota does its finest work in these quiet but significant moments and in the talks between the title characters. Feminist and pro-choice movement builders should take note. There’s meaningful and respectful intergenerational learning and mentorship between Sunny Clifford and Cecelia Fire Thunder. Clifford’s not the pro-choice movement’s usual activist, and she indeed may not have defined herself as a pro-choice activist but rather as an advocate for Lakota women and youth. But, over the course of the film, she grew into an activism enriched by her existing social network, her cultural frame, and her own experiences. And she bolstered the larger movement one step, one door knock, and one conversation at a time.

Culture & Conversation Human Rights

What ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Missed About the Obstacles Faced After Prison

Victoria Law

Whether or not they meant to do so, the writers of Orange Is the New Black have sent viewers the message that prison is preferable to life on the outside.

“You’re getting out early.” Those words are music to the ears of anyone behind bars. But on Orange Is the New Black, the women at Litchfield Penitentiary tend to see release as a bogeyman rather than welcome news.

In Season four of the Netflix series, Aleida Diaz (Elizabeth Rodriguez) learns that she’s eligible for early release. At first, this is hopeful news: Being out of prison means that she can start the process of getting her children and newly born granddaughter out of foster care. But then reality sets in: She’s leaving prison without an education or skills that will help her find a job. Even worse, she now has a criminal record. “Sure, people love to hire ex-cons,” she snaps.

This is not the first time that the show has treated release and reentry as something to be feared rather than welcomed. In the first season, Taystee Jefferson (Danielle Brooks) is released on parole. Once out, she’s faced with the realities of no housing, no support system, and no job opportunities. Though the show never specifies what she did, Taystee is sent back to prison, where she tells Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) that she deliberately violated her parole so that she could return to Litchfield.

Whether or not they meant to do so, the writers of Orange Is the New Black have sent viewers the message that prison is preferable to life on the outside. And in doing so, the show suggests that the very real systemic obstacles that formerly incarcerated people face upon release, especially where employment is concerned, are impossible to overcome—rather than drawing attention to the importance of dismantling those barriers, and the organizing being done around the country to do so.

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Over 650,000 people leave state and federal prisons each year. For many, finding stable employment is one of the first steps to surviving (and hopefully thriving) outside of prison. It’s frequently a prerequisite to finding their own housing and reuniting their families. For those on probation or parole, being gainfully employed is also a condition of staying out of prison. But finding a job isn’t easy, especially with a gap in employment history and a prison record.

Advocates, however, including formerly incarcerated people, have been working to eliminate one of the most obvious barriers: the question about past felony convictions on an initial job application, popularly known as the “Box.” In many cities, they are succeeding. More than 100 cities have passed “Ban the Box” legislation, which ends that practice of asking about previous convictions on initial applications. In 2015, the federal government also jumped on the Ban the Box wagon with Obama ordering federal agencies to delay inquiries into past felonies during the hiring process.

Ban the Box doesn’t mean that the question of criminal records never comes up. What it does is give job seekers a chance to be considered on their merits and not on their previous actions. If an applicant seems qualified for the job, they will go through the rest of the hiring process like every other applicant does. The question of past convictions may come up at some point during that process, but by then, the person has demonstrated their skills and qualifications for the job before having to explain past mistakes (as well as steps they’ve taken to ensure that they won’t land in a similar situation again).

Ban the Box has been shown to increase employment among formerly incarcerated job seekers. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, between 2004 and 2006, for example, the city hired less than 6 percent of applicants with convictions. Once it passed its version of Ban the Box, however, that percentage jumped to nearly 58 percent. Similarly, in Durham, North Carolina, the number of people hired for municipal jobs increased nearly sevenfold after it passed similar protections in 2011.

However, Ban the Box isn’t enough to ensure that formerly incarcerated job seekers are given a chance. Legislation needs to go hand-in-hand with a cultural shift toward people coming home from prison. Maria C., who returned to New York City in 2011 after a two-year incarceration for drugs, knows this firsthand. In 2015, New York City banned the box. But even before it did so, city law prohibited employers from making decisions based on convictions unrelated to the job being sought.

On paper, that should have meant that Maria should not have encountered discrimination from prospective employers. As Maria explained to Rewire in an interview, in reality, she still struggled to find work, although it is difficult to say how much her prior conviction and imprisonment weighed in prospective employers’ decision-making processes.

