How Stories of Personal Experience Help Drive Change

Originally published by the TED Ideas Blog:

Great social movements often have one thing in common: they are created by people with the courage to talk openly about their lives and experiences. Women have sparked movements to end street harassment, generating new public dialogue about safety and respect. Autistic people have formed communities to embrace their identity and push for better understanding of neurodiversity. Formerly incarcerated men talk about their past crimes with the hope of shifting systems away from punishment and towards rehabilitation.

This isn’t what happened with abortion. The movement to liberalize abortion laws in the United States was led by people who cared about helping women get safe abortions, but those who had actually had abortions were rarely at the forefront. In the meantime, polarizing political debates, violence, social stigma and the desire for privacy have pushed women who have abortions even further to the margins.

It’s time to change course and insist that all sides do more listening to the women who have had abortions — and their loved ones. Their experiences must take center stage in these public conversations — and that’s going to require us all to learn how to listen without judgment.

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Instead Of Fighting About Abortion, How About We Listen?

Originally published by Refinery29:

Last week, the group behind several secretly recorded videos of Planned Parenthood officials discussing fetal-tissue donation released a new one, this time including a technician for a laboratory that processes and provides fetal tissue to scientists. Pro-life people erupted in anger, vowing to defund the group once and for all, while pro-choice groups rallied to defend against the coordinated attack.

The long-standing battle has flared up again, and it’s not the first — or the last — time abortion will be the center of controversy. But what about the stories beyond the headlines — the millions of women and men who experience abortion personally, as a real-life event rather than an abstract debate? All too often, their voices are drowned out by the heated rhetoric that dominates the abortion conversation.

The Guttmacher Institute estimates that one in three U.S. women will have an abortion in her life, and roughly 50% of pregnancies are unplanned. Women aren’t having abortions to express their ideology — they have them because they need them. And while it might sound like heresy to some, some women — even those who consider themselves pro-choice — can have feelings of regret after their abortions, while some vehemently pro-life women have abortions, too. 

Rather than pick one side or the other, I urge you to try something different: listening. Talk about your own reproductive experiences, from infertility to miscarriage to pregnancy to abortion — and listen to the people in your life talking about theirs. Here are some ideas on how.

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Let's Dump The ‘Pro-Choice’ And ‘Pro-Life’ From The Abortion Debate

Readers of the New York Times were recently greeted with a pretty astonishing shift: Advocates who want to increase access to abortion, like Planned Parenthood, are dumping the word “choice” as a framework for the abortion debate — a word that has been in place for decades.

Back in 1986, the abortion rights movement was facing the conservative backlash to the social movements of the 1960s and '70s. Reaganism was in full effect. So was the War on Drugs. More people were subject to arrest and imprisonment, sparking the beginning of mass incarceration.

In Arkansas at that time, feminist activists faced a daunting political challenge: a proposed constitutional amendment to declare the rights of the unborn. Given the increasing hostile conservative political climate, the activists sought to make their message mainstream and palatable to Southern voters.

Slate journalist William Saletan documented this calculation in his 2004 book, Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War: leaders sought to connect the right to an abortion with white southerners' fears of outside attempts “to confiscate their firearms or bus their kids to black schools.”

It worked. Using the message of privacy and choice, the feminist coalition won — narrowly. This win marked the first time an abortion victory was due to alignment with a conservative political agenda. Saletan points out how this anti-government “keep your laws off my body” approach created a “mutant version of abortion rights as a viable alternative to the feminist, egalitarian version originally envisioned by pro-choice activists.”

One can win the battle and still lose the war. Nevertheless, the “pro-choice” label—conveying the right to privacy and a righteous stand against government intrusion — stuck. It has been the defining message of the abortion rights movement ever since.

Now Planned Parenthood is publicly stepping away from this label, talking openly about its challenges and their desire to reach new, younger audiences with a broader message. It’s about time.

Shifting conversations away from the pro-choice/pro-life dichotomy of the abortion war has been decades in the making. A wide variety of factors have finally coalesced to mark the beginning of what could be a new, exciting political reality: a more nuanced, compassionate public conversation about abortion.

