Cecile Richards at ComNet18
Cecile Richards, former President of Planned Parenthood (introduced by Roben Smolar of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation) addresses ComNet18. Richards spoke passionately about activism, storytelling, narrative shift, fighting the good fight, and lessons learned from her mother, the late Texas Gov. Ann Richards.
Cecile Richards: Morning. Woo! Okay. Good to see you. Thank you. It’s great to be here. This is exciting. Thank you, Roben. That was awesome. And, before I start, I just want to really shout out the communications network, and Sean and Amy, and the leadership, to move our venue this morning. I know Local 2 came here earlier, and I’m really glad I was a union organizer for all my formative years. And I’m really grateful that this organization stands with organized labor. So, thank you for them, for doing that. So awesome. And all of you, I hope I get to meet some of you afterwards. Some of you I do know. I’m so grateful for the work that you do, particularly now, lifting up voices that aren’t heard, telling stories that otherwise would go untold. And beginning to paint a narrative, not of the world of how it is, but how we actually believe it could be, and I think that’s never been more important in this country.
So, introductions are important, since some of you I don’t know. So, I thought I would set the stage. I come from Texas. All right, well, there are sometimes we have some things to brag about, but not often.
I’m going to try to do this clicker myself.
I come from a long line of tough Texas women. This is actually my mom, and my grandmother, Ona. So, here’s the deal. My grandparents grew up outside of Waco, Texas, in the country, and in fact, my mom grew up in a house that her mother had built just through sheer grit and determination. She was a product of the Depression. Her deep freeze was like, you could eat for a year out of that thing. So, when my grandmother got pregnant, of course she wasn’t going to go to the hospital. They didn’t have the money, and that just isn’t how it was done.
So, once she went into labor, she called the neighbor woman to come over to make supper for my grandfather, because, of course, it was unthinkable that he would in fact, even though she was in labor, that he would make dinner for himself. Apparently, as the story went, apparently, the neighbor lady had no experience killing a chicken, and that was what was planned for dinner. And so, in the middle of labor, my grandmother Ona hoists herself up on one elbow and wrings that chicken’s neck, right from the birthing bed, and that is how Ann Richards came into this world, all right?
I think it’s important to remember, I think, where we came from. And we think it’s hard, and it was hard back then, too. It’s interesting. So, even though my mother’s grandmother, in Texas, could not vote, because under Texas law, quote, “Idiots, imbeciles, the insane, and women, were blocked from the franchise,” just two generations later, my mother would become the first woman elected in her own right, governor of the State of Texas, which is pretty amazing.
I know I think y’all have been talking a lot about just how slow, sometimes, change is, but sometimes it’s also important to take stock of where we are. I learned to time from my mother, and since this is a communications conference, I tried to pull a little bit on that. She was a natural storyteller, as was her dad. She went to Baylor on a debate scholarship, so she could pretty much go toe-to-toe with anybody. One of my favorite things about her is, she was actually often called in by the Democratic Party to explain to candidates how to talk to people. It’s just kind of amazing that something that came naturally to her seemed so hard for a lot of folks in Washington D.C., but I think it is actually the proof of the importance of the work that you do as communication professionals.
It really doesn’t matter how smart you are if nobody can understand you. Right? In fact mom used to always say if my momma Ona back in Waco can’t understand you, you’re not being heard anywhere. I think it’s just something important to remember. I have a little bit of Ann Richards wisdom for today. Some is not going to surprise you. Never, never wear patterns on television. If you’re going to run for office for god’s sake pick a hairstyle and stick with it. Hillary said she told her that many times, it didn’t work. Before you name your children just think about how it’s going to look on a bumper sticker. Okay, these are important life skills to think about.
Anyway, also though I’m going to share a few observations of my own from having spent 12 plus years at Planned Parenthood in the hot seat. Believe me after that I don’t think there is any non-profit organizer in the country that appreciates communications professionals more than I do. The first lesson is something you guys may have already been talking about. I don’t know all the program you’ve had. The first is that narrative change takes a long, long time, and as mom used to say repetition is our friend. It is only when you are completely sick saying something that someone else has finally heard it.
So, when I first came to Planned Parenthood I didn’t actually know much about what Planned Parenthood did. I mean I had been a patient, and I had been on the board, but I had a lot to learn. Like a lot of folks I assumed we were mainly an abortion provider, and I was proud of that and glad for that work. But, then I learned that in fact each year Planned Parenthood provided more than three hundred fifty thousand breast exams for example, and birth control for more than two million patients. I found that we were the largest provider of sex education in America to more than one million young people annually. It turned that of all the preventive care that we provided abortion accounted for only three percent of our services.
