Welcome 2 BREHA! Jallicia Jolly, assistant professor of American studies and Black studies, wrote on the whiteboard in the Center for Humanistic Inquiry. A May 2 panel discussion was inaugurating the Black Feminist Reproductive Justice, Equity & HIV/AIDS Activism Collective, which the professor described to the audience as “a labor of love in the making.”
In launching and leading the BREHA Collective, with financial support from the Office of the Provost and the Gregory S. Call Academic Internship program, Jolly is creating a hub for Amherst students interested in multifaceted research and multipronged approaches to reproductive justice.
“Black women, Indigenous women, women of color have to fight not only for abortion rights but importantly fight for the access to bodily autonomy,” she explains, citing the foundational work of legal scholar Dorothy E. Roberts and Loretta J. Ross, who is now a faculty member at Smith College. Reproductive justice requires addressing disparities in health care and realizing “the right to have children and to raise them with dignity in a safe, healthy and supportive environment and communities.”
Jolly has witnessed and engaged with these kinds of issues throughout her life, having, in her own words, “inherited a legacy of both reproductive violence and reproductive justice.” Since her teenage years, she has worked with HIV/AIDS activist organizations in Brooklyn, N.Y.; Detroit; and Jamaica. Her extensive scholarship focuses largely on the lived experiences of HIV-positive African American and Caribbean women. “Even though Black women have been at the heart of the struggle against reproductive injustices and HIV inequities, they remain excluded and deprioritized in HIV’s research, clinical trials and public health interventions,” she says, noting that Black women in the United States are about 15 times more likely to die of AIDS than are white women.
On the CHI panel, the inaugural members of BREHA each described how they had developed interests in reproductive justice. For both Talia Ward ’23 and Fiona Yohannes ’25, their research and activism began in high school and continued when they connected with Jolly at Amherst. Isabella Ahmad ’25 took Jolly’s Spring 2022 course “Black Women and Reproductive Justice in the African Diaspora” and was inspired to get certified as a birth doula. Ash Smith ’18’s understanding of issues of justice, privacy, autonomy and solidarity has been shaped by his experiences with psychiatric hospitalization, by a 2019 course with Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology Haile Eshe Cole and by working with Jolly as a research assistant.
This summer, Smith has had an on-campus internship in Amherst’s Archives and Special Collections, and other BREHA members have worked remotely, to advance the collective’s several interconnected projects, some of which began in 2021 and 2022. With assistance from BREHA summer intern Victoria Thomas ’25 and College librarians Stephanie Capsuto and Alana Kumbier, Smith is co-developing a database that “maps Black women’s experiences of reproductive injustice across time and space,” he says, “not only to document moments of harm, but also to illuminate how Black women’s critical responses to oppression unfolded generationally and geographically.”
Smith has been analyzing the Jamaica Gleaner newspaper’s coverage of the first 20 years of the HIV/AIDS crisis, and delving into a digital archive from the University of West Indies called “Making of Feminisms in the Caribbean.” Yohannes says she has “felt so empowered and felt so excited” to read through the newsletters of the Third World Women’s Alliance, archived in the Sophia Smith Collection of Women’s History at Smith College.
Much of Ahmad’s BREHA work has built upon Jolly’s 2021 interviews with leaders and participants in the Imbokodo HIV vaccine trial conducted in Sub-Saharan Africa—“trying to find follow-up questions and gauge themes for further research.” But Ahmad has been especially encouraged by the success of an additional, on-the-ground project this summer: teaming up with the Boston area’s Lucy Parsons Center and Birth Equity & Justice Massachusetts to solicit urgent help and supplies for Haitian and Latine migrant families in Taunton, Mass.
Looking ahead, the collective is considering how they might onboard and support new student members, and which guest speakers they might invite to campus. A recent discussion with Jamaican HIV/AIDS activist Ian McKnight has piqued Jolly and Smith’s interest in conducting an oral history with other organizers McKnight mentioned.
BREHA’s overarching goal, says Jolly, is “knowledge production and research-informed political action that is accessible to communities inside and outside of academia.”
Or, as Smith puts it: “It matters to me that my work is meaningful and has some kind of impact.”