Spotlight: Loretta Ross Three Decades of Advocating for the Health and Rights of Women of Color

by Rebecca Farmer

Loretta Ross

Loretta Ross is one of many activists who came to her work by way of injustices she faced. She’s also a big believer in working together to create social change—and reaching out, across and within movements, to achieve that end. As one of the members of BCA’s new National Advisory Council, she will help connect the breast cancer movement to other areas of women’s health and social justice.

Currently, Loretta is the national coordinator of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective (www.sistersong.net), but her activism spans decades. SisterSong was formed in 1997 by 16 organizations to fulfill a need for a national network that would organize women of color in the reproductive rights movement. The collective also was founded to educate women of color and policy makers on reproductive and sexual health and rights, and to work toward acquiring access to health services, information, and resources that are culturally and linguistically appropriate. In less than ten years, the collective has grown to encompass 80 organizations. Originally comprising solely women of color organizations, membership was opened in 2003 to all individuals and organizations that work on behalf of people of color.

“SisterSong became a home for everybody,” Loretta says. In particular, it became a home for radical progressives in the movement who were dissatisfied with simply critiquing omission of marginalized groups from the system rather than critiquing the overall systems of oppression. Breast Cancer Action is a new member of the collective.

In 1974 Loretta first became active in a tenants’ movement in Washington, D.C., and worked to help pass the city’s first rent control policy. It was during this work that she met Nkenge Toure, then the director of the DC Rape Crisis Center. A rape survivor herself, Loretta became the center’s director in 1979. “That was my first feminist work,” she says.

Prior to that job, at age 23, Loretta was involuntarily sterilized by a malfunctioning IUD and had to have a full hysterectomy. “I’ve been working in the women’s movement pretty much ever since then,” she says. “It sounds like a horror, but it opened up the rest of my life.” The sterilization and an earlier struggle against parental consent laws to obtain an abortion were her personal introductions to the world of reproductive rights. Her experiences in that field and others have driven the work she has done over the past 30 years.

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Creating Reproductive Justice

In 1994 Loretta and other activists advocating for women of color within the women’s rights movement attended the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt. They found that women around the world were using a human rights framework in their reproductive rights advocacy. Some of the U.S. activists at the Cairo meeting decided to take that framework home to “marry social justice to reproductive rights,” she says, noting that it was a “wonderful bridging strategy.” Together, they created the concept of reproductive justice.

“The ability of any woman to make a decision about what happens to her body is directly related to what’s happening in her community,” Loretta says. Issues including housing, child care, and domestic violence need to be considered when talking about reproductive rights. The same is true in the world of breast cancer.

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Reproductive Justice and Breast Cancer?

“It’s about more than just the breast,” Loretta says. This concept resonates with one of BCA’s core principles and values—that we work for structural changes toward social justice to accomplish our mission. Part of this work includes keeping a keen eye focused on the big picture. Often, for example, a woman is first exposed to information about breast cancer at her gynecologist’s office, where a clinical breast exam is part of the standard annual exam. Additionally, access to health care and accurate information is a concern throughout the different areas of women’s health.

“The first thing we have to realize is that breast cancer is a human rights issue,” Loretta says, noting the various ways that working for reproductive justice and working to eradicate breast cancer overlap. She points out the need for “affordable and accessible health care, the right to not be exploited, the need to know what your options are, and the importance of being an active health consumer.”

Loretta believes there is room for mutual cross-education between reproductive justice and breast cancer activists. “My impression of the breast cancer movement is that it’s not that well connected to the reproductive rights movement. And the reproductive rights movement is not as connected as it should be to the breast cancer movement,” she says. Making this connection is one of the many goals of BCA’s National Advisory Council.

“Every movement starts with one person bringing someone else,” Loretta says of her decision to join the council after being approached by BCA board member Jane Zones, whom she knew through the National Women’s Health Network, another sister organization. Her previous knowledge of breast cancer, as with many people, included getting annual mammograms and hoping she didn’t get the disease, she said. As a member of the council, Loretta will be able to help carry BCA’s message that everyone can do something besides worry.

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Reaching Out, Addressing Health Disparities

Organizations like BCA and SisterSong know all too well the consequences of a broken health system, which places immense barriers for many people in obtaining access to health services. (See BCA Newsletter #91, June/July 2006 for more information on access to care.)

Loretta notes a correlation between poverty and preventative health care, and between race and health care. African American women and Latinas are often less likely to have been screened for breast and cervical cancer, and they are less likely to have health insurance than white women. Loretta remembers hearing from the National Asian Women’s Health Organization, a SisterSong co-founding group, that even in the mid-1990s, many Asian women thought they couldn’t get breast cancer because they never saw themselves in breast cancer–related posters and materials.

When organizations and individuals come together from diverse communities, the possibilities for bringing about social change multiply immensely.

For Loretta, the words that come to mind for describing BCA are “dynamic, cutting edge, fearless, and not afraid to speak truth to power—in a principled way.” The words that come to my mind to describe Loretta Ross are much the same.

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