She applied for a job at a national wholesale chain. “Their website said they were ex-con friendly,” she recounted. Maria was called in for an interview, tested negative for drugs, and was told that the company would conduct a background check. After the background check, however, she was told that she did not get the job. She applied to other stores and supermarkets; from those, she received no response at all.

Finally, through an employment program of the Fortune Society, a nonprofit which helps people with reintegration after their release from prison, she found a job at a laundromat.

One afternoon, two months into her new job, she told her boss that she had to leave work early to see her parole officer. “After that, they started getting picky with me,” she told Rewire. Shortly after, she was let go.

The Fortune Society helped her find a second job at a warehouse. But a few months after she was hired, she said that the boss told her, “We’ll call you when we need you.” She never received a call.

At both jobs, Maria says she was asked about her record. She explained the circumstances of her arrest and incarceration as well as what she had accomplished since that time. That’s why she’s puzzled as to why she was let go after a few months. Maria spent five years in New York City; with the exception of the handful of months at the laundromat and warehouse, she remained unemployed.

Maria now lives in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, a city that takes up 4.2 square miles and has a population of about 25,000 people. Lebanon and the surrounding county have a median household income of $56,000 and fewer than 3,000 employers. However, Lebanon also has a work release program, through which people in the local jail system are allowed to work in the community during the day before returning to the jail for the night. The presence of the work release program—especially in a comparatively small community—means that employers are almost certainly more accustomed to job seekers and employees who have criminal records. Within a week of arriving, Maria found work through a temp agency at a food factory where she packs croutons, chocolate, and mashed potatoes.

New York state also has a work release program; in 2010, nearly 2,000 people participated. Even so, the same willingness to hire formerly incarcerated people hasn’t seemed to manifest on a wide scale. Maria knows that the only way formerly incarcerated people like her will find jobs is if there’s a shift in culture and perceptions. Employers “should give people a chance to be able to succeed,” she said. “But employers don’t want to give them a chance.”

As Maria’s experience shows, part of this shift involves policies that create incentives to hire formerly incarcerated people. Some of these policies, like the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, already exist. New York City itself has promoted the Fair Chance Act, its version of Ban the Box, even placing ads on the subway informing formerly incarcerated New Yorkers and their potential employers of this new protection. Local and federal agencies should take similar measures to promote existing opportunities.

Or, for example, consider the model of the Johns Hopkins Health System (JHHS) in Baltimore, Maryland, the state’s largest employer of formerly incarcerated people. In 2014 alone, the hospital hired more than 120 people with past prison records and, between 2009 to 2012, 430 formerly incarcerated people overall. “With 9,000 incarcerated people returning to Baltimore each year, the JHHS wanted to contribute to community re-integration efforts by providing employment opportunities,” Yariela Kerr-Donovan, the director of Johns Hopkins’ Department of Human Resources, stated in an interview with the nonprofit Senate Presidents’ Forum. To do so, they sought a Department of Justice training grant and partnered with community colleges and a training firm specifically to train people for positions inside the health system. This is a model that other large businesses can—and should—emulate.

The real-life job market is already stacked against women of color. As late as 2013, women of all races and ethnicities earned only 78 percent of what men earned. For many women of color, the wage gap widens—Black women were paid 64 percent of their white male counterparts. For Latinas, that wage gap widened to 54 percent and for Native Americans to 59 percent. (Surprisingly, Asian-American women showed the smallest wage gap, earning 90 percent of their white male counterparts. I’d like to know which Asian-American women’s incomes were surveyed and how many were members of underpaid and largely invisible workforces, such as domestic service or beauty industries, across the country.)

Now add in the disproportionate conviction and incarceration of women of color, which often exacerbates a lack of marketable skills, and you can see why efforts like Ban the Box are a necessary first step. Without a shift, however, in the ways that formerly incarcerated people are viewed—as potential workers, neighbors, and members of society—Ban the Box won’t be enough.

One show won’t make the sweeping changes necessary to overcome decades of institutional discrimination. But it can change individual hearts, minds, and hiring practices. Through Aleida’s release, Orange Is the New Black now has a storyline that could address some of the obstacles women face upon release, including employment discrimination and wage inequality. It remains to be seen whether the next season will make good on that opportunity.

Commentary Sexual Health

‘Not the Enemy, But the Answer’: Elevating the Voices of Black Women Living With HIV

Dazon Dixon Diallo

National HIV Testing Day is June 27. But for longtime advocates, ensuring that the women most affected by the epidemic can get and influence care and policy is the work of many years.

