Coalition-Building, Rural Organizing, and Academic Accountabilities: Letting Rural Women Take the Lead


Take a moment and view the stage–three scenes are set here. 

In the first scene, it’s the summer of 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic is at its peak, the presidential election of Joe Biden is just a few months away, and Black Lives Matter protests are making waves across the country. At the start of summer, a Black man named George Floyd was killed in Minnesota, a direct result of the excessive force deployed by white police officer Derek Chauvin. Within two weeks of Floyd’s death more than 2000+ BLM protests spread across the United States–and one of them just happens to be in Rocky Mount, Virginia (Burch et. al). A distinctly rural town, Rocky Mount’s population sits at just under five thousand and nearly 70% of that population is white. Yet when Brigette Craighead, Katosha Poindexter, and Malala Penn, three local Black women, plan a Black Lives Matter protest, hundreds of people show up, all of them a mix of different genders, ages, and races. Craighead, Poindexter, and Penn, who lived in Rocky Mount their entire lives, were shocked by both the crowd itself and the diversity within it. Craighead even pointed out that it “was more people than she had ever seen at one time in Rocky Mount” (Natanson).

The second scene takes place in Temple, Texas in October 2021. Though larger than Rocky Mount, Temple is still rural in both its culture and geographies–especially in comparison to its nearest urban center of Austin, Texas. And in Temple, Kendall Tinoco has just been banned from using the girl’s restrooms and locker rooms at her school. Though she has been using women’s facilities since she came out as transgender at age thirteen, teachers at her school now deny her the right, claiming that Tinoco should not be in either of those spaces while “‘actual girls’ are in there” (McNab). Tinoco takes to Instagram, where she and her friends call out the school and plan a transgender rights walkout for the following week. Though they initially only expected a handful of students to participate, hundreds of students ended up walking out and rallying around Tinoco. There was even support from people within the larger Temple community, who showed up to document the walk out and to support the students’ protest. As Tinoco noted, “the support was overwhelming–in a good way. I loved it” (McNab). 

The third and final scene shows a view from Topeka, Kansas in August 2022. At the capitol, votes are being tallied for the “Value Them Both” amendment, a piece of state legislation that significantly restricts abortion access in Kansas. This is one of many similar laws being voted on in the United States, all of them acting as a response to the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade in June 2022. However, the votes in Kansas are making it clear that this amendment will not pass. What is surprising is just how many of those pro-choice votes are coming from the state’s most rural places. In Osage County, 56% of voters reject the amendment and in Jackson County, 52% vote against. Similar numbers are present in many of the state’s rural counties, with margins that lie in significant opposition to voting patterns during the 2016 and 2020 elections (Bahl and Hrenchir). The amendment failed and for now, Kansas still has the right to choose. As Pamela Martinson, a deeply Catholic woman from Jackson County said: “It’s very simple. Being Catholic, I don’t believe in abortion for myself, but I feel women have a right to decide what happens to their bodies” (Bahl and Hrenchir). 

I set the stage of this article with these three scenes because they are not unique, but rather, they are representations of contemporary coalition building in rural spaces. In 2020 and beyond, there were Black Lives Matter protests in hundreds of rural and small towns across the United States (McCarty; Solliday; Robertson). Over the last decade, there has been a significant rise in LGBT+ events across rural America, as well as calls for providing trans-affirming healthcare in these same areas (Martin; Kenning; Gandy et. al). And in the urgencies of a post-Roe world, people are giving more attention to reproductive inequities in rural areas than ever before (Batstone; Carey). These are only a few ways that activism and coalition-building are deeply present in rural America. It’s easy to overlook rurality, because we’re constantly told the same myths: urban areas are progressive, while rural areas are conservative, and our best hope for radical change lies in liberal cities, not in the small towns whose presence is insignificant in the larger scope of social movements. These myths are easy to believe, proliferated by cultural and political tensions, and used to fan the flames of ever-increasing polarizing divides. When we believe these mythologies, we refuse accountability to rurality and the many ways working across cultural and geographical boundaries may lead us to new coalitional possibilities.  

This article is an invitation to listen and learn, with a particular focus on how rural organizations led by BIWOC (Black, Indigenous, Women of Color) can act as coalition. In giving attention to these organizations, and the rural women who lead them, I make calls and inquiries for academic accountability toward rural geographies, highlight how coalitional possibilities exist within these organizations, and posit inquiries about reimagining coalition within academic thinking. I position my thoughts on coalition around Jaquette Shade-Johnson and Phil Bratta’s offering in their introduction to Spark: A 4C4Equality Journal: “coalitions are not formed on merely shared ideology, but they must integrate difference and embodied experiences as they develop collaborative action that addresses oppression, exploitation, and discrimination to build more just and livable worlds” (Shade-Johnson and Bratta). I also consider Karma Chávez’s arguments in Queer Migration Politics about analyzing coalitional moments to witness how “activists draw resources toward building alternative rhetorical realities and possibilities for livable lives” (Chávez 9). I give attention to these arguments for more livable worlds, because in our current times the world feels deeply unlivable, especially for marginalized folks. Coalition-building is an answer to this, a practice of radically hoping in these unlivable times, in fighting against present realities to create more just and equitable worlds for all. These scholars also argue that coalition is about navigating differences and embodied experiences, about collaboratively working together to position more powerful rhetorical possibilities. I build on their ideas to argue that some of the best models for coalition-building lie in the rural spaces that rhetorical imaginaries have rarely considered. Organizations in these rural spaces are productively responding to present crises and policies, serving diverse communities whose needs are often overlooked, and powerfully acting as coalition in difficult times. 

Learning from these organizations comes first in unraveling tightly woven rural mythologies. In Critical Rural Pedagogy, Sharon Mitchler argues that rural is not “a static concept, but rather a dynamic, variable, and contested reality” (Mitchler 76). Our understandings of rurality should describe this complexity as well as acknowledge the ongoing boundary shifts within rural areas themselves, instead of only viewing these differences in relation to rural areas’ urban counterparts. In doing this, we ground our understandings in actual realities rather than in the presumptions of rural mythologies. Or, as Mitchler offers, we should “honor the multiplicities of peoples, cultural structures and contributions, and relevancy of the spaces called rural” (15). Through an expansive understanding of rurality, we open doors to moments of coalition-building and rhetorical possibilities beyond mythologies, offer productive means of shaping more livable worlds across cultural and geographical boundaries, and better answer to the calls of coalitional moments. According to Chávez, a coalitional moment is “when political issues coincide or merge in the public spheres in ways that create space to re-envision and reconstruct personal imaginaries” (8). Our present exigences demand we re-envision coalition-building across boundaries of difference, and rural organizations can act as a model for doing so. I am especially interested in rural organizing that answers to pressing traumas and marginalization of women across the spectrum. Women’s reproductive rights are more fraught than ever; transgender women and other queer women are being stripped of various agencies; immigrant and refugee women continually face backlash; and the struggles of BIWOC multiply at every turn. These inequities affect women in all geographic locales, but they are particularly prevalent in rural areas, where women have significantly less organizational, cultural, and political support than their urban counterparts. 

As such, in my analysis of our present coalitional moment, I look to two different organizations of rural organizing. The first is Yellowhammer Fund, a reproductive health organization dedicated to serving women in the Deep South. Yellowhammer Fund is a relatively new organization, which collates its structure and services around grassroots activism. The second organization is Rural Assembly, a group dedicated to building civic activities, like workshops, campaigns, advocacy roundtables, and a multitude of other initiatives, to marginalized populations in rural areas. Rural Assembly is a long-established organization with significant ties to national activisms and politics. 

Though the goals and methods of these two organizations differ, they are primarily led by rural BIWOC and primarily serve the needs of rural women, even as their missions encompass dimensions beyond rurality. Both organizations also represent forms of coalition-building situated in intersectional lived experiences and feminist praxis unique to rural areas. However, in acting as coalition, they act as models for rethinking academic theorizations of coalitional possibilities. In my analysis of Yellowhammer Fund and Rural Assembly, I contextualize their origins and services, outline how they rhetorically position and build coalition, and examine the feminist leadership teams that guide them. These organizations offer frameworks for coalitional potentials, serve as models for inclusive and equitable activisms, and imagine new rhetorical possibilities in enacting more just futures–and they do this in the face of dismissive political and cultural mythologies that do not consider rural geographies as livable worlds. In letting these rural women take the lead, we unravel rural activism mythologies just as much as we reimagine a multitude of coalitional possibilities. 

Rural Organizing as Coalition 

So far I have used coalition-building as an umbrella term to push for thinking and activities that break down boundaries of difference in cultivating more livable worlds. Before I look to Yellowhammer Fund and Rural Assembly as coalition and suggest their BIWOC-centered teams as productive models of coalitional feminist leadership, I further untangle perspectives on coalition. 

Though calls for coalition have been present in feminist rhetorics since the 1960s onward, Chandra Mohanty’s Feminism without Borders made waves by defining coalition outside of the middle-class, white-centered frameworks that dominated calls for coalitional sisterhoods in second and third-wave feminisms. In particular, Mohanty argues for understanding “politics of location…the historical, geographical, cultural, physic, and imaginative boundaries that provide the grounds for political definition and self-definition” (Mohanty 106). Coalition-building comes not in overlooking the politics of location to champion feminist sisterhoods, but in understanding, working within, or around these differences. As Mohanty says, “I have argued for a politics of engagement rather than a politics of transcendence” (122). I borrow from this thinking in my positioning of coalition-building, especially as I argue for coalition as pushing beyond cultural and geographical boundaries. Like Mohanty, I do not want these differences to be ignored or dismissed for promises of universalizing transcendence. The struggles that rural women face are deeply shaped by their embodied experiences within rural realities, experiences that may overlap with urban women, but often require more specific theories and actions to work through. When I call for more attention to rural geographies, unravel rural mythologies, and cast an analytical eye to BIWOC-centered rural organizing, I do so to engage with these differences. I offer Yellowhammer Fund and Rural Assembly as coalition because they are actively navigating these differences, both in rural areas themselves and in relation to their urban counterparts. In my invitation to consider the feminist leadership and rhetorical possibilities within these organizations, I push for academic accountability and act alongside Mohanty’s reconstruction of coalition around the politics of location. 

For more contemporary views of coalition, I turn to Pritha Prasad, who follows Mohanty in critiquing coalitional rhetorics of the past by offering responsive theorizations of coalition-building for presents and futures. In “‘Coalition is Not Home’: From Idealized Coalitions to Livable Lives,” Prasad calls out “coalitional gestures”–well-meaning but empty rhetorical moves that emerge as a response to violence (particularly racialized violence) but do little to work against these oppressions (Prasad). She argues that these gestures too often exist temporarily, rarely imagining coalition as sustainable beyond kairotic moments, which positions coalition around false forms of collectivity, rather than around reciprocal means of ongoing work. As she asks, “what would it look like to shift from idealized coalitions towards coalitional structures and modes of collectivity that are reciprocal, materially-grounded, and do not depend primarily upon racialized violence for exigence” (Prasad). Though I have positioned rural organizing as a significant model for responding to current political polarizations, it also models how to move through a multitude of coalitional moments. Yellowhammer Fund and Rural Assembly offer the coalitional structures Prasad calls for: they are materially grounded in the needs, wants, and exigencies of rural women and offer coalition before, during, and after crises. Similarly, they structure collectively around imaginative, rhetorical possibilities rather than in response to violence (though sometimes these possibilities do mitigate violence). Further and finally, they enact coalition through actionable gestures of change rather than empty gestures of false collectivity. In other words, they act as coalition just as much as they aim to create and sustain coalition as a “continual and committed practice” in cultivating more just and livable worlds (Prasad). 

I build off of these scholars as well as others (Chávez; Glenn and Lunsford; Shade-Johnson and Bratta) to consider both the theoretical and actionable potentials in learning from each organization. When unpacking the potential theorizations of rural organizing, I consider what rural organizing might teach us about navigating difference, what rhetorical possibilities look like in these organizations, and what it means to be a coalitional feminist leader. Action, however, is just as important as theory because without it, our scholarly work is an empty coalitional gesture, akin to the type of false forms of collectivity that Prasad critiques or even the transcendent calls for sisterhood that Mohanty undoes. When considering the actionable potentials of rural organizing, I consider how coalition is built through action, how these actions may serve pasts, presents, and futures, and how these actions are reflections of coalitional feminist leadership. In analyzing Yellowhammer Fund and Rural Assembly, I also practice and challenge others to consider academic accountability, to theorize and act ourselves, alongside these coalitions of rural organizing. 

