Innovation Ecosystem

Changing the political landscape when it comes to women's reproductive freedom

An interview with Jocelyn Foye, the director of The Womxn Project

Image courtesy of The Womxn Project

The logo of The Womxn Project.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 6/7/21
An interview with Jocelyn Foye, director of The Womxn Project, as she talks about the organization’s “artivist” approach in advocating for reproductive freedom and justice in Rhode Island.
What are the ways that a renewed dialogue around racial justice and women’s reproductive freedom can change the electoral landscape in Rhode Island? Will the threats to women’s reproductive health galvanize voters in the upcoming 2018 election? What are the lessons that can be learned about how women have been displaced in the workforce as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and a lack of available, affordable childcare? How has the move to virtual legislative hearings changed the dynamics around different voices being head at the State House?
With the R.I. General Assembly now re-opened at the State House for business, plans have been announced to reconvene a special session in September, according to several sources. There remains broad dissatisfaction around the number of bills still being held for further study and not being able to progress to getting a full vote in the House and the Senate.
At the same time, numerous groups – from the R.I. Business Group on Health to the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce – have begun using their digital platforms to mobilize against any proposed raises in taxes at the state level. It remains to be seen what will prove to be the most effective political strategy of engagement with voters moving into the 2022 elections, particularly for Governor.

PROVIDENCE – In a time of increasing partisan divide around so many issues, advocacy on behalf of issues central to reproductive freedom and justice has become even more challenging.

The Violence Against Women Act is stalled in the U.S. Senate, unable to move past Republican resistance to a vote.

A bill to codify the military’s response to sexual violence has been stalled by a turf war between Sen. Jack Reed and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to hear challenges to Mississippi’s ant-abortion statute, with the possibility that the new majority of Trump-appointed judges will overturn Roe v. Wade.

Still, women are persisting. In Texas, high school valedictorian Paxton Smith denounced the new Texas abortion law that bans abortion as early as six weeks, in a surprise graduation speech, which went viral.

Here in Rhode Island, one of the more effective grassroots political strategy groups focused on reproductive freedom and justice is a statewide organization known as The Womxn Project. ConvergenceRI recently spoke with Jocelyn Foye, director and board president.

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Foye:

ConvergenceRI: How has The Womxn Project sought to redefine the political landscape in Rhode Island?
FOYE: The Womxn Project is a statewide organization that merges political change through artistic and grassroots activism. We are an all-volunteer group of “artivists” and policy specialists.

We have worked hard to cultivate relationships with similar values-based activists across Rhode Island to organizations across the country, so when important actions are needed we have one another.

We focus on issues central to reproductive freedom and justice, while including work related to government accessibility, so people understand how our state and federal government work.

That way, we see ourselves helping build a strategic trajectory to empower folx to make change within their own government – as a to-be elected official or activist. We believe education is power and power is created by community.

ConvergenceRI: What have been some of The Womxn Project’s most important victories?
FOYE: The Womxn Project was formed by a group of artists and activists when the 45th president was elected. We looked at the limitations to reproductive access in Rhode Island if Roe v Wade were overturned and got active.

We looked at the work that was being done 24 years prior to getting a bill called the Reproductive Health Care Act passed in Rhode Island and we started amplifying and educating around the realities.

We built a volunteer base of informed and passionate activists to help more women and allies to women’s reproductive rights get elected on our own time as individuals, because our organization does not endorse candidates.

But we were realistic in knowing that to pass important legislation like this, one which codifies Roe specifically, we would need more voting supporters in the R.I. General Assembly.

After 2.5 years, the modified version of the Reproductive Health Care Act that then became the Reproductive Privacy Act passed on Juneteenth [June 19] 2019.

We worked with a coalition, including the Women’s Fund of RI, RI Now, RI’'s ACLU, Planned Parenthood, the League of Women Voters, and many more.

The Womxn Project specifically took – and continues to take – a multi-pronged approach, combining art and education along with standard advocacy tactics to see the bill become law.

ConvergenceRI: What are the next steps?
FOYE: After polling and meeting with our volunteers to general supporters, the voice of our community was strongly stating we needed to continue our legislative work to make the abortion access law fully accessible to all.