It wasn’t to long into my tenor that some of you may remember this the House of Representatives flipped and then Congressman Mike Pence decided that he would start a campaign to defund Planned Parenthood, which would have meant taking away all of the federal funding for preventive care, not for abortion services because federal funding doesn’t pay for abortion services. Even though I believe that is wrong and women with low incomes have been disadvantage for their entire, my entire lifetime because of it. That was a communications challenge because people of course don’t seem to know that.
I began to repeat everywhere I went the exact same statistics. One and three women have been to Planned Parenthood for healthcare. We did three hundred and fifty thousand breast exams. We did more than two million birth control prescriptions. Ninety seven percent of our services were preventative care. Everywhere I went there was a chance to teach someone more about who we were and what we did. Other folks started picking it up and in fact I remember Diana Zant a young woman who was a story on the Tumblr site called Planned Parenthood saved my life. Folks just began to post their own stories about the role that Planned Parenthood made in their lifetime.
In the midst of all this defunding battle in Congress I was about to go on to Rachel Maddow one night and I heard that Glenn Beck who then had a TV show say on TV that only hookers go to Planned Parenthood. So let me just say Planned Parenthood, we serve everybody.
Okay. We are proud to serve everyone, but almost immediately a lot of other patients started posting to our website including a woman from North Carolina who wrote he’s an ignoramus, I guess he doesn’t know that many of us military wives go to Planned Parenthood here in North Carolina when the doctor on base can’t see us. Right. As mom would say I heard America singing, and I knew we had broken through to popular culture when Fox and Friends claimed that actually women didn’t need Planned Parenthood they could just go to Walgreens for their healthcare.
That night … I mean it was an iconic moment because that night Stephen Colbert goes on and said “Of Course women didn’t need Planned Parenthood.”, he says “Yes ladies I’m pretty sure that pap smears are right between the Swiffer refills and the cat food over there at Walgreens, just look for the stirups.”. That’s when I knew we had actually broken through, and of course Walgreens had to put out a statement saying “Please women do not come to us for pap smears or breast exams we can’t do that”. Right.
That was a communication success and we did beat that effort at defunding and of course we’ve been at it ever since and in the process we have had the chance to education a lot of folks in the public. I think most importantly from then on every time I attended any public event someone would rush up to me and say did you know that ninety-seven percent of Planned Parenthood services are preventive care. You have to start saying that. So anyway mom was right.
Which brings me to lesson number two. If you want to change the narrative particularly in difficult things, I think we have to break old patterns and old ruts and norms that aren’t actually working. I wanted to use the example of the embedded pro-choice, pro-life language that has dominated the abortion conversation or lack of conversation in this country for a long, long time. We knew at Planned Parenthood that this sort of binary, you know go to your corners approach to a very personal topic like abortion just wasn’t working. Young people didn’t want to be labeled with anything, and the majority of the country didn’t identify with either term and even some of our own supporters really resented that somehow only the people who were against abortion rights could be called pro-life.
It was really ludicrous and we were completely stuck and so through a lot of research and conversation we learned that the vast majority of Americans actually felt that abortion was a really, really personal topic and that they felt like decisions about pregnancy should be made by pregnant people not by politicians and not by people in office and legislators period. Right. That was really a revelation. They also sort of felt like such a deeply personal topic couldn’t be broken down just into a slogan. We quickly had the chance to actually test this out in real life. It was fascinating.
So, right when I started at Planned Parenthood the legislature in South Dakota had voted essentially to ban all safe and legal abortion in the state. We could have sued and I think it would have been found unconstitutional at least under the court system we had then, but instead the folks in South Dakota our leaders wanted to put it to … There was a mechanism by which we could put it on the ballot to the voters and I had just started I thought oh my god these women are crazy. Why would we possibly do that if you polled in this state on abortion rights it would absolutely come back as pro-life state. It was incredibly risky, but they insisted. They organized a campaign of neighbors talking to neighbors, folks in church talking to each other. Allowing people actually have a conversation rather than forcing people into one camp or another. We quit using political labels, instead we just talked about what voters thought about who should make decisions about pregnancy. Pregnant people or politicians.
