(Photo via New Voices Philadelphia / Facebook/The Philadelphia Gay News).
By Michele Zipkin
PHILADELPHIA — Céshia Elmore knows the mission
“Black women, femmes, girls, gender-expansive people are often considered the marginalized community; we’re considered the minority,” Elmore, the Philadelphia community organizer for New Voices for Reproductive Justice (New Voices), said. “It’s important to drive our efforts around education and resources that empower these communities to know that they actually do have a voice, they actually do have a choice.”
The mission of New Voices, which serves communities in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland, is “to transform society for the holistic health and well-being of Black women, girls and gender-expansive people.”
The people of New Voices say they’re working to put an end to patriarchal anti-Blackness via community organizing, leadership development and voter engagement.
New Voices recently hosted a “poetic protest” and voter engagement event in West Philly called “These Jawns Vote.” At the event, four poets stood at each corner of 52nd and Chestnut streets and performed a spoken word piece about how voting empowers Black women and gender-expansive folks as they push back against attacks on their bodies. After each poet performed their piece, they rotated corners. Volunteers were stationed at each corner registering people to vote, and encouraging them to share their opinion on the hot button issues such as abortion rights, gun violence and LGBTQ+ rights.
“It went wonderfully,” Elmore said. “The visuals, the poets and the people all showed up, which I’m grateful for. I was really impressed with the way that the poets just delivered and really took the issues and put it into their art.”
The work of New Voices is particularly pertinent in a climate where reproductive rights are on the ballot in Pennsylvania and in many other states since the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Right now, abortion is legal in Pennsylvania. However, Pa. gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano would severely restrict abortion access if elected.
For Elmore and the other leaders of New Voices, reproductive justice goes hand in hand with LGBTQ and BIPOC bodies, but the discourse around reproductive rights has centered on women and women’s bodies, Elmore said.
“Oftentimes, people don’t consider that that is inclusive of trans people and nonbinary people who don’t necessarily identify as women. When we talk about reproductive justice, we’re talking about birthing bodies; we’re talking about Black people who have the capability of building families, of choosing not to build families. When we hear about all of these laws and bills going into place and practice, I feel that it is not being considered how it adversely affects Black women, Black gender expansive-people, Black nonbinary people.”
The idea behind New Voices was born out of three Black women college students at the University of Pittsburgh and a community elder and long-time peace and justice activist.
Co-founder La’Tasha Mayes expanded the group’s work beyond her college campus when she rallied Western Pennsylvania women of color to attend the March for Women’s Lives in 2004. Participating in the march drove home the importance of building a political space for young women of color to discuss the issues and establish their own brand of activism to fight for reproductive and social justice.
Elmore got involved in New Voices two years ago out of a feeling of helplessness seeing Black people being killed at the hands of those abusing their power.
“As a Black woman who is moving through this existence, it can really just wear on you,” she said. “I’m just one person, what am I supposed to do? I know that something has to change, but I don’t know what that thing is.”
Elmore cited the killing of Dominique Rem’mie Fells in Philadelphia in 2020 that marked a point where she had to do something concrete to fight for social change. “Black trans women are being annihilated and nobody is doing anything about it,” Elmore said.
She used her existing connection with New Voices to get involved in the organization’s work, was tasked with putting together a march, and was later offered a job as an organizer with New Voices. From there, she launched the first voter engagement team in Philadelphia.
“It means so much to me to now be in a professional position that aligns with who I am as a Black woman, as a queer woman, as a woman,” Elmore said. “I can happily say that I am empowered.”
A new aspect of New Voices this year is the #SayHerName Justice Fund, a mutual aid fund that provides direct support for the organization’s target population, especially people who have suffered the effects of violence. This could manifest in different ways, Elmore said, including helping people in need of financial assistance, helping folks get funds to access abortion care, helping people with food scarcity, or anything they need.
In the run-up to the Nov. 8 election, New Voices’ Voice Your Vote! (VYV) team has been canvassing the streets of Philadelphia to spread the word about the need to vote and the early voting period in Pennsylvania, which is Oct. 28 to Nov. 1.
“We are making face to face contact with Philadelphia constituents, letting them know that even though voting is not the end-all be-all, it is part of the solution, it is a tool that you can use to reduce harm,” Elmore said. “I am planning to join VYV on some of these efforts because I still want to use these messages from ‘These Jawns Vote,’ these powerful messages from the poets, and spread them amongst the community in collaboration with our voter engagement efforts.”
Michele Zipkin is a reporter for the Philadelphia Gay News, where this story first appeared.
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