One of the most influential factors in this change has been the leadership and influence of women of color who have advocated for a much broader, more layered approach to reproductive rights. I can only imagine how the move to appeal to racist attitudes went over with activists fighting for an increased role of the government to help communities of color access health services. But these women didn’t let any setbacks that came with this label stop them. They funneled their passion into building the kind of broad “reproductive justice” movement they always wanted — linking issues like prisoner rights and poverty to reproductive health, often organizing their communities to achieve great political success.

In addition, the voices and experiences of women who have abortions, and the voices of their loved ones, have successfully inserted more gray into what is often a black-and-white public conversation about abortion. It started with the pro-life movement, which made its own political shift in the 1980s. Leaders decided to address abortion regret — one of the many feelings women can experience after an abortion — in their attempt to reach new audiences and connect their political position with a broader message of women’s health. They created an extensive national network of post-abortion counseling centers that invited women to their side by promising compassion and care for their emotions.

For years, the pro-choice movement attacked the pro-life counseling efforts — ignoring the many emotional responses women can have to abortion. The pro-life side focused on feelings of regret post-abortion while the pro-choice side would only publicly acknowledge feelings of relief.

These political tactics worked only as long as women who had abortions didn’t speak out about their own experiences and needs. Once that changed and women — like me — began to talk more openly about our unique experiences and organized ourselves to provide the non-judgmental emotional support we couldn’t find elsewhere, the nuances and layers of our stories started to shift public awareness and understanding.

Neither Planned Parenthood nor their pro-life opponents could dominate the airwaves anymore with their narrow views defining abortion experiences because women and men were speaking personally, openly and publicly about their own abortions. Factor in the changing demographics of the voting electorate and a new generation of young people who reject labels and believes in the power of creativity and self-expression to change the world, and the writing is on the wall.

The old dichotomy of the culture war is dying.

It's time to chart a new path. While Planned Parenthood may not have been in the lead, their shift does signal an important cultural moment. The true test for them, and anyone else who seeks to shape the future of the abortion conversation in our country, is whether we can create a new, more respectful public narrative.

Imagine what becomes possible if we successfully move far beyond the prevailing question: “which side are you on?”

Originally published by Talking Points Memo

How Malcolm X Taught Me to Listen

I felt nervous. Anxious. Maybe even a little afraid. It was the middle of the day and I was alone in a grocery store parking lot. A group of boys were walking towards me. I was 16-years old, a white girl, and the group was all boys of color.

As they made their way towards me, I asked myself: "would I feel nervous if this was a group of white boys?" I knew the answer was no. I immediately started to relax, and calm down. My fears disappeared. The boys didn't even glance my way as they walked past me.

I wrote about the experience in the weekly journal I kept, on assignment for my high school English class. I journaled about how I experienced my racism in that moment, about how skin color impacted my perceptions, creating irrational fears and anxieties of "the other." When I got my assignment back, I was shocked to read that my teacher, a white woman, commented on the entry, telling me that I was right to be afraid.

I remembered this moment of my own racial awakening when I learned that Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri spoke of how he feared the black, unarmed teenager. Wilson's fears have been ruled to be justified, not racist.

That same year in high school, I joined a student advisory group at school. Our job was to be a student voice on high school policy issues and we sat at the table with parents, teachers and the principal. One issue we discussed was dress code. Administrators were proposing a change. No longer would students be able to wear black pants or shorts with white T-shirts, specifically white T-shirts with a crease down the middle, just like they had been pulled from their package. I thought this was ridiculous and I reminded the group that I often wore white T-shirts with black shorts to school. A kindly parent turned to me and said sweetly, "Honey, this rule isn't for you." The rule was being made to target Latino boys.

It was a pivotal year for me, racially. Raised in a small beach town in Orange County, California, I had attended private Christian schools and been home schooled until I transferred into the public high school. San Clemente was predominantly white and Latino, the town mostly working class with some gated, highly affluent enclaves.

