Fired Up: SISTA Fire burns to create social change

Last month I had the honor of writing a piece for Motif that focused on the role of Black womxn in activist movements throughout our nation’s history. But the push for social change is a constant one that doesn’t just manifest itself in popular hashtags and flashy marches. Real social justice MOVEMENTS grow and take hold over time, advanced by individuals and small organizations across the country, each doing their part to live and spread their values, thereby improving their small corner of the world and empowering others to do the same. A fantastic example of this type of intimate movement-building in Rhode Island is SISTA Fire, a small and growing network of womxn of color dedicated to building solidarity and fostering community as a means of creating social change. The following is an interview (edited for space) with the leaders of this growing organization: co-founders Chanravy Proeung and Ditra Edwards, and Andria Marchettii, Alexa Barriga, Lucy Rios, and Xia Josiah-Faeduwor.   

Tammy Brown (Motif): What inspired the two of you to found SISTA Fire? How did the organization come to be?

Chanravy Proeung: We believe in the collective wisdom of people and their lived experiences. Ditra came back to Providence after 25 years, and she started doing one on ones with women across the state, including myself. This stirred up some conversations about working with womxn of color. Who was working to build the leadership of women of color in Rhode Island? Were there spaces for womxn of color? The answer was clear. There weren’t many spaces working to build collective power to create change with womxn of color and [there was] a clear lack of investment in the leadership of womxn of color. So, the groundwork began.

Ditra Edwards: For me, the thing that inspired us to start SISTA Fire was how much vision womxn of color did have for their communities, and the fire they had about wanting more for themselves and their families. I think the brilliance and the beauty of what people knew and understood about their own lived experiences, and the level of isolation that came across in some of our interviews, inspired us to start SISTA Fire. We kept imagining what would be possible if we brought all this brilliance and heart together, what we could accomplish if women got to work together, and how we could change the conditions of our lives.

TB: Why was it important for this organization to be centered on and led by womxn of color?

Lucy Rios: This is what drew me to be a part of SISTA Fire, the fact that SISTA Fire centers all womxn of color, including transwomen. I longed for a space that is solely for us — a space where we can show up as our authentic selves and feel safe, supported and valued, and where our ideas and our opinions are not only solicited, but drive the agenda.

Andria Marchettii: Black, Indigenous, womxn and non-binary folks of color are the most impacted by the continuation of that [gender and race-based] violence, and when we lead the solutions, the impact is felt by everyone. As the saying goes, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” When we have solidarity and break the isolation that capitalism and colonialism has imposed on us, we are a rising tide. 

Xia Josiah-Faeduwor: It is important to me because womxn of color have been leaders of change and sources of inspiration and invention from the beginning of time. Yet we are among the most marginalized and systemically disadvantaged in RI. Since we are leaders whose voices have been purposely muffled, it only makes sense that we organize and continue to be the leaders we always have been, with the evidence and collective power to make ourselves heard and seen.

TB: Can you talk a little about intersectionality as it relates to SISTA Fire?

Alexa Barriga: An intersectional lens allows us to see and know ourselves and each other as multidimensional people, whose experiences are uniquely shaped by multiple systems of oppression related to race, ethnicity, gender, class, ability, sexual orientation, citizenship status, body type working all at the same time. The term “womxn of color” is strategically positioned at the intersection of race/ethnicity and gender, and it’s a political identity that is inherently rooted in the solidarity of Black, Indigenous, womxn and nonbinary people of color and each other’s struggles. 

DE: You can never talk about intersectionality without taking into consideration the impact of capitalism and really having to move beyond the capitalist framework to think about how we build within and across our communities in a more collective way. We have to be able to think about that because Black womxn and womxn of color are always at the bottom economically. We are interested in how we help grow the wealth in our community by investing in each other. 

TB: What community initiatives or policy campaigns are SISTA Fire currently working on?

AB: For the last two years, SISTA Fire has been organizing to improve birth outcomes for Black and Indigenous women and childbearing people of color in Rhode Island by engaging Women and Infants Hospital, a hospital that oversees 80% of births in this state, in a community accountability process to address their structural racism. We have collected birth stories and about 500 surveys from womxn of color on their lived experiences and reproductive lives, and we have been in conversation with birth justice advocates across the country also working to address the Black maternal health crisis.

