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Culture & Conversation Human Rights

A Q&A With Jessica González-Rojas on Her 13 Years at the National Latina Institute

Regina Mahone

“I’m so proud of how far we’ve come.”

For over a decade, Jessica González-Rojas has been fighting for the rights of Latinx people at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH), where she most recently served as executive director. This fall, she announced her plan to run for the New York State Assembly, transitioning from leader of a national reproductive justice (RJ) organization to candidate for public office in one of the most diverse districts in the state, District 34.

Rewire.News sat down with González-Rojas in early November to discuss the crucial role she has played in bridging the gap between the reproductive rights movement and the immigrant justice movement. “I always joke that I felt like I was a person in the ‘women’s’ and reproductive rights spaces saying, What about Latinas? What about immigrants? And then I would sit in the siloed spaces of immigrant justice or Latino civil rights and say, What about women? What about gender justice? What about LGBTQ people?” González-Rojas said.

In this wide-ranging interview, González-Rojas reflects on the gains of the reproductive justice movement and NLIRH she’s witnessed, the challenges of today, and what gives her hope about the next chapter of her life. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Rewire.News: What are some of the biggest shifts you’ve seen in the reproductive justice movement since you started at NLIRH in 2006?

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Jessica González-Rojas: When I started, the Latina Institute was an organization with a budget of about $500,000 and a staff of five people in one office that we shared with two other organizations. To see the growth of power, capacity, infrastructure, and impact of the reproductive justice organizations since then has been powerful. Many women of color-led organizations have grown, shown up, and brought their ideas, solutions, and their community power to the decision-making tables, and as a result there’s been a large shift toward investing in the community.

Rewire.News: Many leading organizations and activists are now centering the reproductive injustices facing Latinx people, and all people of color, in their work. What has contributed to this broader awareness?

JGR: Part of what we’ve done is look at not just the reproductive health, rights, and justice community, but also work alongside and in partnership with the Latino civil rights and immigrant justice movement. Our organization has served as a bridge to elevate the issues within both movements in stronger ways. We’re not just women. In fact, many of us are trans and gender-nonconforming. The LGBTQ movement has been one of our strongest allies because there’s alignment in terms of values around reproductive freedom and sex positivity. But we’ve also worked to ensure the Latino civil rights and immigrant justice groups are also mainstreaming gender issues.

Rewire.News: Was there a turning point between 2006 and now that helped speed change along?

JGR: The Obama years were important because there were real opportunities, particularly around the Affordable Care Act (ACA), to create change. We did amazing work, but I personally was disappointed as to where the ACA landed. Although it expanded health-care access for many, it wasn’t as visionary and bold as we had hoped. But this is where we saw the work at the intersections: There were shifts because both immigrants, particularly undocumented immigrants, and abortion were left out of the Affordable Care Act. Because of that, there were opportunities to hold conversations across movements.

Rewire.News: This year, there’s been an increase in awareness of the Hyde Amendment, the federal ban barring Medicaid funds from being used to pay for abortion. Can you talk more about NLIRH’s work on that?

JGR: When I started at the Latina Institute, I worked on the “30 Years Is Enough” campaign. The Latina Institute partnered with the National Network of Abortion Funds and many repro organizations on elevating the fact that it had been 30 years since the Hyde Amendment was passed. That was 13 years ago!

That effort was centered on the RJ groups and those that really understood economic injustices. We were all small and scrappy, leaning on the volunteers and the grassroots base to move that work. Since then, the Latina Institute along with the National Network of Abortion Funds created this campaign, All* Above All, led by women of color leaders and allies. This issue was considered a third rail in the mainstream repro movement—they didn’t want to touch it because it had to do with taxpayer funding of abortion. Now, we’re getting mainstream partners on board and supportive and shifting the political narrative. It’s no longer impossible.

“When I started at the Latina Institute, I worked on the ’30 Years Is Enough’ campaign. The Latina Institute partnered with the National Network of Abortion Funds and many repro organizations on elevating the fact that it had been 30 years since the Hyde Amendment was passed. That was 13 years ago!”

We currently have 171 co-sponsors to the EACH Woman Act (Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance) bill in the U.S. House, and 23 co-sponsors for the Senate bill—this was the first time we were able to get a bicameral introduction. Both bills were introduced by really badass women of color, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) in the House and Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) in the Senate. Duckworth is a really wonderful sponsor because not only is she an Asian American woman from Chicago, but she’s a veteran, she has a disability, and she’s a mother. There are so many identities that she holds that really center why we need to repeal the Hyde Amendment.