I met Juanita Williams in the mid-1980s. She was the first client at SisterLove, the then-new Atlanta nonprofit I founded for women living with AIDS.

June 27 is National HIV Testing Day, and many women will be tested during the observance. But when I met Williams, HIV was a growing reality in our communities, and women were not even recognized as a population at risk for HIV at that time.

This lack of understanding was reflected in women’s experiences when seeking care. Williams’ attempt to get a tubal ligation had been met with fear, ignorance, and hostility from a medical team who informed her she had AIDS. Not only did they refuse to provide her the medical procedure, the hospital staff promptly ushered her down the back staircase and out the door. Williams was left without information or counseling for what was devastating news.

A Black woman who grew up in Syracuse, New York, she had moved to her family’s home state of South Carolina. Her first major decision after her diagnosis was to leave South Carolina and move to Atlanta, where she believed she would get better treatment and support. She was right, and still, it wasn’t easy—not then and not now. Even today, Williams says, “Positive people are not taken seriously, and positive women are taken even less seriously. People think positive people are way down on the totem pole.”

As communities across the United States observe National HIV Testing Day and emphasize taking control of our health and lives, women’s voices are an essential but still neglected part of the conversation. The experiences of Black women living with HIV, within the broader context of their sexual and reproductive health, highlight the need to address systemic health disparities and the promise of a powerful movement at the intersection of sexual and reproductive justice.

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The urgency of adopting an intersectional approach to sexual and reproductive health comes to light when considering the disproportionate impact of HIV on women of color. Black women account for 69 percent of all HIV diagnoses among women in the South. Advocates also acknowledge the history of biomedical and reproductive oppression that Black women have suffered throughout American history, including forced pregnancy and childrearing during slavery to forced sterilization afterward. Keeping these matters in mind helps us understand how the HIV epidemic is a matter of sexual and reproductive justice.

Taking seriously the perspectives of women such as Williams would amplify our collective efforts to eradicate HIV’s impacts while elevating women’s health, dignity, and agency. This is especially pressing for women living with HIV who experience the greatest disparities and access barriers to the broad spectrum of reproductive health, including contraception and abortion.

The policy context has created additional barriers to advancing the reproductive health of women living with HIV. For example, the 2015 National HIV AIDS Strategy Update neglected to mention family planning or reproductive health services as arenas for providing HIV prevention care. Yet, in many instances, a reproductive health clinic is a woman’s primary or only point of access to health care in a given year. Providing HIV prevention and care in family planning clinics is a way to provide a space where women can expect to receive guidance about their risk of exposure to HIV.

As advocates for women living with HIV, we at SisterLove are committed to ensuring that human rights values are at the center of social change efforts to protect and advance the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and their families. We work to transform the policy frame to one that asserts women’s agency to make decisions that are best for themselves and their loved ones. We draw strength from the resilience and determination of the women we serve.

Several years after becoming deeply involved with SisterLove, Williams became an advocate for her own reproductive health and began speaking out on behalf of other Black women living with HIV. She eventually became a trainer, counselor, and health outreach worker.

Later, in 2004, Williams was the only woman living with HIV invited to be a main speaker at the historic March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C. She is a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother who has returned to South Carolina, where she teaches other women living with HIV about sexual and reproductive justice and human rights. Williams uses her own story and strength to help other women find theirs.

“Give [women living with HIV] a voice and a platform for that voice,” she has said. “Give a safe place to let their voices be heard and validate them …. We need positive women’s voices to continue to fight the stigma. How do we do that? We tell our stories and reflect each other. I am not the enemy, I am the answer.”

Advocates need strength as we work at many critical intersections where the lives of women and girls are shaped. We cannot address HIV and AIDS without access to contraception and abortion care; health and pay equity; recognition of domestic and gender-based violence; and the end of HIV criminalization. And as advocates for sexual and reproductive health in our communities, SisterLove is working alongside our sisters to support National HIV Testing Day and ensure all people have the information, tools, and agency to take control of their health.

Elevating the health and dignity of people living with HIV calls for special attention to the epidemic’s implications for women of color and Black women, particularly those within marginalized communities and in the Deep South. The voices and leadership of the most affected women and people living with HIV are essential to making our efforts more relevant and powerful. Together, we can advance the long-term vision for sexual and reproductive justice while working to eradicate HIV for all people.