Loretta Ross hails from the red-state south. Born in Temple, Texas, she traveled and lived in many states—Oklahoma, California, Texas—as part of a military family. One of her favorite places is Washington D.C., the place where she became a political activist through her work in the community, helping pass rent-control legislation and serving as a director for the nation’s first rape crisis center, a place where she was first able to understand and analyze her own experiences of “reproductive injustice.” Ross is a co-founder of SisterSong and one of the creators of the term “Reproductive Justice.” She is well known for her social justice and reproductive justice activism and leadership. We had the pleasure to speak with her about Reproductive Justice and her life as an activist.
Take Root: Can you speak about how your personal experiences continue to frame your work? What keeps you motivated to continue working for reproductive justice?
Loretta Ross: My biggest fear that keeps me motivated is that what happened to me is still happening to young girls. That they are still being affected by sexual predators. That they are entering this world with no one giving them comprehensive sex education so that they know how to protect themselves, so that they have agency in making the decisions they need to make for themselves. But also that they are given economic and educational opportunities so that they know how to make the best decisions for themselves… So I’m an activist because these types of situations that I was facing in the 60s are still happening today, and that’s wrong.
Take Root: Your role has recently changed when you stepped down from being the director of SisterSong. What do you see as your current role in the movement?
Loretta Ross: Well now that I am officially an elder… my goal is to try to pass on what I’ve learned, because I entered the movement as a teenager. I was 16 years old when I became active in social justice, and now I am in my 60s. So I’ve had a lot of time to amass a lot of experience, and I am trying to pass it on. Not in a preachy kind of way, but in a this is what happened to me kind of way, and if it helps you I am willing to share it.
Take Root: What is your advice for young activists new to reproductive justice?
Loretta Ross: God, I’ve got so much. I think my best advice would be, don’t worry about being a perfect activist. You can bring your imperfect self to the movement, because the cause is perfect. So you don’t have to be perfect to do work for justice…
Advice that was passed onto me when I first did anti-fascism work fighting the Klu Klux Klan, militias, and hate groups. I was absolutely passionate about that work for obvious reasons, getting a chance to actually fight hate groups as opposed to just being affected by them. Isn’t that a perfect job? I was spending unholy amount of hours doing it and deadly serious, and finally, one of my mentors, Leonard Zeskind, sat me down and said, “Loretta, chill. You know, fighting Nazis should be fun.” And I thought, oh my God, he just said it! We need to learn how to have fun doing this work. It’s being an a**hole that should suck. And I’ve taken that to heart. I’m telling all young people—figure out how to have fun doing this work, how to be you in this work, how to forgive yourself and others in this work, because that’s the way to make it fun. That’s the way to make it a lifelong passion.
Take Root: Where do you see the reproductive justice movement in 5 to 10 years from now?
Loretta Ross: I see the reproductive justice movement obviously winning in 5 or 10 years. I think we’re winning anyway, but it’s not obvious. And it certainly isn’t obvious to the people trying to hold us back… I think we’ve already got the majority of Americans on our side that people should have the right to control their bodies… And so I think that any change will be in the way that it is obvious we are on the winning side.
Take Root: You’ll be speaking about appropriate whiteness this year at Take Root. What is appropriate whiteness? And what do you hope people attending that session will get out of your talk?
Loretta Ross: There are three reasons that I came up with this framework appropriate whiteness in the 1990s … I found that a lot of white people who are anti-racist still didn’t know how to be appropriate. I didn’t question their commitment to fighting white supremacy. I questioned their skill set in doing so… It’s not about fighting white supremacy, but how it is done. The three things I hope to convey is that number one, we have to develop the multi-racial skills for fighting white supremacy in a way that builds a human rights movement in which everyone is included. Number two, we have to develop these skills without white guilt and white fragility getting in the way. And number three, we have to help white people appreciate their European heritage without centering that European heritage in the fight against white supremacy. Because white supremacy is a body of ideas not a heritage or a race.
We thank Loretta Ross for being so candid and humorous throughout the interview. Her passion for this work is obvious, as is her ability to make this work fun. Ross left us with a few fun facts including that she likes to read science fiction for fun–we’ll call it self-care. Her top book recommendation is Dog Whistle Politics, by Ian Haney López. She also discussed being who you are and naming yourself rather than let anyone name you. We are grateful and appreciative for Loretta Ross and her bravery, strength, and passion in this movement.
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