APHA’s Women’s Caucus has a long history of sponsoring Annual Meeting sessions on raising women’s voices (often with the organization Raising Women’s Voices). This year, the two groups highlighted the importance of lifting the voices of marginalized people — women, people of color, LGBTQ* people — by giving them the support they need to succeed in grassroots organizations.

Byllye Y. Avery, founder of the Avery Institute for Social Change and the Black Women’s Health Imperative as well as co-founder of Raising Women’s Voices, noted that in the reproductive justice movement (which, as defined by SisterSong, intersects with other justice movements, including racial and immigration justice) there has been a push to lift up those who are disproportionately affected by discriminatory policies that relate to health and wellness. But those with the passion and the will to raise awareness, start nonprofit organizations and work to effect change often don’t have the business know-how to keep the wheels turning, she said.

“As the work gets hard, you’re going to feel put upon, so you need to pay yourself,” she said in the Monday morning Annual Meeting session. “People don’t realize it’s a business.”

So Raising Women’s Voices, with the guidance of their field organizer, reaches out to reproductive and other grassroots health organizations to assess those groups’ needs and to offer them the support to survive. For instance, those who are most amped up for the work may not know how to fill out the paperwork to obtain 501(c)(3) nonprofit status or how to maintain that status. They may have gathered people to be on a board of directors, but they haven’t met or agreed to best practices or done any fundraising. They may be missing important community connections to strengthen them as a nonprofit organization. They might not know how to even make an “ask” of potential donors.

And, as was the case for a group Avery worked with in Texas, they may be dedicated to getting adequate health care coverage for underserved populations, but they may be uninsured themselves.

As someone who’s worked in the reproductive justice movement (both professionally and as a volunteer), this blogger has seen the following situation all too often: the attitude that it should be a privilege to work yourself to the bone for no reward, as the cause is good and righteous and something you believe in. That’s why it was so heartening to hear Avery speak so candidly about developing activists’ leadership skills and offering them the support to continue to thrive.

“You get all burned out trying to do everything,” she told attendees. “Our activist culture is so thirsty for people who are able to speak out on (health care and access) from the grassroots, but they don’t have anything behind them.”

Especially impressive was Avery’s retelling of the birth of Trans Queer Pueblo, an organization that was borne of two other smaller organizations and led by undocumented queer-identified people of color. With a previous combined budget of $13,000, offering education and support to LGBTQ families in Arizona, under Raising Women’s Voices’ direction, the organizations are now combined and built out their infrastructure (including a donated house for dedicated office space). Now with an $85,000 budget, they are able to host a free clinic, provide continued community education and lead protests outside immigration detention centers in the area.

Avery did note, however, the importance of established organizations in the health and women’s rights fields to not come in with a savior complex. Building a culture that is inclusive is crucial, noted session presenter Cynthia Negron, who noted that she and other Latina activists did not feel welcome in traditional women’s health organizations due to a lack of childcare (or organizations refusing to welcome women with their children into their meeting spaces), a lack of bilingual resources, and a history of reproductive coercion or restricted choices for birth control options. Negron is a community organizer for the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights.

What is working best in new grassroots organizations might not be traditional. So for those who are hoping to lift up the voices of people who are marginalized — and to encourage marginalized people to lead such movements — traditional movements need to be ready to listen and learn.

“It helps a lot to go in and be a consultant to just sit in and be there. And we ask questions,” Avery said.

Learn more about Raising Women’s Voices.