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Planned Parenthood Goes on Offense

Nicole Knight

“It’s one thing to talk to your friends over dinner about politics. It’s a whole other thing to get out there and try to make change.”

BELLEVUE, Washington — Ean Tubbs’ Instagram photo flashed on the big screen in a hotel ballroom outside Seattle jammed with more than 300 mostly pink-clad Planned Parenthood volunteers and staffers on a recent weekend.

The photo showed a beaming Tubbs standing with Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican.

Tubbs, a Planned Parenthood volunteer who studies environmental science at the University of Alaska, had approached Murkowski at the local farmers market wearing his pink Planned Parenthood t-shirt. He wanted to ask for her support of Planned Parenthood.

“First thing she said was, ‘I like your t-shirt,’” Tubbs told a Rewire reporter.

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The photo was taken on a Saturday in mid-July, a pivotal time when Murkowski was poised to cast a crucial vote to advance or doom a plan by Senate Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

“I just got right to it and asked her: ‘Do you stand with Planned Parenthood? Will you vote no on a health care bill that is going to hurt Planned Parenthood?’” Tubbs recalled. “And she said, ‘Yes, it’s all about access. I’m not going to vote on something that deprives people of that.’”

“It was a huge moment for me. I felt like we’re going to win this,” he said.

The feeling of fighting for health care and basic human rights has animated Tubbs and the few hundred volunteers who gathered for three days outside Seattle to learn grassroots strategies of organizing and activism from Planned Parenthood. Around 270 of the roughly 320 people here are volunteers.

For some of these volunteers, Planned Parenthood was the first place they encountered accurate reproductive health information. For others, like University of Wisconsin nursing student Sydney Rosengarten, a Planned Parenthood doctor was the only one to work with Rosengarten to find reliable birth control that didn’t worsen her chronic migraines. Now, the 21-year-old volunteers as a patient advocate.

Planned Parenthood Action Fund and Planned Parenthood Federation of America are spending $500,000 to host four of these bootcamp “Volunteer Summits” across the United States. The goal: develop more than 600 volunteer teams in the next year or so. It’s a big investment, but not outsized, considering the 101-year-old organization spent $26.3 million on branding and advocacy work alone in 2015-16, according to its latest annual report.

On this weekend, the enthusiastic voices of volunteers from more than a dozen central and western states echoed throughout the hotel hallways and conference rooms.

Tubbs grew up in Palmer, Alaska, raised in a family of Latter-day Saints in a town of around 5,000, where he said it was common for football players to engage in a brutal tackling game called Smear the Queer. Tubbs played football; he is gay.

“There was this sense of what masculinity was and what you were supposed to be,” he recalled. “It made it so hard for me to get where I am now, where I’m comfortable with it.”

Moving to Anchorage, Tubbs found a Planned Parenthood center, and inside it, acceptance. He said he went there for education, and found a “safe space.”

“That’s a huge reason why I’m here doing all the things I’m doing,” Tubbs said.

Standing outside the hotel ballroom on the bootcamp’s first night, Kelley Robinson, Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s national organizing director, said this new wave of volunteers is a key part of its strategy.

“We’re not leading from the front, we’re leading from behind,” said Robinson, a Black woman raised on Chicago’s South Side who described the campaign as “movement building.”

“I think we’re in a moment when volunteers are leading more and making things happen,” she said, noting the millions who rallied in Washington, D.C., at January’s Women’s March, which started as a Facebook post just after the November 2016 election.

The bootcamp was bookended by reports of the possible collapse of Senate Republicans’ latest bid to repeal Obamacare and make health care inaccessible for millions. Attendees cheered at the news that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) had announced he wouldn’t vote in favor of the legislation. The repeal bill was expected to “defund” Planned Parenthood for one year—meaning those with government Medicaid insurance plans wouldn’t be able to use that coverage at Planned Parenthood centers, even if the facility was the only option around.

The looming vote certainly wasn’t the first cast to “defund” the health-care provider. It won’t be the last. But it comes at a time when U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch’s ascension makes alarmingly real the prospect of a sharp roll-back of reproductive rights, including birth control and safe, legal abortion. Particularly vulnerable are people of color and LGBTQ folks.

Earlier in the week, an email blast from the anti-choice organization, the Susan B. Anthony List, urged supporters to pressure their senators “to pass a pro-life health care bill that defunds abortion giant Planned Parenthood.” (The common talking point ignores the reality that independent providers perform the majority of abortions in this country. Planned Parenthood’s most recent annual report showed abortion services accounted for 3 percent of services.)

The constant threats seemed to only energize the gathering.

“When times get tough, don’t panic, just organize,” Treasure Mackley, political and organizing director for Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, told attendees on Friday night. In the run up to the 2016 presidential election, the organization enjoyed massive support, gaining three-quarters of a million new supporters. It said it has gained 1 million more since January.

In this largely millennial crowd, few volunteers described themselves as steeped in politics. Still, politics and policy were clearly a galvanizing force for some. At an opening night rally, the Wisconsin contingent chanted:

Nothing’s better than our Cheddar/We ain’t lyin/fuck Paul Ryan.

