Delivery of Care/Opinion

Meeting people where they are, as fight for abortion rights moves front-and-center

The Womxn Project’s State House rally on May 3 marks a turning point in how a grassroots group can change the status quo

Image courtesy of The Womxn Project website

An image capturing the projections on the State House and on a black hot air balloon at the May 3 rally organized by The Womxn Project.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 5/9/22
Jocelyn Foye, the director of The Womxn Project, provides her perspective on the May 3 rally at the State House, where more than 600 participants gathered to support a woman’s right to abortion as health care.
When will news organizations conduct polling around how women will vote in the 2022 election around issues such as health care and access to an abortion? Why was there little or no discussion about the broader issues of health care in the recent RIPEC forum for candidates running for Governor in 2022? How will the issue of the right to an abortion change the political equation in the 2022 election, nationally and in Rhode Island? Why have the power of grassroots organizations such as The Womxn Project and the Childhood Lead Action Project proven so successful in mobilizing elected officials?
The role of art as a force for social justice is often a misunderstood media for promoting change in American politics. The ability of groups to project images on the State House – or in Washington, D.C., where activists projected the image of a Ukrainian flag on the Russian embassy – demonstrate that we may have entered a new era of visual persuasion.
If our own personal stories are our most valuable possessions, and sharing those stories become a powerful tool of connecting communities and neighborhoods, the potential of creating wall-size projections around social issues may emerge as a new political tool and tactic – a modern-day, inexpensive “billboard” not selling health insurance or aggressive lawyers, but social action content.

Editor’s Note: On Tuesday evening, May 3, more than 600 demonstrators gathered on the mall side of the State House in response to the “leak” of an alleged majority opinion written by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade, which could end the legal practice of abortion in the U.S.

The release of the opinion sparked national outrage, despite the fact many advocates having warned that this was the legal path being pursued by three newly appointed Supreme Court justices, despite the fact that the Roe v. Wade decision was considered to be an established legal precedent.

At the State House rally, organized by The Womxn Project, speaker after speaker demanded that the R.I. General Assembly now pass what is known as EACA, the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, which would enable people on Medicaid and who are government employees access to abortion as part of their health insurance coverage.

[On its website, The Womxn Project describes itself as “a statewide organization dedicated to building a strong movement that harnesses the power of art, activism and advocacy,” focused on reproductive justice.]

A number of candidates running for statewide office, including R.I. Treasurer Seth Magaziner [who is running for Congress], Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos [who is running for Lt. Governor], R.I. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea [who is running for Governor], and state Senator Cynthia Mendes [who is running for Lt. Governor], all spoke strongly in support for ensuring a woman’s right to choose in Rhode Island.

They were joined in their advocacy by state Rep. Rebecca Kislak, state Rep. Liana Cassar, and state Sen. Bridget Valverde, among others, including a number of medical professionals and abortion providers.

“I am proud to call myself an abortion provider,” said Dr. Megan Smith from Women & Infants Hospital, as reported by Uprise RI. “I speak on behalf of my patients today – past, present and future – as well as my friends, family and colleagues.”

“In 2022 abortion is on the ballot in Rhode Island and across this country,” Gorbea said, as reported by Uprise RI.

“We are here tonight because for 50 years, the far right in this country has been working to take health care decisions out of the hands of women and doctors and put them in the hands of politicians,” Magaziner said, as reported by Uprise RI. “That is wrong.”

“Pay attention to who you’re voting for this year. Pay attention to the elections,” said state Rep. Liana Cassar, as reported by Uprise RI. Cassar, along with state Sen. Bridget Valverde, are the sponsors of the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act. “Ask any candidate you see: Where do you stand on reproductive rights?”

“I want to call on state leaders, the General Assembly, the Speaker and Senate President, and also the Governor, to work together to enact these two bills and also to amend our budget to extend the fundamental human right of women in our state – especially our most vulnerable people,” said Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, as reported by Uprise RI.

Mendes, in her speech, engaged in a dramatic call-and-response with the energized crowd, capturing the mood. “I think one thing we can all agree on is this is some fucking bullshit,” she said, as reported by Uprise RI. “On behalf of all the women – everyone – that has been marching for 50 fucking years, that has been asking for our rights for 50 years, on their behalf, I want to tell every person that is wobbly, that has caved, that has looked the other way and told us to wait one more day – I want to tell them one loud statement from all of us: This is some…”

“Bullshit!” the crowd yelled in response.

PROVIDENCE – ConvergenceRI interviewed Jocelyn Foye, the director of The Womxn Project, which organized and sponsored the State House rally, in order to capture her perspective about how the State House rally on May 3 may have reset the political landscape in Rhode Island.

ConvergenceRI: How has the political landscape changed, as evidenced by the Tuesday evening, May 3 State House rally, held in response to the “leaked” U.S. Supreme Court opinion. What has shifted?
FOYE: People are rising up, becoming very aware of how their rights are being removed. But [we didn't know  what to really expect, because of COVID, we didn’t know [whether] people would either be so burnt out that they would not attend the rally, or whether they would.

The Womxn Project in Rhode Island has been adamantly fighting for the bill in Rhode Island called the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, which is often known as the EACA.

While we passed a bill in 2019 [the Reproductive Privacy Act, which was recently upheld by the R.I. Court], that codified the right to have an abortion in Rhode Island, what it didn’t do is to give that right to people of socio-economically challenged means, poorer folks, and also for state workers.

The number of people in Rhode Island that are of child-bearing age that would need an abortion that are on Medicaid is around 88,000 people. So, we are looking at numbers, with only a 1.2 million population in the state, that is a pretty decent number of folks.

