story and photo by Tricia Dewey
“Multi-talented” is a word that describes Cherisse Scott. In addition she’s focused, inspiring, and visionary. Of course these few descriptors can’t begin to capture the scope of the efforts by Scott and her staff at SisterReach, where she is founder and CEO, and the good she brings to the Memphis community.
Scott is a Detroit native whose parents separated in the ‘80s. Her mother moved to Memphis and she lived her childhood in both Detroit and Memphis. As an adult she moved to Chicago, where she was focused on her work in the theater and music worlds. She is an accomplished singer, songwriter, and actress, currently working on a piece for Oregon Shakespeare Theater about her life during COVID-19.
An experience 18 years ago changed her life. While she was scheduled to be on her first big national tour she found out she was pregnant. She realized her partner at the time did not want her to keep the baby. At that time she did not know where to go for the procedure and so searched for an abortion clinic in the phone book. Scott says “About 2-1/2 hours into the visit I realized I wasn’t at an abortion clinic.” She was asked various questions about her economic status, whether she was on food stamps. She was told that if she had an abortion her uterus would be perforated and she would be unable to have children, an outcome she clearly did not want. Her son is now 18 years old and none of the folks from that clinic have since reached out to them.
Scott says her decision and situation caused her some hard economic times and cost her son the benefit of having a father. “That was a very unfair scenario that I was placed in.”
Eventually, while still living in Chicago she met one of the founders of the reproductive justice movement. Scott says, “she kept her hands on me, invited me to volunteer with her, and when I found myself pregnant again, she was able to send me somewhere to get the service that I needed.”
An opportunity to work at a reproductive justice organization opened and Scott was invited to be an organizer and educator.
Scott returned to Memphis in 2011 after her mother became ill. She quickly realized Memphis didn’t have an organization like she had worked for in Chicago. Her mother gave her the idea of how to get an organization off the ground and helped her with a business plan to support Memphis mothers and babies. Most important, Scott knew that “sexual health education was a very central part, a very key piece in the foundation of what we can do at SisterReach because I’m a firm believer that without education we can die.” Knowledge means how to use a condom, how to make sure that your partner uses it, how to use a dental dam. She says with knowledge you can be a change agent in your own life.
“That’s what we try to do here at SisterReach. Nine years later we’re not only doing it here, we’re doing it everywhere. We’ve been very successful. Not only serving Memphis but across the state, across the Southeast.”
SisterReach is a non-profit founded in October 2011 that supports the reproductive autonomy of women and teens of color. It is the first reproductive justice organization in Tennessee. To understand the work of SisterReach, one must understand that all of their work is viewed through the framework of reproductive justice, a term coined 26 years ago by Black feminist organizers in Chicago.
Scott says, “I think the definition [of reproductive justice] that folks are most used to hearing is that every woman and individual has the human right to decide if and when they are going to have a child or if they don’t want to have kids, and then to be able to parent the children they already have without fear of individuals or the government….I think the other piece that I like the most …is the quality of life piece that includes before, during, and after a person’s ability to give birth or to parent.”
SisterReach does not provide abortion services but they help provide abortion access by paying abortion providers for hotels, food, or the items that an abortion seeker may need to be able to access services. Scott says that nobody talks about abortion rights like SisterReach does “and we do that very unapologetically.” Since March they have provided more than 3,500 Safe Sex Kits that include male and female condoms, emergency contraception, and masks. Also since March they have celebrated their ninth year and moved into larger quarters deeper into Hickory Hill, accommodating a growing staff, co-locating partners like Walking Into A New Life, and remote partners like the TN Mental Health Association.
In their harm reduction work SisterReach has been offering free HIV testing since about 2013 and they are in the process of including more blood-based testing. On World Aids Day they launched a campaign for a housing facility that will serve mothers who struggle with substance abuse disorder and their children impacted by HIV, and women and potentially transwomen and transmen who are impacted by intimate partner violence. The need is so great. SisterReach hopes to bridge some of these services, and will also be rolling out a clothes closet and food pantry with their new office space.
Most of SisterReach’s funding is from foundations. (Scott says state and federal funding might limit their lobbying abilities.) One of their newest funders is AIDS Foundation – Southern HIV Impact whose support has helped to resource the campaign launched in December 2020 called You Me HIV, centering the focus of HIV awareness on its effects on Black women.
Due to COVID-19 SisterReach has not held in-person trainings in their new offices this year. But their online trainings on reproductive justice, racial justice, and faith-based organizing have expanded tremendously during the pandemic reaching a total of an estimated 10,000 with their virtual discussions and social media engagement.
Scott notes there are many pieces to the work of SisterReach. COVID-19 has exposed many of the health and economic problems in the United States. She says that the world should learn to trust Black women. “Because we are just living at so many different intersections, economic disparities, racial disparities, gender disparities. There are so many issues where we also show our resilience, we show up and show out around trying to shift the conditions of our families.” She sees her job as a way to build these relationships across race and to bring more visibility and resources to their work, a visibility that is much needed.