When we open these conversations with an empathetic statement that well abortion is a deeply personal issue and people have personal feelings. You can even see in focus groups folks shoulders just relaxed. They weren’t going to suddenly now be labeled or forced into a certain position. I will tell you this on election day the voters of South Dakota overwhelming defeated the abortion ban in the state. Not just once but twice. Yeah, it was actually really important. Then we did the same thing in Mississippi again it’s not Berkeley. Voters in that very conservative state defeated an abortion, a balloting issue that basically would of have essentially threatened access to all safe and legal abortions. What we realized was that for years by using language that assumed everyone was on one side or the other we were just talking past millions of Americans. I just think labels don’t make change, people do. Conversations with people do. It seems like, I know it’s such an obvious point but it seems like a really important point to think about right now in this hyper partisan kind of lock her up mentality that we’re in, in this country.
We have to start talking to each other again. So today support for Roe and safe and legal abortion is highest it’s ever been in this country. More than seventy percent of Americans believe in it and I feel good about that, but I also know it’s only because we began investing in having a conversation with folks and getting rid of old tired labels and putting people at the center of everything.
Which brings me to my third lesson and that is an iconic image I think sometimes can change everything. This is a completely arbitrary picture but I wanted to put up cause it’s the night mom won the governor’s race in Texas and of course I think it communicates astonishment, joy, so much more that women had achieved, that no one had any idea it was ever going to be possible. I think that images can make very abstract ideas real to people in a way that nothing else can. The example I wanted to use was the fight to get comprehensive coverage for birth control under the affordable care act which may seem like a small thing to you but it’s a big thing. The trajectory of the whole fight over birth control coverage in this country is really fascinating, but it’s the most important thing that actually happened in the time I was at Planned Parenthood.
When I first came to Planned Parenthood we were just fighting to get pharmacist to fill birth control prescriptions. That’s how bad it was, much less get it covered in insurance plans. Candidly if Viagra hadn’t been invented I don’t know if ever would have been able to get birth control covered. It became completely ridiculous to say but in fact many insurance plans were covering Viagra and not birth control. Anyway everything we had to do in the Affordable Care Act having to do with women was a big fight. One of my favorite moments was when Senator John Kyle from Arizona said in a Senate hearing that he actually didn’t believe that insurance plans needed to cover maternity care because quote “I’m never going to need it”. Wow, I guess he was past his childbearing years. At which point Senator Debbie Stabenow from Michigan turned right around and said I bet your mother did. It was such a fight on everything. Right. Get it. Yeah. Yeah. It takes even longer in the Senate to get it so I’m just saying that you’re quick learners.
Everything was a fight. The fight to get pre-existing conditions covered. The fight to get preventive care, etc., and then we decided okay we’re just going to go for it we’re going to try to get birth control covered. Oh my god, you know crazy idea. There were plenty members of Congress who were appalled at this very idea. In fact the House of Representatives in their wisdom decided that they needed to bring a panel of experts to talk to them about this important issue about whether birth control should be covered. The interesting thing about that was the only thing that these panelists had in common was that none of them were actually on birth control and had never used it because they were all men. This image, a friend of mine took this and then of course we sent it around to say these are the folks deciding about birth control and we started to realize that creating these images could educate millions of folks about what was going on in Washington D.C.
Then of course we had young people dress up in birth control packs all over America to begin to spread the news. It was an all out campaign and absolutely the best day of all my organizing days was the day President Barack Obama called me at Planned Parenthood … I just love saying that I’m just going to tell you. I love saying that, so thanks for letting me say that. He called to say that he was about to announce at the White House that from now on all birth control would be covered for all people in insurance with no cost in America, and now sixty-two million women in this country have that. It was totally worth it. I say that because these pictures help make that happen and honestly before this people couldn’t believe that Congress wasn’t going to cover birth control. It was like no one’s against birth control but of course they were.
When this current administration started trying to pass Trumpcare to take away birth control and maternity benefits. I mean it’s like back at the ranch the very same guy who had led the campaign against Planned Parenthood whose now Vice President Mike Pence. He called all of his old colleagues from the Freedom Caucus over to the White House to negotiate the final details. That day I was actually at the Capital of course it was a pitch battle to try to save Obama Care and Planned Parenthood. We were fighting really hard and so I hear there all over White House, so I’m thinking god what I would give for a photograph of those men, all men at the White House negotiating away, essentially maternity benefits and birth control. Wouldn’t you know it just a few minutes later Mike Pence, he tweeted out the photo himself. It’s like, it was incredible. It was amazing. So sometimes you’re just lucky.
