Cherisse Scott is an emerging young Reproductive Justice leader. Ms. Scott has worked as an educator, advocate and activist in Reproductive Justice for over 6 years. She was Board Chair for African American Women Evolving, later renamed Black Women for Reproductive Justice, for three years and then worked for the organization as Health Educator/Campaigns Coordinator for an additional three years in Chicago, Illinois. She founded SisterReach in 2011, currently the only Reproductive Justice organization in the state of Tennessee focused on empowering women through education, advocacy and policy after assessing the need for a Reproductive Justice framework in the Mid-South area.

Background on Memphis

In October 2012, in response to a state law requiring schools to teach only abstinence-based education and prohibiting instructors from condoning or promoting “gateway” sexual behavior, the Memphis Board of Education decided to make their sex education curriculum “opt-in” instead of “opt-out”.

1. Can you describe SisterReach and the role it plays in Memphis today?

SisterReach is a new grassroots non-profit focused on supporting the lives of women and girls of color in the Greater Mid-South area through the framework of Reproductive Justice. We provide comprehensive reproductive and sexual health education, policy and advocacy. Since we formed last year, one of our main roles has been speaking out as advocates on reproductive health issues facing women and girls here in the Mid-South. Our advocacy messaging is specific to communities of color as we understand that our communities suffer the greatest from reproductive health disparities and therefore require more direct advocacy on local and state levels.

Much of the reproductive health work in the city is focused on teens. Though this isn’t the only focus of SisterReach, we realize that youth here have no voice at all. One of our goals in 2013 is to offer a platform where young people’s voices are included regarding their reproductive lives and decisions. We are also working with other advocates with similar focuses.

2. Memphis City Schools recently decided to make its sex education program opt-in, rather than opt-out. Can you provide some background on the decision and the impact you think it will have on the community?

Memphis City Schools (MCS) recently announced a new policy that students will now be opted out of sex education classes unless their parents sign a form giving their children permission to participate in those classes. MCS changed its parental consent rules for sex education in response to the Gateway Bill, a state law which gives parents control over what their children are taught regarding sex education. The law, which went into effect July 1, 2012, offers only abstinence-based education and forbids instructors from condoning “explicitly or implicitly” any behavior that is not abstinence-based and age-appropriate. The law also forbids participation in the classes by groups that promote non-abstinence.

MCS is seemingly covering itself from being fined or from its staff being reprimanded by supporting or condoning anything outside of the bill’s requirements. Though I understand the concern, unfortunately, this means that many children will lose out on learning vital information about their reproductive and sexual health. Many of the teachers, guidance counselors and principals who have called on SisterReach and other advocates to teach before the bill passed recognized that their students were in desperate need of a comprehensive model for sex education. This bill and MCS policy, I feel, has stifled these key voices from being heard. These are the men and women who not only teach our children daily, but also have opportunities to observe their daily behavior. One school called me back three times within three months to dispel myths like douching will after sexual intercourse will prevent pregnancy. The principal and staff recognized that an abstinence-only curriculum was insufficient for their students.

Legislators feel that the sex conversation is best had in the home instead of a school setting. Though maybe well-intentioned, advocates and educators “doing” the work realize that many parents are uncomfortable having the sex talk and more than that are ill-equipped with accurate information for this discussion with their children.

This policy also impacts organizations like SisterReach. Last year, the majority of our outreach education consisted of going to Middle and High schools, by request and referral, to teach comprehensive reproductive and sexual health education to female and male students. Because of the bill, if we teach anything other than what has been approved by legislators in the current curriculum, we could be fined up to $500 per student.

3. How have SisterReach and its supporters responded to the decision?

There has been conversation among the reproductive health community of how best to respond. In the interim, we all agree we should help parents understand why they should opt in. SisterReach works in partnership with Memphis Teen Vision (MemTV), a collaboration which focuses on providing resources to teens and parents about sex education and healthcare. We crafted messaging letting MCS know that we will do what we can to promote as many parents as possible to opt in. HIV/AIDS advocates are equally concerned and are also figuring out how to best work within the current policy to continue education around HIV/AIDS.

