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Marsha Jones Redefines the Meaning of Community for Black Women in Dallas

Marsha Jones founded the Afiya Center in Dallas, which supports black women and girls.EXPAND
Marsha Jones founded the Afiya Center in Dallas, which supports black women and girls.
Jonathan Armstrong

While discussions on police abolition are still prevalent in the media and protesters continue to advocate defunding police forces and investing instead in community resources, people all over the world are beginning to reconsider just what “community” means.

For The Afiya Center, radical community ideals and notions of intersectionality — how race, gender and other aspects of identity interrelate  — are nothing new. The Dallas organization was built on intersectional community activism and challenging the inequities in healthcare for black women.  The center was founded in 2008 with the mission of bringing education and resources to black women living with HIV/AIDS.

“We didn’t have a staff. We just had a really amazing idea that if we used the social justice and human rights approach in talking about HIV, we’d be able to improve the lives of women in a powerful way,” says Marsha Jones, the center's executive director.

Along the way, the team also began to recognize the need for education about reproductive rights and maternity care.

“People have got to have the right to choose ... for us, the right to choose is also a form of economic freedom; it’s also a form of environmental freedom,” said Jones in a virtual conversation with Texas Organizing Project and Austin Justice Coalition earlier this week. “We have got to stop being so single focused and single issued. We’ve got to find a way to be more intersectional — all of our issues are important.”

As the the center expanded, they recognized that support and education in women’s healthcare would ultimately open up other educational avenues for young black women and girls.

Since its inception, the center has assisted many programs aimed at removing stigma from discussions of sexual healthcare. They include educational events on race and women’s care, reading groups for girls that focus on feminist theory written by women of color, trans and cis-gender HIV/AIDS support groups and a community outreach program for reproductive justice.

In 2018, the center tackled the topic of abortion directly with a billboard. It started with The Black Pro Life Coalition erecting a billboard that read, “Abortion is not healthcare.” The message was, Jones says, “an untruth." So the center put up their own sign, which read, “Abortion is Self-Care.”

The billboard received an ambivalent response from the public, but the organization has kept this message close as they continue their work.

“Anything that a person does to make sure that they are taking care of themselves, and that the outcome is one that is positive for them, and that they can change what could be a negative force in their life ... that’s self-care. It’s not just a day at the spa.”

The Afiya Center also supports a doula training program for black women, named Southern Roots Doula Services.

“Out of all the work that we do, this is the work that makes me smile most,” says Jones, who is a doula.

The organization's 2019 study, State of Black Women Report, notes that “in the United States today, pregnancy-related deaths for Black women are three times more likely than for White women.”

This is one of the greatest healthcare disparities in the state. The impact from enduring long-term racism has "a part in what happens to black women having babies; it impacts our bodies so differently,” Jones  says.

“Black women are more likely to visit hospitals with a lower quality of care and higher rate of life-threatening complications,” the report says.

The report also says that doula services for black women have been largely successful in improving care.

The Afiya Center has plans to release another State of Black Women Report in 2021 in partnership with the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute. It will talk more about black maternity as well as COVID-19 and the physical effect it has had on black women.

They are also supporting a bail fund for Black Lives Matter protesters who have been arrested in Dallas.

To recognize and dismantle disparities that plague America's healthcare system and beyond, strong communities must continuously work toward intersectional thought, Jones says.

“If we’re not talking about things intersectionally, we are going to continue to struggle,” she adds.

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