So of course we moved this photo out online, a photo of all the men who just voted to get rid of maternity benefits and thanks to all the previous conversations and debate the country was prime to see how absurd this was, which of course led to the creation of one of my favorite memes in history which is of course the golden retrievers. These are the golden retrievers sitting around debating feline health care in America, alright. Although at that point I would have given anything to have golden retrievers negotiating our health care rather than the Freedom Caucus. Anyway, I just think it’s interesting, I just think powerful pictures tell a story and change the narrative and it can help you make progress especially when you’re on defense.
I think it’s helped make real for women and for men in this country what the fight is really about. There’s a quote attributed to Mayor Rahm Emanuel which is “never let a good crisis go to waste”, and at Planned Parenthood that was pretty much our daily motto. As my friend Dawn Leganze would say if the idea was when you’re thrown lemons make lemonade. We were like a veritable lemonade factory at Planned Parenthood. The toughest moment for me of all the many fights we were in was the time I had to go into the lion’s den of a House Congressional Hearing where I had the chance to spend a cool five plus hours testifying before a really hostile committee. This was after a group of, an anti abortion group had created fake videos and had put them out around the country to try to ruin us and force the defending of Planned Parenthood.
During that time, in fact we actually had five Congressional Committees investigating Planned Parenthood. Just to put into perspective that is more than the Enron scandal, that’s more than the financial crisis. I actually can’t think of something that had five congressional committees. I was ready, I had every fact and figure. I had been studying up, but I quickly realized it really wasn’t a hearing about a search for the truth it was an opportunity sort of like a TV drama played on CSPAN to try to humiliate me and therefore make Planned Parenthood look bad. There I am, I had my sheriff’s badge on. Which I have on today, it was my moms which gets me through all kinds of things but I did have one advantage on my side and that was the truth. That seemed like a small thing it’s a really big thing. I didn’t have anything I had to hide. I actually just kind of have to keep it together and keep my cool.
When Chairman Jason Chaffetz opened the hearing he blathered on and then he rushed to his … I know it can’t do justice to it. He then rushed to his final to finish his statement with his amazingly dramatic flourish that he sure would knock me off my guard. He was going to reveal a slide that claimed was a chart from Planned Parenthood showing a decline in Cancer screenings and an increase in abortion. Of course as Rachel Maddow said later that night it didn’t even have a Y access which really irritated her but she’s just so particular. More importantly as the slide went up my lawyer pointed out that in fact, he whispered to me at the bottom it stated it was created by an anti choice organization which gave me the chance to say to Chairman Chaffetz this isn’t from Planned Parenthood maybe you should check your sources.
Then we were off to the races. Every, yeah, anyway, but no but it was a really interesting scary experience because every time I tried to answer a question another man would interrupt me. They made personal insinuations about me, about my salary, about my qualifications, my knowledge and that was when I finally realized if someone is looking like a hostile mansplainer on national television it may just be better to step back be calm and let them keep the microphone. Really that is what I kind of did.
In fact in the middle of the hearing my son Daniel texted me, he had been watching it and he said mom I’m watching you on TV you’re doing such a great job. I think raising me all those years really helped you prepare for this hearing today, and he is probably right. I think more importantly and again this is getting to main point is that what all that day of hearing did on television in weird way was to allow me to tell about the great work and the great care that Planned Parenthood provided. In a strange way, it was like a five hour infomercial which was not the purpose that Jason Chaffetz had in calling that hearing.
My fourth and final lesson comes straight for Ann Richards, from Ann Richards and that is and you know this but it seems worth repeating. The only thing that people remember are stories, that’s it. These last ten years when I was at Planned Parenthood in the advent of social media and of storytelling and the rise of other voices being heard is frankly the most exciting thing that’s happened in communications in my lifetime. Planned Parenthood of course has eight thousand stories walk through our doors every single day. I can’t tell you the number of people who stop me on the street. Someone will stop me today and say I want to tell you how Planned Parenthood saved my life.
This past year and a half I think we have all been inspired by the bravery and courage of people sharing their stories, some of them in the last two weeks. People telling their stories about abortions, about coming out and of course more recently stories about sexual assault and sexual harassment that have been painful, have been buried under stigma and shame for decades and it’s time for that to stop. It is just time for that to end. In my journeys I have met so many exceptional people who are bravely doing more than they ever thought they would have to. Though increasingly although they are exceptional they’re not the exception. One of my newest friends I met in Phoenix Arizona during the middle of the fight to protect the Affordable Care Act and Planned Parenthood.