When I entered high school, I went to school with black kids for the first time. San Clemente is also a military town, adjacent to Camp Pendleton, a major marine base. Pendleton was a diverse place and kids went to school on base until they were in high school. It was on the public high school campus that the military culture first met the beach one. Walking the outdoor halls, I started noticing that many of the black boys were wearing shirts bearing the image of a black man with a large "X" across the front. I had no idea what that shirt meant.

Strolling down Avenida Del Mar, San Clemente's quaint, bougainvillea-laced Spanish-style main street, I passed the local bookstore and saw the cover for "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" staring out at me. I took a leap and guessed that this Malcolm X may be one and the same with the guy on the T-shirts I kept seeing at school. I bought the book and started to read, often on the beach, in my bikini. I got taunted, teasingly asked if I was a "N**** lover". I told my friends to screw off. I playfully kicked sand at them.

By the time I was done with the book, I was mad that I had never learned about such an important person in American history through any of my schooling. When I complained to the principal at my former Christian junior high school, he invited me to come teach a class on Malcolm X myself.

I accepted his offer. On my 16th birthday, me, a white girl, who had only read a book and had no black friends to speak of, spent the day teaching mostly white junior high kids at a small, private, Christian school about Malcolm X in their history class. It was 1992, the year Denzel Washington starred as the leader in the major motion picture directed by Spike Lee. I wanted to help the students see things differently, through his eyes.

I have no idea if I succeeded. I don't remember what I said, only that I tried to bribe them all with chocolates so that they would listen to me.

My own personal experience with the impact of racism continued over the years. In my early twenties I started a nonprofit, Exhale, to provide women who have abortions with the nonjudgmental support I didn't find after my own. Two of the five Exhale co-founders were Latina. Before we opened our talkline service, one of my Latina co-founders and I went to a meeting at a local abortion clinic to tell them about our plans. When we arrived together for the meeting on the administrative floor of the building, the clinic manager, a white woman, shook my hand and welcomed me, then turned to my co-founder and directed her to the abortion clinic downstairs. Because she was Latina, the manager assumed my co-founder was a patient who was on the wrong floor.

After the recent public unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, President Obama noted that when it comes to their experiences of the police, "communities of color aren't just making these problems up." He's right. There are the written rules and policies that are supposed to apply to everyone, and then there is what happens in real life, the social norms and cultural practices of racism. Because I'm white, some rules, like a high school dress code, don't apply to me. And, because I'm white, it is assumed I'm supposed to be on the executive floor and that to be afraid of a group of brown boys isn't racist, it's justified.

Reading "Malcolm X" taught me to question my own racial fears, to see the world through another's eyes. He taught me to listen to experiences different from my own.

In their protests in Ferguson, Oakland, New York City, across the country and around the world, black people are shining a light, showing America a difficult truth: the promise of justice is not being fulfilled in their communities.

This is really hard to hear. And yet, we must listen extra carefully.

Racism -- the insidious disease, the implicit bias, the unwritten rules that govern our lives -- won't be fixed by a grand jury alone. We have to take responsibility for the cultural practices that let racism thrive. Let's start by listening. Let's make sure the hidden stories of what it's like to be black and interact with law enforcement are heard. With black voices and leadership as our guide, we can work together to fulfill the promise of justice and equality that America has promised black communities.

Will Feminists Innovate Out Of The Ashes?

Michelle Goldberg's cover article for The Nation"Feminism's Toxic Twitter Wars," details what many of us have already seen -- or personally experienced -- online: judging, shaming, marginalizing attacks couched as credible "feminist critique."

The consequences of such behavior have been so debilitating to the cause of feminist power and influence that even some of the entrepreneurs of "online feminism" have looked for new ways to make a difference. Anna Holmes, founder of Jezebel, notes in the article that the blogosphere "feels like a much more insular, protective, brittle environment than it did before. It's really depressing," she adds. "It makes me think I got out at the right time."

While the pain and hurt that many feminists have experienced as a result of our online interactions with each other is quite real, I hope it is not the end of our story.

