Sen. Martin Heinrich’s guest for President Joe Biden’s 2023 State of the Union address held Tuesday evening during a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol building was a reproductive justice leader in New Mexico.
Heinrich invited Charlene Bencomo, a Chicana New Mexican and executive director of Las Cruces-based Bold Futures, to be his special guest at the State of the Union address. Heinrich said through a news release that he chose Bencomo “in part to recognize her advocacy and deep commitment in New Mexico to build communities where women, people and families can live and thrive with respect and dignity, but also to underscore the work that still lies ahead.”
“Charlene is a lifelong New Mexican and a driving force for change. She uses her work and life experiences to educate, inspire, and inform others. Her leadership has been central to reproductive rights advancements in our state and across the country. Honored for Charlene to join me,” Heinrich said through the release.
Reproductive health care has long been one of the biggest issues in politics nationwide, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year.
Bencomo spoke with NM Political Report from Washington D.C., Tuesday afternoon before Biden’s address. She said that it’s “a little bit wild” to be honored to be Heinrich’s special guest for the evening.
She noted that the recognition is important because she is the leader of a nonprofit organization in the southern, more rural part of the state whose staff of 10 consists entirely of women and people of color who “lead with reproductive justice values.”
“Our organization started in 1999; literally a group of people talking around a table about how they were not involved in bigger decisions affecting our everyday lives,” she said.
Bold Futures works toward policy change and culture change by and for women and people of color in New Mexico. They conduct research and place-based organizing and have been in operation for over 20 years. Bold Futures and Bencomo have been very active in the reproductive justice movement in New Mexico.
Bencomo said she felt that while reproductive rights have gained more attention in the media over the last year, the right to reproductive health care has always been important for people who have not traditionally had access. That would include many who live in New Mexico as most counties lack a single abortion clinic.
Bencomo said there is work to do “to expand real access to the full spectrum of reproductive health care,” to all individuals. Bold Futures, which was originally known as Young Women United, is closely involved in the full-spectrum reproductive healthcare clinic that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham pledged $10 million toward last year and that is expected to be built in Las Cruces in the future.
And while new clinics have opened in New Mexico, particularly in Las Cruces, since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year in its Dobbs decision, abortion clinics in New Mexico continue to report overwhelming numbers of individuals traveling from out of state to receive care.
When Bencomo talks about reproductive rights, she often uses the term reproductive justice, which began as a phrase coined by a group of Black women scholars in the 1990s. They felt that their lives and concerns were not a part of the larger cultural discussion.
“In much the same way that Young Women United/Bold Futures began around a table because they needed to better their lives, reproductive justice was born when Black women needed better options for themselves and their families. The movement has grown. Sometimes it has found power and voice and sometimes oppressive systems forced us out and forced us to be louder and bolder,” Bencomo said.
Bencomo said that if the U.S. “followed the values” of reproductive justice, “every single person would be cared for and thrive in our communities.”
Bencomo, who was born and raised in Las Cruces, started out as a bilingual special education teacher in both Austin, Texas, and then later in Las Cruces, before deciding to attend graduate school. She began working for Bold Futures, which at the time was called Young Women United, doing research analysis. When the former executive director was ready to leave, Bencomo said she was asked to take the helm. She said she has been the executive director for five years and that she is “always learning, every single day.”
She said that when she worked as a bilingual special education teacher, she worked through “some really difficult systems to get resources for families and for the kids.”
“In that work I saw how hard it is for some families who serve our communities,” she said.
Now that she manages Bold Futures, Bencomo said she “feels like I’m affecting positive change on a larger scope than in the classrooms” but she said she continues her current work remembering “hearts and minds.”
“That’s what makes up our community,” she said.