Upfront: Social Change

Cecile Richards on listening and persevering

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Outgoing Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards spoke recently at Dominican University about her memoir, ‘Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead.’ Photo courtesy of Planned Parenthood Federation.

“My mom always used to say, ‘People don’t do things for your reasons, they do things for their reasons,’” asserted Cecile Richards in San Rafael on April 12, sharing her belief—to a full house at Dominican University’s Angelico Hall—that to create an environment for social change, you have to listen to people, to genuinely try and understand their perspective, even if you disagree with it.

“To be a good leader,” she continued, “you have to understand where people are coming from. In New York, where I live, I hear people all the time saying that they can’t believe Trump supporters voted against their own self-interests. And I have to stop them and say, ‘You know what? Maybe we don’t know what their self-interest is.’ If we’re going to continue making strides to keep women’s healthcare from being cut back, and to keep abortions safe and legal, there’s a lot more listening that’s going to have to happen, to find out what people are really worried about in this country.”

Richards, the outgoing president of Planned Parenthood and the daughter of the late Texas Gov. Ann Richards, spoke as part of the university’s Leadership Lecture Series, sponsored by the Institute for Leadership Studies. Interviewing Richards was Elaine Petrocelli, founder and president of Book Passage, a co-sponsor of the series. Richards has just published her memoir, Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead, a bracingly breezy, frequently funny read that is part autobiography, part call to action and part step-by-step guidebook showing readers how to raise a little hell themselves. Even the table of contents reads like a catalogue of bumper stickers, or the appendix of an upbeat self-help tome: “Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down,” “Raised to Make Trouble,” “Question Authority,” “It’s Not the Work, It’s Who You Work With,” “Don’t Wait for Instructions,” “The Resistance Is Female” and, of course, “What Would Ann Richards Do?”

In January, Richards announced that she would be stepping down from Planned Parenthood this year, after more than a decade at the helm of the 101-year-old women’s health and reproductive-rights organization. The search for a replacement is currently underway.

“It’s amazing to me how many really impressive women have come forward, eager to take this work on,” Richards said in her interview with Petrocelli, making it clear than she believed the organization will continue just fine without her. “I really don’t run Planned Parenthood. It’s a huge organization, and I think we’ll find someone extraordinary to continue this work.”

Richards was raised in Dallas, Texas, where her father worked as a labor attorney, and her mother—initially, anyway—held the job known in those days as “housewife.”

“My parents were basically against everything in Dallas,” she said, adding that attitudes in Dallas were a bit too conservative for her mom and dad, eventually motivating their relocation to Austin. “Some families bowl. We did politics. I was always encouraged to speak up for what I thought was right. So, yes, I was pretty much born to be trouble-making.”

Richards attended college at Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island, a school that she chose, in part, because it was where student protesters had taken over University Hall in 1975.

“That sounded like an awesome place to go to school,” she said.

Once on campus, Richards immediately joined the fight—well, fights.

“We were fighting nuclear power,” she said. “We were fighting apartheid in South Africa. We were fighting for the rights of janitors on campus to have a living wage.”

In the book, Richards says of her college education, “I may have majored in history, but I minored in agitating.”

After graduation, Richards immediately got a job as a union organizer, working with farm workers and hotel workers, men and (in the hotel industry, especially) women, who were lucky to be earning minimum wage and often took on two or three jobs to support their families. It was while working at United Labor Unions in New Orleans that she met her husband, Kirk Adams, also a committed union organizer.

“So basically,” she said, “I fell in love with a fellow troublemaker—and nothing’s been the same since.”

Early in the interview, Petrocelli posed a question about fear to Richards.

“A lot of people feel incredibly marginalized, and scared,” Petrocelli began, “and I would love to know how you might suggest we can get out of feeling so frozen in this frightening time.”

In response, Richards described her own response to the 2016 presidential election. “One of the things that got me through was having the job I have,” she admitted. “The day after the election, when a lot of people couldn’t get themselves out of bed, thousands of Planned Parenthood clinicians, and doctors and escorts—and probably some people in this room—got up that morning and opened up Planned Parenthood health centers all over the country, because women were waiting for them.”

That, Richards said, sums up what it means to be resilient in the face of daunting opposition.

“There just wasn’t any other option for us,” she said. “We did not have the option of being morose and sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves. We had to get busy. And we had to get to work defending women’s access to Planned Parenthood’s services, because we knew we’d be the first target of the incoming administration.”

Encouraging and inspiring the cultivation of such resilience is one of the reasons why she wrote Make Trouble, Richards said.

“Every day since the election, someone has stopped me on the street and asked me, ‘What do I do?’” Richards said. “In the early days, I think people literally thought there was one thing we could do that would roll back time and do the election over again. People felt so lost, and many still do, trying to find their way. I’ve been on the road for 10 days, doing this book tour, and I have to say, it doesn’t feel much like a book tour to me. It feels like a series of organizing rallies across the country, where people are turning up and wanting to talk about how we move forward in America.

“It’s been the best of times and the worst of times,” she added. “I’ve honestly never seen more organic grassroots organizing in my lifetime. It’s incredibly inspiring.”

In response to a question from the audience, asking how she finds the courage to continue when there have been so many vicious attacks on her and Planned Parenthood, Richards replied that for all of the challenges, it’s been an enormous privilege to work for such an organization.

“And it’s a huge privilege just getting to do social justice work,” she said. “Yes, there are tough times, but that’s what making trouble, and making change, is all about. If it were easy, we wouldn’t be trying hard enough.”

One of the chief faults of many progressives, she pointed out later in the conversation, is the failure to claim and take a sense of achievement from victories that have been won. Instead, she said, many progressives become discouraged, mainly by focusing on the things that aren’t going well.

“I keep reminding people that just 14 months ago, progressives, and most of them women, were part of some of the largest marches in recorded history in the United States of America,” she said. “The day after the election, Paul Ryan boasted that the first two things he would do when Trump took office were to shut down Planned Parenthood and repeal Obamacare. The day he said that, you could not get a call into his office, because the phone lines were jammed with pissed-off women calling to defend Planned Parenthood. And here we are today, 14 months later, and our doors are still open all around the country.”

In the category of celebrating victories, Richards tells of the day that then-president Obama called her up on the phone to say that the Affordable Care Act would include no-cost birth control for all women. As a result, she said, the country is currently seeing its lowest rate of abortions since the passing of Roe v. Wade, and its lowest rate of teenage pregnancy in the history of the United States.

“Abortion existed before it was legal,” Richards said, “and it will continue to exist if it’s ever made illegal. But before it was legal it was unsafe, and women died. Legal abortion changed that.”

Noting that at one point, laws in Texas had become so restrictive that it was virtually impossible for women to obtain an abortion—primarily with the passage NB 2 in July of 2013, which set a number of narrow restrictions on all abortion providers in Texas, Richards said that in response women began telling their stories more openly, in magazines and on the internet. They described, in the wake of NB 2, having to go to Mexico for an illegal abortion, or driving 300 miles to another state where abortion services were still safe and legal. Eventually, in a 5-3 decision of the resulting Supreme Court case—Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt—the court overturned NB 2 in June of 2016, declaring the law unconstitutional.

“So in the end, we won,” Richards said, “and we won because we never gave up. That’s the thing that is so important to remember. We are going to have more losses than wins, but as Molly Ivins used to say, ‘If you’re a progressive, you lose, you lose, you lose—and then you win.’ And that’s what we have to keep doing.”

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