By Jennifer L. Warren
NEWBURGH – “I believe activism is a way to make your life matter,” Loretta Ross passionately affirmed these words as she spoke to an attentive room full of people at SUNY Newburgh’s Kaplan Center Saturday afternoon. The “Meet and Greet Brunch” event, held by the Healthy Black and LatinX coalitions, led by Planned Parenthood Mid-Hudson Valley, attracted an appreciative crowd, many of whom walked away empowered after listening to the numerous messages the iconic activist delivered.
In addition to teaching groundbreaking courses on a term she helped dub, “Reproductive Justice,” as well as race and culture relations in this country, Ross has been passionately immersed in the activism field for over 50 years, engaging in hard dialogue and sometimes deprogramming tasks with rapists, convicts, clan members and a host of other challenging populations. Herself a survivor of rape, she elected to have her baby, even co-parenting with the rapist.
“I’ve seen a lot of stuff in my life, and it has all prepared me for building power while fighting for justice,” said Ross. “I’m in a time in my life where I get to speak the truth, and we are in some very dangerous times, where we are being ruled by some very angry white men who are really challenging democracy, and we have to stand up for human rights and against bigotry; we just don’t have time to play.”
Interjecting her dialogue with candid honesty and oftentimes humor, Ross pulled her listeners in with her charismatic appeal, at times “playing” around; however, the messages always remained serious and immediate. Outlining the specifics of reproductive justice as the basic rights a woman has when either pregnant or not (whether to have a child or not, facilities and help available and medical needs), she elaborated upon the roadblocks many women face with today’s presidential administration.
“It’s so hard for so many to achieve that basic justice,” said Ross. “So many don’t value that humanity.”
In addition to showing the challenges that confront us in today’s day and age as we try to secure basic rights and freedoms, she also reminded listeners of their own responsibility in effectively walking that line of diplomacy and game-changing activism during the process.
“We need to give up the pursuit of purity politics; we just can’t assume all people of our color are good and all those who are not are bad,” affirmed Ross. “We are also immersed in a ‘call out culture,’” (putting people on the spot with what they have done wrong). Continuing, “Honey, you are not even sure most of the time about what you want each day, as it changes all the time.”
Inciting laughter among the audience, Ross, smiling, took responsibility for this “call-out” misstep as well.
“I’m old enough to remember how we can disagree behind closed doors, but come together when we need to,” said Ross. “I’m learning to teach myself how to do this in order to help the Movement.”
Following her approximately one hour talk, guests had an opportunity to ask questions, directly engaging with Ross. One query was around there ever being a good-needed time to call someone out. Yet another centered upon a common theme of the morning-early afternoon, coming together and how it can be done.
“It’s really about amassing power and making ourselves wiser and stronger; we can’t make people who don’t have empathy understand; however, we can come together to overcome and continue to tell our stories,” smiled Ross. “It’s the only way we can make a difference, and look: as hard as unity can be, it’s absolutely needed….just try disunity.”
And once again, the message of personal responsibility in this quest to change the “oppressive norm” structure, including strategizing for what we ultimately want: justice, rippled throughout her words.
“There are people who will offend you and those who will kill you,” stressed Ross. “Learn to know the difference.”
Fifty plus years later Ross continues to practice what she preaches, “making her life matter.” Saturday, evidence of that potent activist spirit was alive and well in the City of Newburgh.
“I’m walking away with so much from this morning,” said Lana Williams-Scott, Director of Diversity Inclusion & Community Engagement for Planned Parenthood Mid-Hudson Valley, in her farewell remarks. “I have always believed knowledge is power, and I hope you all leave here with more of it today just as I did.”
This article originally appeared in the Hudson Valley Press.