Smile Politely

Sustaining activism with Julie Laut

A large room with white walls and wood ceilings is full of people sitting in chairs, staring at a speaker on the stage. There are windows on the right side of the image.
Julie Laut

Julie Laut is a community activist and director, and has been working to build strong and healthy communities for almost 30 years. She has been a resident of Urbana since 2008. After many years of school and working in various community focused roles and committees, the 2020 pandemic pushed her to engage in new forms of activism. She started CU Lockdown Trivia and also ran a little free food pantry among other things. In January 2023, motivated by the Dobbs decision, Laut founded Urbana-Champaign Reproductive Justice, whose mission is to educate, elevate, and act. On June 24th, Laut will host Acts of Joyful Insurrection, in honor of the upcoming event Laut filled me in on UCRJ and it’s role in reproductive justice.

A picture of Julie Laut, a white woman with her hair pulled back, glasses, and a black t-shirt. She is smiling.
Julie Laut

Some responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Smile Politely: You founded Urbana-Champaign Reproductive Justice, tell me more about what inspired you to do this and more about this organization.

Julie Laut: After the Dobbs decision last June, I came home from the rally at the courthouse feeling very raw. My first pro-choice rally was in Boulder in 1992 or 1993, and here, I found myself at a rally mourning the loss of those rights. I felt inspired to do something more pro-active, and not just around the issue of abortion. Abortion is a fundamental right, but the context in which a person might need an abortion is much, much bigger. I wanted to see what I could do to gather local resources to work on these issues. After a successful backyard fundraiser in the fall for Chicago Abortion Fund, I decided to try and launch a reproductive justice week. I had my first meeting in late January 2023 and feel proud and excited about how much success I’ve had organizing thus far. 

SP: I imagine it can be challenging to have an organization centered around this topic. What are some of the positives and negatives of doing this important work?

Laut: To be honest, my experiences have been largely positive. Personally, it has given me hope in the face of the continuously changing landscape of legal and violent attacks against bodily autonomy. In my academic life, one aspect of my teaching expertise focused on gendered violence, yet I balanced the weight of those topics with research on feminist and women’s rights activists trying to make a difference in those same locations where gendered violence happen(ed/s). UCRJ feels like that same balance — I want to continue to learn and know about the issues standing in the way of reproductive justice (such as food insecurity, homelessness, high rates of Black maternal morbidity and mortality, sexual violence, regressive laws taking away bodily autonomy, etc.). But, by talking and working with people who have dedicated their work and research to finding solutions to these problems, I can hold on to hope. I envision UCRJ as a kind of umbrella. Under this umbrella, I want to bring everyone across this community who is working to fullfil that last, most profound aspect of the Reproductive Justice Framework: to parent the children we have in safe, sustainable communities.  

SP: What inspired the name of your upcoming event? 

Laut: CU Lockdown Trivia was founded with the deep belief in the power of community to bring joy and hope, thus my tagline for that work: “Spark Joy. Build Community.” And after the smashing good time we had at the Party for Reproductive Justice! at the Rose Bowl last April, I really wanted to find a way to replicate that feeling of coming together in joyful community despite these being difficult, infuriating, scary, and giant issues. Then, I found Rebecca Solnit’s quote: “Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated, and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.” It felt like the perfect fit for the anniversary of Dobbs. I could have organized a rally or a march; there will be plenty of lectures and such reflecting seriously on the last year in the wake of that devastating Supreme Court decision. But it felt to me crucial to find a way to gather together with joy to create and witness art, laugh, look one another in the eye, and find some sustenance for the fight ahead. Thus: Acts of Joyful Insurrection! I’m hoping it’s successful and we can replicate this every year. 

A group gathers in a bookstore sitting on couches and chairs seated in a semi-circle
Julie Laut

SP: Can you tell me a little more about the event and what to expect? 

Laut: The event provides community members a variety of opportunities to come together to make art, share ideas, laugh, and dance. I’m grateful to the IMC for co-sponsoring the event. We’ll be able to use both the main room and the Sunroom for various, overlapping events. In the main room there will be an amateur poetry workshop followed by zine making with the Zine Library. In the Sunroom, there will be an opportunity to vision about reproductive justice in Urbana-Champaign and two volunteer opportunities with Planned Parenthood of Illinois and Elevated Access. I’m extremely excited about finishing the day off with some amazing live music from Paul Kotheimer, Mike Ingram, and Emily the Band, and two comedy sets from Farah Ismi and Jessica Stelzer. My hope is that there is a little something for everyone to get involved!

A white woman in a black t-shirt, zip up sweatshirt, and black sunglasses, stands in front of a brick wall with a planned parenthood sign.
Julie Laut

SP: How do you define reproductive justice and what does it mean to you? 