What’s changed is that people are feeling all the feelings that a lot of us who have been in this fight have been struggling with for a while, but that is OK, because their response is a wake-up [call.]
Part of me thinks that for all the debates that have been going on, since the [opinion] leaked, whether or not it was [leaked by] someone who was on the side of wanting to see Roe overturned, or whether it was someone on the side of not they wanted to see Roe not removed as a [legal] protection, what it has done it has woken up the public.

And so, people are seeing that if abortion rights go away, it sets a precedent for every other social justice issue to go away, And, that extends to things that people haven’t really thought about.

If they can create the precedent of removing the right [to abortion] in this particular instance, they can also remove the right for interracial marriage; they can remove the right for women having the right to get contraception; they can remove the right from Brown v. Casey, which is the right for education equality.

So, we threw together a rally in 18 hours. The Womxn Project was able to pull it together [thanks to] a lot of the relationships that we have been building over the years. We had almost every leader in government, the top of the food chain, come and join us, and say: that women’s rights [to an abortion] should not be removed. That to take away that right in this country is, quote unquote, “un-American.”

And, [it poses] a huge threat to such a range of [threats] to come. We know that there are so many injustices for disabled folks; we know that there are so many injustices for people who are going through different types of medical services. It is one more thing that is going to make those detriments greater.

The rally was giving people a place to come together to realize that we need to seize the day, to call on our elected officials to do the right thing, We are calling on the Governor to add a budget amendment, which frankly, is a stop-gap, it is not the solution that we fully want, but it is something. And that would say, come January 2023, that anyone who is on Medicaid or a state worker, would have that [right to an abortion] included as a part of their [health] insurance policy.

But we really need this to become a law, as a protected piece of legislation, and so we are looking to leadership in the House and the Senate to do that.

Obviously, [many of] those folks don’t want to do it, because it is an election year. They do not want to talk about abortion; t is stigmatized word, in one of the most Catholic states in the nation. It is a hard thing to do.

We are calling on folks to truly do the right thing for all folks in Rhode Island, and not have it be just the wealthy people in Rhode Island, who can receive this right.

That is where things are. At the rally, we had a hot air balloon with projections on it. We had a number of projections on the State House, done by artists who doing social justice art work, calling attention to the data.

We are showing [the messages] in different ways, because people need different ways of talking about the issue, with information resonates with people.

I’m going to be honest and say, it was awesome population of those who showed up at the rally. We had doctors, we had educators, we had academics, and we had government folks, we had community members of all races and creeds. It was excellent, in terms of finally seeing people feeling the urgency and coming out,

There are going to be people that don’t want to talk about where they stand on whether or not women should have the right to an abortion. It speaks just as much as saying that they don’t believe that women should have [that right].

The Womxn Project is going to take that on as something that we are going to call out and use. We are not an organization that endorses candidates; we are an organization that takes on campaign issues. At the moment, this is the big one.

[Pausing] There’s a mouthful for you.

ConvergenceRI: One of the things I have been reporting on is that the latest data in terms Rhode Island is that there are roughly 350,000 Rhode Islanders on Medicaid, which is more than one-third of the state.
FOYE: Correct

ConvergenceRI: The question I have is this: There seems to be an assumption, a wrong assumption, I believe, that people on Medicaid do not vote. I do not think that is true. In looking at the rally on Tuesday evening, what I realized is that people are intent on making this a ballot box issue.
FOYE: This is absolutely a ballot box issue. The Womxn Project has stood behind the Let Rhode Island Vote bill that is about to be heard this Tuesday [May 10] in the House, which is huge. It passed the Senate, and so now we need to get it passed by the House.

But we see voting access as so important, because, even in Rhode Island, where everyone thinks the state is so liberal, there is a lot of gerrymandering of districts going on, to try and silence certain communities of greater diversity and socio-economic divisions. We see the success of the Let Rhode Island Vote campaign, which again, we are a part of, as [creating] the potential for greater success for bills like our own, the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act.

We are getting people into [elected] positions that are the true voice of the people, not the “old boys” network, and the traditional conservative Democratic Party.

ConvergenceRI: Is the status quo – I am trying to figure out the best way to ask this question – is the status quo changing, and being upended?
FOYE: What does the status quo mean to you when you ask that question?

ConvergenceRI: The fact that people in power continue to do the same thing to prevent change.
FOYE: We had districts that no one would challenge [incumbents], that people didn’t understand in Rhode Island that challenging an elected official might actually mean that the challenger might win.

The Democratic Party hired recently someone, Kate Coyne-McCoy, whose job has been to protect the incumbents. That is what she came out and said to the Women’s Democratic Caucus, where she said, “I was hired by the Democratic Party to make sure that I protect who is already here.”

If you look at who is already there, and you see the history of this old guard. That has been challenged by a number of people coming forward of greater diversity, that has been challenged by a lot of our activists, where we were educating folks in the process of how a bill becomes a law, and how to get engaged in what grassroots activism looks like, and how grassroots activism can change things.

And, that really inspired people. There are a number of people right now in the House and Senate, like Michelle McGaw and Liana Cassar, and Bridgette Valverde, people who worked with us as volunteers early on with the Reproductive Privacy Act. The fight for that particular bill for the five years we’ve been in existence, was something that they were really able to be a part of, and see the way that t he fight happened, from the outside of the building, and then from the inside.

It has been incredible to see [what] a grassroots organization [can achieve]. I mean, we are all volunteers; that may change soon. But, ultimately, it is our ability to educate while trying to do that policy work. We don’t have a lobbyist.

We are doing the work, through non-traditional means, by meeting people where they are at. We are seeing the change; we are seeing people not wanting to accept the old method for the issue of health care, for the issue of immigration, for the issue of housing and homelessness, and how the economics of all those things break down. People are starting to say: this isn’t the America we want to see anymore, because the old guard is not what America looks like anymore.


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