Deja Fox was sixteen year old high school student and I met her along with other young women when I was there as they were planning for a big town hall meeting with Senator Jeff Flake.
Everybody was organizing that their signs, they were dressed in their pink tee-shirts and but not Deja because as she explained to me she says I think I have a better chance of getting up to the microphone if I’m not dressed in a Planned Parenthood tee-shirt. I’m like this is a great organizer right here. So, then I flew back to New York but the minute I got on the ground I had a text with a video link from the organizers saying you have to see this.
There was Deja right up on the microphone in front of a packed house of hundreds of people all strangers and she said this. I’m going to paraphrase she says I’m a young woman of color, she started, and I haven’t always had a parent to care for me. I depend upon Planned Parenthood for birth control so that I can finish school. So what is your right to take away that care and keep me from living the American dream. Deja Fox, sixteen years old, unbelievable, right. Unbelievable. That’s exactly what happened, if I actually showed you the video, standing ovation. Women waving their pink pussy hats. It was crazy and then of course it went viral and millions of people saw it, but that’s not the end because Deja went back to her high school. She fought and got comprehensive sex education in the class rooms and this past spring she got a full ride. She’s now at Columbia University, the first in her family to go to college and she is setting the world on fire. That’s the future my friends.
Maybe a less dramatic example but still interesting just how people are on this path I think to activism. Laurie Hawkins was a mom of two and a yoga instructor who I met when I went to Paul Ryan’s district, because he had said of course defund Planned Parenthood. I thought I want to go out there and meet the patients that we care for in his own district. Planned Parenthood helped Laurie get healthcare back when she was underinsured and she really credited us with finding a medical condition that she got cured so that she can actually now have children. She had this twelve year old daughter Delaney who was really engaged to. She and Delaney not only did I meet, I met them there in Wisconsin but then they flew to Washington D.C. to try to go meet with Paul Ryan, who I guess was busy and couldn’t see them. That was their first trip to Washington together.
A few weeks later and during the whole run up to vote over the Affordable Care Act there was the one national town hall. I don’t know if you remember, it was televised. I look up and Jake Tapper is saying I now would like to call on Laurie Hawkins from Bristol Wisconsin, and there she is on national television telling her story. So you would think that would be enough. There’s Laurie. This spring I was on book tour and I got a text from Laurie and she said hey, I know you’re busy but can you call me, and so I called her and I said Laurie what’s up. She said well I was just talking over with my husband and the kids and even though I just started a new business I have to do more so I’m filing to run for state Senate. This November Laurie Hawkins is on the ballot in Wisconsin running for the state Senate.
I just think stories matter. Stories that you tell, stories that you lift up I think stories about Deja and Laurie thousands more help people feel less alone in their experiences and their passions, in their beliefs. Great stories help us all feel like we can make a difference whether we’re heading a national organization or standing alone at a microphone at a town hall. Stories are what inspire people to do more than they ever thought they could, and because of that I’m just going to close with my favorite story.
During the … I don’t know how many of y’all remember but when President Obama was running or re-election it was actually a very close race. The first debate that he had had with Governor Romney had not gone well for the President and so the second debate there was a lot of attention, a lot of concern. It was at Hofstra University on Long Island and I actually got to be there and I was watching. Almost right out of the shoot the President stated in the debate that he supported Planned Parenthood and he talked about the life saving care that we provided to millions of women and he said that because he said I know that Mitt Romney has promised to get rid of that. I couldn’t believe it. I’m sitting there like Planned Parenthood had never been the topic of any presidential debate. In front of seventy million Americans the President is saying this and then he went on to say it three more times. Not that I was counting but I was absolutely counting.
Of course the President went on to win that re-election with the largest gender gap ever in the history of the country. That’s actually not what matters. A few days after that debate a woman walked into her health center in Houston right off the Gulf Coast freeway because she had found a lump in her breast and she didn’t have a doctor and hadn’t been to one for a long, long time. Our clinician welcomed her as we always do, and said well we can see you right away, but can I ask who referred you. She said well I saw President Obama the other night on television and he said you do breast exams and that’s why I’m here. I just always thought about that because that woman is why we’re here. It’s why what we do and what we communicate is so important.
