cherisse scott

Photo: Steve Jones

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Cherisse Scott

The Sex-Ed Evangelist

In 2002, when she was 28, Cherisse Scott took a leave from her job as a paralegal to play the lead in a national musical theater tour. Then she learned she was pregnant. She completed the tour, went home to Chicago, and visited what she believed was an abortion clinic but what was actually a crisis pregnancy center that convinced her to carry the pregnancy to term. Seven months after giving birth, Scott lost her job, and for six years, she relied on unemployment and food stamps, working temp jobs and performing gigs to make ends meet. "It's important to note that though this organization convinced me to keep my baby," she says, "they were nowhere to be found to offer any support for his life, health, education, or well-being."

In her early 30s, Scott met a friend of a friend who'd helped found a reproductive-justice organization; the two had a "life-affirming" conversation. And when Scott found herself pregnant again, the woman not only connected her to services but also taught her about fertility, pregnancy, and how to prevent it. For Scott, a lightbulb went off. She began volunteering with her new friend's group, Black Women for Reproductive Justice. In the process, she got passionate about sex ed. "I wished somebody had taught me about my body, about healthy sexuality, when I was young and made sure I knew what to do in order not to get pregnant," she says.

The need for such lessons is especially great in Memphis, where Scott moved in 2011. Tennessee mandates that an abstinence-only-until-marriage curriculum be used in public schools. What's more, rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea are almost double and triple the national average, respectively, among 15- to 19-year-olds in Memphis and surrounding Shelby County, and more than half of the city's high school students have had sex.

Scott decided to intervene. In 2011, she founded SisterReach, a nonprofit whose mission is to advance reproductive autonomy, especially for women of color. Since 2016, the group has partnered with local churches to offer comprehensive sex ed for women and teens. Its one- to three-day Vacation Body School events (the name is a play on Vacation Bible School camps for Christian kids) cover healthy relationships, sexual anatomy, birth control options, consent, and risky behavior. SisterReach has hosted a dozen of these events and will launch a nationwide training tour this year, sharing its curricula with advocates, clergy, and the general public.

Meanwhile, Scott is expanding the scope of SisterReach, which now employs six full-time and two part-time staffers. "The wombs of black women built this country," she says. "Unfortunately, that's not reflected in our culture or in our laws." She and other members of SisterReach have been organizing meetings in Washington, D.C., "to talk to decision-makers about the kind of support black women need—and aren't currently getting." But politics isn't the only area where Scott is raising her voice; with her son now in high school and SisterReach thriving, she's returned to singing—jazz/soul/R&B fusion—and will release her third album later this year.

—Rachel Louise Martin