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Research Spotlight: Student blends sciences, Africana Studies in senior thesis

This profile is part of a series focused on Brown faculty and students engaged in science and research, with the purpose of highlighting and making more accessible the work being pursued at all levels across disciplines.

Though Leila Blatt ’15 has taken courses across a range of disciplines, she said she began to realize her final papers were always related to one topic: the experience of black women.

This long-standing passion began to form the basis of Blatt’s thesis project when she simultaneously took BIOL 1920B: “Health Inequality in Historical Perspective” and AFRI 0570: “20th Century Black Feminist Thought and Practice in the U.S.” during the fall of her junior year.

As a former pre-medical student and Africana Studies concentrator, “I was looking for a project that merged (these) interests,” Blatt said.

Noting that she came into Brown thinking she would concentrate in history, Blatt said when diving into projects, her approach “is to set up a historical context before jumping to a current context.”

For her thesis, Blatt started researching the mid-1800s with a focus on J. Marion Sims — an American physician some consider to be the father of gynecology — who experimented on enslaved Black women’s genitalia without the use of anesthesia.

Despite her interest in black women’s reproduction in the past, Blatt said she wanted to shift her focus to the present-day relevance of this research, focusing on “activism in light of that history.”

Blatt’s thesis centers on the activist group SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. The group’s goal is “to educate women of color and policymakers on reproductive and sexual health and rights” and frame information about these rights in “culturally and linguistically appropriate” ways, according to the collective’s website.

This past summer, she immersed herself in research on SisterSong and on one of the collective’s most famous founders, Loretta Ross, Blatt said. Hours of archival research and secondary reading formed the basis of her understanding of SisterSong, as well as of the broader fields of black feminist organizing and critical race theory in a biomedical framework, she said.

From that accumulation of material, Blatt has examined the racialization of different groups of women, with the lens that “each person’s struggle isn’t the same, but that it’s beneficial and necessary to think about mutual investment in each other’s struggles,” she said.

In her thesis, she hopes to explore this framework and look more closely at how SisterSong chooses to present the work they do and at how the group’s activism “informs bio-citizenship,” which Blatt defines as “the intersection of government, social institutions and individual liberty as one conceptualizes their biological and medical body.”

Blatt said she also plans to write about the collective’s relationship with other organizations like Planned Parenthood and its link to larger medical institutions and services.

Planned Parenthood is a “super big household name,” Blatt said, but the organization’s founding is tainted by the fact that its founder, Margaret Sanger, was a eugenicist. While some argue Sanger used eugenics “as a tool” to promote women’s reproductive rights, others say she used birth control to limit black women’s reproduction.

“This complicates Planned Parenthood’s relationship with the black communities and black reproductive justice organizers,” Blatt said.

Recently, SisterSong published a letter to Planned Parenthood asking that the organization reframe their stance on women’s health as a matter of “reproductive justice,” Blatt said. SisterSong also noted that if Planned Parenthood were to alter their framework in this way, they would “have to consult the people that created that framework. Black women and women of color have to be at the table.”

While Blatt said she does not wish to debate the controversial history of Planned Parenthood’s founding, she does hope to question “what it would mean if Planned Parenthood were to take an anti-racist (stance) in light of that history.”

With “all of this political rhetoric” in mind, Blatt said she will conclude her thesis by exploring the intersection between “political self and biological self” and how that manifests in SisterSong’s relationship to medical services.

The thesis process has been one of academic self-discovery, Blatt said. “It’s a good exercise in figuring out whether going into the academy is right for me.”

After recently deciding not to pursue medicine, Blatt said her research has also opened her eyes to other lines of work, like that which goes on in community organizations. “It’s good to think about how that works and what avenues I have to pursue that,” she said.


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