I just can’t remember a time when the importance of lifting up each other, communicating with each other has been more critical. This is a moment when I think showing empathy, showing our respect for each other, and for other people can make a huge difference. The work you do every day sheds light on the lived human experience and most importantly something that’s gotten lost in that, in all of this and that is our shared humanity. Thank you for what you do. Thanks for sharing your talent to help inspire, create hope and change the world. Thanks very much.
Thank you. Yeah. Thanks. Thank you. Thanks a lot. Thank you. Thanks, all of you.
So, thank you, wow. I got to call my kids. It’s so hard to impress your children. I don’t know we can talk about that but I’m trying that every day. I think we have some time for questions. I’m getting the nod from Amy. Yes, okay and I’m supposed to be … I’m just going to kind of randomly try to see people and call on you, so if you have question say it or anything. I see you. Yes. Hi.
Krista: Well my name is Krista. I’m here from Detroit. Thank you.
I just flew in from Detroit last night.
Krista: I saw you were there with some of our people running for office so thank you for doing that.
Krista: Thank you so much for being here. I think this is amazing. I’m reading your book and there was a sentence that I just read yesterday and I think it was sarcastic but I’m not sure.
I sometimes am.
Krista: Yes. It said I’m looking forward to the day when men have empathy for what women go through or something to that effect about having empathy for what other people face.
Krista: Do you think that, that’s actually … Do you actually see that in the future? How do we get there to where people have empathy for people who are not the same as them?
Yeah. I mean I think I am sure you all are talking about this. I think that’s the single, one of the single biggest issues we have now is the lack of empathy not just around gender but race, income, immigration status, who you love, and that to me is why making by storytelling and sharing our stories is the only thing I know to do. I feel like that’s something that others have done better than we did. Frankly in the abortion rights movement and I think the … I just really want to shout out the reproductive justice leaders in this country who have been way ahead of the rest of the movement of saying we have got to tell our stories because we’re all people.
It is, I mean I’m not going to lie it is unbelievably discouraging to have the person with the biggest mega phone on a daily basis take away, try to take away the humanity of millions of people. Not only in this country but around the world. That’s just something we’ve got to fight against. We are better than that. I think the American people are better than that. It’s a whole other thing I’ve been thinking about just as an organizer this is a little bit different but as a organizer change is like long and if you’re a progressive organizer you lose more than you win, and then you win and it’s amazing.
I think one of the things we have to quit doing is focusing on the folks that we can’t figure out why they’re doing what they’re doing and focus on the vast majority of people in this country who actually I believe do have empathy. We’re giving too much attention not only to I believe the President of the United States but to people who are a negative influence. Let’s take the hearing, okay which I’m sure we could talk about a long time and it’s true I have very strong feelings about Senator Lindsey Graham. I have very strong feelings about Senator Susan Collins but I have even stronger feelings about Mazie Hirono and Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar and people who actually stood up and spoke through the power. In our fight we can’t allow the people without it at this moment to drag us down and that’s just really, really important.
Anyway, thanks. I hope you like the book it was fun to write. Although I have said this, this isn’t really sarcastic but it’s kind of sarcastic which is why we need equity in representation one of the reasons I think that Brett Kavanaugh appointment was so distressing is because there are three women, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They are carrying every woman in this country on their back and we owe them an enormous debt of gratitude. The thought though that we’re now going to go to a Supreme Court of all white men again is just one of the most discouraging things. I have just believed for a long time that if when we finally get to the place where half of Congress can get pregnant we will finally quit fighting about birth control and Planned Parenthood and safe and legal abortion. Had to get that in there.
Okay. Is that somebody way back. Yeah. Hi. Yes.
Audience: Good. So my question is about narrative change as you were talking about it. I heard you mention, you said something like that anti choice people and it’s always galled me that we’ve seated the word pro-life to the anti choice people and I don’t know how … well how can that be changed because people who are pro choice aren’t anti life. We embrace life. We have no problem with life but they’ve taken that concept and they run with it and people keep repeating and repeating it, so how do we undo that.