I posit academic accountabilities alongside Karma Chávez’s arguments on accountability, doing work “in a way that is deeply accountable to the communities I work with, the communities whose voices I want to engage, whose voices I want to work with to build theory” (Johnson). I feel academic accountability toward rurality, because I am both personally and professionally tied to these geographies: I grew up in a rural area, teach rural students, and run literacy programs for rural communities. As such, I continually act in service to the many and varied potentialities of rurality. However, my practice of academic accountability also comes in challenging others to see these same potentials, or in pushing them to imagine potentials that I have not yet envisioned. There is powerful rhetorical possibility within these spaces, in rural organizing that acts as coalition in polarizing political times, and in pushing ourselves beyond comfortable cultural and geographical boundaries. As Chávez notes, “what we do with ideas is all about accountability” – so take these ideas about the theoretical and actionable potentials of rural organizing and find ways to make them matter to you (Johnson).

The Yellowhammer Fund 

Though the Yellowhammer Fund has made headlines over the last few years, this reproductive justice organization is still relatively new, as it was only founded in 2017. Its organizational base is in Tuscaloosa, AL, but they offer services to all corners of the Deep South in the United States. These services include financial and practical assistance for any and all aspects of reproductive health, from basic medical procedures to abortions. They deliver emergency contraceptives, safe sex kits, childcare supplies (diapers, baby wipes, etc.), and menstruation supplies across Alabama, Mississippi, and the Florida panhandle. They also generally advocate for reproductive healthcare at local, state, and national levels. Until recently, the Yellowhammer Fund also acted through a dedicated abortion fund and owned a rural abortion clinic. However, these latter two services have been temporarily paused, a result of Alabama’s recent abortion ban–a trigger bill that went into place when the Supreme Court overturned Roe V. Wade in June 2022 (The Yellowhammer Fund). Despite the pause to these services, their leadership team promises to “serve our communities in the best capacity in our new post-Roe reality” (Miller). 

Though the Yellowhammer Fund serves women across the Deep South of the United States, they most significantly serve rural women. Part of this is due to the obvious geography: nearly half of the nation’s rural population lives in the Deep South (Fields et. al). But another part comes in how they rhetorically position their stance on reproductive justice as an invitation toward inclusive and equitable worlds. The Yellowhammer Fund cites SisterSong (the Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective) in their definition of reproductive justice: “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities” (“Reproductive Justice”). Following this definition, one founded on the theorizations of women of color, Yellowhammer Fund collates its services around eight primary concerns: abortion, abortion stigma, sex education, birth justice, criminalization of pregnancy, self-managed abortion, and access to healthcare. In their outline of these concerns, they cite specific policies and laws that surround these issues, discuss how these issues affect women in rural vs. urban areas, and give attention to how these issues affect BIWOC, trans women, and other women who are variously marginalized. They also issue demands with each of these concerns, about specific policy changes, economic funding, and cultural shifts that are needed to enact reproductive justice. These demands offer rhetorical possibilities for more livable worlds, or in their words, “a society in which reproductive decisions are made free from coercion, shame, or state interference, a society in which individuals and communities have autonomy in making healthy choices regarding their bodies and their futures” (The Yellowhammer Fund). By rhetorically positioning their beliefs in this way, the Yellowhammer Fund builds coalition from the ground up.

Their understandings of reproductive justice pay homage to women of color, a resistance to the whiteness that dominates many narratives of reproductive health. Within their primary concerns, they give nuanced attention to reproductive issues across boundaries of cultural and geographical differences by calling attention to the inequities between rural vs. urban healthcare as well as acknowledging how reproductive healthcare often fails BIWOC, trans women, and other multiply marginalized women. And further, they position coalition by understanding it as means for building more just futures. This rhetorical vision of coalition feels akin to how Chávez presents coalition as “a present and existing vision and practice that reflects an orientation to others and a shared commitment to change. Coalition is the ‘horizon’ that can reorganize our possibilities and the conditions of them” (146). Coalition-building exists within the Yellowhammer Funds’ present beliefs as well as in the rhetorical possibilities of futures grounded in reproductive justice. When they give attention to the maternal mortality rates of Black women, demand a full range of healthcare services in rural areas, call for more inclusive sex education curriculums, or make any number of similar rhetorical moves, they are enacting coalition as Chávez describes, as a shared commitment across difference, as a coalescing vision and practice, and as an imaginative reorganization of our present horizons into more livable worlds. 

Coalition-building is also present in the actions that Yellowhammer Fund takes. The fund is committed to “community education and empowerment, policy advocacy, and the development of systems of mutual aid” (The Yellowhammer Fund). Mutual aid, in particular, is an inherently coalitional system, which asks people to collaboratively answer to the wants and needs of others. It also works as a coalitional method for building communities across differences. As Dominiguez et. al note, “Mutual aid is different than empathy…it implies a practice tied to acts of solidarity and a desire to overcome structural injustice through social transformation and action” (Dominiguez et al 7). The Yellowhammer Fund’s systems of mutual aid are how they supply their various services; how they maintain delivery systems across the most rural areas of the Deep South; and how they act as coalition by reciprocally aiding a number of different communities. They also build coalition by working with “partners in action,” six other grassroots organizations in the Deep South, some which focus on similar missions of reproductive justice and others that focus on assisting LGBT+, BIPOC, or immigrant women across rural and urban divides. As their website notes, “creating a racially and economically just society means building strong relationships and uplifting our allies as we work together” (The Yellowhammer Fund). Their actions build coalition in multiple ways, from mutual aid that offers assistance across various differences to cultivating partnerships across a “multiplicity of subjectivity, agency, and politics” (Chávez 147). These inclusive and equitable actions reflect Yellowhammer Fund’s feminist leadership team. 

Run by a group of four women, one non-binary individual, and one man, members of Yellowhammer Fund’s leadership team have shaped the organization’s missions around their own embodied experiences. This is present in how Jenice Fountain’s struggles as a single Black mother continue to shape her attention to the specific needs of BIWOC, how the financial burden of Kelsea McLaine’s abortion shaped her desires for economic equalities in reproductive care, or how Denni Arjona’s childhood in border communities shapes their work with immigrant women (The Yellowhammer Fund). Each member of their team has a story, which is not only highlighted within the organization’s priorities but also extended, so that their stories speak across a variety of cultural and geographical boundaries, to converse with those whose stories are both like and unlike their own. They build coalition by being accountable to their own identities and experiences, by rhetorically positioning these experiences within larger conversations on equity and inclusion, and by collaboratively enacting coalition throughout all facets of their organization. Prasad notes that coalitions are a “sustained, ongoing alignment of one’s own self-understandings, interests, and goals with other oppressed groups” (Prasad). The organizational team of the Yellowhammer Fund represents feminist leadership as settled in self-understanding and beyond, where coalition-building transforms them from individuals into a productive and responsive collective. 

Rural Assembly  

Located in Whitsburg, Kentucky, Rural Assembly was first started in 2007 as both a coalitional branch of the Center for Rural Strategies and as an individual organization itself (“Rural Assembly”). Rural Assembly is dedicated to teaching, developing, and organizing assembly activities across rural America: such as campaigns, roundtables, workshops, action groups, media profiles. The Rural Assembly also runs a series of programming dedicated to specific issues in rural areas (such as Rural Journalism Collective, Connecting to Our Heartlands, Pathways to Repair, Rural Youth Catalyst, and more) and moderates several rural-centered media platforms (such as The Daily Yonder, Everywhere Radio, Drawing Resilience, etc.). Rural Assembly also holds a yearly conference, Rural Assembly Everywhere, where rural leaders come together to share ideas, hold discussions, and coalesce across differences. These are just a few of the ways Rural Assembly builds “more opportunity and better policy for rural communities” (Rural Assembly). While Yellowhammer Fund identifies as a grassroots organization, Rural Assembly’s scope is greater in longevity, size, and funding. It has significant support from the Center of Rural Strategies, has a large variety of partnerships with other rural-centered organizations, and the investment of several key political figures. As such, this organization acts as coalition in wide-reaching ways. 

Rural Assembly acts as coalition in part because they explicitly identify as a coalition; this is most obvious in how they rhetorically position rurality. As their mission offers, rural America is “more than the convenient stereotypes and stories that dominate public discourse. It is a place of innovation, tight-knit communities, and civic participation” (Rural Assembly). Instead of giving into these stereotypes, Rural Assembly wants to “draw the connections between rural and its counterparts, to name the roads, fibers, and futures that connect us” (Rural Assembly). They see their work as a productive means to combat the issues facing rural areas and for building connections between rural and its counterparts. 

By rhetorically acknowledging the importance of these differences, Rural Assembly understands that “coalitions ultimately need people to relate and connect to each other without erasing difference and differential experiences” (Shade-Johnson and Bratta). I have echoed these same ideas throughout my argument, that coalition is about undoing rural mythologies, about seeing possibilities within the rurality, and about reframing those possibilities for imaginative and expansive futures. Within Rural Assembly, I am especially interested in how these coalitional moves are led by and directed toward rural women. Although Rural Assembly is not specifically dedicated to rural women (in the same way Yellowhammer Fund is not), their organization is primarily led by women, the Rural Assembly Conference has featured almost exclusively women speakers, and their various programming is run by or acts in service to rural women. In other words, even if they do not explicitly name it, the rhetorical positioning of their mission collates around rural women. 

These same ideas echo in the expansive actions that Rural Assembly takes, especially in how it understands that “real change moves at the pace of relationships” (Rural Assembly). Rural Assembly runs all their present, in-progress, and potential programming through four principles of reciprocal, ongoing action: 

  • Gathering, creating a web of connection between rural people, places, and issues.
  • Mobilizing, cultivating and amplifying diverse rural voices. 
  • Advocating, building bridges between rural leaders and national platforms. 
  • Acting, providing tools and media support for rural-led campaigns. 

These principles build coalition by concentrating efforts around the direct concerns of rural people; by making connections between cultural and geographical boundaries; and by giving rural folks the tools they need to take the lead. In their #RuralWomenLead Profile Series, this means making ample space for BIWOC to share their commitments to change and community building. In their Rural Youth Catalyst program, this looks like granting space to and validation of LGBT+ youth. And in their Drawing Resilience project, it comes from giving attention to rural leaders (mostly women and LGBT+ folks) who are “staying in the work, in relationship, in community, even amid deep divisions, systemic injustices, and social and economic challenges” (Rural Assembly). The prioritization of these reciprocal, ongoing principals are present in these programs and in Rural Assembly’s in-progress projects. As such, they build coalition through open and sustainable forms of action, a continued effort of “staying in the work” to cultivate more equitable futures. 

This sustainable focus on coalition is especially present in the Rural Assembly’s leadership team. Though a branch of the much larger Center for Rural Strategies, Rural Assembly is primarily run by a team of five women and one man. What is significant about these leaders is just how much work they are doing in service to rural areas–as their positions in Rural Assembly tends to be one of only many. For instance, Tyler Owens also works for the National Congress of American Indians, Kim Phinney does work for Rural and Native Initiatives, and Joel Cohen does work with Rural LISC. Other members of their team also hold a variety of positions, practicing feminist leadership in Rural Assembly, the Center for Rural Strategies, and a handful of other organizations. They are dedicated, in both specific and expansive ways, to serving rurality on multiple fronts (Rural Assembly). Prasad notes that “coalition should be understood not just as an activist response to an issue or context, but a life-affirming practice” (Prasad). The leadership team of Rural Assembly represent feminist praxis in building coalition not only as a response to the contexts of this organization but as life-affirming practices that carry them to many and varied organizations (Rural Assembly). They build coalitions both inside and outside of the Rural Assembly and continually work toward the goals of cultivating more livable worlds for rural peoples across a variety of boundaries and positions.

Following Rural Women’s Leadership     

What is notable about Yellowhammer Fund and Rural Assembly is that they are primarily (though not exclusively) led by women of color–women who are building inclusionary spaces in rural communities, spaces that urban America rarely imagines exists in these rural regions. As the scholars I have referenced throughout this work have noted, women of color have always been coalitional leaders, but too often, calls for coalition ignore their contributions and dismiss the theoretical and actionable potentials of letting them take the lead. Scholarship might gesture to women of color in theory, it might reiterate their arguments, and it might call attention to the inequities they face, but there’s a difference between borrowing from women of color and in building coalitions alongside them. I echo Mohanty, Chávez, and Prasad by calling attention to these insufficiencies in coalition-building, because I do not want my perspective as a white academic to supersede the arguments these scholars, as well as other scholars of color, have made about building inclusionary coalitions across academic and activist spaces. Just as much, I want my analysis of the BIPOC feminist leadership teams at the center of these rural organizations to highlight the significant contributions these women of color have made within the rural spaces they occupy. I emphasize their leadership because within it, there are a multitude of possibilities for imagining and enacting powerful forms of coalition building. 