In the fight for birth justice, SISTA Fire has also been working alongside Umoja Nia, a Black doula collective and doulas of color to get the Doula Bill passed, which would provide Medicaid reimbursement and private insurance for doula services. The bill is critical in addressing the horrifying and totally preventable inequities in maternal mortality and pregnancy-related illness, specifically among Black families. The Doula Bill also seeks to address inequities in how doulas get paid, with doulas of color being compensated significantly less for their work, compared to their white counterparts. 

The last piece I’ll share is about mutual aid. Since last March, for almost a year, SISTA Fire has been coordinating mutual aid to support meeting the basic needs of our community during the pandemic. We already knew our community was in crisis before the pandemic hit, and it didn’t take long after to realize that it would be those most vulnerable in our communities — our elders, low income, immunocompromised, undocumented folks and single mothers who would be falling through the cracks. Since last March, we have redistributed $70,000 to about 330 families for support ranging from food assistance to rent and utility assistance, grocery pick up and delivery, as well as to cover doula expenses.

For more information, go to sistafireri.org




At the Forefront: Black womxn lead the fight for social justice

Black womxn have stood at the forefront of just about every large-scale movement for social justice in this country’s history. As a Black womxn in 2021 fighting for progressive change — reproductive justice and racial equity, in particular — this history is not lost on me. To be Black and to be a womxn in America is to be routinely attacked, questioned, bothered and overlooked. Some days just getting out of bed, stepping out into the sun, and daring to claim breath and space feels like an overtly political act. We exist in an environment that is hostile to us at every turn, and yet…. We face that hostility with a fierceness that is unmatched, a determination that is unending. With astonishing power, and everlasting love. 

Why do we fight so ferociously for a country that doesn’t seem to want to fight for us in return? I ask myself this all the time. Fighting so hard day in and day out can be exhausting. And yet the burden to lead often falls on those who already have the most to carry. So why do we continue? How do we continue? 

I continue because there is no other way. In my heart of hearts I’m an optimist — an idealist really (don’t tell anyone!). I fight for my community and my country because, among other reasons, the Declaration of Independence is a gorgeous freakin document! Read it sometime, if you haven’t in a while — it will give you chills. This nation, that was forged by genocide and all manner of sheer brutality, was eventually brought together because of a few radical ideals: liberty, justice and equality for all. (Do as we say, not as we do, I guess) These ideals were radical in 1776, and they’re just as radical today. The fact that we as a nation have never come remotely close to living these values is infuriating. The thought that this democratic experiment of ours might be coming to an end before it comes anywhere near to reaching its full potential absolutely breaks my heart. And so the fight continues. For me, it’s about creating a more safe and just world, but it’s also about proving that a country founded with such righteous ideals in mind can persevere without ultimately tearing itself apart. 

As an activist who is also a Black womxn, I continually seek sources of strength, renewal and hope in order to keep moving forward. The bravery, tenacity, genius and grace of my ancestors flows through me in ways that I can’t fully describe. But I also find hope and motivation in my fellow sisters in the struggle. There are activists all across the country and around this little state of ours who are leading unapologetically, with determination and with grace. I look to them, I stand with them and I fight for them until we can achieve the justice, equity and empathy that we all seek. 

 Here are a few of their thoughts: 

Jennifer Rourke is the founder for The Rhode Island Political Cooperative, and a board member of The Womxn Project: 

“Black women have been fighting for years for intersectionality, equality and equity. We can see change from different perspectives that most people cannot see. Our fight is your fight and we take that to heart. 

“With so many new faces running for office, especially Black/Brown and LGBTQIA+ women or female identifying shows that the time has passed for incrementalism. No more small steps for change. We need bigger movements in our everyday life and the time is now. This movement means that there will be more legislation that advocates for the people who live and work in places that are often ignored and have legislation introduced that works against their health, wellness and safety.”  

Jessica Brown is the founder of Clam Jam Brass Band. 

“Black womxn have been at the forefront of so many social justice movements because as Malcolm X said, ‘The most disrespected woman in America is the Black woman.” We know what it is like to be invisible and ignored, yet we prop up this country. We have fed this country, raised its families, cared for its sick, been its source for science, and been there to fix it when it’s broken. 

