As we commemorate our 25th anniversary, Forward Together's Executive Director, Eveline Shen, reflects on where we were, where we are, and where we are headed.
Twenty five years ago, our founders recognized that while all women need rights and resources to insure their reproductive health, too many women of color and low-income have needs that are not recognized by the established leaders of the reproductive rights movement.
Our founders – a group of passionate Asian women – knew that in order for Asian women and other women of color to have the agency and access we all need to make decisions about our sexuality and reproductive lives, our voices need to be heard. In particular, they knew that in our communities, it was young, low-income Asian women who were facing some of the biggest challenges when it comes to having the agency and access to make decisions about their reproductive lives and sexuality.
So they did something that seems so common sense, but at the time was in fact revolutionary: They talked to young Asian women about what they need in order to thrive. They started where they were, in Oakland. And they asked them: what challenges are keeping you from living the life that you want to live? And they listened. And they learned. And they partnered with young Asian women and together began advocating for themselves and their needs: Comprehensive sex education. Access to culturally relevant health care. A healthy environment for their families. Safety from the harassment that keeps them from reaching their educational goals.
None of these issues were being addressed by the mainstream reproductive rights movement at the time, but all are essential to helping women and girls of color to access the power and resources we need to make our own decisions about our bodies, our families and our lives. Through the leadership of our young Asian women, we won concrete policy changes that have improved their lives and their communities.
Our early successes generated more opportunities to lead, so we began advocating at the state level, and partnering with other groups across the country to bring the needs of women of color to the center of the conversation about reproductive health.
Together, we formed a movement of people who sought reproductive justice, a calling that goes beyond the legal right to choose, and also recognizes that real, meaningful change that challenges the power structures that oppress our communities must be led by the people most affected by the issues we are seeking to change. For us, this meant always centering the leadership of women and girls of color.
The term “Reproductive Justice” was getting so popular that the women of color who were doing this work were being sidelined again in its uptake. Seeing a need to establish women of color and their voices as the core of the emerging field, we generated a definition and framework of Reproductive Justice. Published in 2005, A New Vision is still the most widely used text on the issue.
Our paper defining and recognizing the Reproductive Justice Movement put us on the map with funders, organizations and decision-makers nationwide. Our phones were literally ringing off the hooks from people across the country who saw the power and potential of this framework to be a game changer. The attention was sometimes overwhelming for our small staff, but we also knew it was a huge opportunity to harness the excitement and build momentum.
We began to grow. Through the use of Forward Stance – a mind-body approach that allows us to learn and gain insight through the use of breath, voice and physical movement – we developed an innovative leadership model that allowed us to evolve tremendously. We grew from a local organization working with Asian women and girls into leading a national network that bridges diverse communities toward a common purpose.. THs The Forward Stance Leadership model allowed us to stay grounded and focused throughout the evolution, and has been the secret to our success and longevity.
In recent years, Forward Together has worked with more than 200 organizations across the country to build a strong and vibrant Reproductive Justice Movement. Through values-based collaborations, we shared resources, built strategic alliances and began taking collective action. From this work, the Strong Families initiative was born. Through Strong Families, we are working together to change culture and policy to reflect the realities of our families so that all of us can thrive.
Our campaigns emerge from the real concerns of real people who are standing up for ourselves and our families. We continue to recognize, call out and eventually overcome the roadblocks that pop up in the intersections where our race, class, gender and sexuality are used to keep us from the future we want for all of us.
And through it all, we continue to train Asian youth in Oakland to advocate for themselves, their families and their futures.
We listen. We learn. We lead. And we move forward, together.