Laut: Reproductive Justice is a social justice movement created by Black women in Chicago in 1994, in an effort to bring together the fight for reproductive rights and social justice movements. The framework was reclaimed and re-envisioned this last January at a convention led by SisterSong. I follow the lead of these activists who have been working for reproductive justice for decades based on the definition of 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.” The more time I spend learning/reading/talking about reproductive justice, the more comprehensive to my life the liberatory vision of RJ feels. The work, volunteer, and personal decisions I’ve made have been pieces of the broader RJ framework. My lack of adequate sex education and subsequent abortion at 17 led to my decision to raise my children in the Unitarian Universalist tradition, which includes some of the best human sexuality education for youth in the country. I worked with pregnant and parenting teens while teaching high school to help ensure they finished high school. As a new parent, I breastfed my children for a combined 3 ½ years and worked in breastfeeding advocacy. When I was in grad school, I worked with the GEO to help ensure fair wages for graduate students. The aspect of my academic life I relished the most was research into women who were fighting for women’s rights around the world. My passions, my interests, my life – they have all been committed to pieces of this RJ framework, even when I didn’t realize it. I’m grateful to have found this area of work – to be learning from those who have been doing the work for decades – so that I can help bring reproductive justice to everyone in Urbana-Champaign. It’s beautiful work, really, to envision a future that allows people to have control of their bodies and the ability to live in safe, sustainable communities. There is a pragmatic idealism that has always appealed to me. I believe it is possible to achieve, but it will take us all working together!

SP: The Supreme Court’s decision to eliminate federal protections for abortion access continue to impact so many people. Even though Illinois is more protected than other states,  what can we do to help others who may be effected by this decision? 

Laut: First, it is important to understand that the regressive anti-abortion right wing is using the exact same tactics to attack gender-affirming care as those they have used against abortion access. Attacks against bodily autonomy will not end soon. It is more important than ever that we here in East Central Illinois triple-down on our commitments. Educate: Educate yourself on the issues. Follow the news to know what is happening in the legal landscape here and across the country to understand the context under which we are working. Elevate: You can also give financially and/or of your time. If you are able, give to the abortion fund(s) of your choice. In the last year I’ve helped raise money for the Chicago Abortion Fund and Midwest Access Coalition, both of which provide practical support for people seeking abortions. Giving to the National Network of Abortion Funds would spread your support for abortion access across the country. Elevated Access provides practical support for people seeking abortions and gender-affirming care. Act: Vote in every election and always for candidates who have clearly stated their pro-abortion, pro-LGBTQ+ positions. Illinois has strong constitutional protections now, but that will only remain true if we ensure government at all levels remain committed to protecting these rights. And remember that grassroots activism and volunteerism is needed to strengthen local organizations, keep pressure on local leaders, and respond quickly to threats to bodily autonomy. For example, Danville-area residents are organizing there to push back against governmental and violent attempts to prevent the opening of a women’s clinic. And UCRJ is expanding our work in many areas and will be looking for volunteers throughout the year. Find your issue, give your time and skills!

3 women stand next to each other smiling at the camera. The woman on the left is a white woman with her hair pulled back, glasses, and a pink shirt with a maroon sweater. The woman in the middle is black, has her hair is tied up in a purple scarf bun, and is wearing a patterned dress holding a book. The woman on the right is shorter than the other two, has short black hair and is wearing a gray t-shirt.
Julie Laut

SP: Studies show that People of Color are disproportionately harmed more often by reproductive healthcare decisions. How do you ensure that your organization is a safe space for everyone?  

Laut: Resolving the sometimes fatal inequities in healthcare is a key element of the reproductive justice framework. Our organization follows the lead of RJ activists as well as those within the LGBTQIA+ community who also face multiple barriers to equitable, safe healthcare.  Part of UCRJ’s mission is to learn from those individuals and organizations already committed to doing this work in Urbana-Champaign and finding ways to elevate their work. The first UCRJ Week was enhanced by the participation of steering committee members Karen Tabb Dina and Mia Hoang, both of whose academic work in the School of Social Work is focused on reproductive health inequities. We also worked closely with Nicole Frydman from Uniting Pride and Isis Rose with BIPOC for Better Birth. Though by no means comprehensive, events in April did directly address RJ healthcare inequities, such as the BIPOC for Better Birth discussing the role of doulas as part of birth justice work. The screening and Q&A of the film Aftershock, and the lunch and learn on 2SLGBTQIA+ led by Len Meyer. The book group, documentary film series, and other events UCRJ will be developing over the coming year will continue to keep these issues at the fore. We already have a screening of Birthing Justice scheduled for November 14, 2023 at Spurlock Museum.

SP: What would a perfect day in Champaign-Urbana look like for you, and what would you do? 

Laut: The perfect U-C day takes place on a Saturday in the summer. We start the day with our coffee (beans purchased from Common Ground, of course), then head to the Urbana Market at the Square. Because we’ve lived here since 2008, and I’ve been involved in the community throughout, a walk through the market includes not only browsing for veggies and local art, but also stopping to talk/connect with lots of friends and acquaintances. After a visit to Common Ground for anything else we need for dinner, lunch under an umbrella at The Esquire is a good bet. An IPA and one of their pizzas always hits the spot. Before leaving Champaign I have to check out anything new at Ten Thousand Villages and bring a new plant home from Plant Mode. The rest of the day is spent resting a bit before cooking dinner for friends and family, spending time in our backyard until the sun sets, listening to music, and sharing laughter. This is indeed a life well-lived! 

 Joyful Acts of Insurrection
U-C Independent Media Center
202 S Broadway Ave
Su June 25th, 1 to 8 p.m.

Culture Editor

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