Last Friday, when the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade, Dr. Aisha Mays felt “caught off guard.”

Dr. Mays previously worked as the medical director at Alameda County’s Juvenile Hall and at Native American Health Center and is the founder of the Dream Youth clinic of Roots Community Health Center. She currently serves as the medical director of adolescent and school-based services at Dream Youth Clinics of Roots Community Health Center.

“In order to provide healthcare for our most vulnerable populations, we always have to have hope, and that sparkle stays lit within us,” Mays said. “I felt very hopeful that because of the leaked brief, and because of the outrage from that, maybe it would be stalled, or maybe it’d be reconsidered.” (In May, an initial draft majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito was leaked and published by POLITICO.) 

“With protests, activism, and advocacy, we’ve often been able to shift the tides of harmful effects in this country,” she said. “To see that shattered on Friday morning was sobering, to say the least.”

Her work with Dream Youth clinics in Oakland—there are two locations on 5th Street and Harrison Street—has her working directly with at-risk youth, including young people who don’t have secure housing or are vulnerable to sex trafficking.

The Oaklandside spoke to Dr. Mays to talk about how the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade could impact the young people she works with every day. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Dr. Aisha Mays  / Dream Youth Clinic 03
Signs with information on reproductive health and options frame the walls of the clinic bathroom. Credit: Amir Aziz

Before we jump into the conversation about the overturn of Roe v. Wade, tell me a little bit about starting the Dream Youth Clinic.

We started in 2017 to be able to respond to our mission at Roots, which is providing comprehensive health care and culturally competent healthcare services for the most vulnerable people of Oakland. 

We noticed that there was a gap in serving young people, serving the most vulnerable population experiencing homelessness, those affected by sex trafficking, and youth in the juvenile justice system who also experience a high level of discrimination and marginalization when they are seeking health care services. 

We were approached by the homeless youth shelters in Oakland, the DreamCatcher Youth Services, and Covenant housing services, which are the two shelters serving young people ages 13 to 24. We are co-located in the youth shelters which is the perfect opportunity for us to be able to provide really comprehensive youth-led care.

On a typical week, how many patients do you see?

On a typical week, we see about 40 to 50 young people, and we do a range of services. We’re doing medical services, behavioral health services, and help-navigation, which is one-on-one intensive client management for young people helping them with social needs. 

We are running groups during the week like Young Mothers Rising for young people who are pregnant, parenting, or planning to become pregnant. 

The conversation has been about abortion rights, but at-risk youth have been left out of the conversation. From your time as medical director at Alameda County Juvenile Hall, and your time at the Native American Health Center, have you seen an uptick in patients who have experienced sex trafficking? 

It was during my time at Juvenile Hall that I started to learn about the epidemic of sex trafficking in Oakland in the Bay Area. The Bay Area is the number three hotspot in California, behind Los Angeles and San Diego for sex trafficking, and Oakland is the epicenter of that. The thing about sex trafficking of young people is that it is all about control of young people’s bodies, and we see both female-identified youth and male-identified youth affected by trafficking.

I think about how this is going to affect young people who are trafficked across the states and not being able to access abortion services when their risk of pregnancy is five times higher. 

The other thing that we see with young folks who are affected by sex trafficking is that a pregnancy and having a child with their exploiter is a common way of controlling that young person for their entire life. Because again, a child is a lifelong connection, a lifelong bond. Abortion is used as a reproductive-freedom tool for young people who are affected by trafficking. And taking that away not only takes away their reproductive autonomy but also can threaten their overall safety in their life.

The Dream Youth clinic community garden with flourishing greens and an art piece. Credit: Amir Aziz

What are the resources that the clinic provides for those youth who want to have an abortion? What type of guidance does the clinic provide?

One thing that we always do at the clinic is remind young people that they are in charge, they are in control. That is something that is so important when we’re working with young people who have been made vulnerable by our systems.

We always do something that’s called pregnancy options. So we let them know that we’re here to support you in whatever you choose. You can decide to not stay pregnant. We are very mindful of the language that we choose. And we’re talking about a pregnancy. We’re not talking about a child. Right now, this is a pregnancy. This pregnancy would not be able to translate into a child. It is just too early in a pregnancy. You can choose to not be pregnant, and if you choose to not be pregnant, these are things that we can do and we will connect them right away to trusting others trusted clinics that work well with young people who are seeking an abortion. 

Having trusted health partners is so important. We have our health navigators working direct one-on-one with that young person to make that appointment to ask questions. 

We also let them know that if you want to continue your pregnancy, we have the information and support around that. We provide prenatal care in our clinic. We have a program called Young Mothers Rising that provides wraparound support for young people who choose to parent. 

One thing that is really left out of this conversation is that young people are able to make sound choices about what they want to do with their pregnancy. Every pregnancy does not end in termination. 

The reason why I’m spending a lot of time talking about this is that the anti-abortion movement has really stripped away what is actually going to happen to these live births. It’s an anti-choice movement.

They are not focused on resources. How do we create the conditions for women to be able to successfully parent? To have healthy pregnancies, healthy deliveries, and successful healthy parenting? That is not what the anti-abortion movement is about.

Are your networks and trusted healthcare partners in conversation with at-risk youth from other states who might seek help here in Oakland?

I have not heard anything yet but we know that across the West Coast, patients, including youth are seeking services because of new abortion ban laws. We are preparing to be able to provide support for additional youth who will come through our doors.

Because we care for young people, our social media is such a powerful tool to be able to inform, educate and connect.

As a medical professional, what is your biggest worry right now?

One is that there will be more coerced pregnancies. The second thing I worry about is unsafe abortions. Abortion is not going anywhere. And now going back to an underground market, where some young people and adult women will be accessing unsafe abortions. I want to add a caveat that before Western medicine there have always been natural and indigenous practices for being able to end the pregnancy. So I’m not talking about the natural medicine that we that is part of indigenous and natural in other in our historical cultures. I mean young people going and having procedures that may be done by uncertified professionals or having procedures that are so expensive. 

More than ever, we need multisector advocacy to really be able to combat the anti-abortion movement. It takes health care, journalism, and education. This is not just a health issue. This is a human rights issue. And we really have to attack it from that perspective.

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.