Due to a personal experience with racist medical care, Cherisse Scott understands firsthand the ways in which Black women are neglected within reproductive health. Her organization SisterReach seeks to both mitigate the harm that occurs when medical care fails the already marginalized and innovate better modalities of reproductive care for Black women and Black LGBTQ people.
Founded in 2011, SisterReach is a grassroots 501c3 nonprofit that supports the reproductive autonomy of women and teens of color, poor and rural women, LGBTQIA+ people, and their families through the framework of reproductive justice, a public health movement that champions culturally competent and trauma-informed medical care. Historically, Black women, women of color, and LGBTQ people have been abused and dismissed by reproductive health care. By centering the voices and needs of marginalized communities, practitioners of reproductive justice are transforming how we administer reproductive and sexual care.
As a Black queer woman who has had many adverse experiences with reproductive care, I find Cherisse Scott’s work to be groundbreaking and transformative. She is trailblazing a new kind of care, one that centers the holistic well-being of the most marginalized. Scott recently spoke with TheBody about reproductive justice, the importance of providing HIV/AIDS support for Black women, and the urgent need for queer inclusion in reproductive care.
Ciarra Jones: Can you tell us about SisterReach and your organizational purpose?
Cherisse Scott: SisterReach, founded October 2011, is a Memphis, Tennessee–based grassroots 501c3 nonprofit supporting the reproductive autonomy of women and teens of color, poor and rural women, LGBT+ and [gender nonconforming] folks and their families through the framework of reproductive justice. Our mission is to empower our base to lead healthy lives, raise healthy families, and live in healthy and sustainable communities. We work from a four-pronged strategy of education, policy and advocacy, culture shift, and harm reduction.
Jones: We would love to hear about the various services you offer at SisterReach.
Scott: We provide comprehensive reproductive and sexual health education for teens and adults. Additionally, we offer community-based discussion regarding policies that impact the most vulnerable folks among our base. Our approach is research-centered, with an emphasis on cultural humility. We center the voices of those most impacted and invite those populations to offer recommendations that they need, want, and desire. Moreover, we center LGBTQ people and their reproductive health needs. [We also offer] faith community–centered education opportunities regarding reproductive and sexual health, fellowship, and “brave” space support and advocacy.
We fight policies that harm our base and violate human rights overall, but specifically, reproductive and sexual health and the issues that intersect it. We use faith-based organizing as a key strategy of our work as a bible-based reproductive justice organization; we engage/train/organize people of various faiths and advocates who want to work with the inter-faith community. We also use liberal arts as a way to engage our base and supporters and organize them around an issue. Our Memphis Soul Music Festival is our signature annual event. Lastly, our national Safe Sex Kits online program offers barrier methods of contraception and PPE to anyone who requests it at no cost.
Jones: Can you talk about the importance of doing HIV prevention work with Black women specifically?
Scott: As Black women living and working in Memphis, who initially center ourselves and our communities as a foundational strategy of our work, we did not see an intentional effort to center the health and wellness of cisgender Black women regarding HIV prevention or intervention. In 2019, we were funded by AIDS United to support our work and expand a focus specific to Black women. Last year, we launched our digital You Me HIV campaign, in partnership with The Positive Experience (TPE), a new organization whose founder is living with HIV. Together, we launched our campaign to intentionally and unapologetically center Black women around education, prevention, and intervention, including offering info about PEP [HIV post-exposure prophylaxis] and PrEP [HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis], and connection to care in the Memphis area. This spring we will launch phase 2 of that campaign, which now moves to more of a programmatic focus, organizing and supporting group support opportunities, and relaunching parts of the campaign where our campaign participants share their lived experiences, needs, and recommendations for better serving Black women.
Jones: We would love to hear about your reproductive justice work. How have Black women been historically mistreated by the reproductive health system? In what ways does your organization work to advocate for Black women and reproductive health?
Scott: SisterReach is the first reproductive justice organization in Tennessee, and we continue a legacy of work, started by 12 Black women in 1994, centering the voices, needs, and disparities that Black women and our families face. [We have] prioritized our leadership and involvement at every level of creating the environments in which we live, love, and are impacted by.
Since Black women were brought from our homeland to this country, we have endured and have succumbed to the intentional harm and violence of the medical community, white supremacy, and religion-informed violence. Our bodies and body parts have been used to advance science, while invisibilizing our trauma-informed contributions. Our bodies, our wombs, and our lineage continue to be used as a vehicle for capitalism, to fuel the labor system and the prison industrial complex. But there is no commitment to ensure that we, as Black women, are well and lead healthy lives.
