by Amanda Marcotte
As a journalist who specializes in reproductive health, I have the unique opportunity to meet a variety of reproductive rights and justice activists from the heads of organizations to direct service providers to those who do the critical secretarial work that keeps the movement running. They are people who vary in race, religion, background and, despite perceptions to the contrary, gender. But all share in common their strong commitment toward working for a world where their work is no longer needed because women’s ability to access comprehensive reproductive health care is secure.
It’s no secret that for the past four decades, women’s rights have been under a continuous assault from an aggressive anti-choice movement that has far more funding and better political support from their chosen party, the Republicans, than the pro-choice side. Despite the odds against them, the organized reproductive rights movement – Planned Parenthood Federation of America, NARAL Pro-Choice America, Feminist Majority, National Abortion Federation, NOW and others — has been able to hold the line remarkably well; under this level of assault, many other movements would have collapsed completely.
Still, successful as the pro-choice movement has been, there’s much that can be done better.
The war on choice has been extensive, and the pro-choice movement has become institutionalized in the process with all the attendant drawbacks. Much is unavoidable since the benefits to being organized outweigh the drawbacks. However, this past year of exploding online activism and grassroots efforts such as Occupy Wall Street have provided a new energy to all sorts of progressive movements, including the pro-choice movement, making this an excellent time to look at how pro-choice activism could be better, especially in this age of activists-bloggers and online journalists.
Here are some of my suggestions as someone who has worked with activists, but stands a bit outside looking in, as a journalist:
1) Do more than communicate; collaborate. It’s a good thing that different organizations handle different responsibilities. No one expects lobbying organizations to take up legal wrangling or legal organizations to start providing direct services. But simply keeping each other up-to-date on what you’re up to is a limited approach. There’s so much interesting activism going on, and it could be so much more effective if activists got a phone call or email from the mainstream organizations asking what they could do to offer support, even if it’s behind the scenes. In the past year, Trust Black Women mounted a campaign against racist anti-choice billboards going up around the country and anti-rape organizers organized a series of protests called SlutWalk. If the mainstream organizations had picked up the phone and called the organizers, they could have asked simple questions: “What could we do to help?” or “What are you learning from your activism that could make our work more effective?” The organizations could become better at what they do, while empowering those who are working from a different angle.
In other instances, pro-choice organizations refrain from joining activist efforts that they haven’t started – only a few (Feminist Majority, Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and state NOW chapters) joined in to help activists who created a peaceful presence in Germantown, Maryland last summer when Dr. LeRoy Carhart was targeted by Operation Rescue for its so-called “Summer of Mercy.” On the other hand, when they see the wisdom of it, organizations are willing to use activists’ efforts for their own fundraising or outreach – with nary a nod to the originators.
2) Look for allies beyond traditional feminist organizing. Reproductive justice advocates often point out the links between reproductive rights and economic justice, and mainstream organizations have adopted this analysis in much of their work and communications. That’s great, but more could be done to strengthen the links. Occupy Wall Street was an excellent example of an opportunity missed by the pro-choice movement because it was perceived as an economic movement that didn’t touch on issues of choice. But if pro-choice organizations had engaged with Occupy Wall Street, it could have been a mutually beneficial relationship. Pro-choicers could have gained ideas and analysis that would allow them to tailor their activism to recession-era economic concerns, and Occupy Wall Street could have learned more about how central reproductive health care access is to women’s economic wellbeing. Even something as simple as showing up with condoms-on-offer, a few signs and a willingness to listen could have led to interesting new forms of pro-choice activism.
3) Don’t be afraid of using different communications strategies for different audiences. The movement needs people from all sorts of backgrounds. People with money, generally more mature folks, provide funding, but organizations also need younger people with a lot of energy for your door-knocking, blogging, social networking and marching in the streets.
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One message isn’t going to get them all. That somehow causes big concerns. The cheeky ad set to hip-hop and featuring heavy irony might play well with the audience that reads Jezebel, but seem unserious to a donor who remembers the days when abortion was illegal. That’s okay, though. All you need is to make two different appeals, one you send out to Jezebel and other young bloggers, and one you put in your emails to your donors. I promise you, neither audience is all that worried about what the other one is looking at.
We live in a world where different audiences have different TV channels, and Amazon.com produces personal recommendations for every user. No one is going to be offended if your message is tweaked for different audiences, as long as we’re all working together for the same goal. If you doubt this, look at the largely positive response SlutWalk received from older feminists, even if they didn’t feel the need to march themselves in their skivvies.