Fortunately, SisterReach was already offering comprehensive sex ed within churches and community centers. Our goal is to strengthen and grow those partnerships so that we may continue reaching the children who are and will be most negatively impacted by the bill – poor children and children of color.

4. How has the larger Memphis community responded to the decision?

Parents who supported comprehensive sex ed are glad that some elements of sex ed will still be offered to students, but many feel like it wasn’t a broken situation, so why try and fix it this way. Before the bill was passed, no one thought to ask the children what their needs were. This is what SisterReach and other advocates are interested in. My suggestion is for students to have input and be empowered to change the local school policy – bottom line. One in six births is to a teenaged mother in Shelby County but this bill does not support comprehensive education about birth control. The current policy and the Gateway bill fail our children.

5. SisterReach operates within a reproductive justice framework and is the only reproductive justice organization in Tennessee. How does this decision, and comprehensive sex education in general, relate to reproductive justice?

This decision is in direct contradiction with everything Reproductive Justice (RJ) advocates for and means. RJ is rooted in education and access to those who are the least empowered. This includes our youth. To deny a sexually active young person or a young person who is considering sex for the first time the opportunity to learn about contraception and birth control options is indirectly supporting the spread of HIV/AIDS and other STIs. It is indirectly supporting higher numbers in teen pregnancy, which means higher numbers in infant and maternal mortality and abortion. Teen pregnancies, STI rates and infant mortality and morbidity , disproportionately affect African American and Latino youth. This bill and school policy poses another detrimental barrier our youth have to overcome and is a violation of their reproductive rights as young people. This is a RJ issue because this is a human rights violation.

I have a 10 year old in the fifth grade. He recently brought an opt-in form home to participate in his school’s HIV/AIDS education series. I wrote on the form that I would like to be included in the class. Why? Because I am interested in HOW he will be taught about HIV. Will it be education which instills fear? Fire and brimstone? Stigma and bias? Or will he be given tools to make an informed decision? I know that he won’t be taught how to use a condom, because that is considered ‘Gateway’ information and is now forbidden. How are children being taught about healthy relationships in the context of non-sexual relations like kissing and holding hands? Are we no longer stressing the implications of risky behavior when we realize that many of our children are yet navigating settings which include alcohol and drugs? Informed decisions are the only ones I support as an educator, advocate and parent which will affect the future choices my child and other children will make in the long-run.

Then there are the barriers: The child who fail to get their opt-in form home to mom/dad/guardian won’t be able to participate and will miss out on the now reduced information they would have received. Parents who have literacy issues have a barrier with the form anyway – what about them? Who has the real say-so for children in foster care?

Historically, communities of color are already the last to receive education, access and information. This policy and bill affects children of color and poor children most of all. All of the schools SisterReach offered education to last school year were situated in predominantly Black neighborhoods. Latino children are the second largest demographic for teen pregnancy and STIs here in Shelby County. This is definitely a RJ issue and a loss for those children and their families.

I am honestly afraid for our children here in Tennessee because they are being forced to fail. At no time have I seen that classes are being offered for parents to ensure they have evidence-based information to offer their children. This is one of the strategies SisterReach is taking on for 2013, to build a parent base of support for comprehensive sex ed, and hopefully it will be a point of entry for local and state policy change.

SisterReach is a grassroots organization focused on empowering, organizing, and mobilizing women and girls in the community around their reproductive and sexual health to make informed decisions about themselves, therefore to become advocates for themselves. Our goal is to support women and girls to lead healthy lives, have healthy families and live in healthy communities by offering fundamental comprehensive education about their sexual and reproductive health. SisterReach is committed to education, policy and advocacy on the behalf of women and girls.

Get involved with the work of SisterReach at www.sisterreach.org or call their offices at 901.310.5488.