Understanding women of color’s power as leaders is a move toward academic accountability. Within both academic and activist contexts, there is a time and place to step up and be generative within leadership, but there is also a time and place to step back, to understand that feminist coalitions are built through responding to the leadership of those outside of the self. In rural areas, which are so often mythologized as lost causes, it is especially important to acknowledge feminist leaders whose lives and activisms resist dominant narratives of homogeneity. This call for academic accountability is twofold: as a white academic deeply concerned with rurality, my scholarship, teaching, and activisms have been significantly influenced by knowing when to find power in the leadership, especially in those whose positionalities differ from my own–an academic accountability that I try to continually embody as praxis. I also believe that those within the academy, across our many positionalities and agendas, could greatly benefit from turning further attention to rurality and models of BIPOC feminist leadership within these geographies. Prasad notes that in an age of corporate and institutional misappropriation of anti-racist ideas, solidarity often comes in the form of “abstract rhetorical gesture rather than a material and systemic intervention” (Prasad). I call attention to the women of color at the center of these two organizations to resist abstract rhetorical gestures, to view their leadership as a model of material and systemic intervention within rural spaces, and to build theory and actions alongside them, as we all learn how to make the world more livable for everyone. 

In other words, rural women taking the lead means BIWOC take the lead, trans and other queer women take the lead, disabled women take the lead, and immigrant and refugee women take the lead, because it is only in understanding and learning from these differences that we enact coalition. Coalescing across differences cannot exist without inclusionary theories and actions, and in calling for academic accountability throughout this work and, in the following conclusion, I invite readers to consider the significant ways coalition has been formed by, continues to be pushed by, and should be led by marginalized women in a multitude of ways.  

A Call for Academic Accountabilities 

In their key concept statement on coalition, Cheryl Glenn and Andrea Lunsford offer that “the ‘co’ in coalition is key for us because it invokes more than one: in it we hear doubling and redoubling along the reverberations of other key words beginning with ‘co’: collaboration, coordination, cooperation” (Glenn and Lunsford 11). My analysis demonstrates the many ways these rural organizations reverberate with various dimensions of “co” in acting as coalition: how they rhetorically position coalition, how their actions build coalition, and how their diverse leadership teams are centered in a feminist praxis of coalition. Coalition starts here, in writing this scholarship, in reading this article, and in understanding how to “turn our attention(s) to our own house” (Johnson). Chávez notes that “one of the reasons why a lot of organizing and activist communities are so anti-academics being in their space at all, let alone building theory from their ideas, is because academics have been historically and notoriously completely unaccountable to the communities that they study” (Johnson). I conclude by calling for academic accountabilities in learning from rural organizing, in letting rural women take the lead, and in reverberating across various dimensions of “co” within our own work.

I am particularly interested in imagining theory and action as academic accountability to rural areas. One way of doing so comes from direct, interpersonal measures: undo notions of rural mythologies by listening to rural women, especially rural BIWOC, following diverse leadership, and donating to rural organizing as a coalescing investment across differences. The Yellowhammer Fund and Rural Assembly are certainly smart places to begin with these efforts, but rural organizing exists in all corners of the United States. Do some research, discover what rural issues speak most to you, and put your time and money where your words are.      

These are the beginning steps of building academic accountability to rural areas, interpersonal measures that may guide readers in creating more significant and sustainable partnerships between academic positionalities and rural geographies. There’s more to imagine beyond these direct measures (though direct measures are always needed), because academic accountability involves moving beyond interpersonal relationships–it asks us to bring theory and action into our own academic homes. In my own academic home, I’ve worked with the Nebraska Writing Project to participate in and plan initiatives that build bridges between rural and urban educators across the state. These initiatives begin as conversations across differences and often, they are sustained by listening to, learning from, and letting rural teachers take the lead. I have also supported students as they have participated in the Rural Fellows program, which partners undergraduate students with rural communities to work on projects defined by wants, needs, and exigencies of rural communities themselves. In my personal academic accountability, I have worked with rural LGBT+ organizations, worked in rural archives, and continually draw attention to rurality as a space of possibility. I continue to do so now, in calling for more individual and collective academic accountability in letting rural women take the lead. 


The examination of rural organizing I have offered invites and imagines a multitude of coalitional paths in undoing rural mythologies; it positions rhetorical possibilities in coalescing across differences; it offers reciprocal and sustainable actions for building coalition; and draws attention to models of BIPOC feminist leaders, whose dedication to rurality is both individually and collectively grounded in building more livable worlds. For me, these theories and actions manifest in my scholarship and pedagogy in a multitude of ways, in anything from writing articles that continually illuminate rurality as akin to possibility, to designing classrooms where students interrogate their own politics of location. For others, this examination of rural organizing may hold a litany of other potentialities. 

The assertion I am making within this work is less about offering a specific conclusion and more about inviting readers toward imaginative possibilities. This invitation asks you to undo your notions of rural mythologies; to research and learn about the issues facing women and other marginalized individuals in rural areas within your own geographies; to listen to, learn from, and work with rural leaders in these same geographies; and to understand academic accountability as a sustained praxis of building coalitions across cultural and geographical differences. These coalitions should be responsive to our present coalitional moment, but they should also offer rhetorical possibilities toward more livable worlds for all. This is how we resist, how we hope, and how continually reverberate with the many possibilities that the “co” within coalition entails. I featured these rural organizations and their BIWOC feminist leadership as models for acting as coalition in this way, but I conclude with a final inquiry, one which I hope leads readers into possibility: What coalitional theories and actions, as well as personal and collective praxis, merit space within our academic homes?

Works Cited

Bahl, Andrew and Tim Hrenchir. “‘That split is decisive’: Abortion amendment in Kansas fails, with unexpected help from rural Kansas voters.” The Topeka-Capitol Journal, 7 August 2022.

Batstone, Kristen. “The Loss of Roe Could Hinder Contraceptive Access in Rural Communities.” The Century Foundation, 29 July 2022.

Burch, Audra D.S. and Weiyi Cai, Gabriel Gianordoli, Morrigan McCarthy, and Jugal K. Patel. “How Black Lives Matter Reached Every Corner of America.” The New York Times, 13 June 2020.

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Coalitional Accountability for Feminist Rhetoricians in a Post-Roe World

Introduction: Post-Roe Exigence for Feminist Rhetorical Action

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to repeal Roe v. Wade and effectively end a person’s right to an abortion has led to an influx of national (i.e., NARAL), regional (i.e., Midwest Access Coalition), and state-based (i.e., WI Abortion Fund) organizations working to ensure abortion access. The polarizing impact of this decision calls for coalition building across groups that work toward gender, racial, disability, criminal, and religious justice to reinstate these key rights to bodily autonomy, and feminist scholars should be a part of these collaborations. For feminist rhetorical scholars, this moment offers an unprecedented exigence to work across difference (Cagle) and determine how we might “coalesce with other groups working toward social justice” in order “to create coalitions situated in lived experiences and feminist praxis” (Matzke, Maraj, Clark-Oates, and Rankins-Robertson). We view reproductive justice (RJ) as a successful framework fostering coalition building and advocating for the most marginalized reproductive bodies, and we believe that adopting a feminist scholar-activist approach may support current reproductive justice coalition aims.  

Coalition building has been imperative to reproductive and sexual health movements well beyond the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to repeal Roe v. Wade. For instance, coalitions like the “Army of Three” consisting of Pat Maginnis, Lana Phelan Kahn, and Rowena Gurner, which formed in 1964, were essential to ensuring the right to have a safe and legal abortion. Yet, it wasn’t until 1994, thirty years later, that the term “reproductive justice” came to be. The term’s introduction ultimately led to the creation of SisterSong, the organization credited with creating and advancing the reproductive justice movement, which went beyond a reproductive rights framework by defining reproductive justice as the “human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities” (n.p.). To date, SisterSong remains the leader in reproductive justice organizing and coalition building. We overview the history of reproductive justice in the U.S. in order to emphasize caution to those who may unknowingly adopt a reproductive justice framework to their teaching/research/service without accounting for the bodies and histories that have shaped and informed this coalitional force. Feminist rhetoricians should and rightly will take interest in issues of access to reproductive health care, yet to do so without attending to the histories and labor of the BIPOC-led movement does a disservice to its well-documented coalition building success.

To respond to that concern, we evoke the concept of “accountability” as a necessary practice that addresses the competing sociopolitical factors and positionalities that surround reproductive care and advocacy. Accountability, for us, requires critical awareness of the histories that have shaped community-focused processes and mandated more public outcomes and assessments of our scholarly work beyond traditional feminist rhetorical research outcomes like books, articles, and presentations. We argue for four processes of accountability when engaging in coalitional RJ work: inclusive listening (Baker-Bell; Crenshaw; Martinez; McCoy; Ratcliffe; Fishman and Rosenberg), reciprocal action (Alvarez; Riley Mukavetz; Opel and Sackey; Shah), embodied risk taking (Cedillo, et al.; Tetreault), and reflective recommitment (Diab, et al.; Harper). By using these practices iteratively to ground reproductive justice work, feminist scholars can consider how to contribute to broad notions of increasing local, state, and/or national reproductive justice and how to remain accountable to the Black women and other activists who have been leading this fight for decades and to those most affected by reproductive issues in their own communities. 

In this article, we illustrate accountable feminist rhetorical practice through a storying approach, narrating moments from our RJ work, which has included storytelling, lobbying, legislative research and training, and more (though not all are detailed here)–all done in partnership with long-term activists across the country. Following a review of literature that situates our work within feminist rhetorical studies and defines accountability, we discuss and story each of the four processes of accountability listed above, sharing how we, particularly as cis white women, have included accountability within our own work and, through a visual heuristic, how others might enact these processes as well. Throughout, we argue that to engage feminist rhetorics in the social and material concerns of our day, we must center accountability and shift discussions from institutional critique to responsible community action. Ultimately, we share how the act of being accountable serves and supports coalition building in reproductive advocacy organizing. 

Feminist Rhetorics, Reproductive Justice, and Accountability

We draw on feminist rhetorical scholarship that values lived experience, multiple ways of knowing/doing, and a commitment to amplify stories that have been erased or marginalized. Feminist rhetorics has been paramount in creating legitimacy for feminist projects spanning: recovery (Glenn; Royster), mentoring (Eble and Lewis Gaillet), digital rhetorics (DeVoss; Frost and Haas), Black feminism (Browdy; Carey; Kynard), and more. The uptake of feminist rhetorical studies has also led to interdisciplinary scholarship such as: embodiment (Knoblauch and Moeller), gender and sexuality (VanHaitsma; Licona and Chávez; Rhodes), fat rhetorics (Manthey), and motherhood (Osorio; Vinson). In sum, feminist rhetorical approaches have enabled scholars to expand who, what, and how they study to better account for the lived realities of people of marginalized genders.

Given the embrace of more interdisciplinary approaches, coupled with contemporary threats harming bodily autonomy, feminist rhetoricians have aligned their scholarship more explicitly with a reproductive justice framework, including Heather Adams on rhetorical shame and blaming within reproductive health, Sara DiCaglio and Lori Beth De Hertogh’s special issue on futures of feminist health literacy, Kimberly Harper’s work linking Black motherhood to unjust police violence, and Sharon Yam on visualizing birth stories. Collectively, these scholarly contributions have made space for rhetorical scholarship to contribute to contemporary and historical study related to discursive issues impacting reproductive bodies–shaping the subfield commonly referred today as rhetorics of reproductive justice or RRJ.  

Rhetorics of reproductive justice is defined “as the study of how discursive activities mediate individuals, groups, and communities as they work to address the ‘intersecting oppressions’ and ‘power systems’ (SisterSong) that influence reproductive bodies and related healthcare policies” (Novotny and De Hertogh 375). We appreciate the scope of this definition and its intentional linkage between RRJ scholarship and social activism. Yet, we are concerned by the lack of discussion around the stakes by which one may, even unintentionally, appropriate reproductive justice for their own scholarly advancement. Similar concerns about academic use have been offered up by rhetorical scholars. For instance, John Gagnon and Maria Novotny write about using personal and/or trauma stories as a form of data scholars can analyze and ultimately “use” to support their research claims. They call for changes to the “limited and limiting paradigm” where “trauma stories are institutionally exploited and commodified as research narratives, circulated largely to the benefit of the system” (Gagnon and Novotny 497). We, too, echo similar concerns about paradigms that protect the academic over the individual and/or community in RRJ. And we find similar lines of concern with the blind use of a reproductive justice framework within feminist rhetoric scholarship and caution against its use when connected only to scholarly purposes.