I agree. So I want to go yes, amen, and that’s why we’ve actually quit using the terms pro choice and pro life at least at Planned Parenthood. I mean it’s hard to make change. Right. People want to know like what’s the new slogan. I think actually there isn’t a slogan. Maybe someone will come up … I think it’s actually a conversation and it’s the point I was trying to make. I write more, I mean I kind of did the shortcut here, and I write about it in my book. It was really when you begin to have … It’s funny I’ll use a very specific example. So on our advocacy work we used to try to help turn out voters who were sympathetic to Planned Parenthood, sympathetic to abortion rights, birth control, and sometimes the pollsters all over the country would just categorize people that were pro choice and pro life. Folks just talked to the folks who were pro choice
What we realized is there were millions of people that weren’t either, that actually fundamentally believed in everything we believed in. They just didn’t want to be labeled, and so by not talking to them we were missing millions of people in this country and again that was my example of Mississippi or South Dakota as if you just polled it and listened pollsters you’d say I guess well these folks don’t support reproductive autonomy for people. In fact, they do it’s just that we were missing them because we were just trying to put people in this sort of binary label. We’ve seen that on sexuality, we’ve seen it on gender identification, all these issues. I think we’ve just got to get out of, get out of this space of labeling people, pushing them into a corner instead of opening that conversation. It’s long hard work but I couldn’t agree with you more.
Audience: Thank you so much for everything you do. I had the pleasure of being an emcee for several Planned Parenthood events in Chicago and that was one picket line I was always happy to cross. I’d wave at the demonstrators as I went past-
Audience: You talked a lot about the stories and you used them so well as a communication expert or practitioner not an expert it’s really hard to get those stories.
Audience: Clearly you’re out on the road and you’re gathering them. I know you must talk to so many people.
Audience: How do you capture those stories and how do you get your team, my colleagues job, nobody tells her anything, I’m nosy. How do you get your team to help you capture and share those important stories?
Listen, I love that question because I had the same point of view when I started Planned Parenthood which is what do you mean we don’t have any stories. There’s like millions of people that are coming into our health centers. What I just kind of learned from myself is it was the stories I experienced that I could actually authentically tell, and that was true for other folks as well. I think partly it was actually training thousands of people, staff, volunteers and others to tell and listen for stories and tell their own stories and now what we do in fact this last national conference we had an entire day of storytelling training because we have amazing spokespeople. The truth is the best person to tell Deja’s story is Deja. The best person to tell Laurie’s or Kelly Robinson right there one of our amazing organizers. I think partly what this is also like getting our own stories, using them but then lifting up folks who actually have amazing stories, because they are everywhere.
That to me is the exciting thing is that people are now doing it on their own and not waiting until the president of organization. Thank you for your work in Chicago and everywhere else. It actually kind of reminds me of one other funny story which is about picket lines. I was headed out to, I do a lot Planned Parenthood events and there was one way out in Long Island way out at some kind of club or something but it was very hard to find. Of course there they were huge picket signs and angry people yelling at me. I get inside and this elderly lady comes up to me and she said “Nice to meet you and I noticed all those protesters.”, I’m thinking oh god what’s she going to say. She says “I was so glad they were there because I couldn’t find where to turn.”. Right. So we just have to make it work for us in whatever way.
Yes, gentleman there and I’ll turn over this side.
Sean: My name is Sean and I’m here from Boston.
Sean: I want to ask you about your mom and there is so much in you that clearly comes from your mom including her legendary sense of humor. I wonder if you can talk about and share with all of us as communicators your secrets to using humor particularly in times like these, that are … rage comes so naturally. That is so infuriating and I’m working on really heavy and emotional issues-
Sean: And how you use humor on those.
Right, oh I don’t know I’m not very funny. My mother was really funny. In fact, I think now I’m so sorry she died before Twitter because she would of really just like unvarnished, unleashed. I think humor does a couple of things. One is especially when you’re talking about difficult topics it’s sort of using humor and making fun of yourself or I tell stories about my son Daniel. I’ll tell you one in a second which is funny. It just helps people go okay this is someone maybe I can talk to or maybe I can have a conversation with.
I think it’s hard particularly in politics as people just feel like everyone’s like you know at the ready. We just have to sometimes laugh at the ridiculousness of the human condition to keep from being angry although I’m really angry too. I don’t know cause I don’t want anyone to ever think that even if I can make light of something that like the fact that Orrin Hatch at eighty-four years old is telling Dr. Christine Blasey Ford that she must be mixed up. I just feel like, it seems like sometimes we just have to point out some things that are just ridiculous because they are.
Anyway, I think humor is really important but again I think storytelling that’s how, if you’re not really good, I’m a terrible joke teller in fact I used to try to tell jokes in speeches and then I would go like oh god what’s the punchline. I think it’s just better to do things that you actually naturally do. I can I tell you this one other thing which is kind of funny. This is funny actually I was going to put it in the speech but I didn’t, but since you kind of gave me an opening here.