“We are not complacent. And we know what the consequences are when certain people are elected into office or if certain laws aren’t passed. Black women feel these ripple effects the most.  We carry this trauma and historical knowledge in our DNA. When Black womxn do work, everyone benefits. We don’t just look out for other black womxn, but for our men, our kids, and every other demographic group. One because we know what it feels like to be marginalized, and two, because we have been conditioned to concern ourselves of the needs of white people. We are used to picking up the slack for everyone else and if we have needs and want change, history will show that we can’t depend on anyone else to stand up for us. When we come out, we come out in numbers. We plot, plan, strategize, organize, march, knock and we VOTE. We don’t operate as individuals but as a community. We understand the power of numbers. As a group, we are powerful.”

Ditra Edwards is the Co-Founder and Director of SISTA FIRE  

“Black womxn, blk queer womxn, blk trans womxn, are brilliant and beautiful and carry a vision for our communities that draws from our ancestors and our lived experiences and, most of all, our deep desire for joy and liberation. We are fighting to save black lives. Our long history of black resistance and black-led organizing is how we exercise our dignity and power. 

“Ella Baker was always a person for me. I think about her, I read about her….The way she approached her work was very much grounded in building collective power, doing deep listening, and hearing what people were experiencing and what they hoped for and what their vision for themselves was. In the work that we do at SISTA Fire, we try to embody this. We are deeply engaged in listening and looking for how we can create our democratic process so that everyone can be actively involved.” 




Jam Out with Your Clam Out: All womxn activist band takes to the streets

Grassroots activism can be a prime tool to help us rebuild our society the way it was meant to be: just, equitable, and inclusive. But if you’ve ever taken part in a rally — or any in-person action — you know the energy of the crowd can be sharp, and the mood can get pretty heavy. After all, the reason you’re there is often a reaction AGAINST some greater evil that can hang like a shadow over the whole affair. That is … until the music starts! The hyped up, syncopated beats of a modern activist brass band shifts the mood to one of empowerment, positive energy, joy and even jubilation! 

When Lady J (aka, Jess Brown) travelled to the Women’s March in Washington, DC, in 2017, she noticed that heavy vibe. She was there with a few other members of the popular activist brass band Extraordinary Rendition Band (at the time, Lady J was a member ). And while she embraced the warm and open women-centered atmosphere, she knew there was something missing: music.

Music often played a prominent role in civil rights protests. But in the decades since, that music, to Lady J’s ear, had begun to feel recycled. She yearned to create something new, combining the musical aesthetic of the activist brass band scene with the welcoming, women-centered vibe she was feeling in DC. And thus the seeds for Clam Jam Brass Band were sown. 

“I created Clam Jam after the Women’s March because I needed to carve out a space for myself that was intentionally womxn- and POC-centered. I needed to be in nurturing and inclusive spaces — for womxn and by womxn,” Lady J explains. 

Fast forward to the 2018 Women’s March in DC. Lady J and a collective of about 10 womxn from around the country converged to play together and provide a soundtrack to the events of the day, and ever since the band has been growing both in concept and intentionality.

Clam Jam Brass Band (CJBB) plays a mix of hip-hop, soul, pop and R&B, influenced by artists from George Clinton to Beyonce. Their performances also incorporate spoken word, noise making, visual storytelling and movement. While activist street bands have been using their unique musical stylings to call attention to issues of social justice for years, the space tends to be dominated by the energy of white men. So for Lady J, “It is important to hold space that is womxn/femme centered. Clam Jam is a space that is nurturing, empowering, exploratory and without judgement. We want you to bring your whole, authentic self. It feels good.” 

The original concept for Clam Jam envisioned a band made predominantly of womxn artists of color, but recruiting WOC to join the band, given the time commitment and their lack of access to instruments, has been a challenge. But Lady J seems content with where the band is on its path. “While it is my vision that this group be majority black women or WOC, I love the women that I am surrounded by now because they trust me, believe in me and support my vision and work.” 

And what about that name? With its pun on anatomy Lady J wants to send the message that society can be both body positive and inclusive of the great diversity of womxnhood. But at its core, the name Clam Jam is a homage to the band’s home state. “Clams are delicious, and clam bakes are treasured social functions ’round these parts,” says Lady J. 