It’s been incredible to see a repro justice issue that not a lot of mainstream groups wanted to lift up become something we’re in active partnership with so many organizations in pushing. I’m so proud of how far we’ve come, and I can’t wait to actually see Hyde repealed.

Rewire.News: What do you think it will take for Democrats, particularly those who have supported this amendment, to end Hyde once and for all?

JGR: It is the Ayanna Pressleys of the world, the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezes of the world—the bold women of color who are holding their Democratic colleagues accountable. Some you assume to be champions on the Hill are thinking about political expediency and whether it will move or not, or could it piss people off. I think we’ve gotten to a place where many are a little more bold, and are taking it to the next level, mainstreaming the conversation to raise awareness of Hyde’s impact on communities. That’s what is going to take it over the edge: more bold women of color in those positions to uplift and speak out and hold our allies’ feet to the fire.

Rewire.News: Can you discuss the disparity you’ve seen between mainstream reproductive rights messaging and campaigns, and the experiences of people of color living in racially segregated communities?

JGR: One thing we have to be wary of is only focusing on voting. Our organizers in the Rio Grande Valley, for example, did work around civic engagement and Get Out the Vote, but we also acknowledged that many in our community can’t vote. Our organizers would say, Everyone has a job. If you can vote, great. If you can’t, you can knock on doors, you can make phone calls, you can take people to the polls, you can raise awareness, and you can ask people to vote for you and for your family.

Knowing that status, language, or ability to vote doesn’t prevent one from being an activist and leader on this work has been a powerful tool for our community. Women of color have been killing it in terms of voting, but we have to acknowledge the leadership of those who can’t, but are doing activism that still contributes to the shift that we’re seeing.

Rewire.News: There’s also the education piece, right, and the work needed to raise awareness in communities of color around our rights and what services are available—or should be available—to us?

JGR: Yes, exactly. The president has blamed immigrants for drugs, rape, violence, and crime. In a lot of ways, our community ends up internalizing those messages, so the education piece is critical.

A lot of the work that we do is about acknowledging the worthiness of our community: You are worthy. You matter, and you are deserving of health care. Health care is a human right. The ability to create the families you wish to create is a human right, as well as being able to raise your family with dignity, and not live under the threat of family separation or a criminal justice system. 

Rewire.News: Many reproductive rights leaders will often talk at people of color rather than, for example, listen to them about their experiences. What do you think often stands in the way of meaningful engagement when it comes to addressing reproductive injustice?

JGR: There’s often an assumption that our communities are conservative and therefore they aren’t reached for engagement. For example, those who typically are considered “low-propensity” Latinx voters are low-propensity because no one has knocked on their door. For those who are eligible to vote but aren’t voting because they feel left out of the system, it’s because we continue to leave them out of the system.

“A lot of the work that we do is about acknowledging the worthiness of our community.”

Because of the internalized oppression that we face, we sometimes end up perpetuating those narratives. So when we do our organizing, it’s organizing with community; we’re building power, not “empowering.” We believe everyone has inherent power, and we’re working alongside them.

We have to create space for those who may not be the typical reproductive justice advocate because when we do, we create safe opportunities to have discussions that many of us have never had in our lives, and we are able to move hearts and minds. We have activists who believe abortion is a sin, but actually understand that just because they wouldn’t do it doesn’t mean their belief should be imposed on others. That’s actually a predominant value that many Latinx communities hold.

I think we’re often marginalized because we’re not assumed to be supporters of this work, but in fact, 89 percent of Latinx voters would support a loved one around the decision to have an abortion even if they themselves don’t support abortion. That’s an important value, an inherent value, and that’s why it’s important to listen.

Rewire.News: You’ve been in many rooms discussing the importance of reproductive health and justice. Who is often missing from the table?

JGR: The indigenous communities are often left out, and that’s a deep loss. Of course there are many Latinx who are indigenous. But in terms of leadership of indigenous communities in beltway policy spaces, there’s not a voice there. There are also young people doing the work, but there’s not a lot of them at the table. Sometimes perhaps they don’t want to be there, and that’s cool too. But those voices need to be included in these policy discussions.  Those that are closest to the problems are closest to the solutions, and I think those solutions are often missing from these discourses.

Rewire.News: How can advocates do better about making sure those most affected are represented?

JGR: Naming it. Often, for example, many of the indigenous leaders are not in D.C., and those political spaces are not conducive to creating space for them. I would even argue for some of the dope organizations in the South, the Southwest, and other parts of the country, when things center around a politically expedient narrative and space, those closest to the community are lost. It’s a matter of making those investments to ensure they are there or finding accommodations to bring those voices into the room, whether it’s through technology or meeting at different times.