Listening to reproductive justice movement leaders informs our caution concerning feminist rhetoricians’ use of this framework. For instance, in tracing the origins of the term “reproductive justice,” Loretta Ross explains that “reproductive justice was never meant to replace the reproductive health (service provision) or reproductive rights (legal advocacy) frameworks. Instead, it was an organizing concept intended to amplify and shed light on the intersectional forms of oppression that threaten Black women’s bodily integrity” (290-291). Ross’s words serve as a reminder about the purpose and intentions of reproductive justice, underscoring how it is intentionally designed as an intersectional framework that dissects and critiques systems of oppression through praxis. Reproductive justice praxis “puts the concept of reproductive justice action by elaborating the connection between activism and intersectional feminist theory” (Ross 287). Embracing a praxis orientation can prove challenging for feminist rhetoricians as it demands situating the aims of one’s scholarship beyond more traditional forms and into more community-engaged, public, even critical-creative forms of scholarly action. Additionally, reproductive justice as a praxis takes time to produce and document, both of which are often antithetical to more traditional and institutional Western colonial academic models.

We sit with these tensions and raise them for readers to contemplate the practices that may best guide feminist rhetorical use of reproductive justice as praxis. For Megan and Maria, who are both cis white women who have been invested in issues of reproductive justice for over a decade, we rely upon accountability as a guiding practice to best address not just the aims of feminist rhetorical work related to reproductive justice but accountability as a practice that helps ensure proper use and outcomes of our RJ feminist rhetoric work. The work we describe later in this piece is explicitly shaped by long-term reproductive justice leaders in the community, not the university–following the lead of Black feminist scholars like Angela Davis and Audre Lorde to remain accountable to those who are most affected by, in this case reproductive, injustice in our communities.   

Accountability is a concept with its own histories and trajectories. Patricia Hill Collins writes extensively about valuing intersectional experiences as exercising accountability to social change, explaining “although Black feminist thought originates within Black women’s communities, it cannot flourish isolated from the experiences and ideas of other groups” (41). Accountability is an independent practice that does not reassert the individual experience/need but a more universal/communal experience/need. Hill Collins enforces this point when quoting Sonia Sanchez who states: “‘I’ve always known that if you write from a black experience, you’re writing from a universal experience as well…I know you don’t have to whitewash yourself to be universal’” (Hill Collins 41). Black feminist thought produces a practice of accountability that invites “groups who are engaged in similar social justice projects… [to] identify points of connection that further social justice projects” (Hill Collins 41). This practice of accountability can also support coalition building. 

Adopting Hill Collins’ approach to accountability requires a critical consciousness and awareness of one’s embodied privileges and purviews. Accountability requires that we do not assume a singular reproductive experience nor privilege a particular reproductive need over others. For instance, reproductive justice work that fails to include trans persons and perspectives should not be claimed as work upholding reproductive justice aims. Reproductive justice work must be intersectional in that it accounts for multiple embodied experiences, including race, ethnicity, dis/ability, sexuality and class to name a few. Additionally, reproductive justice work must account for reproductive bodies beyond access to abortion services and should embrace the multi-pronged tenets of SisterSong’s reproductive justice definitional framework. These examples illustrate the need to adopt a critical consciousness to question who and what our social change work accounts for. We also must account for the historical, structural, and system inequities that produce ourselves and the world around us. Ann Russo’s “praxis of accountability” invites “a process of scrutiny” that is “not about calling out individual or organizational failures as anomalies, but rather about making visible the fault lines of structural inequities that distort and undercut the relational possibilities for individual and social action and transformation” (10). These are critical inclusions to any practice of accountability, particularly so when accounting for the multiple bodies, positionalities, experiences, and needs in reproductive justice. 

For us, practicing accountability rests on four iterative processes: inclusive listening, reciprocal action, embodied risk taking, and reflective recommitment. We propose that using these processes, which we define and illustrate next, can enable feminist scholars to consider more critically how each step of their RJ work is accountable to broader communities, taking a coalitional rather than individualistic approach to their scholarship and activism.   

Approaches to Accountability in Two Reproductive Justice (RJ) Projects

In what follows, we story accountability practices by offering examples from our own reproductive justice (RJ) work, using moments from our projects to illustrate what coalitional work might look like for feminist rhetoricians. Specifically, we share moments of our work that align with the accountability processes we list above: 

  1. Inclusive Listening
  2. Embodied Risk Taking
  3. Reciprocal Action
  4. Reflective Recommitment 

Additionally, we have created the following heuristic for considering how to work through these processes.

 Though both our narratives and the heuristic offer a linear approach, we recognize that RJ work rarely happens in such a fashion, but we didn’t want to clog up the graphic with a million extra arrows. Take these with a grain of salt and understand that your version of these practices is going to happen according to who you talk with in your community, what you learn about specific needs and goals, and how you, in your own positionality, can move forward to contribute to (likely) already built coalitions and expand capacity for RJ activists. Our stories aim to showcase not only what these processes are but how messy they can be. But the messiness is where coalitional work can form—in maintaining flexibility and willingness to shift based on ever changing needs. To be frank, the stories we share below are not meant to be taken as “exemplar” models of enacting the various approaches supporting accountable practices. Rather, we share them in order to illustrate what reproductive justice as praxis often entails and how we have attempted, often in fits and starts, to remain accountable to our communities beyond the university.   

Inclusive Listening

Reproductive justice scholar-activists must consider experiences different from their own to better understand how RJ issues are intersectional. Critical inclusion of voices/experiences is regularly called for across the field (Baker-Bell; Martinez; Crenshaw; McCoy), and rhetoric scholarship on reproductive justice is no exception. We must draw on diverse scholarship and, more importantly, diverse understandings of reproductive justice by those who are most affected. We posit that listening–engaged in as a rhetorical form (Ratcliffe) and literacy practice (Fishman and Rosenberg)–is one action that supports more inclusive approaches to reproductive action. We recount stories that illustrate how we practice inclusive listening within community settings to make visible a practice often assumed to take place but rarely accounted for in rhetorics of reproductive justice scholarship. 


My largest reproductive justice project to date started with an email a few months into my first semester out of my PhD–2017, year one of the Trump administration when so many people began seriously paying attention to reproductive rights issues (a term I use purposefully to distinguish those who had been working toward reproductive justice long before). I was the Associate Director of Community Learning at Trinity College, and I knew I wanted to throw myself into activism in my new community, and I, like many others, was particularly concerned about reproductive issues. My students and I began partnering with Erica Crowley and NARAL Pro-Choice CT on their work to limit deceptive advertising practices from Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs). While showing up to help with a city council public hearing was the seed of a long-term relationship between Trinity College and Pro-Choice CT whose work continues today, I want to focus on the listening Erica did long before that public hearing, detailed in “Coalition Building for Reproductive Justice” (Hartline et al.). Erica had started working for Pro-Choice CT as a community organizer when St. Gerard’s Center for Life opened a new office under the name “Hartford Women’s Center” right next to the Hartford GYN Center, the only independent abortion clinic in the state. She saw their deceptive practices in action through her office at the GYN Center and her work as a clinic escort: CPC workers gave the appearance of a well-trained medical staff, they told confused GYN Center patients that their appointments were at the Women’s Center, and repeatedly said they would give people seeking an abortion information they needed but delayed until an abortion could no longer be performed. Erica, a cis white woman, knew this was happening and wanted to address it, but she also recognized that she was not in the population most affected by this issue. She writes: “CPCs disproportionately target poor women, women of color, medically underserved communities (like Hartford), people without health insurance, LGBTQ+ individuals, immigrants, young people, college students, and other marginalized populations and experiences addressed in the reproductive justice framework” (Hartline et al 130). To address that fact, she and her team spent a significant amount of time collecting stories from the young Black women who were targeted by the CPC and tricked into going there instead of their appointments at the GYN Center. Stories were shared anonymously by writing their experiences down without their name and giving permission to organizers to share them with local legislators and read them aloud at a public hearing. The foundation of this work, which eventually led to both a Hartford-specific local ordinance and a statewide law limiting CPC deceiving advertising, lay in listening to people who were most impacted by the issue. By listening to these women and allowing them to tell their stories in ways that made them feel comfortable, Erica and her team practiced inclusive listening to guide their activist work, which in turn shaped my and my students’ RJ work with Pro-Choice CT.


My reproductive justice scholarship has largely been informed from my community-engaged work pertaining to infertility and access to alternative family-building care. Like most feminist scholars, I incorporate my research into my teaching, mentoring, and service as I position myself as a scholar-activist. So, when I learned of an open call to create a funded “laboratory” of sorts at my university, I jumped on this and emailed my colleague, Rachel Bloom-Pojar, who was also engaging in reproductive health research. Reviewing the call, Rachel and I discussed at length two criteria: (1) the formation of an interdisciplinary research team; and (2) how we may frame the focus of this laboratory. For us, both criteria informed each other. 

It was a stipulation of the laboratory’s application that we construct a lab composed of scholars outside of our discipline/department. Knowing the need to stress interdisciplinarity, we had to develop a project broad enough to support a variety of disciplinary perspectives. By discussing the criteria, we identified a series of graduate students and faculty members from a variety of disciplines whom we could ask to participate. Talking through the disciplinary expertise identified (geography, psychology, Puerto Rican studies, writing and rhetoric), we mapped the various ways our scholarship related to reproductive health connected. One faculty participant came to the lab with research related to biopolitics and race connected to Milwaukee’s infant mortality reduction program. Another lab member was well-versed in RJ because of their qualitative research on experiences of obstetric violence in Puerto Rico. For many graduate students, their disciplinary expertise was still developing, yet they saw the opportunity to join the lab as an alternative learning experience ripe with available mentorship. Our various perspectives led us to question what we should call or theme the laboratory. For instance, we asked: should we call this “The Reproductive Health Story Lab?” Such a title captured the humanities-based method of storytelling dominant in the lab, yet it also seemed to be less inclusive of those who had expertise in fields of social science, who didn’t have much experience with story as method. As such, we proposed a more general title, “The Reproductive Justice Collaboratory,” which at its core represented SisterSong’s tenets and wove together all of our individual projects and scholarly disciplinary training. Notably, there was a felt unease with claiming this title largely because of our own embodied orientations: six out of the nine members were cis white women. And while there was some BIPOC representation, it should be noted that the three BIPOC members occupied more precarious positions, one was an undergraduate student and single mother, one was a graduate student who lived 90-minutes away from the university, and one was an academic faculty member who taught five sections of students each week. 

Knowing the collective history of reproductive justice and its roots in BIPOC reproductive experiences, we spent much time at the beginning of the collaboratory reading, reflecting, and discussing what it means for us to claim this title given our collective representation. In this way, we situated the history of reproductive justice as a way to listen and learn from influential leaders of the RJ movement (i.e., Loretta Ross and Monica Simpson) to consider how we may maintain inclusivity by amplifying diversity, despite the majority of our lab being white cis women. As we sat and wrestled with this during meetings, we openly acknowledged the limitations of our positionality with this term but also used this awareness to guide the various projects we wanted to fund with the monies granted. Such actions were an attempt to listen to those not at the table and ponder how we could be accountable to those perspectives not actively there. 

For both Megan and Maria, listening was key to starting reproductive justice work, finding the stakeholders most affected by an issue and hearing from them about what steps should come next. Erica led that process for the long-term work Megan took on with her students in Hartford, and Maria and Rachel worked collaboratively with the multiple lab participants who wanted their work represented in the name and description of their work while considering the relationship of the name to other community-based RJ organizations. Listening for us is then a multi-faceted practice guiding out accountability. 