At the start of the pandemic Clam Jam was preparing for a debut in Austin, Texas. Those plans have been put on hold, and the band has temporarily shifted focus from brass instruments to drums for safety reasons. But the future of the band looks bright, “I can’t wait until post-COVID so that we can be out in the streets in our full clam glory with instruments and costumes, making a joyful noise,” Lady J proclaims. 

Clam Jam Brass Band is always in need of instrument donations. Follow the band on Facebook, Instagram @clamjambrassband or email clamjambrassband@gmail.com for the latest updates, to show support or to join the band! 




You Gotta Fight for Your Right: One woman’s desire for change was channeled into The Womxn Project

WomxnAs a lifelong Rhode Islander, I’m ashamed to admit how few times I had been inside our State House prior to 2016. Maybe a school field trip or two? Maybe? But on that fateful election night more than two years ago, the world turned upside down and I, along with millions of other devastated and distraught Americans from all across the country, felt compelled to try to do something, anything, to set it right. I started going to every protest, every rally, every meeting of concerned citizens I could find. I had no idea what I could do to fix our new political reality and the very real dangers it posed, but I didn’t feel like sitting around and waiting to figure it out.

Now, it seems, I visit the State House more often than I visit some members of my family. In the last two years I’ve been there at least a dozen times, fighting for issues ranging from immigrant rights to trans issues to gun control to environmental justice. I’ve even faced down neo-nazis in the pouring rain (workers.org/2018/08/11/providence-r-i-activists-drive-out-far-right/)! At one such visit, a rally aimed at getting the vice chair of the RI Democratic Party to resign over his dismissive comments about sexual harassment, I became acquainted with a woman who would completely change the trajectory of my activism and give it a much-needed focus.

The woman I met that day was Jordan Hevenor who, along with Jocelyn Foye, co-founded The Womxn Project, a grassroots organization aimed at “using art and activism to advance education and social change.” From postcard campaigns to staging rallies to creating mobile art installations, The Womxn Project (TWP) has been at the forefront of the fight for reproductive freedom in RI for the past two years. By combining Hevenor’s keen understanding of the legislative process with Foye’s boldness and artistic vision, the two have worked tirelessly to build movement around the issue of codifying Roe v. Wade into Rhode Island law.

But why would we need to codify a Supreme Court decision into state law, you ask? Well, although Rhode Island is one of the bluest states in the union, we also have some extremely restrictive laws on our books regarding abortion. Many of these laws have been found unconstitutional or unenforceable on the national level, but they remain part of Rhode Island’s legal framework with respect to abortion. So long as the Supreme Court decisions governing abortion rights remain intact, our right to abortion in Rhode Island is protected. But if Roe v. Wade (or the later decision, Planned Parenthood v. Casey) is overturned or weakened, the right to safe and legal abortion in Rode Island would be in great peril. This potential peril has been on the minds of state lawmakers for years.

The Reproductive Healthcare Act (RHCA) and its amended version, the Reproductive Privacy Act (RPA), seek to maintain the status quo in Rhode Island by striking those unconstitutional and unenforceable laws off the books. Like with any legislative battle, this one has been years in the making. If you remember your Schoolhouse Rock, you’ll know that bills have to be proposed, then they go to committee where people from the public can testify on their merits, and if the committee votes them forward, they go on to a floor vote by the legislators. This happens for both chambers of our legislature. Until now, the various forms of the RHCA died in committee, if they even got that far. But now, thanks to the efforts of TWP, along with several dogged legislators and the 19 other member organizations that make up the Coalition for Reproductive freedom, the RHCA has never been so close to being passed into law.

My own personal journey as a fledgling activist has lead me all the way to TWP’s board, and I’ve seen first-hand how harnessing collective determination can lead directly to legislative action. We connect and encourage our friends to stand up with us through social media. We give our time by showing up for rallies, canvassing our neighborhoods and writing postcards to send to other concerned voters. We spend hours testifying at hearings, or just stand strong in the State House rotunda on vote days, taking all of the harassment and abuse that comes with it. The onslaught of the past few years has sometimes made us feel powerless and overwhelmed, but it has also made us aware of our capacity for action to effect real change. Let’s hope this new wave of citizen-activism continues far beyond the current administration to create a more vibrant vision of what is possible for our world.




