The Reproductive Justice Gap at HBCUs

The Reproductive Justice Gap at HBCUs

Some historically black colleges and universities, founded privately on Christian principles, have become deserts of sexual health resources—and students want that to change.


This past spring, MyAsia Williams, then a Clark Atlanta University student, went to her school’s health clinic for a standard vaginal check-up. At the visit, the clinic’s doctor began the standard procedure, then veered off course. She noted that Willams was “particularly hairy for a woman.” The doctor asked her a series of questions surrounding her body hair, suggesting possible hormone tests to “help with the hair.”

Williams felt uncomfortable at all the clinic visits that followed. “The age of the doctor seemed to inflict an implicit bias on my body,” she said. “No advice seemed impartial. I felt judged and critiqued…. I never felt [like I was] at a nonpartisan physician’s office.”

Clark Atlanta University, like many historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), was founded privately on Christian principles. In practice, this frequently means its administrators, professors, and even its doctors, are protected when voicing religious/moral beliefs, even in settings where it may seem inappropriate.

HBCUs were built on the radical premise of ensuring black Americans access to institutions of higher learning at a time when there were no other options. But despite their radical beginnings, HBCUs are frequently socially conservative, focusing on black radicalization through the lens of cis-gender heterosexual men at the expense of women and the LGBTQ+ community. In Williams’s case, on-campus women’s health care can feel like an experience preserved from decades ago.

This conflict plays out in many different ways at HBCUs, but one in particular is stark: Only 12 of the 101 HBCUs across the country officially recognize their campus’s Planned Parenthood Generation Action chapters. The youth-led branch of Planned Parenthood has set up chapters primarily at college campuses in order to assist youth in working “for their generation in order to achieve reproductive freedom.” Chapters across the country organize around and educate their peers about sexual health.

One of the 12 HBCUs that have recognized their Generation Action chapter is Clark Atlanta University. The chapter was founded in 2018 by now-alumna Belinda Freeman. Freeman worked for two years prior to that to establish the chapter as a chartered campus organization.

Clark Atlanta’s campus chartered organizations must have a minimum of two on-campus advisers and submit to college administration a tentative calendar of events and the parent organization’s constitution and bylaws. As simple as these terms might be, Freeman struggled with “establishing trust between all of the stakeholders and identifying potential allies. Our cause fell under the purview of the admissions office, student affairs, student health, the counseling center. We allied within these offices and that helped with the trajectory of our club.” Because of this, the chartering process stretched for years.

The current president, Taj’Zhere Dillard, has suffered similar conflicts with the university. Dillard said that she “did not realize how much of a traditional school Clark Atlanta was” until she became the chapter president.

“It’s hard to have a mission for the organization with restrictions. We tried to do an abortion event here and they [the administration] were just making us jump through hoops to make it happen, so we ended up throwing it at Spelman,” she said, referring to the college’s sister institution within the Atlanta University Center. “Why are we trying to censor students here over a health issue?”

The university, Dillard said, needs to understand that students have already had abortions and will have them— it’s just a matter of how easily they can get information about doing so safely and effectively. “Y’all should want students to have access to those resources,” she said, addressing her university’s administrators. Clark Atlanta University did not respond to requests for comment.

Aman Tune, a senior at Hampton University, an HBCU in Virginia, has gone through the same issues with her administration as the vice president of her campus’s Generation Action chapter. It is currently not recognized as a campus organization.

She and fellow student Michyah Thomas worked to establish the chapter as a campus organization two years ago. The organization was not approved “because outside organizations cannot provide health care” on private campuses. Tune said she explained to administrators that Generation Action is not a health care provider—it simply provides access to reproductive health information on campus. Still, the chapter has remained unchartered at Hampton for the past two years. The chapter remains afloat by partnering with recognized campus organizations such as the NAACP, which has helped to put on events such as a “Stand With Black Women” homecoming float and the Period Pantry Project. When asked to comment on Thomas and Tune’s experience, Hampton University did not respond.

As a result of Tune’s involvement with her chapter, she spoke at the National Planned Parenthood Conference in 2018 and has gone to several conferences with the organization. She is now in the HBCU working group, which assists in the development and planning for HBCU chapters. There, she and other volunteers from HBCUs discuss the types of events they can do, and what to do to try to overcome administration opposition.

“Planned Parenthood Generation Action chapters are a critical part of the student organizing movement overall,” said Monica Massamba, Planned Parenthood’s national campus organizing manager. “The most successful chapters begin from a relentless commitment to protect reproductive health and rights. Students who are seeking to start a chapter at their HBCUs should know that young people are the next generation, and currently some of our most fearless leaders for social justice and change. We need them, and we are here to help them grow and lead.”

In the growing need for reproductive justice, these young organizers are paving the way for their fellow students to have unlimited access to nonpartisan sexual health resources. They just hope their campuses will see it this way, too.

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