CO-FOUNDERS—Left, Bekezela Mguni, co-founder, visionary of Kinks, Locks & Twists conference with La’Tasha Mayes, co-founder, looking on.

New Voices of Pittsburgh: Women of Color for Reproductive Justice held its 6th annual “Kinks, Locks & Twists” conference, which has evolved into a three-day weekend and was held  March 6-9 on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University.

The event boasts three days of educating, motivating, dispensing personal empowerment, recognizing and celebrating champions of the movement and bringing greater awareness to the mission of the organization.

There were extensive discussions around the connections between the beauty culture, policy, media, the economy and environment.

“All of the work we do is based on human rights. We believe reproductive justice and environmental justice are pathways to human rights. We believe this intersection of environment and health is deeply connected, and overall, our cultural norms do not value the bodies of women,” said La’Tasha D. Mayes about New Voices Pittsburgh, the organization she co-founded and currently serves as the executive director of.

The 10-year-old organization, was born out of the desire of the founders to see some kind of space where a social change movement could be created which would be dedicated to the health and well-being of Black women and girls.  This mission is accomplished through leadership development, human rights and reproductive justice.  Over the past 10 years, New Voices has served more than 10,000 women of color through social change, activism, civic engagement and leadership development. Mayes said they “define reproductive justice as the human right of all women/people to control all choices about our bodies, sexuality, gender work and reproduction.”

Six years ago they began hosting a workshop, Kinks, Locks & Twists, during Women’s HERStory Month, the first two years was for women of color in Pittsburgh to discuss how their pursuit of elusive standards of beauty impacted their health and well being.  The dynamics of women of color and their hair served as the point of entry for women of color to enter the conversations about environmental and reproductive justice.

During the sixth year, conversations expanded to cover a more broad range of environment issues, from the high rate of asthma in some of Pittsburgh’s marginalized neighborhoods, to fracking in Pennsylvania, toxic hair products, make up and personal products; and how they relate to a host of reproductive cancers.

Conference coordinator and New Voices co-founder, Bekezela Mguni, and CEO Mayes were delighted with this first effort to expand the event. Mayes said a major highlight of the conference, and the piece that makes it standout from all the others, is “having the participation of some amazing, awesome, phenomenal national speakers from organizations such as the National NAACP, the Sierra Club, The National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, just to name a few.”

Both Mguni and Mayes agreed that the responses they received over the years, along with the clear interest of women in learning how the environment impacts them, their families and their communities, made an activity like this one an opportunity whose time had come.

The conference kicked off with a welcoming reception on March 6 at Engma Lounge.  The next morning, the opening Plenary was held on CMU’s campus. It was comprised of a panel of experts discussing  “Health, Beauty, Environment and  Local Sustainability Models in Communities of Color” and provided a conversation about, and took a look at, what some experts where doing to bring light to the connection between the beauty culture, policy, media, the economy and environment. Plenary speakers were: Simone Jhingoor, director of external communications at WHEDco, and co-founder and steering committee member of Jahajee Sisters out of New York City;  Celeta Hickman, an African-American historian, artist, African dance instructor, and  founder of the Ujamaa Collective of Pittsburgh;  Maritza Mosquera, artist, educator and community partner, who created  “Fracking the Body”—a concept wherein she uses art, and conversations with individuals about any type of surgeries they’ve had and then connects what they’ve been through with art and some potential causations; and Fred Browne, director of programming at Kingsley Association and Urban Green Growth Collaborative

Workshops for the day included: “Reproductive Justice 101” facilitated by Mayes; “Living Life Without DISease” by Kezia Ellison of Educating Teens about HIV/AIDS Inc.; “Home Based Self-Care/Understanding Ciycles & Cervical Self-Exams” by Aya de Chellis, New Voices Pittsburgh;  “Steps to a Better you!” by Brittany McBride, filmaker and visual artist.

The first day of the conference ended with an awards reception, also held on CMU’s campus.   Honorees were those who have been identified as having been committed to the Reproductive Justice Movement and committed to the health and well-being of Black women and girls.

Those recognized were: Dr. Morris E. Turner, medical director, Allegheny Reproductive HealthCenter University of Pittsburgh physicians—Voice of Courage; Jessica L. Byrd, manager of State Strategies of EMILY’S List, and co-founder, Women of Color HERStory Month—Voice of Justice; Ada Gay Griffin, vice president of Development, Three Rivers Youth-Advisory Council Member—Voice of Vision; Kathy J. Wilson, co-president National Organization for Women—East End Chapter—Voice of Wisdom; and Etta Cetera, co-founder, Let’s Get Free, and  co-founder, WWHAT’S UP Pittsburgh?—Volunteer Award.

“It is both an honor and a delight to be recognized in this way,” Turner said. “It is one thing to do this work, you find yourself doing it so long, and just when you think everyone takes for granted that you are committed to a certain cause,  then something like this comes along—recognition—and you really really appreciate it.”

Wilson said “I would have never looked at myself as someone who was wise, who others thought as wise, or actually held any answers, but when an organization acknowledges you in this way, it gives you pause to think, and you say to yourself perhaps the commitment and passion I’ve had to a cause and or the time investment has given you some bit of wisdom that can be shared with others.  I am blessed and honored to be able to do so.”

Saturday workshops included “Climate Change and its Impact on Communities of Color’ with  Jacqui Patterson, NAACP; “From My Plate to My Hair: Healthy Foods that Nourish Inside and Out” with Sheba Gittens, Hl*Klectic LLC.; “Land & Liberation—Racism in the Urban Farming Movement” by Celeta Hickman, Ujamaa Collective;  “Right to the City, Right to our Bodies”; a  workshop on the Gentrification of Yoga and its effects on Survivors of Sexual Violence by Roopa Singh of SAAPYA,  just to name a few.


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