Sonya Renee is the director of Peer Education at Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive (HIPS), a non-profit organization that promotes HIV prevention and empowerment programming in Washington, DC. At work, she recruits, trains and supervises current and former sex workers to act as sex educators in their communities. In addition to her professional job, she is a National Poetry SLAM-winning performance poet who is committed to using the power of spoken word to bring empowering and progressive ideas to the public. A poem dedicated to Choice USA entitled “What We Deserve,” is featured on Sonya’s newest album which was released this past May.
Choice USA: When was the first time you first became involved in peer education?
Sonya Renee: It goes back to when I was 15 years old. There was a community center nearby and they were recruiting people to do peer education. At that time, it was teen pregnancy prevention type of peer education. I fell in love with the work I did, equipping people with options and giving information that is good for them. When I saw an opening at HIPS, I was really excited about getting back to that type of work.
Who has influenced and inspired your views and your work?
There are so many powerful women, and not just in my line of work but in general, who I admire. I love the writings of Sonya Sanchez and I like the determination of Oprah Winfrey. I am also really impressed by the young women I see heading non-profit organizations, like HIPS executive director Cindee Clay and Choice USA executive director Crystal Plati. These are young women doing really amazing and incredible work.
What is spoken word and how do you see it as a tool in activist work?
I really think that spoken word has become, and is traditionally based on, activism. It is a tool that young people are utilizing to have their voices heard. I’ve seen it in anti-war, pro-choice, sex workers’ rights and anti-discrimination movements. I see spoken word as not just a form of entertainment but a mode for like-minded people to share and articulate ideas, and to bring these ideas to the people. Today, I am seeing a change in the average Joe Schmos—they are getting interested in performance poetry and are really learning about something they might not have known about before.
How did your poem “What We Deserve” come about?
Initially I wrote the poem in response to a new advertising campaign running on the DC metro transportation services called women deserve better than abortion. I was just baffled that someone had spent so much money on that campaign when they could have put it into social services they claim are lacking. When I found out about the work that Choice USA is doing and saw their commitment to the full range of reproductive rights for women, I decided I wanted to dedicate the poem to Choice USA.
What does it mean to be pro-choice?
To me, it means having faith in a human being’s ability to make decisions for themselves. We all have an innate ability to decide what is right for us and I think the pro-choice movement validates that right.
If you could impart advice to young activists out there, what would you say?
Get involved, and take initiative. When you hear things and you don’t know who is already rallying around the issue or who is doing something, then take it up. Also, it's always important to know the other side of the issue, so listen to the people whose ideas you hate, too. And never be afraid to speak your mind.