This has been an oddly intense political season in any number of ways. One unusual aspect of it has been the degree to which the electioneering has taken almost a second seat to grassroots activism; another has been the strange juxtaposition of two hot-button issues: the economy and women’s reproductive rights. Both have become battlefields, and in their related movements there are any number of nonprofits doing advocacy and direct services, touching millions each day. The Nonprofit Quarterly interviewed Nancy Northup, of the Center for Reproductive Rights, Ai-jen Poo, of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and George Goehl, of National People’s Action—three leaders who are among those in each of their movements facing a political moment in which an enormous amount is at stake. The question: How are they thinking about the political moment, and how are they and their organizations responding in terms of taking leadership?
Two different leadership frameworks served as backdrop to the interviews. The first is from Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky’s Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, in which they warn that leaders, if they are indeed leading anyone in a new direction, must be prepared to be diverted, attacked, marginalized, or seduced.1 This is the natural response of a system that does not wish to be disturbed. As Linsky comments, it is an attempt on the part of a community to restore the status quo by shoving the difficult issue you are trying to surface back under the table where it will not disturb anyone. The second comes from an article by Bill Traynor that was published in NPQ in 2009, “Vertigo and the Intentional Inhabitant: Leadership in a Connected World.”2 In it, Traynor writes that he now sees that his job as a leader is to remain off-balance, adaptable, and open to other leaders taking the fore. We heard both these themes repeated in the interviews as people discussed their experiences and thoughts.
Leaning into Discomfort
Nancy Northup looks every inch the serene lady in her publicity photo, but her response to the increasingly virulent dialogue about women’s reproductive rights is to welcome the unvarnished fight. “We have been in a constant state of erosion on abortion rights issues,” she said. “But, as we’ve seen recently, it’s not just about abortion; it’s about access to contraception, and, in the end, it’s about women’s right to be sexually active.”
Northup has her work cut out for her as the United States finds itself in the midst of a presidential campaign in which, despite the fact that we seem to have bigger fish to fry—i.e., the economy—one candidate has come out opposing contraception (and, indeed, sex for any purpose other than procreation) while another has declared that he will strip Planned Parenthood of all federal dollars. At the state level, a legislator submitted a bill that would have required women to carry babies who had died in utero to full term, and in Virginia a bill was passed that requires invasive ultrasounds before abortions can be performed.
In nonprofitland, Susan G. Komen for the Cure apparently decided that the time was ripe for cutting off funding for breast exams at Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood had been a political flashpoint throughout the health care debate, and, for whatever reason, Komen had recently hired as their VP for policy a failed gubernatorial candidate from Georgia, who had declared that she would cut all state funds to Planned Parenthood were she to be elected. The Associated Press reported on the decision on February 1, and by the next morning a backlash was predictably in full swing.
Northup talked about the incident as a catalytic moment: “So many American women have access to services at Planned Parenthood, and the reality is that one in three women in the United States has had an abortion,” she said. “And, so, I think it was a final wake-up call to say, ‘Hey, enough. We’re not going to let you tarnish every single interaction with a really good provider of reproductive healthcare services.’ It has been a loud alarm that exposed the fact that the debate about abortion is also a debate about women’s ability to use contraception, which in the end is really a debate about women’s ability to be sexually active and to plan the number and spacing of their children. Pretty basic. When Rush Limbaugh labeled a thirty-year-old law student a slut for defending affordable contraception, I think all of a sudden the American public realized that this is the same old fight about whether or not women can be sexually active, and to hear that kind of misogynistic attack on a mature adult woman advocating affordable contraception I think was a real stunner.”
Northup went on to say that she welcomed the fight that must happen now, saying, “Movements happen when people feel extremely marginalized. That is typically what ignites social movements, whether it’s protesting racial apartheid or protesting war or the 99 percent saying ‘Enough!’
“We have not been—as a field, as a movement—assertive enough in our response to the very aggressive and extreme policies of the anti-choice movement. So it was interesting to think about the topic of this article when it was first presented to me: what it means to take unpopular positions. I think about it on all these different levels. What we do every day at the Center for Reproductive Rights is so contested that just coming to work is a salvo—a challenge—yet it’s hard to say that we’re in a marginalized position, because there’s broad support in the United States for access to abortion. But at the same time the issue is so volatile that you don’t know when you run into someone what their response is going to be. But we have to take on that discomfort boldly.
“In fact, leaning into discomfort, I think, is critical, to make sure that what we are doing—both externally, as we work to establish reproductive rights around the world, and internally, at the organization level—is bold enough. The organization had better be feeling discomfort if it’s leaning into new strategies and ways of working.
“You have always to ask, Am I pushing for the change that’s really needed? On all of those levels, you have to continually refresh and check and make sure that you’re getting the most power for the mission by being as uncomfortable as possible. Because change is hard, and the reason why you have to look at all those different levels—yourself, your organization, and then the world—is that if you’re not willing to hold the tension of change as an organization, how can you begin to understand what you have to risk and what others have to risk to make change happen in the world?”
Taking Your Place at the Table—and Building the Table if It Isn’t There
Ai-jen Poo knows about the depth of the risks that ordinary people can and do take to pursue social change. She is director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), and she sees what it takes for that organization’s constituents to take leadership. As Poo observed, “Domestic workers work in isolated workplaces. They don’t have any job security whatsoever, and there are no labor standards or protections, except—for now—in New York, because of us. But r