Embodied Risk Taking

To work toward reproductive justice in coalition with others requires accounting for one’s own positionality. Depending upon how a scholar-activist comes to reproductive justice work, they may need to de-center themselves not only in how they listen but also how they act. Such personal accounting for one’s own embodied orientation to an RJ project is important given the origins of reproductive justice, which are rooted in BIPOC experiences. To claim reproductive justice work as part of a scholar’s identity, they must account for how that scholarship benefits or addresses the most marginal in order to align with the objective of how and why RJ as a coalitional term formed. This action demands a more critical embodied approach to reproductive justice work. Meaning, while bodies and attention to embodiment have always been important to advancing reproductive justice, we believe there is a need and value to adopting a more critical embodiment orientation to RJ. A critical embodied approach understands that “feminist rhetorical studies often recenters the needs of the most privileged” and in response “choose[s] to attend to the specific needs of BIPOC, queer, trans, D/disabled, M/mad, and im/migrant peoples whose gender, worth, and entelechy are determined by their utility” (Cedillo, et al.). Adopting this approach demands then that RJ scholar-activists consider how their positionality is critical to what actions they can and should take. For our work to yield reproductive justice, not only must we account and be consciously aware of our own embodied positionalities and privileges, we must also not be limited by them. That is, for us as cis white women, we believe in the need to embrace the uncomfortable and to take risks when they appear to align and support the needs of the most marginal. It also means recognizing moments where we need to step aside or back down. 


One important example of embodied risk taking that has been key in my RJ community-campus partnerships is speaking out at public hearings. When my students and I first approached Erica about helping with the Hartford city ordinance, she asked if we would be willing to read testimony from those directly impacted by the CPCs who were uncomfortable discussing their experiences publicly. As Erica explains, “Because of the stigma around abortion, particularly in Black communities in Hartford, none of the women felt comfortable publicly testifying” (Hartline et al. 131-132). My group of mostly white students from outside of Hartford had the embodied positionality that made them safer to testify publicly. Additionally, as current Hartford residents they were able to join a coalition of Hartford residents and activists to speak back to the largely white, largely non-resident opposition. Similarly, when the legislation moved to the statehouse, voices were again needed to share their stories and support, and, especially, to read testimony from those most affected. 

In our collaborative article, Eleanor Faraguna shared her experiences reading testimony in the Legislative Office Building (LOB) for the Committee on Public Health. In addition to her discussion of why people may not want to divulge their private medical information to a public audience, she notes the way that public hearings are set up to discourage large portions of the public from showing up to share their concerns. Eleanor writes, 

Certain populations targeted by the CPCs, such as working-class communities, are also systematically disenfranchised in legislative proceedings because of the time, access, and privilege needed to navigate this system. Here my positionality and privilege as a white person and a college student provided me access to a process that other people are denied. I stayed in the building for extended hours and testified without great risk to myself, but that is not the case for many others, which is an essential shortcoming of this system of justice. (139) 

She, and all of the mostly white collaborators in this community-campus partnership, recognize that we stand to lose much less than others by taking public stands for reproductive justice, but we also recognize that we are not the population most impacted by these issues and do what we can to raise the concerns brought to us by those who are deeply impacted and want to see change but are also more at risk when sharing their own experiences and goals. 


As the lab wrestled with our embodied positionalities, we used our meetings as a space to openly reflect and process how to move forward on a collective reproductive justice project. Many of us were interested and invested in how reproductive justice issues impacted Milwaukeeans. For instance, we frequently circulated news articles that claimed Milwaukee as a city with particularly alarming racial and ethnic disparities in maternal and infant health outcomes. Alarmed by the statistics and traumatic stories these articles included, we thought that our lab could develop a collective project related to this local issue. However, as we discussed that idea, more hesitation emerged. First, none of us (to my knowledge) had direct lived experience with this topic. The lack of embodied lived experience would create significant challenges with how we built trust with those who had experienced, for instance, Black infant or maternal mortality. Second, as we began investigating the topic, we became aware of multiple local, grassroots organizations and community doulas who were already doing much of the “on the ground” work. The optics of a university-funded laboratory, consisting largely of cis white women, attempting to create a project on the topic seemed in many ways antithetical and harmful to the work already established by these organizations. To account for the ways in which our embodied positionalities (because of our collective race, sexuality, and university-affiliation) served as a productive process to guide how we move forward as a lab, we asked: How could we de-center our embodied positionalities in order to build connections and trust with leaders in Milwaukee, many of whom occupied more marginalized positions? This question served as a guiding framework to assess any community reproductive justice project we, as a collaboratory, wanted to take on. And in centering such a question, we had to accept risk. Risk in that our collective, privileged positions could pose a threat and even be a barrier to doing reproductive justice work in our community. Simply stated, we knew that because of our own embodied positionalities, some community members would perhaps reject our outreach; and, ultimately, we had to become comfortable with that reality and accept the risk that we maybe should not be pursuing such work.  

In both projects, Megan and Maria saw that they needed to de-center themselves as people who were not most impacted by the issue at hand, but their positionality did put them into particular positions to move their issues forward. De-centering, however, does not mean excusing oneself from the issue and the action needed to improve justice. Rather, de-centering requires the ability to de-privilege oneself and thus become more uncomfortable in spaces perhaps where one is often more comfortable than multiply marginalized individuals. By de-centering, and thus de-privileging our perspectives, we become not only more accountable but more suited to work alongside those whose embodied experiences are not our own.  

Reciprocal Action

As our work continues, we always have to consider what makes our actions reciprocal by asking how is this work mutually beneficial for all parties involved? Community writing scholars have frequently discussed why reciprocity and accountability matter (Alvarez, Riley Mukavetz, Shah, Opel and Sackey) in ensuring that work advances the community, not just a scholar’s career. To be scholar-activists who take on coalitional reproductive justice work, our actions must be deeply embedded in reciprocal partnerships and that these partnerships may require rethinking for whom and how our work benefits those communities most impacted. Reciprocal action in this way may move us towards producing less traditional forms of scholarship and, instead, ask us to reimagine how our positions as scholar-activists can redirect or repurpose our institutional privileges in order to advance the needs of community organizers. 


For me, reciprocity hinges on doing work that is focused on moving toward justice, no matter what that looks like for my career. Partnerships require push and pull, give and take. My collaborations with Pro-Choice CT never started and ended within the confines of the semester or stuck within the parameters of the specific projects we designed. Those projects were built to extend Pro-Choice CT’s capacity and produce work they might not have been able to do otherwise, while also deepening student understanding of the intricacies of social action, policy research, and how inward and outward facing communications foster change. But my (and many of my students’) work with Pro-Choice CT did not stop there. A lot of what we did involved showing up: for hearings, for rallies, for discussions, for the people and organizations that existed in coalition with Pro-Choice CT, for the bills that forwarded justice, and for the people of Hartford. I’ve attended outdoor rallies for reproductive justice in the rain. I’ve spent hours in the LOB waiting to testify. I’ve brought in Pro-Choice CT as speakers at activist meetings and college functions. I’ve lobbied my representatives on bills forwarded by Pro-Choice CT’s coalition toward social justice. I’ve cheered on and commiserated with Pro-Choice CT staff. I’ve watched a CT legislative vote on my computer in Tennessee as a bill that I helped work on was finally passed four years after it was initially introduced. None of those moments were in my annual review materials. They aren’t on my CV. I don’t get “credit” for doing them except, I guess, in that I’m talking about them here in this article years later. But these are the moments that make up coalitional, reciprocal action, and detailing the less flashy work of these partnerships makes visible the reciprocal action that is more about the activist part of being a RJ scholar-activist, than the scholar part that shows up in publications, presentations, and course projects. 


As the lab gained more knowledge about those leading reproductive changemaking in Milwaukee and the issues at stake, we began to question what actions the lab could and should take. Who would our work benefit? What would be of use to those who were already embedded in the reproductive justice landscape of Milwaukee? How could we redirect our funding and various privileges we had because of our university affiliation? In asking these questions, we began to identify what we offered based on (or given) our positionalities and expertise. Individually, many of us were working on story-based projects related to a reproductive health topic (infertility, reproductive loss, COVID-19’s impact on reproductive care, and experiences of Latinx health promoters). Story was a consistent theme across our work and seemed relevant to many of the reproductive justice organizers who were circulating stories as a strategy to resist legislative threats brought about by the reversal of Roe. Collectively, we remained invested in community experiences of reproductive justice and in experiences that more ethically incorporated community knowledge and expertise in university settings. 

By mapping our collective and individual orientations, we arrived at the conclusion that there could be benefits to bringing together Milwaukee’s reproductive justice organizations in order to better understand and discuss how they see and use storytelling as a tool for RJ organizing. Such a realization sparked the idea for an event titled “The Power of Stories in Advancing Reproductive Justice.” The aim for this event was to create a space where researchers and RJ community advocates in Milwaukee could work together to identify how they use and center story/ies to advance action around reproductive justice. We saw this as a way to evoke reciprocity and action in our program design and in the labor required to participate. 

First, the event program was a space for participants to collectively share their own reproductive health projects with each other, learn more about what others across the city were doing, and foster future connections to further collaborations. Second, the labor to participate was minimal. The event was intentionally free: there were no proposals to submit, and participants could bring what they wanted (some brought handouts/brochures, others brought just themselves). We made these decisions as we recognized the labor they were already doing as RJ leaders. Finally, we fed everyone and fed them with good food. This mattered because not only did it sustain conversations, but it was a small gesture to thank those who showed up for their work and commitment to doing this work and sharing their knowledge with not just us but with all who attended the event. Through these small, micro decisions, the action we took did not consist of grand gestures but rather the action of planning and hosting this event consisted of small steps facilitating moments for us to learn from those already “doing the work”; thereby de-centering our experience and allowing us to slowly build community relationships, and hopefully trust, that could further any next steps we would perhaps want to take as a laboratory. 

Megan and Maria both prioritize small, unflashy moments as the heart of what they consider reciprocal action. It isn’t giving a speech or taking credit. It’s doing what we can to expand capacity, not take charge or overshadow, of the excellent work already being done. This leads to the question: how do we shift institutional systems so those most affected feel more comfortable centered within the advocacy work? Asking such a question is imperative if we believe universities (and those that work for them/study at them) are accountable to their communities’ needs.

Reflective Recommitment 

Reproductive justice, like all kinds of social action, is not a static process, and these accountability practices must happen iteratively as this work rarely follows a precise linear timeline. For instance, Rasha Diab, Thomas Ferrel, and Beth Godbee write about sustaining commitments to racial justice and advocate for a framework that encourages “continually doing the self-work and work-with-others…[which supports] a recursive theory-practice-theory- practice life allowing us to never stop learning and acting with our local, national, and international communities” (37). While we contend that a racial justice framework cannot be substituted for a reproductive justice framework, we find Diab, Ferrel, and Godbee’s insights useful to think through a framework necessary to sustain recommitting to reproductive justice. Reflecting and recommitting means doing, as Diab, Ferrel, and Godbee put it, the “self-work and work-with-others” to understand and adapt our approaches to justice to account for the many lived experiences of reproductive issues–including racial justice and, we would add, trans justice.  

For us, reproductive justice scholar-activists are answerable to our communities, and taking these reflections forward as we recommit is key for a reproductive justice approach that centers those most affected by our contemporary political and social landscape. This work takes time, which can be hard to accept given the increased harm reproductive bodies face with the reversal of Roe. Nonetheless, we believe that for reproductive justice scholar-activists “tending to the slow work of collaboration can make visible the moments that foster coalitional commitments that center the aims of community-driven research within the community/ies” (Novotny et al. 36).


In Hartford, recommitment was not particularly difficult for me. I was in regular communication with folks at Pro-Choice CT. I kept up-to-date on current legislative issues. My students continued to do reproductive justice focused projects. And then I moved to Tennessee in 2020, and recommitment has been more difficult. I immediately tried to jump into similar legislatively focused advocacy work here, but despite several attempts, I never quite found a way to partner with local RJ organizations. I have spent a lot of time reflecting on why it didn’t work, sitting in the messiness of what RJ entails and focusing on the broad parameters of SisterSong’s definition. What I’ve come to realize is that the work I have been part of–largely centered around food access and girls’ literacy education–is part of reproductive justice work. Even as someone who has spent years trying to work on reproductive rights as a means of enacting justice, mentally aligning my current partnerships with reproductive justice is difficult, particularly following the reversal of Roe v. Wade. But when I think of the conversations with Chattanooga residents and organizers over the last three years, the real needs I’m trying to meet are enabling people to “parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities” (SisterSong). Providing access to healthy, locally-grown produce through City Farms and offering strong mentoring relationships and educational opportunities through Girls Inc. are important ways to create safe and sustainable communities where all children, and people for that matter, can thrive. Being a part of that work is reproductive justice. 


