Kelly Davis spends her waking hours fighting for reproductive justice

May 22, 2023
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash|

Since 2004, New Voices for Reproductive Justice has fought to secure and expand the reproductive rights of Black women, girls, and gender-expansive folks. New Voices has been instrumental in ensuring that the most vulnerable and marginalized people have access to the health care they need through community organizing, education, mutual aid, voter engagement, and lifting up the newest voices in the reproductive justice movement. While they are based in Pennsylvania and Ohio, New Voices also works to advance the cause of reproductive justice across the nation and has served over 200,000 people since its inception. New Voices' work has range: last year they distributed $60,000 in mutual aid through the #SayHerName Justice Fund and led an amicus brief against the state of Pennsylvania to ensure that Medicaid would cover abortion. Their work focuses equally on policy, people, and—ultimately—community.

Kelly Davis joined New Voices in 2022 as its executive director after years in both the public sector (director of the Equity and Innovation Unit at New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene) and private sector (chief equity officer at the National Birth Equity Collaborative). We called up Davis to talk about why the fight for reproductive justice is local, what New Voices has done to engage its community, and what gives her hope for the future. 

Where to Next: How have you found, through your work, that the fight for reproductive justice in America is regional and hyper local?

Kelly Davis: The reason why is that a lot of the constraints of our daily life are determined at the local level. A lot of people think of the president or vice president as being the person who controls the sphere of their lives. But that's actually not true. Things like whether abortion is covered by insurance and who has Medicaid coverage are determined at the state and local level. It was that way before Dobbs and it's still that way post Dobbs. 

Even though racism, misogyny, and gender oppression are global phenomenons, how they manifest has hyper local consequences. If you don't have a hyper local solution, then you won't be able to fight all of the daggers that are aimed at Black people who have the capacity for pregnancy.

Oftentimes, when we're at legislative briefings, we're the only Black people at the table. Eighteen years into our existence, we believe this is fully unacceptable, which is why we're organizing and bringing together new voices. 

What are some hyper local solutions or initiatives you've spearheaded with New Voices for Reproductive Justice? 

Last year, through our #SayHerName Justice Fund we were able to give out nearly $60,000 to black women, femmes, and girls who found themselves at the crossroads of different forms of state sanctioned violence, including abortion restrictions and eviction—which disproportionately harms black women with kids. That was one way we were able to support people in Pennsylvania, through mutual aid and community organizing. 

It's a drop in the bucket, to be clear, but we were really proud as a reproductive justice organization to be able to have a rapid response to people who needed it most. 

How does New Voice for Reproductive Justice work to incorporate the voice of its community and end users into the work you do?

We have conversations with our constituents and community members through a variety of methods, like door knocking and teach-ins. But it's not just door knocking. It's not just text. It's not just canvassing. It's not just mailing. 

One concrete example is how our community has been impacted by health care access. We led an amicus brief with many other reproductive justice organizations across the country supporting abortion providers suing the state of Pennsylvania so that Medicaid could cover abortion. [ed. note: The case is still in the courts.] That's one way we are fighting to protect the most marginalized people.

Voting rights is a reproductive justice issue. 

You're the only reproductive justice organization in Pennsylvania. What are you doing to help set up community members to fight at the local level?

Oftentimes, when we're at legislative briefings, we're the only Black people at the table. Eighteen years into our existence, we believe this is fully unacceptable, which is why we're organizing and bringing together new voices. 

This year we're launching a set of collectives for organizers to provide them with the tools they need to do hyperlocal actions and community work—so they can advance the issues they care about on their block, to support folks in becoming the next generation of reproductive justice leaders. Because we can be the first, but being the only is hard.

What do you think can be done to ensure a more fair and equitable future?

Our reproductive concerns are not just about abortion. Politicians across the nation have scaled back their attacks on abortion—because, like in Kansas, they underestimated the fact that people wanted abortion to remain legal—and reinvigorated their attacks on voting rights.

One way to whittle away at reproductive rights is by disenfranchising people and limiting who can vote—like in Georgia. Voting rights is a reproductive justice issue. 

How do you communicate to communities to help get out the vote?

Before the midterms, we outreached across two states to more than half a million Black women who are labeled—because of structural racism and oppression—low-propensity voters. We told them exactly what was on the ballot and what it meant for the course of their lives. 

Did the results of the midterms give you some hope for the future?

The truth is, I have hope all the time. For many of my white colleagues when Roe v. Wade was overturned that despair was a uniquely white phenomenon. The truth is Black women have failed to have adequate healthcare for decades. I'm from Mississippi, where we have one abortion provider in the entire state. Legal does not mean accessible. Legal does not mean affordable. And legal does not mean equitable. 

I'm excited about the way that Black women in particular are continuing to organize to save our own lives. What happened in November across this nation was a part of reproductive rights, reproductive justice, and reproductive health organizations banding together in a new way that had never been done with reproductive justice at the center. 

I feel hopeful because we're not just reacting. Reproductive justice isn't just about reacting or preserving the status quo. I'm envisioning what it would mean for Black people to have the life that they dream about—that guides what I do from when I wake up to the second I go to bed. 

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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