Dolen Perkins-Valdez

March 29, 2023—Siblings Mary Alice and Minnie Lee Relf were 12 and 14 years old respectively when they were taken to a hospital in downtown Montgomery, Alabama, one summer day in 1973 and sterilized against their will.

It was part of a nationwide program to diminish poverty and it happened over and over again to poor women and girls of color all over the country until the Southern Poverty Law Center filed class-action lawsuit on behalf of the Relf sisters, bringing this government-sponsored abuse into the spotlight.

The work of fiction that New York Times bestselling author Dolen Perkins-Valdez based on this horrifying chapter in American history is this year’s choice for the CSU Channel Islands (CSUCI) Campus Reading Celebration.

The campus community and the general public are encouraged to read Take My Hand,” published in 2022 by Berkley Books, prior to the Campus Reading Celebration being held on Tuesday, April 11. Perkins-Valdez, who lives in Washington D.C., will visit the CSUCI campus to participate in panel discussions, question-and-answer sessions, provide a keynote speech, and book signing.

“It tells a story that history seems to have forgotten about,” said CSUCI Assistant Professor of English Kim Vose. “You hear about civil rights, but you don’t hear as much about reproductive justice. We need tales like this to remind us of events that have been overlooked in history. I think right now we need tales like this to give us empathy for one another, more than ever before.”

Before she began doing research for her book, Perkins-Valdez had not heard of the Relf sisters, but she did know a little about the area in Alabama where they grew up.

“My dad graduated from Tuskegee Institute in the late 1960s,” Perkins-Valdez said during a 2022 interview posted on YouTube. “I grew up hearing stories about the Tuskegee syphilis experiment and when I learned what happened to those girls happened around the same time the syphilis experiment came to light, I knew I had to write about it.”

The U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) Syphilis Study at Tuskegee was a 50-year study begun in 1932 when there was no known cure for syphilis. Researchers conducted the experiment on Black men who were promised free health care in return and were not fully informed of what was happening to them. They did not get treatment, even after it was widely available and most of the 600 participants died, went blind, insane or experienced other severe health problems.

In “Take My Hand” Perkins-Valdez tells the story of forced sterilizations through her fictional character, Civil Townsend, a Black nurse who blows the whistle on the government when she learns that two young girls on the threshold of womanhood were sterilized without their consent or understanding.

In actual events, an enraged social worker blew the whistle that led to a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of the Relf sisters. The outcome of Relf vs. Weinberger was a prohibition of the use of federal funds for involuntary sterilization.

Perkins-Valdez hopes this book keeps this sort of medical abuse performed on Black citizens in the public consciousness, so that it never happens again.

“(For the book), I came up with this character Civil Townsend, a nurse, who finds herself wrestling with not only with one of the most tragic events of her life, but one of the most tragic events in history,” Perkins-Valdez said. “I believe that in order to heal, we must remember. Once we remember, we acknowledge. Once we acknowledge, we can take more significant action.”

The book was chosen as one of three finalists by the 2022-23 Campus Reading Celebration Taskforce, a committee comprised of CSUCI faculty and staff members.

The campus then voted on the final three and “Take My Hand” emerged the winner.

Vose has been devoting her time to the Campus Reading Celebration for 11 years now, because she believes this event ties the campus and the community together at a deeply human level. The event is for CSUCI students, staff and faculty, but members of the public are encouraged to read the book and join in the livestream, which begins live at 4:30 p.m. on April 11.

“Something like this transcends majors, transcends colleges,” Vose said. “It gives the community a chance to do something together. Students will stand in line for a long time to get their books signed. It shows me the value of reading.”

The Campus Reading Celebration will be from 4:30 to 6 p.m. at the John Spoor Broome Library Plaza beginning with a keynote speech from Perkins-Valdez followed by a discussion and a book signing.

To RSVP and see a full schedule for the day, which includes two panel discussions, visit:

The University encourages people with disabilities to participate in its programs, events and activities. If you anticipate needing any type of accommodation or have questions about the physical access provided, please contact the respective area below as soon as possible, but no later than seven business days prior to the event/activity: 

CSUCI Students
Disability Accommodations & Support Services:

CSUCI Employees
Christine Girardot:

Members of the Public
Title IX & Inclusion:

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