All movements, sparked in response to a particular need or moment, must adapt and grow with the times. Online feminism's growing pains have all the ingredients needed to harness lessons learned and develop into a new, more empathetic and respectful feminist practice -- something I think the world desperately needs.

A dozen years ago, when I was founding Exhale -- an organization designed to support women and men post-abortion and change the social climate so that it's more respectful of our unique abortion experiences -- my co-founders and I wanted to make sure anti-racism and cultural competency work was fully integrated in the way we ran our organization, delivered our services and pursued our mission. We had no money when we started, but the money we did have, raised in small donations from friends and family, we spent to pay community leaders who would train our volunteers (the women and men who provide peer counseling on our national after-abortion talkline) in anti-oppression work. We wanted to make sure everyone at Exhale had a working knowledge and understanding of the way racism, sexism, homophobia and other structural issues had an impact on the way people experienced abortion.

The first training that these leaders provided to Exhale went well. We asked them back again. At some point in between these two trainings, they decided to take a more confrontational approach, and without first checking in with me or my other co-founders, they went ahead and did it. The training blew up.

Without going into much detail, I can tell you that as a white woman, I spent several days and hours on the phone talking with Exhale's white volunteers afterward about what had happened, and my co-founder, Carolina De Robertis, a queer Latina, spent several days and hours on the phone talking with Exhale's volunteers of color. Then she and I spent several hours talking to each other about what exactly it was Exhale wanted to do with this training session.

Our big epiphany was that we were a community all too used to feeling judged, shamed and stigmatized as a result of our abortions, and that our social mission was to change this dynamic. We wanted to infuse more support, respect and understanding into the culture -- more connectedness and less divisiveness. More love and less hate.

We asked: How could we listen non-judgmentally to our talk-line callers, and yet judgmentally point our fingers at each other for perceived wrongs?

Carolina and I decided that instead of focusing on critique and confrontation, our mission would be better served with proactive and creative strategies that could build the supportive, respectful social climate that we envisioned. We adjusted our training methods, and then we used the lessons learned from our updated transformation approach to develop pro-voice: Exhale's innovative leadership discipline for transforming social conflict.

Exhale has come a long way from the "calling out" critical culture that social justice and feminists activists have come to be so well-known for, and, yet, whose practice has caused so much hurt and pain. Now, Exhale's pro-voice leaders are known for the empathy they offer the world through their shared connections and mutual respect.

All signs point towards online feminism's ability to innovate and create what's needed out of the ashes of these toxic Twitter wars. In December, Ngọc Loan Trần wrote for Black Girl Dangerousthat they are "willing to offer compassion and patience as a way to build the road we are taking but have never seen before."

Verónica Bayetti Flores wrote for Feministing, "We've long been really good at critiquing and saying what we don't want, but to get to a world we DO want, we have to be able to dream really big."

It isn't just feminism that's rethinking their tactics. On Orchestrated Pulse, Rob the Idealist notes: 

"The aimless outrage has many social justice circles spinning their wheels and going nowhere. We can't build transformative change that way... I want to find ways to accurately describe and dismantle oppression, and that doesn't happen if we're constantly reacting to shenanigans. In my opinion, we're looking for politics in the wrong places."

On Twitter, in response to The Nation’s story, Brittney Cooper (@professorcrunk) and Samhita Mukhopudhyay (@thesamhita), both of whom were featured in the article, talked to each other about the value of offline conversations. Samhita noted that with in-person conversations, “You have the opportunity to humanize and be compassionate."

There will always be questions about how to address the social problems and the problem-people and yet, an online feminist practice known for its compassion, humanity, patience, and ability to dream big has the best chance for creating the world we need. 

Exhale co-founder, Carolina De Robertis, is now an award-winning novelist and she is on Twitter: @caroderobertis.

Women Who Have Had Abortions Take the Lead

Years ago, there was a rural clinic in Northern California where women who got abortions one week would bring lasagna to women getting their abortions the next. When I heard about this, I couldn’t help but imagine myself with them. Would I be hungry enough to eat after my abortion, or would cheesy lasagna make me nauseous? Would I want to talk with other women or hang out quietly, feeling cared for?