The GOP speaker of the house, Ryan’s district is in Wisconsin.

Several volunteers said their first taste of politics was the 2016 presidential election. But here, buoyed by a steady diet of caffeine and hotel catering, the young activists ping-ponged between the main ballroom and breakout sessions, learning everything from how to craft campaign goals to how to mobilize Latinx communities.

“It’s one thing to talk to your friends over dinner about politics,” Brian Hoffman, 25, from Bozeman, Montana, told Rewire. “It’s a whole other thing to get out there and try to make change.”

***

In a corner of the massive ballroom on Saturday, the Montana team is drawing an “issue tree,” a visual organizing tool, when the talk turns to small town culture and religion. There are seven volunteers, who came here from Billings, Missoula, and Bozeman, and two Planned Parenthood staffers from the state.

The group mentions they’re often pleasantly surprised by the number of people who’ll turn out for Planned Parenthood rallies in conservative and deeply religious communities, where donning a pink Planned Parenthood t-shirt might provoke harassment or worse.

“Well, there are billboards all over, all over the interstates and highways, often with images of babies that say, ‘Take my hand, not my life,’ or ‘adoption over abortion,’ particularly in cities on roads towards our health centers,” said Allie Hay, a 23-year-old community organizer in Billings.

One volunteer described more basic challenges: how do you ask your boss for time off to attend a rally without risking your job? Anti-choice sentiment, they agreed, is more evident in some places than others. Montana, it’s worth noting, recently sent Republican Greg Gianforte, a man who assaulted a reporter and bankrolled white nationalists, to Congress.

“You’ll see the ten commandments on a billboard,” said Hoffman, who lives in Bozeman.

Hoffman grew up in Kalispell, a town of around 20,000 near Glacier National Park, where the son of a local anti-choice leader was sentenced to prison in 2015 for vandalizing All Families Healthcare, an abortion provider, ultimately shutting it down.

“Growing up, there used to be someone who had their entire yard filled with crosses dedicated to the unborn,” he recalled. “I drove by it every day on my way to school.”

Hay added, “Many people, our supporters, do come from religious backgrounds and had to fight some stigma that they were raised with.”

In high school, Hay testified before the Helena school board in favor of comprehensive sexual education. At age 14, she said she began volunteering as a teen counselor at the Planned Parenthood in Helena. Now she works for Planned Parenthood. This kind of story isn’t uncommon at this conference.

“Certainly, I think it is hard for folks to look at their religious values and separate them from activism surrounding choice,” Hay said.

Later, the Montana team broke up into groups of two and three. They sprawled out on the carpet in a sunlit hotel hallway to map out their gameplan once they returned home.

“I like the idea of doing one big action a month, trying to get 20 or 30 people there,” suggested Rachel Pauli, 27, an organizing and outreach manager for Planned Parenthood. “A canvas, or like a pub crawl. Anyway, that’s just a thought.”

“I mean, I don’t think October will be as busy for us,” offered Bailey Dunnell, a volunteer from Missoula.

“I almost think the action event could be condom goodie bags, slipping in the become-a-patient inserts,” said Anisa Ricci, a volunteer and senior at the University of Montana. “Like action doesn’t have to be necessarily …” Ricci shrugs.

“Right,” said Pauli.

“As long as we, I think we should try to do a phone bank or canvassing at least once a month,” Dunnell said.

Throughout the weekend, the volunteers and staff cheered their victories, such as partnering with state and local advocacy groups to advance a minimum wage ballot measure in Washington state and pushing a Tucson, Arizona, school board to institute comprehensive sex education.

This brand of proactive advocacy is deliberate, said Robinson, who leads national organizing.

“The next phase is moving away from defense and moving to offense,” she told Rewire. “Not just fighting against things, but fighting for the things we really care about.”

In practice, this means mobilizing on-the-ground support for each of the organization’s roughly 650 health centers.

“We want to make sure anywhere there’s a local center, there’s a local leadership team,” Robinson continued. “We want folks in the local health center know there are folks and supporters who have their back.”

The prospect of engaging in direct action energized the young volunteers.

“The people that represent us aren’t the people that make up the majority of us and represent all of our interests,” said Ricci, the Missoula student. “When you do this work and you realize the impact it has on your community, on people, like you really see that tangible change, it makes you want to do more.”

But to what extent does Planned Parenthood’s organizing come at the expense of independent abortion clinics and other health-care providers?

Montana, for example, is down to one independent abortion facility, the Blue Mountain Clinic in Missoula. Only 25 Title X health centers, including five Planned Parenthood centers, serve the fourth largest state by area in the nation, according to the state health department. Sixty percent of Montana’s 56 counties lack a  Title X federally qualified health center to serve low-income people.

Pauli, a Planned Parenthood manager based in Billings, doesn’t see the organization’s advocacy as a zero-sum proposition. She said Planned Parenthood’s outreach campaigns champion universal issues.

“When we have folks knocking on doors and making calls … we’re doing things like calling about the ACA because we believe all health care is important.”

She suggests a broader truth. It’s one that might grow more real as Planned Parenthood enlists a fresh army of volunteers: “As Planned Parenthood, we’re often the target.”

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