In April 2022, we hosted our RJ storytelling community network event. Just before the event, we made the decision to reapply for another year of laboratory funding. This time, however, we would be structured more as a working group rather than a large “laboratory.” This decision was strategic and responded to the realization that we had come to throughout the year: we needed to better understand our lab’s identity in relationship to Milwaukee’s reproductive justice landscape. 

To be honest, we were unsure for a while whether we would reapply at all. Throughout the year, our laboratory organizing felt a bit scattered. While we had intentionally thought we would design a large RJ project focused on Milwaukee, tensions persisted with how we would be accountable to those most impacted by reproductive injustice in the city as well as those leading the conversation and action. At the same time, we also began to connect with new persons across the university who were doing RJ in their own departments but were in search of a more collective, collaborative unit to support the embodied toll of RJ scholarship/teaching. These university needs encouraged us to ultimately reapply with a slightly larger group of individuals, though still predominantly cis and white. Shortly after our storytelling event, we were informed that we were indeed funded again. This news was largely welcomed as many of the exit surveys we collected after that event indicated a desire to continue offering similar network programming to invest in those who were committed to RJ action in Milwaukee. 

To this day, though, some hesitation remains about how we may best move forward with positioning the lab as an entity that supports reproductive justice organizations. The outcome of what continuing our lab means remains murky at best. Perhaps new relationships will emerge with some community leaders, perhaps a collaborative community-engaged project will result, but more likely on-the-ground, experiential learning about what is at stake when committing ourselves to reproductive justice action will emerge. These lessons, while not resulting in a direct CV line, perhaps are more valuable than a six-figure grant. Rather than resulting in an institutionally-desired outcome, this work underscores the value of sowing the seeds and cultivating community relationships for reproductive justice action. 

Recommitment requires reflection–thinking through what is and is not working within our current scholar-activist approaches. For Megan, that means sitting with the lack of direct connection to reproductive rights in her justice work. And for Maria, it involves considering how to move forward to continue offering networking space for scholars and activists while centering the needs of the community.  For whom are we (and our work) accountable to and why?


Collectively, our stories underscore the reality that to practice accountability for RJ scholar-activists requires a lot of humility. As scholars, we are often pursuing knowledge that drives us into a particular niche, becoming one of a handful of people taking on a set of questions, ideas, and processes. Coalitional RJ work is pretty explicitly not that. As scholars we have to recognize that we are stepping into a longstanding activist tradition built by Black and Brown women and that we are taking on questions and concerns of the body that no one person will ever have all the embodied knowledge of. There are almost always going to be other people, particularly RJ activists, who have been doing this longer and have a better understanding of what is needed than we do. 

We can join the coalition and take part in the work, but we are likely not going to be leaders if we want to prioritize justice work rather than opportunities and credentials that make us look good. This can lead to tensions for feminist scholar-activists who want to embrace a rhetorics of reproductive justice framework, because those commitments may not neatly align with a tangible scholarly product. We share this fact knowing that Megan and Maria both embody privilege in being cis white women, employed in tenure-track jobs, who have less to risk than our BIPOC colleagues and/or those working in contingent faculty positions or as graduate students. We recognize that positionality and privilege matter for feminist scholar-activists committing to reproductive justice. And we make this clear because we see our ability to do this work at our institutions and to write about our experiences here as an opportunity not everyone has, but we make the decision to write about the importance of RRJ in feminist rhetoric work in order for those in more precarious positions of power to use this piece to make arguments at their institutions about why and how their RRJ coalitional work matters.   

These four practices–inclusive listening, embodied risk taking, reciprocal action, and reflective recommitment–offer one way to think through how to be accountable to your community and those who are already doing the work there. Though we have categorized different portions of our stories as relevant to a particular practice, you can also see how these practices are interrelated and co-occurring. Maria’s process of reflective recommitment involved inclusive listening to other RJ activist-scholars at her institution. Megan’s discussion of iterative reciprocal action shows all the ways she is regularly recommitting to the work by following the lead of RJ activists and listening to what would benefit them. We realize that these stories center our experiences and do not account for our BIPOC, queer and trans colleagues who also do this work. That is undoubtedly a limitation to this piece, and we call that into attention as we hope that by sharing our stories readers will ponder and reflect on their own embodied positionalities and experiences as they may consider (re)committing to reproductive justice action. Ultimately, we see this piece as one small step in advancing feminist rhetorician’s ability to contribute as accountable allies to the reproductive justice coalition building happening in communities today.

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U.S. Women’s Suffrage as a Strategy for Counterstory and Coalition: Creating Shared Rhetorical Space Through Library-Campus Partnerships


Growing out of an American Library Association (ALA) grant-sponsored community book club and discussion series on women’s suffrage and the 19th Amendment’s centennial anniversary, this essay explores the potential for coalition-building through campus-community partnerships grounded in and guided by feminist rhetoric and pedagogy. With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the project arose from the ALA’s Let’s Talk About It initiative (LTAI), a program model based on book discussion and meant to spark conversations at public libraries around the country. Offering resources on more than thirty different topics including Being Ethnic; Becoming American; Jewish Literature; Conversations on Death and Dying; and Muslim Journeys, the LTAI program identifies an overarching theme, a selection of books on the topic chosen by a scholar, and support materials for the programs, including an essay, discussion guides for the books, marketing materials, and more. The idea is to work with a local scholar to host a series of programs on each book and have conversations about the theme through the lens of literature. 

In early 2022, Meghan, the Adult Services Librarian at a local public library in Georgia, applied for the ALA grant with hopes that Bartow County Library System (BCLS) would be one of the twenty-five libraries selected across the country to receive funding and support materials for this series of programs on the women’s suffrage movement. The program seemed like a gentle way to broach a difficult subject in the library’s small, conservative town. When BCLS was selected as a grant recipient, Meghan invited Letizia, a professor of writing and rhetoric and gender and women’s studies at a local university, to serve as the local scholar for the series. The program included five books focused on women’s suffrage:

  • The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote by Elaine Weiss, a richly detailed look at the ratification of the 19th Amendment through the eyes of both the suffragists and the “Antis” and told in the form of an exciting story, was useful as the first book in the series, as it gave us a look at the event as a whole and set the stage with facts, figures, and dates.
  • Women Making History: The 19th Amendment Book, a collection of thirteen essays compiled by the National Park Service and edited by Tamara Gaskell, covers important figures and historic sites commemorating the movement and illustrates how the movement worked in different areas of the country. This book helped to begin our conversation on the people and events less talked about in history books.
  • Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All by Martha S. Jones begins to disrupt the dominant narrative on the women’s suffrage movement, telling the story of Black women’s often completely separate movement for rights fought through both racism and sexism.
  • Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells by Michelle Duster, an engaging and accessible biography written by the great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells, speaks at length about Wells’s life and activism and again touches on the role and lived experiences of Black women during the movement.
  • The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow, the only fiction book of the group, tells the story of three sisters and their part in the women’s suffrage movement of New Salem through the lens of fantasy and witchcraft.

Spanning ten weeks from June to August 2022, the series created space to engage storytelling within the context of the U.S. women’s suffrage movement in multiple ways with a variety of rhetorical purposes. Most significantly, the series of five book discussions invited participants not only to consider women’s rhetorical roles as activists for women’s suffrage, but also to understand broader coalition and sustained activism for voting rights through the counterstory (Martinez, Counterstory) of Black women’s rhetorical activities. Through the lens of feminist pedagogy, we recognized “that through the learning experience, learners come to understand the world and all of its inequities and injustices, and then see themselves as empowered agents of change who can transform these inequities and injustices” (Accardi). We used the entryway created by the book club to directly face some of these inequities and injustices by exploring race in relation to the women’s suffrage movement, namely the exclusion of Black women and their lived experiences from the most often recorded and taught histories.

Guided by feminist pedagogical tenets, including collaborative meaning-making and consciousness-raising, the program created rhetorical space for exploring individual positionalities, lived experiences, and the connections between narrated histories and our current political realities. From the beginning, we agreed “that these relationships be deeply collaborative and voices co-equal [as] vital to feminist engagement” (Nickoson and Blair 50), and we committed to partnership with participants. Most significantly, we experienced elements of feminist consciousness-raising in sharing the personal and understanding the identification possible through shared experience, moments that can spark activism and sustain civic engagement. Furthermore, the program was guided by and fostered intersections in our dual feminist interventions in dominant narratives shaping stories of library and activist work. Through a multivocal and reflective conversation about what it can look like to actively listen for counterstories that push the boundaries of what we know as an act of community-building and activism, in the sections that follow, we blend theory and practice, offering readers strategies for building similar campus-community partnerships that foster relational literacies for change.

Feminist Pedagogies and Literacies for Change

Although our professional work at the start of our collaboration may have looked different on the surface—Meghan, the Adult Services Librarian at a public library, and Letizia, a professor of writing and rhetoric and gender and women’s studies at a local university—underscoring our partnership and our collaborative work was a commitment to feminist theories and pedagogies at the intersection of literacy practices. A significant body of work informs our engagement with feminist pedagogies and how these pedagogical theories and practices shaped our approach to our library-campus partnership. Feminist pedagogy, according to Robbin Crabtree, David Sapp, and Adela Licona “is an ideology of teaching inasmuch as it is a framework for developing particular strategies and methods of teaching in the service of particular objectives for learning outcomes and social change” (emphasis in original, 4). To that end, the authors explain, “feminist pedagogy seeks not only to enhance students’ conceptual learning, but to promote consciousness-raising, personal growth, and social responsibility” (Crabtree, Sapp, and Licona 9). Engagement, then, lies at the heart of feminist pedagogy, shaping the classroom into a space for reflective and collective learning, for supporting activism, and for fostering change (Shrewsbury 6).

With connections to the collective engagement of consciousness-raising groups of the women’s movement, these liberatory, decentered, and activist tenets shape teaching and learning environments guided by feminist pedagogy into spaces where students and instructors each play active roles as co-teachers. Significantly, “feminist pedagogy emphasizes the epistemological validity of personal experience, often connected to notions of voice and authority. Through a critique of the ways traditional scientific and academic inquiry have ignored or negated the lived experiences of women, feminist pedagogy acknowledges personal, communal, and subjective ways of knowing as valid forms of inquiry and knowledge production” (Crabbtree, Sapp, and Licona 7). Participants, then, engage reflectively with each other and with course content, identify opportunities to blend theory and practice, and apply feminist rhetorical strategies like intervention and interruption to highlight and amplify marginalized voices and perspectives (Blair and Nickoson; Crabtree, Sapp, and Licona; Chick and Hassell; Guglielmo, “Classroom”; hooks; Micciche; Reynolds; Rinehart; Ryan).

With similar reflections on the intersections of feminist pedagogy and librarianship, Maria T. Accardi explains, “feminist pedagogy is a kind of lens or filter through which we can approach and reenvision library work, even in settings that do not appear to have overt, literal classroom teaching moments.” Feminist pedagogy, Accardi claims “insists on the humanity of all participants in the learning experience, in the library, and this emphasis on care, compassion, and affirmation, and making visible the harms caused by inequity and oppression and undoing that harm, changes not just the lives of learners and librarian—it changes the world.” These outcomes also align with many of the core values of librarianship set forth by the American Library Association (ALA), including diversity, education and lifelong learning, the public good, and social responsibility (“B.1 Core Values”). This confluence of values allows librarians, through the practical application of feminist pedagogy, to better serve as stewards in the public library’s modern role as a community center. 

Recognizing that feminist theories and practices also challenge ways of “codifying and preserving knowledge,” including what counts and who can contribute (Pritchard), our collective approach to the women’s suffrage book club also allowed us to engage Adela Licona and Stephen Russell’s definition of “literacy work,” which they define “as work that is relational, informed by community concerns, considers community members as knowledgeable, treats community histories as meaningful, makes people and places knowable and understandable to one another across contexts, and is oriented toward social change” (2). Our goals, then, within the framework of the book club and our discussions, were to foster a space for what Licona and Karma Chávez describe as “relational literacies”:

Understood as practices, relational literacies imply the labor of making meaning, of shared knowledges, or of producing and developing new knowledges together. In other words, relational literacies are understandings and knowings in the world that are never produced singularly or in isolation but rather depend on interaction. This interdependency animates the coalitional possibilities inherent in relational literacies. (96)

Particularly significant within Licona and Chávez’s exploration of coalition is the connection they make to political expediency, explaining, “our understanding of coalition differs slightly from conventional definitions, which often situate coalition in the realm of the temporary and the politically expedient” (96). Furthermore, they explain, “much of the rhetorical scholarship on social movements neglect[s] attention to community organizing and coalition building, two key components to movement work” (Licona and Chávez 98). Given the focus of our library-campus partnership, coalition building became a topic we actively theorized throughout the process. Within the context of the women’s suffrage movement, we consistently explored white women’s suffrage activism and rhetoric grounded in racism and political expediency at the expense of coalition and how the counterstory of Black women’s activism deliberately disrupted that narrative, as we explore in later sections of this essay. Engagement with coalition building as a topic also allowed us to apply that learning to current activism regarding reproductive justice and other political realities. As Licona and Chávez explain, “Put concretely, relational literacies enable the space for new kinds of understanding, interaction, and politics” (97).