And, again, it’s not that the work in those communities is not happening. It’s just oftentimes they are excluded from these more mainstream spaces.

Rewire.News: How can organizations continue to engage those most affected by anti-choice legislation and administrations without putting them at increased risk, like undocumented people?

JGR: It’s a dedication to the support it takes to keep them safe. At the Latina Institute, we enacted an emergency fund because our activists and leaders were getting picked up by ICE. Oftentimes, they were getting picked up while they were organizing a health fair or at a rally, so we felt responsible for supporting them.

In one case in Texas, we organized legal support, child care, food—all the necessities to help the family in this tragic circumstance. And then we would show up when there was a court hearing and rally, letting ICE and the legal bodies know that we were there and we were watching, writing letters to our members of Congress, writing letters to local leaders, and garnering support.

It takes a lot. Oftentimes groups want the engagement of Latinx communities, immigrant communities, but are not providing information in the language that they speak. The mainstream spaces are English-dominated spaces, and for those who don’t speak the colonizer’s language, there’s no space for them.

As a person with a disability—I have a hearing disability—I would argue it’s important to think about disability access. Is the space accessible for wheelchairs? Do we need sign language interpreters? What other accommodations are needed to ensure that people can meaningfully participate and not just be tokenized?

Rewire.News: What other challenges do you see NLIRH and the movement having to tackle in the coming decade?

JGR: I’m a glass-half-full person, so I see the positive outcome of this horrific nightmare of a government—it’s energized the resistance. It’s woken up problematic white women who didn’t see their role as problematic, as advancing the status quo, or how dangerous this leader can be and the ripple effects of that. The leadership of women of color, communities of color, and other marginalized communities has always been so important, because we’ve seen this. It wasn’t just Trump. We’ve been dealing with this for decades, hundreds of years. Now there’s just a greater awareness of reproductive oppression and racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia—all the phobias.

Part of the challenge is burnout. Again, because many of us have been holding this trauma for so long, pre-Trump—it’s not a new thing for us. Obama deported nearly 3 million immigrant families. We’ve been holding this. So, I do worry about burnout in our communities. How do we take care of ourselves while holding the weight of the world on our shoulders, and also not tear each other apart? We’re in a very vicious call-out culture in which some people certainly need to be called out, and I think it creates dangerous divisions in a movement that could be very strong.

“It’s so important to have people who are activists raise their hand to run because we’ve been dealing with the repercussions of horrific policies on our communities, and we know what the realities are that they are facing.”

In some ways, it doesn’t matter what the next election yields. We are still going to face the everlasting repercussions of this administration, and the administrations before that. I think it’s about making sure we’re caring and loving our community, while we’re fighting for the future that we want to see.

Rewire.News: Speaking of the future, you’re running for office! What prompted you to run for the New York State General Assembly?

JGR: While leading a national nonprofit, I saw how critical the states are in either advancing awful policies, and other states replicating that, or being the beacon of progressive vision. There’s so much power that states can hold, and real opportunity to set a vision that the rest of the country can catch up to.

I’m seeing alignment across legislators as a progressive movement to share strategies, legislation, resources, and solutions that can actually get us to a place where there is a domino effect. That’s what excites me about the possibility of being in the New York State Assembly. I would represent the most diverse community in the United States, as we speak: We’re 88 percent people of color, largely immigrant, and about 58, 59 percent Latinx. We have a huge South Asian population, from India, Pakistan, Nepal.

It’s so important to have people who are activists raise their hand to run because we’ve been dealing with the repercussions of horrific policies on our communities, and we know what the realities are that they are facing. We also hold the solutions.

There’s also been a shift in the New York legislature that’s opened the doors to advancing some policies. One stark example is the Reproductive Health Act (RHA). We’ve been trying to get abortion out of New York’s penal code for as long as I’ve been working at the Latina Institute, and probably before that. There’s been activism on it every single legislative session, with no movement. But in this session that just passed, the RHA was voted in and signed on the Roe v. Wade anniversary, within days of the legislative session starting. That just shows the opportunities that are in front of us to actually advance policy, which feels really exciting.

Rewire.News: What is giving you hope about this next chapter of the Latina Institute’s journey? And your next chapter?

JGR: I’m so proud of where we are in this moment. We’re making smart assessments as an organization, looking at our infrastructure and things like self-care and wellness to invest in our communities first and foremost.

For me, I’ll always be familia, as we always say. I’ll be a supporter of the work, feel connected to it, and follow it. But what excites me about my next chapter is the potentiality of creating change—the systemic change that we’ve always been fighting for.

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