We intentionally highlight the importance of what it means to “Trust Black Women.” I was among several Black women who came together in 2010 to craft that message in response to being attacked by the conservative, religious, white right and their allies regarding our need for abortion care and to counter their message that our wombs were a dangerous place for our children. At SisterReach, our mantra is, “We are the people we serve,” and we state that we first do our work in service to our own liberation and that of our families and communities. We employ our four-pronged strategy to achieve our work in reproductive health, rights, and justice. Our You Me HIV campaign embodies that strategy by centering us, by us, for us—and because we matter. Black women matter. And without us, America would not be the global force it is. It is only right that America take care of us, because we are America.
Jones: Can you talk about the impact of SisterReach’s presence in underserved communities?
Scott: For almost 10 years, SisterReach continues to champion reproductive justice in Tennessee and is currently the Black-woman led and focused grassroots organization working on the local, state, regional, and national level bringing attention to the reproductive injustices of marginalized women and girls in the state of Tennessee. We work regionally in Mississippi, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Alabama and consult in other Southern states, with specific focuses that align with reproductive justice. We have been utilizing our Deep South Policy Network initiative (formerly the Deep South Regional Roundtable) for the last six years, building our work and capacity to educate Black community members in our target states about injustices that impact their daily lives using the restorative justice lens as our organizing strategy.
We also work with faith leaders, laity, and folks who desire to work with these communities to build movement and forward their work within these communities. We have reworked and have rebooted our SisterReach Youth Ambassadors and SisterReach College Ambassador programs as a fellowship model supporting their mobilizing and education efforts around comprehensive sex ed and other social justice disparities they identify impacting youth in Memphis and throughout the state of Tennessee. We also curate research to educate our base, legislators, and the public health community and shift culture around issues that impact vulnerable people. This work has also expanded our access into the research sector, leveraging our community work, wins, and expertise to shift institutional focuses around human rights, demonstrate the asset of community-led research, and lift the need for researchers of color to do the work in communities that reflect their lived experiences as individuals.
Jones: I love that you also have a section on your website called BoiTalk! Can you speak a bit about the importance of educating masculine of center and gender nonconforming Black women concerning HIV/AIDS?
Scott: Our BoiTalk program was designed out of a request from one of our former staffers who did not see masculine of center [MOC] Black womxn/women or womxn/women of color reflected in our local work or within the broader reproductive [justice] movement. Memphis more specifically, and Tennessee, more broadly, is a very conservative area. However, we still have a significant population of LGBTQ+ folk who live, work, and worship in the state, though there are not many safe, affirming, or inclusive spaces for folks to be, network, meet, or build community. Individuals on the queer spectrum are a constant target for homophobic policy makers. And it is even harmful for queer folks of color, very specifically, to advocate on their own behalf. So many are forced to live under the radar to keep their jobs, housing—and in some cases, their children. This type of toxic environment also contributes to and perpetuates that the sexual behavior and health care access or knowledge is also navigated underground and without support. Our program is hosted mostly online on private and public BoiTalk pages. Participants are able to interact with one another, co-learn on various health and social topics, share and be featured for their work, leadership, and celebrate each other. For local participants who are out, pre-COVID, we offered in-person meetings and social opportunities for participants and their partners as well. We even featured our deputy director in our You Me HIV campaign to represent MOC women/womxn specific to HIV/AIDS prevention and intervention as an intentional component to addressing the health and wellness of the MOC community.
Jones: Societally, we equate HIV/AIDS with men who have sex with men [MSM]. Can you talk about how this is a reductive analysis of who HIV/AIDS impacts?
Scott: When I first started SisterReach [in 2011], one of the ongoing community strategies was ensuring that Black MSMs had direct support, advocacy, and resources. Next, Black women of trans experience were the target for local and state work, but still no attention was being given to cisgender Black women. I was taken aback after inquiring on the work being done on behalf of Black women. I was told by several advocates that the stats for transmission were too low, and therefore, there were not federal dollars centering this population. I thought that was not only a short-sighted approach, but that it lacked cultural humility. The environment in which Black women navigate our sexual lives and intimacy is not a hetero silo. Many of us identify as bisexual, fluid, or may just be curious. Some of the women we serve are the spouses of HIV-positive men, and some are the parents of children living with HIV or AIDS. All these scenarios combined provides an opportunity for support that was lacking in Memphis. In 2019, AIDS United invited SisterReach to apply for funding support because they knew we were working with Black women across the spectrum. Their support allowed us to roll out our You Me HIV campaign, and their continued support will allow us to serve this invisibilized population even more intentionally through awareness, advocacy, and direct service.
