‘Amazing, badass women’

Powerhouse dialogue at annual Ms. Foundation for Women event.

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Updated August 15

Jessica González-Rojas, the executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH), watched two colleagues face detainment by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). A NLIRH field staff coordinator with a work permit was exercising her First Amendment right outside an ICE office in Virginia. She was tackled and taken to a detention center in Arizona, where she was held for 40 days. 

In Texas, another NLIRH activist held a health fair in her front yard. “ICE came during the health fair and took her from her child, who was disabled,” González-Rojas said. “These are women who are fighting for reproductive justice, and putting themselves in harm’s way when doing so.”

González-Rojas told these stories, among others, during Tuesday’s sixth annual Ms. Foundation for Women end-of-summer gathering at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury. González-Rojas was the guest speaker, accompanied by Ms. Foundation president and CEO Teresa Younger, who engaged the group of about 50, dressed in their Vineyard best, for conversation and a Q and A about women’s worth, reproductive justice, feminism, and 2020. 

The Ms. Foundation is a New York–based nonprofit, and one of the first and largest women’s funds in the country. It has a deep commitment to women of color, diversity, and social justice. Women from all over the U.S., from Washington, D.C., to Atlanta, to Boston, New York, Mississippi, London, Chicago, Maryland — everywhere, gathered for Tuesday’s event. Many have seasonal and year-round ties to the Island. 

“Building connections, deepening relationships, and understanding the work is national,” Younger said of the event. She addressed the women who helped found the group over 45 years ago. She recognized past CEOs Sarah Gould and Anika Rahman, plus key foundation figures Susan Goldstein, Jocelyn Frye, Susan Dickler, and Heather Arnet — who brought the Ms. Foundation gathering to Martha’s Vineyard six summers ago.

Following a mix-and-mingle cocktail hour with bites by Black Sheep Mercantile, Younger introduced herself — she took over as Ms. Foundation president in 2014. “When people ask me what inspires me, it’s this,” Younger said. “This inspires me. Working with and being surrounded by amazing, badass women.”

Younger turned it over guest speaker González-Rojas, who’s been leading NLIRH for more than 12 years. “She’s been leading conversations around reproductive justice and where voices of women of color sit in those conversations,” Younger said. 

González-Rojas is from Queens, N.Y., and is a daughter of two immigrants. She wasn’t always involved in reproductive rights and health issues. She recalls being in Boston when she first felt the activist fire.

“I was picking up birth control and had the address of Planned Parenthood on a piece of paper,” González-Rojas said. “I walked past a crowd of people holding those horrible pictures of baby parts — which are all fake, by the way … They were screaming and spitting at me, and I didn’t understand why.” She soon realized the protesters thought she was having an abortion. “They created an activist that day,” González-Rojas said.

González-Rojas realized her identity, her life, her personal is political: “It drew me to NLIRH, where all these missions can intersect in one place.” 

The institute has offices in Florida, New York, Washington, D.C., Texas, and Virginia, advocating on the front lines for reproductive rights and justice. NLIRH strives to create a world choice for poor women, women of color, and transgender communities. The institute targets three areas: policy advocacy and laws, changing the cultural narrative, and leadership development and engagement. 

Younger carried the conversation over to feminism, referencing a film series the Ms. Foundation created called, “My Feminism Is …”

“We heard so many people say they weren’t feminists, so we pushed trying to redefine feminism, breaking out of gender-binary and offering more inclusion,” Younger said. González-Rojas is one of those people who doesn’t identify with the term. 

“I don’t use the word feminist,” González-Rojas said. “I think because it’s a frame used by white women. As a Latina, a dormant immigrant, I felt outside that framework.” She and Younger agree that critical, strategic conversation around feminism is crucial to create a more inclusive understanding of the term.

Younger asked González-Rojas if she had any thoughts looking toward the 2020 election, to which González-Rojas announced she’d be running for office in New York City. 

“This decision was super-recent, and Teresa was a thought partner in helping me make this decision,” she said. “I hate to leave something I love so much [NLIRH], but I’ve seen how having women of color in office changes the conversation.” 

Jocelyn Frye, an Obama administration alum and member of the Ms. Foundation board, closed the discussion. “I know all of the women here are engaged, and I want to say thank you,” she said. “These are difficult times, and the work is hard … we’re living in a moment I’m sure none of us thought we’d see. People trying to pit us against each other, dehumanize us. Even with all the hard work we’re doing and have been doing, I’m going to ask you to do more.” 

The gathering was sponsored by the Eastern Bank for the third year in a row. Bags by Cesta Collective were sold and displayed — a line of woven baskets made in Rwanda and finished in Los Angeles by women recently incarcerated, who have re-entered the economy. 

For more information on the Ms. Foundation for Women, visit forwomen.org.

*Updated to correct the caterer.