With these shared theoretical foundations underscoring our collaboration, we shift now to individual narratives for the next sections of this essay with a few goals. First, we aim to highlight how we each engaged with this work, both the individual roles we played in the process, in its planning and facilitation, and how that work was informed by our individual positionalities. We hope this sharing of logistics in our personal voices will invite readers to imagine possibilities for their own roles in similar library-campus partnerships, including those that might replicate in whole or in part the work that we share here. Second, guided by bell hooks, we believe strongly that “all efforts at self-transformation challenge us to engage in ongoing, critical self-examination and reflection about feminist practice, and about how we live in the world. This individual commitment, when coupled with engagement in collective discussion, provides a space for critical feedback which strengthens our efforts to change and make ourselves anew” (24-25). We approach this process of narrative self-reflection with multiple aims:

First, narratives explain to ourselves and to others what events we are narrating. Second, narratives explain to ourselves and to others what we have learned about these narrated events. And third, narratives explain to ourselves and to others how we are constructing our own subjectivities (as points of view), the subjectivities of others (as characters in our own narratives), and the cultural spaces that we all share (as settings). (Ratcliffe 506)

As part of the meta-narrative of this library-campus partnership, including the conversations we are continuing with the book club participants, we invite readers to join us in this reflection.

Meghan: Exclusionary Realities of Public Librarianship & Challenging Oppressive Systems

My beginning goal when reaching out to Letizia, as it always was in the public library space, was to bring valuable educational resources to my patrons. Everything I did when working at BCLS was done with this goal in mind. When I found out about the LTAI: Women’s Suffrage initiative, I knew this would be a great way of creating dialogue in the community, and I also knew that I needed an expert to make that happen. The books chosen for the LTAI program, as well as the subject in general, lent themselves easily to approaching the topics of race and intersectional feminism. Though it was not the focus of the program, the parallels between women’s history and the history of the public library, particularly the recording of these histories, are undeniable in their exclusion of anything other than the dominant white voice. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2022 the librarian and media collections specialist field was 86% white and non-Hispanic, a fact which has not changed much over the past twenty years (“Household Data”). A study of the librarian population in 2006 by the ALA put that number at 89% based on census data from 2000 (“Librarian Ethnicity”). Earlier forms of the library were not the centers of diversity, equity, and neutrality that they claim to be today, a narrative that arose from “ahistorical and acultural revisions of library history that have severed institutions from their deep roots in early practices of social structural control and development” (Matthews 192). The reality of the skewed demographics of the LIS profession show just how important it is to challenge the utopian narrative of the public library. 

Amber Matthews puts things in perspective for us: while the public library is typically looked at these days as a place “in which access is equitable, information is neutral, and diverse perspectives are found” (187) the reality is that “it is not coincidental or insignificant that white normativity flourishes unabated in a field that lacks substantial resemblance to many of the communities that it serves” (188). Such falsely positive depictions of the library, in both modern and historical contexts, only “[serve] to perpetuate the seeming neutrality of the library system, [fail] to recognize how libraries are ideologically constituted by other social forces and how they have been engaged in historically-situated racial projects” (Honma 3). Todd Honma further describes the problem of libraries functioning in a “race-blind vacuum” in similar terms, explaining,

All too often the library is viewed as an egalitarian institution providing universal access to information for the general public. However, such idealized visions of a mythic benevolence tend to conveniently gloss over the library’s susceptibility in reproducing and perpetuating racist social structures found throughout the rest of society. (2)

This parallel between the subject of the program itself and one of the major flaws in the LIS world was an important part of why I wanted to host this program. How can we, as librarians and educators, challenge the white supremacy of both public libraries themselves and of the histories we share as purveyors of information?

With a significant number of the books chosen for the LTAI initiative focusing on the experience of Black women during the women’s suffrage movement, I knew this was a small way we could start to work towards that goal. Sarah Pritchard describes some of the core tenets of librarianship as “selecting, organizing, preserving and retrieving” knowledge and information, and she draws a distinction between this and feminist thought, which “calls into question the values and definitions underlying our very concepts of knowledge, thus questioning the institutions and services we build around those concepts.” Crucially, if done well, this would be a series of library programs centered in feminist thought that both upheld my duty to my patrons as a public librarian and created an opening for authentic conversations on race.

As hoped, Letizia’s thoughtful questions and the content of the books, particularly Vanguard by Martha S. Jones, sparked conversation on the often-neglected legacy of Black women in the women’s suffrage movement. Jones speaks to the differences in the suffrage movements of white and Black women: “But only a small number of Black women joined these new suffrage associations. The racism that persisted there often drove them out. And suffrage alone was too narrow a goal for Black women. They went on to seek the vote, but on their own terms and to reach cures for what ailed all humanity” (122). Passages like this lit a fire under our discussions and not only allowed us to talk openly about race and injustice in a historical context, but also opened conversations on modern politics, racial tensions of the past few years, and problematic race-blind narratives of women’s rights.

This opening of dialogue around neglected information is an important part of librarianship as a knowledge-sharing profession. Especially with a goal of active practice of feminist pedagogy in librarianship, conversations like these are not only important but fundamental. As Pritchard points out, this kind of feminist practice is inseparable from librarianship, since it “is informed by basic ethical and philosophical tenets also found in librarianship, for example, a concern for clarity in language; for access to services and information regardless of social or economic category, or topic of inquiry; and an awareness of the importance of context in understanding questions and organizations.” Only through feminist pedagogy and active anti-racism can librarians begin to work through the problems in the LIS field.

Meghan: Background and Getting Started

In the United States, the public library’s role and main goals have changed a lot over the years with so much information available at our fingertips through smartphones. In their article about the growing intersection of social work and public librarianship, Tracy M. Soska and Adria Navarro point out that modern public libraries are “reinventing themselves to better and more strategically address community needs, as well as to stay relevant and impactful to their patrons and community residents” (409). Public libraries have pivoted to meet the changing needs of their communities by becoming more like community centers. Soska and Navarro note that the library has taken on “a hub role in the community through partnerships with other institutions to connect people with services and assistance” (412). While still focused on education and reading, the public library is now also a place where patrons can find local aid and resources, take part in free activities, find companionship, and simply sit in a temperature-controlled environment. LTAI directly supported our goal of acting as a community center by bringing people together and helping to find a common thread among a group of unique patrons. The LTAI initiative joined two of our main focuses by offering free educational resources and creating shared space for developing relationships in the community. 

After being selected to receive grant funding and confirming Letizia’s involvement in the program, the first step was getting the word out, so I set to work marketing and contacting local organizations. This included notifying the local elections office, reaching out to the local radio station for an interview, distributing signage and digital kiosk slides around the county, and creating interactive book displays and posters inside the library, in addition to the promise of tea and branded swag for participants. Perhaps the most successful marketing step was contacting our local chapter of the League of Women Voters (LWV) in hopes that they might offer in-library voter registration during each of the five programs in the series. They were happy to help, even spreading the word for us among their members, who ended up accounting for a large number of our attendees. I set up a table for them in the lobby before each program, and they decorated the table, answered community questions about voting, and registered people to vote. In our case, the efforts of the LWV brought patrons from across multiple counties who might not have otherwise visited BCLS. Through my own marketing efforts and this collaboration with the LWV, we were able to get new patrons inside our doors, while also tying in materials and displays inside the library to support the goals of the program and show what the library has to offer. Once we had successfully begun to generate public interest, we shifted our attention to the content of the program.

Meghan: Community Engagement Through Public Library-Campus Coalition

As Letizia will discuss in further detail, the format of the program was as important as the content: if we wanted to create an environment that allowed for meaningful dialogue around the subject of women’s history and rights, we needed our participants to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts. Just as Licona and Chávez describe in their article on relational literacies, “Our goal in the dialogue was to generate ideas by encouraging one another to work with still-forming questions” (98). We started deep, meaningful conversations in a group of strangers who became much closer over the course of the program. We were able to create a learning environment that was friendly and open, not exclusionary or overly academic, so that the participants felt confident expressing themselves. The program and participants benefited from the collaborative meaning-making facilitated through relational literacies, which “enable[d] the space for new kinds of understanding, interaction, and politics” and opened the door to the possibility of coalition-building (Licona and Chávez 97).

The public library-campus coalition presents a unique opportunity to reach outside the traditional academic world and form lasting connections with the community. Pritchard speaks to this benefit in her discussion of feminist librarianship, noting that “the impact of women’s studies is this redefinition of the universe of knowledge; it challenges the boundaries between disciplines, between ‘scholarly’ and more personal forms of knowledge, between the academy and the community.” Here we give a voice to people who might not be involved in academic community or have gone to a university, but still have valuable life experiences and input on topics like these. Nickoson and Blair point to the “common occurrence of power inequities between members of the academy and members of their surrounding communities” as one important aspect of these collaborations (51). This partnership not only makes the topic more equitable and accessible to people who otherwise might not be included, it also improves the quality of the conversation by offering more varied experiences. Authentic and impactful community engaged work must

include the perspectives of students and community partners, narratives that chronicle the lived experiences of stakeholders from a diverse range of cultural backgrounds and material conditions that have mediated their access to democracy, empathy, and respect. This inclusion is vital if feminists are to move beyond the rhetoric of engagement to provide more authentic interventions that benefit the students and communities we serve and position this work as activist in both theory and practice. (Nickoson and Blair 51)

On the other side, this partnership also offered a unique opportunity for our library patrons to learn from and engage with a university professor, an opportunity they may or may not have had in the past. Pritchard explains the delicate position of libraries, which “serve as gatekeepers of culture and learning. In selecting some items and ignoring others, in codifying and preserving knowledge, in actively assisting users or passively standing by, libraries control access to, and impose a relational value system on, all forms of information and communication.” I take this role very seriously, and I know that my own role is that of facilitator. I may not be able to lead the discussion on a topic, but I do know how to find an expert who can. The quality of Letizia’s content, the critical questions she asked, and her experience in encouraging active participation from attendees created a space for exchange of ideas and, by the end of the series, a sense of trust among returning attendees. As one of our participants shared with us, “The book club discussions elevated my sense of empowerment and purpose. It reminded me of how far women have come even since my mother’s time and how comments, and/or actions, can create long-lasting effects.”

Letizia: Engaging Feminist Rhetorics and Pedagogy Outside the Classroom

When Meghan reached out in October 2021 and invited me to serve as local scholar for the book series, I was delighted by the possibilities this collaboration would foster and energized by the opportunity to extend my teaching and scholarship beyond my own courses. The program focus—women’s suffrage—was closely connected to my teaching, including work on feminist rhetorics, and Jones’s Vanguard was already on my desk as a possible course text for the following fall semester. With a Carnegie classification as a community-engaged university, my institution maintains a university-wide commitment to community engagement in student and faculty work, and while I was interested in participating in community-campus partnerships, I didn’t know what those first steps might look like. I was excited about the potential conversations this program might help to facilitate and grateful for the timing of the invitation.

As a teacher-scholar whose work lies at the intersection of writing and rhetoric and gender and women’s studies, I was supported by a long history and strong foundation in theory and practice of activist work that actively bridges the classroom-community divide and imagines “community-based engagement as feminist intervention” (Blair and Nickoson 12; see also Costa and Leong; Orr; Naples and Bojar; Nickoson and Blair; Sheridan and Jacobi). Significant to this body of work, however, are also questions that Costa and Leong raise regarding “how women’s and gender studies practitioners may participate in the civic engagement movement in a manner that sustains feminist values, commitments, and solidarities” (171), a commitment that guided my own approach to the broader, less activist frame of community-engagement supported by my university. Aware that “feminist pedagogy values many of the same ideals put forth by scholars of civic engagement, including critical analysis, self-reflexivity, and active participation to accomplish the social good” (Costa and Leong 172), and “as a way to explore and illustrate the value of feminist learning” (Nickoson and Blair 50), I envisioned approaching the reading and discussion series with a foundation in feminist rhetoric and feminist pedagogy. With storytelling and coalition-building as broad frames for our reading and discussion, I invited participants not only to consider women’s rhetorical roles as activists for women’s suffrage, but also to understand broader coalition and sustained activism for voting rights through the counterstory of Black women’s rhetorical activities. Invoking Aja Martinez’s concept of “counterstory” and its potential “to expose, analyze, and challenge stock stories of racial privilege and . . . to strengthen traditions of social, political, and cultural survival and resistance” (“A Plea” 70), we also explored narrative and story as a strategy for complicating dominant narratives about the suffrage movement and for contemplating the role of personal narrative and lived experience in that process.

