This week’s Time cover story on the steady decline of abortion rights since the Roe decision 40 years ago details, painfully, the obvious.
Rather than reconstruct some of the excellent reactions out there, including Amanda Marcotte debunking Susan B. Anthony List’s ridiculous “pro-life feminist” reaction piece (serious delusion, in what universe is forcing a miscarrying Savita Halappanavar to die in the hands of a “pro-life” state a feminist policy framework), Katie Stack reminding us that while we may be losing, we don’t have to give up, and Steph Herold pushing back against the idea that young activists are making the movement weaker by taking their leadership outside the Pro-Choice, Inc., box, I’d like to simply say I agree with all of them and provide some additional food for thought.
Probably the most unique insight I provide is having served in leadership, as a younger woman, inside one of the larger establishment organizations so frequently painted in the media as unable to connect with younger people. There are realistic tweaks that could be made in many of these legacy organizations to help reverse this trend:
1. Put young people on your boards. Then, use them. Most organizations work with appointed boards filled with older women, most of whom pay their own way. Develop an affirmative action policy for younger people of all races, sexual orientations and economic backgrounds. Pay their way to board meetings. I have come to believe in my own experience that the perspective problem is not a numbers problem. There are extremely talented young people in all of these organizations. These young people are largely not being used on a strategic level. When they are used strategically, it is usually in a “junior” capacity, meaning they are specially chosen to be the one younger person to weigh in on this one specific intergenerational thing with a larger group of powerful, older, white, wealthy and heterosexual people who have already decided upon the agenda they are steering. This leads to efforts “about” or “to” young people, rather than “with” them.
2. Find a way to answer the following query: Am I supposed to go away? Legacy organizations are very familiar with the history I am about to describe. Women of color are underrepresented in membership, leadership, outreach, you keep going and you’ll find underrepresentation all over the place. Someone well-meaning, often a woman of color, brings to the group an initiative designed to bring in more women of color. Others get excited. Then, as the idea fleshes out, it requires changes to the rules, or doesn’t quite fit with previous efforts, or heaven forbid, there are a fixed number of seats at the table and it had always felt so comfortable when it was just Sheila, Annie and the remaining 27 of “us.” (The word us and how it can be misused to exclude!) Suddenly the 27 make the conversation all about them. What about me? Am I supposed to go away? Are you saying I’m irrelevant? Wait is this just that you secretly want to grab the power and kick me out of here? These feelings are natural but legacy organizations have been having them for decades without finding a way to address them, and they replace the conversations that sparked them, usually resulting in very few changes within the legacy organization, with the exception of Sheila and Annie leaving, who are then replaced with a few other tokens who try to make change, and the cycle continues. If you are curious whether this same dynamic applies to younger people (including younger people of color) in legacy organizations, the answer is sitting in plain sight. The similarity of these conversations should be used as an opportunity for serious reflection on the part of movement leaders who look like part of “the 27 of us.”
3. Be aggressive! Really, really aggressive. The health care law started with a concession that was never requested from pro-choice allies in Congress. Was this concession accepted? No. It was made worse. The answer is pretty simple: Stop trying to bargain with politicians and theocrats who are opposed to reproductive rights and human rights. Work to defeat them. Expose them. Ridicule them. Picket their events. Demand corporations stop partnering with them. Put public pressure on insurance companies that don’t offer abortion coverage. Invest. This is not an image problem you solve with a marketing consultant, this is an organizing problem you solve with investment in the grassroots! Go hyper-local: Use the city councils and county councils to regulate crisis pregnancy centers and hospitals receiving public dollars. Build budgets that don’t depend on small-dollar fundraising that publicizes every backward move (a conversation does need to be had about the financial incentives for legacy organizations behind threats to the status quo). Don’t be afraid to use the “A” word. Abortion! There is nothing to be ashamed of in this movement.
It’s time for change. The fortunate news is that social media is helping to usher in tons of opportunities for more people, of all backgrounds, to exercise meaningful leadership within the movement. It is also offering opportunities for more people, of all backgrounds, to personalize what is so political. Carefully scripted talking points and political connections have mitigated losses, maybe, but they have not led to gains. Change will be led by those both inside and outside the legacy movement organizations, and for the sake of all involved, that’s a good thing.