Jones: Many have never heard of PEP or PrEP, and if they have, they only associate it with men who have sex with men. Can you educate us concerning what these medications do and how they work? Additionally, can you touch upon the importance of Black women taking these medications as well?
Scott: PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) means taking medicine to prevent HIV after a possible exposure. This is especially important for Black women and girls, who often experience sexual assault; are among the highest population for human trafficking, domestic, or intimate partner violence; and because they are not a top priority population in traditional HIV awareness attempts. When we consider the sexual behavior of teen girls, who in our experience, feel constant pressure not only to have sex, but to have unprotected sex, it is imperative that young girls have this knowledge, access, and support. I also think that PEP provides an opportunity for people living with the diagnosis to have healthy and safer sex with folks who are not living with HIV. The fact that there is not enough public discussion about PEP means that many Black women who want to be in loving relationships are often without that type of support. Just because a person has HIV does not mean they do not deserve intimate love or to be loved. Our campaign’s work this year will highlight this very real and present issue, along with support groups for women who find themselves living at this intersection.
PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is medicine people at risk for HIV take to prevent getting HIV from sex or injection-drug use. When taken as prescribed, PrEP is highly effective for preventing HIV. Among the Black women and women of color we serve and advocate for are also those who are impacted by intimate partner sexual violence, sex workers, or drug users. These three groups of women live at an important crossroad, and in each case, the public health community and policymakers have left them hanging with no support for their health, wellness, and safety.
A woman whose abusive partner is also engaging in sex outside of their relationship, but who also refuses to wear a condom with their wives or partners, leaves an abused woman exposed not only to HIV, but any sexually transmitted infection [STI]. Without the intentional support of sexual health advocates, the criminal justice system, or policymakers to enforce better protection laws, awareness, and opportunities for safety, women are forced into an unfair and unjust game of Russian roulette with their bodies and lives.
Sex workers are also highly susceptible to contracting HIV and other STIs while engaging in sex work. The staggering number of unemployed women due to COVID-19 and an already inequitable labor force often forces women to engage in sex work to take care of their families, put their children in good schools, move their children out of dangerous neighborhoods, or build a safer and more economically equitable life for themselves.
In the case of women who navigate substance use disorder, especially intravenous drug users, using PrEP could mean that HIV transmission is reduced. In our work, we highlight that the combination of sex and drugs can lead to riskier sex in instances where the drug users are less inhibited to engage in safer sex, or unaware of the sex they had because they may be in a more lethargic state or asleep and unaware that someone has raped them. In every instance mentioned, PrEP can be a lifesaver and can reduce the transmission of HIV.
Jones: You note on your website that Black women are 14 times more likely to contract HIV [than white women]. Can you speak about the factors that position Black women as uniquely vulnerable to HIV? Additionally, you highlight that Black women are 18 times more likely to die from AIDS. Can you talk about social determinants of health and why Black women die at much higher rates?
Scott: Some of the social determinants for Black women include ageism—a topic rarely discussed in the sexual health world that we prioritize when educating adults about their bodies. Just because a person is an adult does not mean they understand how their bodies work, when they are fertile or ovulating, does not mean that they are empowered or knowledgeable about condom usage, or even know when they will get their period. Adults are often left out of the sex ed lens, and in the Black community, that is a disservice, since how we arrive at sex and sexuality, in an American context, is through violence and capitalism. We lift this point up as intergenerational sexual health ignorance. And we can only truly address it if we deal with a sexual behavior forced upon Black bodies for toxic pleasure and capitalism, but never corrected. Even in religious settings, where premarital counseling is being addressed, sex and intimacy is often a topic that cannot and is not being addressed by clergy. However, marital rape, consent, and intimacy are important—and not addressing those issues can set a couple up for failure.
We must also understand that omission makes those who do not support healthy and pleasurable sexual health complicit with poor outcomes, stigmatization, and shame. Lastly, Black women and girls not being prioritized in HIV advocacy and direct service has contributed to the high rates of transmission and the thousands of Black women and girls who are not on our radar to support. We also must realize that Black women’s sex is not just heterosexual or even primarily heterosexual. Even Black women who may not identify on the queer spectrum may still be engaging in sex with individuals who identify as trans, or gay and male. We are a complex people, and so is our sex. That matters.
Jones: How can readers support your organization?
Scott: We invite readers to support our work at sisterreach.org/donate. We also have amazing events and a new podcast coming up this year for the whole family. We invite your readers to go to our website and sign up for our mailing list, or follow us on social media.