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ART Artivist Monica Raye Simpson talks social justice, childhood
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times
2016-12-27

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Artivist Monica Raye Simpson has been a mover and shaker for more than a decade and currently serves as the executive director of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective ( SisterSong ). This past September, the Woodhull Freedom Foundation elected Simpson to its board of directors.

"Monica has a deep passion for human rights and the work of Woodhull, and we're excited to welcome her to Woodhull's board of directors," said Woodhull Freedom Foundation President and CEO Ricci Levy. "We believe her strong experience in so many areas, including southern movement building, and her inspiring vision for a better world, coupled with her phenomenal energy and enthusiasm for social change will be extremely valuable as Woodhull continues to grow and expand both our organization and the work we do."

Woodhull Freedom Foundation works to improve sexual, gender and family diversity through advocacy, education and action. Their mission is centered around sexual freedom and they work toward that goal via immigration equality, reproductive justice, prison reform, anit-discrimination legislation and comprehensive nonjudgmental sex education.

"I don't think we can talk about reproductive justice and not talk about sex," said Simpson. "Woodhull is committed to human rights and sexual freedom. I feel like this is a conversation that doesn't get a lot of lift in the Black community and we need to have these conversations. I want to bring my experience and connections to Woodhull and build a bigger more diverse more intersectional movement for sexual freedom. I'm so honored to be a part of this organization. It means a lot to me."

Simpson ( who resides in Atlanta, Georgia with her partner—a South Side Chicago native ) first got involved with SisterSong after attending a workshop at the United States social forum in 2007.

"Then a job became available in 2010 and I went for it," said Simpson.

SisterSong is, according to its website, "a Southern-based, national membership organization formed in 1997 by 16 organizations of women of color from four mini-communities—Native American, African American, Latina, and Asian-American. Their mission is to strengthen and amplify the collective voices of indigenous women and women of color to achieve reproductive justice by eradicating reproductive oppression and securing human rights. This includes the LGBTQ community."

As for what made Simpson want to focus her career on reproductive justice, she explained that it was the first movement where she could bring all parts of herself to the table—her Blackness, her womb and her queer and Southern self.

"It was a movement that was intersectional and rooted in human rights," said Simpson. "It was created by Black women and led by women of color. I don't believe you can do any movement work and not connect it to reproductive justice. It felt like home."

Simpson describes being an artivist as being an activist who used their art for social justice.

"Nina Simone says you can't be an artist and not reflect the times," said Simpson. "This is the root of artivism."

Simpson grew up in rural North Carolina in a single parent home with her mother, two sisters ( one older and one younger ) and an older brother.

"My grandmother was our watchful eye and caretaker as my mother worked full time," said Simpson. "Growing up as a little Black girl in the country was magical. I loved being outside. Picking honey suckles and eating pears from the tree in my backyard. I loved my grandmothers garden. She was the first environmentalist that I knew although she would have never identified with that term. Now we know the bucket with scraps of food she would keep that we would call the slop bucket was actually compost. To the world we would have been considered low income but it didn't feel like I was living in poverty. The Black women in my life always made a way out of no way. Community supported each other.

"Just because we were in the country didn't mean we were shielded from over policing. It was more prevalent in a small town where unemployment was always high. The church was my foundation. It's where I found my voice and learned how to organize and fundraise. It's also where I first experienced oppression. Women weren't allowed in the pulpit. So many of the young girls in my church were pregnant before they graduated high school but no one was talking about sex. You could not utter the word gay. Even though the church piano player was never married and died suddenly from what everyone said was 'pneumonia.'"

Simpson left her rural area to attend Johnson C. Smith University ( JCSU ) in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she received her bachelor's degree in communication and media studies. The university is considered an HBCU, or historically Black college or university.

"I went to an HBCU by choice because I was influenced by the Cosby Show and A Different World and movies like School Daze," said Simpson. "I wanted that experience and be able to interact with Black people from all corners of the country. I wanted to see how they moved in the world. I also came out while at JCSU. It was a very traumatic experience, but it built my activist/organizer muscle. I joined a sorority and soon questioned what sisterhood really meant at such a pivotal point in my life. I also became the editor of our student newspaper. I loved journalism. I was excited to join so many other writers I had grown to admire who I saw as truth tellers."

Simpson's writing has been featured in The Prospect, Huffington Post, RH Reality Check and Ebony.com .

In addition to the work she's done with SisterSong and previous posts, Simpson has also recorded her first album—Revolutionary Love, participated in LGBTQ liberation work, worked to dismantle private prisons and is a birth doula.

Simpson has been honored by a number of organizations including receiving the HRC Community Service Award for her work on Charlotte's First Black Gay Pride and the 99 Dream Keepers honor from Planned Parenthood. She's also been recognized by NARAL Pro Choice and in 2015, received the Vicki Sexual Freedom Award from Woodhull Freedom Foundation.

Essence magazine has named Simpson a New Civil Rights leader and she was chosen as one of the Advocate Magazine's 40 Under 40 leaders this year.

When asked what's it's like to be recognized by these organizations/publications, Simpson explained that it's surreal.

"I try to just do what my grandmother always told me to do," said Simpson. "Stand up for yourself, those you love and for what's right. To be honored for that really is just a way for me to give honor back to her and my mother who always encouraged me to stand up for justice."

As for what she likes to do for fun, Simpson said she loves to sing and dance as well as "create spaces for great conversations over good food and good music."

See sistersong.net/ and WoodhullFoundation.org for more information.


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