COLUMBIA — Tatiana McKinney has had a busy college career.
Her lengthy resume details some of the events she has been involved in — celebrating the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion with an event at Planned Parenthood, for example, or attending the Choice USA Midwest Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute, which looks at reproductive health issues.
She passed out 500 condoms in an hour for the Great American Condom Campaign in November 2008. She has also lobbied in Washington, D.C., three times — once when she was the only one lobbying.
Last month, McKinney was awarded the Dr. Medgar Evers Political Award from the MU chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for her activism for women's reproductive and sexual health rights.
McKinney, 21 and a graduating MU senior, used to be a what she calls a “quiet voice for women.” Now, she says, her voice has grown louder. But the first obstacle was her faith.
McKinney describes her mother and grandparents as “strict Christians,” though she herself was also a devout member of the Powerhouse Church of God in Christ. Because of her family’s religious affiliation and her grandparents’ pro-life views, McKinney feared telling them her political ideology.
In fact, her mother and grandparents didn’t learn about her activism until they read about it in an article, "'Pro-choice,' faithful — and proud," published in 2007 by a student at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.
“Her grandparents don’t agree with (McKinney) being pro-choice, but we all still love and support her,” said McKinney's mother, Cynthia Jenkins.
Jenkins said she had always told her daughter that God gave humans a choice, and she must respect those choices.
McKinney said she remembers her mother teaching her about contraception at an early age. Reproductive education is important, McKinney said, especially for black women.
According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2006, the most recent year for which data is available, Hispanic and black teen pregnancy rates are three times higher than the rates for white teens.
“You can give people all of the (sexual health) resources available, but if they don’t know how to use them, then they’re no better off,” McKinney said.
McKinney is active in Spiritual Youth for Reproductive Freedom, a group that "empowers youth and young adults to put their faith into action and advocate for pro-choice social justice," according to its Web site.
It was while working with the organization that she was able to coordinate the Planned Parenthood event as an intern. When she found the organization, McKinney said, she felt like she found a home of like-minded women in which she could remain religious and passionate in her activism.
McKinney said she hasn't always been an activist for women’s reproductive rights and sexual health. But a few events in her life instilled in her a sense of urgency in her activism.
In 1993, when McKinney was 5, one of her mother’s closest friends died from AIDS. Now, McKinney's face contorts into miserable shock as she says she saw her mother’s friend when her flesh was falling from her face, unable to understand the nature of AIDS.
“I wanted to see how to help somebody like that,” she said.
Years later, when McKinney was a high school student in Batesville, Miss., she said her doctor denied her birth control. She said she thinks he did that because of his religious beliefs.
It was at that time that McKinney said, “I need to fix this.”
McKinney said one of her proudest moments came last year, when she convinced a group of her friends to go with her to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases, something she said she used to be scared of. After the tests, she remembers everyone smiling, ready to go to work.
Evan Hamilton, an MU senior and McKinney's best friend, met her as a freshman and quickly learned of her work.
“Usually when (McKinney) speaks to an individual or a group, she knows what she's saying, and listening to what she has to say would be in the best interest of anyone within earshot,” Hamilton said.
He said he knows that most of McKinney’s battles are internal ones with her religion.
“She knows what she's supposed to believe,” he said. But being an advocate for women's reproductive rights and spiritual (something McKinney said she once thought was an oxymoron) is something Hamilton knows she embraces.
McKinney will graduate from MU on Saturday with a bachelor's degree in communication. She hopes to find a job that combines both of her passions: social justice and public relations.
Although she said she’s had multiple career opportunities (including an internship interview with Edelman, PRWeek magazine's 2009 public relations agency of the year), McKinney said she’s just excited to finally disburse the piles of sexual health pamphlets and condoms filling her room.