This room of women swapping stories and plates of food is an image I equate with the ultimate expression of support, connection, and wellbeing after an abortion.

What if we could turn America into a community known for lovingly providing potlucks and supporting friends and family after an abortion?

We may not be as far away from this vision as you think.

Last month, when New York Magazine published “My Abortion,” featuring 26 different women sharing 26 different stories, women and men came together in the comments section and social media, offering support and compassion. We were all able to witness community being formed across a range of diverse abortion experiences.

This past summer when the Texas legislature was fighting over a new abortion law, we heard about women who stood together outside the dome, swapping their own abortion stories along with Kleenex, regardless of which side of the political aisle they were on. One observer noted privately: “what surprised me was the strength of women sharing stories with one another. The political was powerful, but even more powerful were the women who connected and felt heard and supported.” It was a rare moment of connectivity that didn’t get nearly as much coverage as the divisiveness inside the Capitol.

Women who have had abortions, along with our allies, are taking the lead, showing that even in the midst of increasing hostility, polarization, and politicization, it’s possible to nurture human connection and empathy. As a community of people, we can go far beyond what has hurt or angered us throughout the political conflict and take essential steps to build the social support and cultural respect that is needed in all of our lives.

In a political age marked by the harsh consequences of partisanship and brinkmanship, never has this approach been more important to America.

For more than a decade, the organization I co-founded and lead, Exhale, has been building these connections. While we’ve certainly had our share of potlucks, we have had the most success generating love and respect post-abortion through listening and storytelling, two compassionate acts that form the foundation of our pro-voice approach.

Most recently, we supported five storytellers as they travel the nation with a mission to transform the abortion conflict into peace and understanding. Their personal abortion stories open conversations and invite audiences to imagine themselves in their shoes. It’s hard, at first, for most people to believe that they can do this with no political goal in mind. But, it’s true.

Not seeking to persuade their audience, nor gain acceptance for what they went through, the storytellers practice empathy. Through their openness and by their listening, they show their audience respect. It becomes mutual. There is a connection.

“I was surprised by the speakers’ compassion, empathy, and sensitivity to those who oppose them,” shared one audience member. “It felt honest on a deep level. Genuine story telling for no purpose other than sharing and showing awareness,” shared another.

Mayah Frank, one of two Pro-Voice Fellows featured in “My Abortion,” writes how pro-voice has helped her to leave shame behind so that even when she feels attacked she can respond with compassion: “I can speak from my experience, with vulnerability, to foster a conversation, rather than buy-in to an unending argument. I respond with love and empathy.” 

Mayah and her cohort share stories that challenge black and white thinking. Another Pro-Voice Fellow, Ronak Dave´ Okoye writes: “Pro-voice … releases us from the consuming, unending dialogue about right and wrong and allows us to see the beauty, nuance, and complexity that unfolds in human experience. By listening deeply, with compassion and empathy, we allow ourselves to see truth through dialogue."

Pro-voice storytellers are doing what it takes to heal that which ails us. Their leadership is a living demonstration of how to cure our separateness; it’s an ordination to rebuild our nation’s dignity. It’s a stand for hope and possibility.

Can you imagine if those women in that rural Northern California clinic only gave lasagna to the women they thought would vote just like them? 

The personal is, undoubtedly, quite political. And, women who have abortions, and our families are as pro-life and as pro-choice as everyone else in America – we’re as diverse in our political views as we are from each other – and as “My Abortion” depicted so clearly, our experiences with abortion vary widely.  But when we turn against one another in the name of politics, we miss the opportunity to take the lead and show the nation that while abortion gets to be controversial in a democracy we won’t let it tear us apart. 

Women who have had abortions—with the support of our friends, family, and allies—can use our leadership to help each other, and our nation, heal from the pain of this debate. We can refuse to let our stories fortify a conflict we don’t want, and we should do what’s necessary to make the political landscape respond not just to our personal stories – but to the leadership we offer America with our empathy, shared connections and mutual respect.

What will you bring to the potluck?