4) To reach young people, you have to let young people lead. The claim that “young women don’t care about abortion” has finally been abandoned by leaders of the pro-choice movement after a a kicking storm in 2010. Seeing young women already in the movement was the first step, but the second step is even more important.
Organizing young women means meeting them where they are. Many businesses and organizations of every political stripe and focus have fallen into the trap of trying to guess what young people will respond to, and they come across as out-of-touch people just trying to seem hip and with it. The better solution is to hire people who are actually hip and with it — in fact, you probably already have those people on your staff — and giving them decision-making power when it comes to communicating with and organizing others their own age. At a minimum, paying some young consultants to be a consumer advisory committee would go a lot further than the funds expended on inside-the-beltway communications firms.
5) Do your research and more importantly, share your research with bloggers and online writers. Increasingly, the discourse about reproductive rights — basically all political issues — is being conducted online, and smart organizations should arm those online who are reporting on, commenting on and arguing for their issues the tools they need to do a good job.
The online world enjoys snark, beautiful images and arguments that can be reduced to 140 characters on Twitter. But more than anything else, they love research. “Prove it” and “what’re your facts?” are two of the favorite arguments online. Additionally, pressures are mounting on online journalists to stuff every article with as many stats and links to research as possible, since these are the things that drive online traffic.
Knowing this, organizations would be wise to give bloggers what they want in a readily accessible fashion. If you have an interesting number, release it. Planned Parenthood learned this lesson by releasing the statistic that only three percent of its services are for abortions; it became the favorite talking point of both journalists and social networkers online and helped Planned Parenthood win the argument to retain their funding. The Guttmacher Institute, which is dedicated solely to research on reproductive health issues, is referenced extensively, and all because it supplies a steady stream of usable facts. But its work also needs that amplification since its own mission is somewhat limited. Guttmacher can report on what’s actually going on with people’s health care decisions and what policies best achieve what goals, but it stays out of the political and scientific tumble that inform online writing and activism around reproductive rights.
Bloggers and online journalists who get a heads-up can put information out to the mainstream and get it noticed. More conference call press conferences and interview opportunities with top-guns might give online writers the details they need to make stories go up and out.
6) Fill knowledge gaps on science, law and polling. There are three major holes in online knowledge that mainstream organizations could help fill.
First is the lack of scientific information on contraception, abortion and other forms of reproductive health care. Most scientific information that goes deeper than a Centers for Disease Control fact sheet is published in scientific journals that are put behind pay walls, making that research inaccessible to those who, for instance, want to explain why the birth control pill isn’t a form of abortion or why scientists can say with assurance that abortion doesn’t cause mental health problems. Creating online repositories of that information available to anyone who asks would be a huge help to writers.
Secondly, there’s a lack of legal information. Mainstream journalists can pick up the phone and call the experts in the reproductive rights organizations that have huge files on the various state, federal and international restrictions on abortion, but single online sources for this information would be a great boon to bloggers and online writers. (The Guttmacher Institute and the Center for Reproductive Rights have started projects that are aimed at sharing this information, but more is always needed.)
Finally, the online world needs more political research that’s easy to find. Finding data on exactly what restrictions voters support on reproductive rights is incredibly hard to do, and even harder is more in-depth research on why people believe what they do. Trying to find information on how well people understand the issues is also difficult. Research showing what kind of language polls well with what kind of audiences is impossible to find. Either it’s not being done, or it’s not being released and shared. This is something the mainstream organizations could fix by letting writers and allies in on in-depth research and releasing it in an easy-to-find, transparent way so that they can deploy it in their work.
Going to the Next Level
These are troubled times, and like many activists, pro-choicers can certainly feel like they’re fighting an uphill battle, where holding the line is the best that can be hoped for.
But this is also a time of hope. Protest movements demonstrate that you can fight opposition that’s better funded and has more access to power, so long as you have commitment, creativity and passion – and the truth. The mainstream organizations in the pro-choice movement already show these qualities, but this can be the year that they take the energy that’s in the air and strive for even more.
Amanda Marcotte is a Brooklyn-based former Texan. She writes for Pandagon, Double X, and RH Reality Check, and has published two books, “It’s A Jungle Out There” and “Get Opinionated.”
Also see: Realities of The Waiting Room: Constantly Shifting by Lori Adelman in this edition of On The Issues Magazine
Also see: We’re Not Sorry. Still. by Jennifer Baumgardner in this edition of On The Issues Magazine
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