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