How Women Warn: Disillusioned with law enforcement, women seek informal methods of recourse

warnJanelle C had had enough. The local woman said she was a victim of a violent physical assault in January 2015 by her best friend’s boyfriend. Janelle’s friend remained with the boyfriend until he allegedly committed a life-threatening assault against her. Janelle’s friend actually took the rare step of pressing charges, and, according to Janelle, the boyfriend was convicted of felony assault with a deadly weapon. The story should have ended there — the system worked. But instead, that was just the beginning.

Although the offender’s probation expressly prohibited him from being in bars, Janelle routinely saw him in such establishments. Concerned that alcohol consumption might exacerbate his anger issues and heighten the risk to other women, Janelle said she routinely called the police to tell them that he was violating his probation, but law enforcement agencies were unresponsive. Then Janelle heard that this man was working in a local bar and potentially posed a threat to other women she knew. What was to be done?

Our country is at a reckoning point. The #MeToo movement has brought conversations regarding sexual harassment and sexual assault to the forefront of American consciousness, and by extension, we’re forced to grapple with the ways in which sexism and misogyny permeate American life. Almost a year into the #MeToo movement, however, victims of harassment and assault still face sharp barriers to coming forward. From apathy and disbelief to increased threats to physical safety, the consequences of bringing these types of traumatic experiences to light can be severe. This is to say nothing of the perceived ineffectiveness of pursuing these kinds of allegations through legal channels. There is a constant push and pull between women (primarily) who now feel empowered to make their personal stories of abuse and mistreatment heard, and those who are inclined to disbelieve any such public allegations. Despite the tide of public opinion seemingly turning toward support for victims, women who do make the decision to come forward are all too often greeted with reactions ranging from scorn and derision at best, to abuse, trolling and even death threats at worst.

This all is occurring against the backdrop of a legal system that seems ill-equipped to appropriately handle cases of sexual assault or domestic abuse. A 2014 study published in the journal Psychology of Violence showed that even when victims of domestic abuse come forward and report their assaults to the police, “less than 2% of offenders ever receive jail time.” This is to say nothing of the threats to personal safety victims face from their abusers if they choose to speak out.

It’s no wonder, then, that women often resort to using informal channels and networks to keep themselves and their friends safe. It’s not at all uncommon for women to warn each other to “stay away from that guy” or “don’t go to that place” because the guy or the place in question has a reputation for being unsafe. But now, through social media and other modern modes of communication and networking, women and those who are female-identifying are finding new ways to check in and keep each other safe.

There are secret Facebook groups used by women and femmes to share their experiences in a safe and private environment. Some industrious Twitter users have posted “help me” guides to alert concerned bystanders to the types of body language women and femmes use to indicate that they feel unsafe. And public Facebook posts are often used to share stories of trauma and warn women of potentially dangerous men.

This, in the end, was Janelle’s chosen method for speaking out. Compelled to act by a desire to protect women from a potentially dangerous offender, on September 20 she posted a detailed account of her experience with her friend’s ex-boyfriend. She named him publicly with the intent of exposing his well-documented history of violence to their mutual friends. The response to the post was overwhelming and positive. It was shared 30 times, and Janelle reports receiving several direct messages from other women who’ve had a similar experience with this man.

Word eventually got around to Daniel Becker, the owner of the establishment where the man worked. Daniel immediately reached out to Janelle to see how he could be of help. “It was gut wrenching to read [the post],” he said. Daniel and Janelle both expressed a desire for this individual to be able to access some kind of help or rehabilitation, but neither were sure how receptive he’d be. Now that Daniel was aware of the assault conviction and the apparent pattern of behavior, he faced a difficult choice: Fire this employee on the spot, in which case he might just go to the next bar for work and continue to be a threat to patrons and staff; or give him a clearly defined path toward rehabilitation that would also address the safety of coworkers. The man was not receptive to that proposal, so he was fired. Daniel also indicated that he would be in touch with other bar owners around the state to try to keep this man out of the bar industry. Of his decision, Daniel said that it was, “the right decision for myself, my business, my staff, and everyone else in this city.”

Ultimately Janelle’s decision to post about the man was successful, though she expressed some trepidation that the man could attempt to harm her at some point in the future. But in her words, “What we really need are more male allies … to speak up. To share our stories. To push people like this out of their lives and to chastise them. Men need to hold more men accountable. We’re out here feeling pretty f**king alone.”