The selection of books by the ALA LTAI program already created an opportunity for foregrounding storytelling and the formation of dominant cultural narratives. Through The Woman’s Hour and the collection of essays published by the National Park Services (Gaskell), we considered, for example, what we already knew or believed we understood about the women’s suffrage movement in the United States—its history and timing, its primary goals, its most recognizable activists. With each text, however, we also were confronted with counterstories that required us to reshape that history—its tidy narrative arc, its intersection with cultural and political realities, and its silences and erasures, most notably those regarding the contributions and lived experiences of Black women. Guided by feminist pedagogical tenets, including collaborative meaning-making and consciousness-raising—pedagogical strategies that underscore my teaching and scholarship—I aimed to foster discussions that created rhetorical space for exploring individual positionalities, lived experiences, and the connections between narrated histories and our current political realities.

I opened our first meeting with this invitation and reinforced these pedagogical values during each book discussion: “At the start here, I want to reinforce that this is an informal and collaborative space and an opportunity for us to share ideas, to ask questions, and to have a conversation, so please feel free to jump in at any point, as there’s no formal process for doing so. We’d like the majority of our time to be focused on discussion, so I’m looking forward to sharing space with all of you and learning from our conversation.” During each session, we deliberately moved from the presentation area, with a podium, rows of chairs, and a screen for projecting presentation material, to a circle for discussion that Meghan had created in designing our program space within the library. This shift signaled not only a few minutes for participants to grab or refresh tea, take a break, and begin reflecting on the discussion questions projected on the screen as a place to begin our discussion, but also an invitation to contribute, to share, to “mak[e] meaning… and develo[p] new knowledges together” (Licona and Chávez 96). In each of the five discussions over ten weeks, we demonstrated collective meaning-making through validation of lived experience, repeating participants’ comments, and making connections among comments. These moments of meaning-making included reflecting on what we did not know about the women’s suffrage movement, including who were anti-suffragists and why and how coalitions for suffrage among women with diverse lived experiences developed outside the northeast and south, often the sites of dominant narratives of suffrage activism.

Letizia: Making Space for Relational Literacies 

As a feminist rhetorician, my way into this work was, unsurprisingly, exploring its rhetorical significance: how we make compelling arguments in a variety of contexts, how we use narrative and storytelling as part of those arguments, whose stories or which versions of stories are told over and over again, and how counternarratives or counterstories can provide more complete and complex versions of those narratives. I framed this rhetorical approach to the book series and discussions with a set of questions that we returned to, reconsidered, and reframed for each text. 

These questions focused on

  1. Exploring the role of rhetorical choices and rhetorical appeals in the activism and lived experiences of the women whose stories we read, including how each text allowed us to find evidence of this process and helped us to understand what these choices looked like or required. We also considered how these rhetorical choices varied for different people in each version of the story. How they varied for women and men, Black women and white women, and for working class women for whom labor activism facilitated another intervention into the dominant narrative of the suffrage movement.
  2. Becoming more conscious of the ways social and cultural norms shaped those choices and lived experiences, including the dominance of racist and gendered assumptions and the persistence of misogyny and white supremacy. We considered how social movements build upon each other and what examples and resources they provide us for ongoing work in a variety of areas of U.S. culture, helping us to see the length of struggle and progress and to prepare for the kinds of responses and objections we are likely to encounter in movements for change.
  3. Identifying what is repeated and what is repurposed in the kinds of arguments advocates make, the objections that are raised, the dangers that activists face, and how this knowledge shapes our understanding of rights activism today.
  4. Critically engaging with the choice for political expediency in white suffragists’ activism and the counterstory of Black women’s sustained coalition-building and broader voting rights activism. We considered the continued role of political expediency in rights activism today including who benefits and how these choices for expediency shape the morality of the cause and its advocates, especially when “centralizing white women’s experience and repeating feminist activism’s historic exclusions of women of color” (Daugherty).
  5. Recognizing whose voice and perspective is heard, amplified, obscured, and silenced in these narrated histories and in the stories shared by each author in each text. We explored the significance of storytelling, including what it means to tell a new, expanded version of the story from a new perspective(s) and how this knowledge can shape how we understand stories we’re currently hearing and the kinds of questions we can ask about those stories and storytellers. We asked, what other versions or pieces of this story might exist?
  6. Uncovering (hidden) motivations of the suffrage movement’s most visible participants, including motivations for advocating for and against suffrage for women and what they illustrate about politics, industry, and business interests, and who holds power.
  7. Understanding what all of this means for us today, including what insights we glean about the political process and what persists and remains the same. What can we gain by studying this movement and extended moment in history?

I also invited participants to consider their own ways into this work: although my lens was rhetorical and focused on the process of re-collecting the narrative of women’s suffrage (Guglielmo, “Introduction”), it was important for participants to explore the ways in which they identified with the texts and the moments of connection, surprise, and outrage that they were willing to share with the group. In our first discussion of Weiss’ text, for example, one of our participants immediately made connections between white suffragists’ racism and how, in her words, “we did the same thing in the 70s” as part of second wave feminism. And much of this “private speech in public discourse, intimate intervention, making another text” as bell hooks describes (17), created space for literacy acts that allowed us “to identify the spaces where we begin the process of revision” (15). Collectively, as part of our book discussions, the texts functioned as counternarratives, disrupting public conversations in varied and complex ways, resisting stock narratives about the suffrage movement and voting rights in the United States. In particular, the stories collected in Jones’s Vanguard and Duster’s biography of Ida B. Wells respond to Aja Martinez’s call for a proliferation of counterstories, as narratives that “serve the purpose of exposing stereotypes, expressing arguments against injustice, and offering additional truths through narrating authors’ lived experiences” (“A Plea” 51).

Rhetorics of Women’s Suffrage as Counterstory

With our broader framing questions as a guide, we approached Jones’s Vanguard as an intervention into the larger suffrage narrative and movement for women’s suffrage in the U.S. Significantly, Jones identifies women’s suffrage and the 19th Amendment as one small piece of a larger and longer narrative of Black women’s activism before the 19th Amendment and extending after its ratification. Jones illustrates that this expanded narrative is made up of the story of individual Black women who have been excluded from or obscured in the more dominant narrative of women’s suffrage. Learning that voting rights were not guaranteed by the 19th Amendment, we considered what it means to shift the narrative or story to one of voting rights and not simply one of suffrage, especially given rampant and persistent voter suppression long after the ratification of the 19th Amendment in the form of literacy tests, poll taxes, grandfather clauses, intimidation, and violence. Although our previous reading and discussions made clear the dangers women experienced in speaking publicly, and specifically, in speaking publicly about suffrage and women’s rights, Jones brought into clear focus the additional dangers women of color faced when bringing public attention to topics challenging the status quo. And these dangers included not only speaking publicly but also moving publicly. Transportation and the harassment and violence that accompanied travel for Black women was an early and ongoing site of activism, especially for Ida B. Wells, and this was clear in the counterstories both Jones and Duster shared.

The multiple threads of individual women’s stories in Jones’s text also reveal additional social and cultural norms that attempted to limit women’s activism. From our previous readings and discussions, we understood the extent to which Black women could participate in activist organizations but often as subordinates, a fact in suffrage groups largely organized by white women. Yet Jones also illustrates this subordination of Black women in their communities and churches. A number of the texts we read pointed to the role of political expediency in the suffrage movement, including what white women were willing to sacrifice to appease Southern states and to support their own interests. Duster, for example, reinforces Wells’s refusal to walk at the back of the 1913 suffrage parade in D.C. at the request of white suffragist organizers to appease southern suffragists. Jones and Duster demonstrated the sustained commitment to coalition and to eliminating all inequality in Black women’s activism. Jones writes, for example “But Black women never limited their work to a single issue. Winning the vote was a goal, but is a companion to securing civil rights, prison reform, juvenile justice and international human rights” (9). Reaffirming this ongoing work she closes the text, “The story of Vanguard is still being written” (268). This example became particularly significant in our meeting and discussion just after the Supreme Court decision overturning the federal constitutional right to abortion in June 2022. As we discussed abortion activism and participants shared their individual ways in, drawing from lived experience and making the personal political, we imagined how the framework of reproductive justice–created and sustained over many decades by women of color–could allow us to engage in allyship and intersectional coalition.

Most significant, however, were the many opportunities that Jones and Duster provided us to engage critically with Black women’s rhetorical work. Jones opens the text with stories of her own family, illustrating that she is part of the story that she tells and allowing us to explore what it means to name the women who came before. We discussed this rhetorical strategy as one used by many of the women in the text–noting the activist work of the women who came before them–and revealing both their positionality and their shared ethos (Daniell and Guglielmo). As Jones described how the work that Black women were doing in their communities contributed to education, literacy, organizing, and community building, she illustrated how they built spaces to tell their own stories and defined women’s rights in their own ways. We learned more about the roles of racism and sexism in limiting Black women’s participation and their voices and the role of ethos and the body. Although Jones explained that Black women were used to their bodies being read (69), this detail created space for participants to consider what it means to spend additional time arguing for the right to be in the space or to speak on the subject. Consistently, Jones returns to the significance of Black women telling their own stories, prompting our discussions on what it means not to be able to tell your own story and what it can look like to write yourself into the story, as Black women did through the works they published and distributed (see Jones 41-42; 128).

And finally, we came to understand the significance of intervention and interruption in Jones’s and Duster’s work as an element of counterstory and as part of “the feminist tradition of engaging and disrupting dominant structural systems—to intervening in what is and to imagining what could and ultimately must be” (Blair and Nickoson 3). Jones, for example, expands the history of the women’s suffrage movement collected by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in their six-volume publication that excluded Black women. Similarly, Duster prompted us to consider who is telling the story and how that shapes how we understand the details of women’s lives and work. Jones and Duster engage in multiple acts of re-collecting (Guglielmo, “Introduction”) this history: in the activism of individual women they profile, of the cultural memory of women’s suffrage, of making whole the women’s stories whose activism on voting rights may have been left out of previous narratives of their lives. Through their extensive archival research, Jones and Duster also prompted us to consider where we might look for the history and stories that have not been told, moments that created space for participants to recall and to recount activism of women in their own families, remembered in bits and pieces but not widely known or shared.


As we continue reflecting on this experience, we are reminded that “Feminist pedagogy also benefits the practitioner, the teaching librarian, because facilitating empowering experiences for library users is a rewarding, relationship-building experience” (Accardi). This certainly has been true for us as part of the library-campus partnership we share here. We invite readers to consider how programs like the ALA LTAI initiative offer opportunities for community-engaged partnerships that intersect with their own teaching and scholarship and their personal and professional goals, and to expand the narrative we have shared. Essential to the process of self-reflection on our experiences is “the critical need to listen: listen to the voices of our students, our community, to those who experience the world differently than ourselves… [as we] theorize [our] own experience of [our] educational, feminist, and activist roles in the academy and beyond” (Blair and Nickoson 14). As we look to next steps in the process of this multivocal narrative, recognizing that missing here are the voices of our participants, “we share a common commitment to making visible and also interrogating the relationships and voices among all participants in community-based teaching and research—teachers, researchers, students, and community partners” and we would add library professionals (Nickoson and Blair 50). Given our partnership with the local chapter of the League of Women Voters (LWV) and the large number of participants in the book club who were also members of LWV, we are especially interested in further exploring the element of coalition-building that occurred as part of that collaboration and the ways in which it helped to shape “the development of intergenerational coalitions and relational literacies” within the group (Licona and Chávez 102). Finally, with a continued “interes[t] in rhetorical processes within and for coalition building” (Licona and Chávez 104), we intend to create space for reflection with our participants on acts of consciousness-raising that may grow out of these rhetorical practices within the context of the library as a community center.

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