The Reproductive Privacy Act only made abortions available to some Rhode Islanders. It left out Medicaid recipients and state workers, so that is what we are fighting for in the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, led by Rep. Liana Cassar and Sen. Bridget Valverde.

The Medicaid program covers 37 percent of all births in Rhode Island, but coverage for pregnant women ends after 60 days, leaving many new mothers without the treatment and services they need.

Over half of pregnancy-associated deaths happen in the first year after birth, a time when mothers need affordable access to care more than ever. Now, they may finally get it with the introduction of H6075, which extends coverage for one year postpartum.

This bill is an important start to addressing higher risks for Black women who are pregnant. But we can still do more. Access to safe, affordable abortion is also critical to promoting better maternal health and outcomes for the entire family. Landmark research shows that delaying or denying women abortion services has long-term health and economic consequences for families.

No matter where we live, what we look like or how much money we have, all Rhode Islanders should have the resources and fair opportunities to ensure that we can thrive as individuals and communities.

The fact is that we can and we must do better. The U.S. has the worst maternal mortality rate among comparable developed nations. Black women in the U.S. are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than their white counterparts.

We know that over half of women seeking abortions have already had at least one child or birth. They are best equipped to decide for themselves when and how to expand their families.

Proactive measures like the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act (H5787) would support the health and well-being of Rhode Islanders by providing everyone with the options they need to manage their health and plan and support their families. We should each be able to decide when to become parents or add to our families and we should have affordable access to care to ensure safe abortion, health pregnancies and that we can all raise our families with dignity. This not only helps individuals, but also creates stronger, healthier communities.

In general as well, our communities are still trying to survive a pandemic. Black, Indigenous and other people of color, low-income families, LBGTQIA+ folks, and people with disabilities in our state have been especially hard hit. It is more important than ever that we do all we can to ensure each of us makes a living wage, has a safe place to live, and that everyone has access to the full-spectrum of health care they need.

The Womxn Project supports a series of other legislation being run by other coalition partners that focuses on racial and economic justice. Our communities are still trying to survive a pandemic. We know it is more important than ever that we do all we can to ensure we can all live with health and dignity and we will use our voice on these matters as often as we can through our artivist style and strategic policy research.

The pandemic has put a spotlight on the fact that too many people in Rhode Island struggle to get and stay healthy, especially in times of crisis. People of color face even more risks and bigger gaps. This is an issue of safety and dignity, but it also has a huge impact on the financial stability of families, as well as the strength and health of our economies.

ConvergenceRI: What is the most effective way for your messaging to be heard?
FOYE: The Womxn Project works in a range of styles as everyone in Rhode Island is different, from single parents working multiple shifts, college and high school aged folx, to retired people.

Therefore, we have done a range of in-person events like house parties to panel discussions and community conversations, to political sewing bees, billboard trucks, dance performances in the State House, and spectacle-based projection events so people of all accessibility requirements can be involved in the action, pandemic or not. Additionally, we are committed to being responsive, innovative, and accessible no matter what the environmental conditions -- pandemic-related, political hostility or apathy, community incentive or anxiety, and no matter where people are staying involved with us.

By signing up to our newsletter people get weekly action advice and plans as well as invitations to be involved in artivist actions. By looking at our website you can see a range of the artistic work and policy research, you can read testimony submitted and by donating to the organization, you can help build the reproductive freedom policy bench that has formed that supports the legislation being created and challenged.

ConvergenceRI: When it comes to protecting women’s health and reproductive rights, what are the top legislative priorities in Rhode Island?
FOYE: The Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, as mentioned above.

ConvergenceRI: How would you assess the greatest threats to our democracy currently?
FOYE: Democracy demands that we ensure free and fair elections and active participation. The protection of basic human rights is integral to civic engagement.

That is why in nearly every recent election, people have identified health care as one of their top issues. It is an issue that frustrates and empowers, but that people do not always fully understand.

People talk about racism, but don’t see how discrimination in a doctor’s office or large rates of uninsurance among people of color are symptoms of the larger problem of racism and systemic oppression.

We talk about low-income families and poverty without acknowledging that medical debt is a huge factor in the financial instability of many people. This issue must be at the forefront and we must take a more intersectional approach in our conversations as well as any long-term approach to make real change.

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