So I have three kids, I have Lily who works for Kamala Harris who I adore, I just have got to say. I can’t believe Lily is not here she’s her communications director. In fact, she’s back in Washington anyway she would love all of you and I would love for her to meet you. In any case I have twins, Hannah and Daniel and Hannah was just like Lily. Just like doing her homework, on that hamster wheel getting everything done and her twin brother Daniel was like she got him through high school basically. I made him take a year off before college. I said Daniel you are not ready. He was not ready. He took a year off, etc. He finally got to college but he watched cartoons all the time. I mean he was a lovely boy, really I love him but in the middle of the defunding fight with Mike Pence who we talked about earlier.
I am running around the country just crazy. We’re having rallies and this and that, so I’m rushing down to New York to a big rally for Planned Parenthood and I get text on my phone because Daniel is now going to school in western Ohio. I mean western Pennsylvania and it says hey mom it’s me Dan I’m in a bus load of kids and we’re going over to Ohio to rally for Planned Parenthood. I love you, Dan. I know like I just break … my first reaction was oh my god Daniel I can’t believe it, it’s so touching. The other was like if Daniel’s getting on a bus going to Ohio we’re going to win this thing, because actually folks have woken up which is not really why I tell you that.
The reason that I tell you that story, is I used to tell that story when I was on the road and three years later when I would be back in Cincinnati again or Detroit someone would come up to me and say “How’s Daniel?”. Right. So it’s so interesting that they don’t know Daniel but they all had a Daniel in their life. I think in sometimes again it’s really not getting to your point, but it’s something to think about, it’s like becoming a human being to people and creating empathy and connection it’s funny how it can actually have lasting impact. Daniel’s always the foil of every story.
Sorry, I didn’t look over here. I don’t know if there is anybody over here. There’s somebody. Yeah.
Phillipa: I’m Phillipa from New York.
I work at a service organization and we have a fellowship where these people who just graduated college spend a year with us and do local service.
They’re so active and they’re always fighting the good fight and they’re out everyday doing volunteer work, and doing activism. We are always worried about their self care and their burn out. You’ve had a whole career where it seems like you’re always out there fighting so I’m curious whether you have any advice about how to still take care of yourself, how to make sure that you’re still you for your family and you’re not putting all of your energy out to world and having none for yourself.
So this is a question that comes up a lot. I’m going to say something that is not, a lot of people are probably not going to like so I’m glad you kind of raised it. So, when I got out of college … first of all I live a very privileged life. I’ve gotten to be a social justice activist my entire life and that’s very rare to get to do. The first job I had out of college is I was an organizer. I organized garment workers. I organized women who cleaned hotels in New Orleans making the minimum wage. I worked with janitors in Los Angeles who cleaned office buildings, who no one ever saw and who didn’t have health care coverage. It was an unbelievable honor and those are the people I will remember the rest of my life.
They didn’t have the chance to get self care or not get burned out. They’re just doing the very best they could to, a lot of them single moms taking care of kids, raising a family. Working two jobs and so I have to always balance the desire for self care with the importance of getting out and actually meeting people who don’t even have the choice to do what we do for a living. This is such an honor and a privilege for us to actually get paid to make social good. Some people just think I’m just a hard person, and there’s a part of me that’s like that, and we have to take care of each other.
I think it’s important to get perspective. What does it really mean? What is our privilege? We really have to all understand that, because we are all privileged in some way. We also have to take care of each other. In fact, I was just in Detroit and this woman called me and she said, my friend is just totally burned out, she just is dropping out of everything, she says she just after the hearing she can’t go. She said will you call her, and so I called her and said look it’s okay. Get off the field do what you need to do. We’re going to all keep your space and then you can come back in, because I think that it important that we actually all have to do more than we ever thought that we were going to do. It’s okay to make space for people, it’s important to check in on people.
There’s a lot of trauma out there but it’s also important to keep in perspective that we are doing work that a lot of the folks in this country would love to be doing, and a lot of people and that’s kind of how I felt in that hearing. There was a lot of women who could have told a better story before congressional committee but they were never going to have that chance so that was kind of on me to try to do the best job I could for all of them. We’ve got to keep focus on why we do this work, support each other and remember the millions of people who don’t have a chance to do any of it. Sorry if that isn’t satisfactory but I think it’s with what kind of keeps me going. Is that it? I have so much more.