The titles and roles of activists may differ, but a good activist can be spotted by their passion and dedication to their work. Most of us choose our paths of activism based on the impact we want to have or life sort of decides for us by placing us in social locations where the only path that makes sense is one of resistance. High levels of recognition are typically reserved for a few select folks. This blog series is not a remedy to this situation, but rather designed to highlight activists and their justice work through brief interviews. This interview is a part of our work on The Right Time initiative, which aims to increase Missourian’s access to their contraception of choice (therighttime.org).
This installment is an interview with Sharell Collins, is the Community Engagement Coordinator at Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri. Responses were provided during a one-on-one call, and this transcription was reviewed and approved by the interviewee prior to publication.
How would you describe the trajectory of your activism?
I work for Planned Parenthood, and we are the home of the only abortion clinic in the entire state [of Missouri]), so I do a lot! My goal is to ensure that everybody has access, whether that be to health care, education, or economics. When I was working in Chicago in 2017, I had a client who found out she was HIV+ while in a monogamous relationship with somebody who never told her he was HIV+, and she found this out when she discovered she was pregnant. This was the collision of my two worlds. I asked myself, which was more important: helping someone have a healthy birth or helping him or her deal with a virus they will have for the rest of their life. This was my shift into reproductive justice. I was trained and licensed to counsel people living with HIV while interning at a clinic as a senior in college, which made it easy for me to quickly get a job. There is not a lot of young people working on HIV. Usually, it’s people who have been impacted or are living with HIV, so I was able to climb the ladder because I had a unique perspective. Working on HIV can be very emotional, and I used to take my work home with me so I had to scale back from working on it.
Were there any preconceived notions you had coming into your activism that has since been shattered?
I will start with my concerns from my family. They think that since I have multiple degrees and have met and worked with high-profiled people in politics and entertainment, I should be making a decent amount of money. I should, but that is not how the world works. They see the work that I do and the impact it has, and they are proud of me. I remember talking to my mom because she could not understand it at first. I had to sit her down and explain to her that this work is personal, and she realized that I was right. Not all hard work comes with a high salary.
I have friends that are doctors and lawyers who make six figures and they ask me why I do not have a higher income. Yet, they are envious of me because I do not have to sit in an office and do 9 to 5 work like they do. Working in the non-profit sector does have its benefits, such as getting to do cool stuff and meet extraordinary people. Therefore, there is a tradeoff. I just want to be able to do this work comfortably and be more financially stable, but there was this mentality of what it should be and I’ve been working through that fight for a while, because I have advanced degrees and various skill sets.
How does the work you’re doing now fit into your life goals?
Recently, I have been doing more presentations, more public speaking engagements. I want my life goals to align more in that sector. My goal to share knowledge with everyday people remains the same. Overall, I want people to know what is going on with social justice issues and be more knowledgeable about their health and wellness.
A part of your work is to talk about how birth control access is a reproductive justice issue. How have you gone about that, and how do you want that work to look moving forward?
I was born to teenage parents. Because of them, I had it set in my mind that I was not going to become a parent at 18 or 19 years old. I found quality health care to access free birth control from Planned Parenthood when I was 15 and have been an advocate for Planned Parenthood since my first appointment. As such, I have been a huge advocate for birth control because I am a firm believer that everybody should have a choice of when they want to become a parent. Just because someone wants to engage in sexual activities does not mean they should be punished for participating in a pleasurable experience.
Pre-COVID we had a robust outreach program. We would table at various festivals throughout St. Louis and southwest Missouri. The affiliate I work with covers all the St. Louis metropolitan area and the southern part of Missouri, but we also have the northern part of Missouri however, our clinics are not there so it is harder to cover that area. Post-COVID we had to change our process, which now allows us to service patients in northern Missouri through our telehealth program. Also, I love entertaining. I love music. I have always wanted to combine my alter ego and my passion for health care and activism. We started doing watch parties of television shows. That was a big way to engage our supporters because we were listening to what they wanted to do. We brought discussions about birth control into those conversations happening at watch parties.
As an active community leader, where do you see community voices most needed in shaping health care? What is missing and what are some ways you are working to make improvements in your community?
First, we need to activate more young people, especially now with the way outreach is shifting to digital. Young people, 25 and younger, have a better digital background and can navigate it much better than I can. I am only 32, but I act much older sometimes. I am not on TikTok. I am not on certain social media platforms like that because that is not in my interest. Younger people and the youth know how to communicate with each other and get information from each other on these platforms. In addition, you have to meet people in the spaces they are in and not be afraid, to tell the truth. Being honest in conversation with people will allow your message to get pushed out even more. Stop using all the textbook strategies because it is not working.
I am interested in directing and delivering more health strategies, and doing more public speaking. Me having that voice, allows me to get the part of the work I want to be done. I am still searching for what my focus will be, but it will be working on women and children’s issues.
People often reflect on how much their work has impacted others, but how has your work impacted you?
I have always been able to stay true to myself and just be me. A person who is passionate about their work does not only work when they are clocked-in. When it comes to helping people, I do that all the time. It is part of who I am.
Sharell Collins is the Community Engagement Coordinator at Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri. Sharell began her career in the HIV/STI field as an outreach tester/counselor and then as a Program Lead at Cook County Hospital System (Chicago, IL) before starting her Planned Parenthood journey three years ago. She has shared knowledge and made essential connections with stakeholders by providing resources and health care services throughout her career. Currently, she works on a state-wide birth control initiative called The Right Time (therighttime.org). This program allows women throughout the state of Missouri to access free birth control methods by removing barriers hindering them from accessing care, all while working on various Planned Parenthood-related civic engagement and political initiatives.