Nothing For Us Without Us

Photo Sarah Whiting

I am a 22-year-old fiction writer, editor, and spoken word artist born and raised in Saint Paul, living in South Minneapolis. I graduated high school a year early, motivated by struggles with disability and mental health, and went headfirst into my first year of college.

My mentor there, Jason Swartwood, introduced me to feminist philosophy — a study of what gender oppression is and what we ought to do about it. I developed knowledge of systemic oppression, social constructs, and various feminist traditions, and learned how to reason clearly using philosophical methods.

The framework of “5 Faces of Oppression,” by Iris M. Young (1990), continues to be a light in the dark for me when thinking about the condition of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities in Minnesota. Young wrote: “New left social movements of the 1960s and 1970s shifted the meaning of the concept of oppression. In its new usage, oppression designates the disadvantage and injustice some people suffer not because a tyrannical power coerces them, but because of the everyday practices of a well-intentioned liberal society. … Oppression in this sense is structural, rather than the result of a few people’s choices or policies. Its causes are embedded in unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols, in the assumptions underlying institutional rules and the collective consequences of following those rules.’’

One area of interest for me is the commodification of gender-oppressed people. Commodities have value because of the practical things you can use them for, and how much money or capital the item is worth on the market. The bodies of women and people who were assigned female at birth (AFAB) are considered commodities in the United States, objects that are able to be bought or sold.

In June, six of nine justices that constitute the Supreme Court ruled to overturn Roe v. Wade, eliminating federal protections for access to abortions. I believe this decision is representative of a larger assumption that underlies the rules of U.S. society and its institutions: the function of female bodies is to reproduce. Proponents of this ruling consider reproduction to be the qualitative value of female bodies. Rendering female bodies a commodity is a clear instance of powerlessness, one of the faces of oppression that Young wrote about — being unjustly stripped of decision-making capability.

Eliminating federal protections for abortion access transfers decision-making power away from people with female bodies and into the hands of the states.

What can people do to combat powerlessness about abortion access?

In my study of BIPOC social movements, I have found self-determination and sovereignty to be common themes. I advocate for building autonomous communities and programs that create power for gender-oppressed communities outside government institutions.

For example:

  • Underground abortion and reproductive health centers that exist outside of the nonprofit or state government space, including abortion doctors who operate outside of medical institutions;
  • Community-controlled housing programs for people seeking abortions in Minnesota from out of state;
  • Guaranteed housing, water, food, and independent energy sources such as solar power, all outside of state organizations;
  • Restorative justice practitioners and circles in BIPOC communities for resolving conflict and repairing harm, outside of police. This work ought to be done with BIPOC people at its base. Nonprofits can be tools to support these movements with funding, but should not be the center of the movements themselves. This work requires building mass membership through personal and professional relationships. It requires social movements gathering and amplifying arguments for gender liberation. It requires being willing to consider opposing views in order to workshop and strengthen our arguments. The work requires radical democratic decision-making practices on a neighborhood scale. Nothing for us without us.

Taiwana Shambley (she/her/hers) is a fiction writer and spoken word artist, currently editing “Prisons Ain’t Peace: Stories from Minneapolis Youth & Their Families.” @taiwanashambley