The Grassroots Advocates Behind Wendy Davis’ Epic Filibuster

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The Grassroots Advocates Behind Wendy Davis’ Epic Filibuster

Melissa Mikesell

Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis achieved an unexpected victory for the reproductive health movement last Wednesday, but she didn’t do it alone.

Cross-posted with permission from Bolder Advocacy.

Read more of Rewire‘s coverage of the recent fight for reproductive rights in Texas here.

Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis achieved an unexpected victory for the reproductive health movement last Wednesday, but she didn’t do it alone.

Davis' actions created a "seismic shift" in Texas politics.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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Davis’ actions created a “seismic shift” in Texas politics.

While we all know about that now-famous back brace, little attention has been paid to the nonprofits that helped shine the spotlight on this amazing moment, and helped gather the stories about why access to reproductive services is so essential to a woman’s health and freedom.

“Nonprofits and their supporters put the eyes of the world on Texas,” says Austin-based Jason Sabo, a consultant to progressive nonprofits. “From the outset Sen. Wendy Davis recognized the depth of support for her efforts. Nonprofits were a critical part of the infrastructure that spread the word about what was happening at the Texas Capitol.”

The Social Media Storm

As the Washington Post reported, Texas advocacy groups were behind the social media campaign that brought Sen. Davis to the attention of national leaders like President Obama and Nancy Pelosi, as well as actors and activists:

“In the days before the filibuster, the pro-choice organization NARAL Texas used Facebook to organize rides for supporters who wanted to witness Davis’ speech. Planned Parenthood Texas and a progressive women’s group called Annie’s List live-tweeted from the gallery…

The hashtag #standwithwendy, which racked up 547,000 tweets during the course of Davis’ speech, was actually coined — and promoted — by the Texas branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.”

Empowering and Enabling the Community to Tell Their Stories

NARAL and other groups mobilized the amazing turnout at the 'People's Filibuster'

NARAL and other groups mobilized the amazing turnout at the ‘People’s Filibuster’

On deeply personal issues like access to reproductive health-care services, advocates must first help community members understand they have a story worth telling, that their voice will matter to legislators, and help them to tell a story that will resonate. As Andy Goodman notes about using stories for influencing public debate:

“[S]tories aren’t about quickly informing. They are about drawing an emotional response from your audience after they have taken the full ride.”

Those of you, who, like me, were glued to your computer screen during the most of her debate, will recall that most of Sen. Davis’ 12.5 hours were filled primarily with stories from constituents who would be affected by SB 5.

So, How Exactly Did Wendy Davis Have Enough Stories to Tell During the 12.5 Hours She Talked?

Many of these stories were collected on her website. But nonprofits contacted their networks to encourage people to come forward. Heather Busby of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas explains how pro-choice and progressive organizations helped:

“We solicited stories via social media and email and I forwarded them along to Wendy’s staff. The progressive nonprofits in the state pushed folks to Wendy’s website where they were doing story collection and Progress Texas actually set up a similar page to collect stories — Wendy’s site was actually her campaign site, so we wanted to have a nonpartisan alternative for 501(c)(3)s to use.”

Nonprofit organizations like Advocates for Youth have been training community members to tell their own stories as a proactive strategy to fight back against anti-abortion bills around the country for a number of years now. As Julia Reticker-Flynn, manager of Advocates for Youth’s Youth Activist Network explains in a blog post on their project, called the 1 in 3 Campaign:

“We wanted a new approach to activism on abortion issues that was pro-active and on our own terms…And we wanted to honor the complexity of people’s lives. Ultimately, we wanted a new conversation—one that didn’t focus on the politicized debate around abortion, but focused on people.”

Many studies have found that when a person is connect to the story of another person’s struggle, they are much more likely to want to help—either by taking action, donating money, or by telling a friend—than they would if they are just told how big a problem is to society as a whole.

Without the nonprofit community organizers who helped build the community leaders who could tell the types of powerful stories that at times made Sen. Davis break out in tears, I’m certain her filibuster would not have lasted as long as it did, and it would not have resonated with the hundreds of thousands of people who were glued to their computer monitors all night long!

Building Legislative Leaders

Sen. Davis’ bravery also reminded me of how essential it is for all nonprofit advocates to cultivate effective legislative leaders who are positioned to be a champion on the organization’s issue.

Clearly not every policymaker who is an ally of an organization needs to be a champion for the organization’s issues the way Sen. Davis is for women’s health, but it is critical for every organization to have at least a select few.

Arabella Advisors has described a champion policymaker as someone who “consistently, aggressively and effectively” advocates for an issue “among fellow policymakers, and they can both help the community be heard in deliberations among policymakers and demonstrate the strong support needed to move policy priorities forward.”

Planned Parenthood Action of Texas is helping to organize the July 1 rally.

Planned Parenthood Action of Texas helped organize the July 1 rally.

Clearly we could all use a few policymakers like Wendy Davis on our side!

What’s Next in Texas

This week, individual and nonprofit activists are back at the capitol, protesting Gov. Rick Perry’s decision to call a special session during which it is more likely that SB 5 will pass. As the Facebook page of NARAL Pro Choice Texas illustrates, they and their supporters are not backing down. Monday they held a huge rally and they’re planning a series of activities, from house parties to phone banks.

As nonprofit consultant Sabo says, thanks to Davis, there’s been “a seismic shift” in Texas politics:

“The power of advocacy has been re-awakened under the pink dome.”