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Posts Tagged ‘Exhale’

*This was first published on the blog for the Stanford Social Innovation Review*

In my experiences over the last dozen years working to transform the abortion conflict, I’ve encountered some hard truths about why we humans have so much trouble getting ourselves out of the sticky problems we create for ourselves. My organization Exhale has sought to influence mainstream culture, unearth hidden stories, and demonstrate that it’s possible to nurture human connection and empathy despite increasing hostility and polarization—but it’s been no easy task. Like most leaders, I’ve needed to adapt so that I can face each new challenge with openness and optimism.

Early on in the job, I asked a prominent feminist leader how she kept going against so many odds, and her answer—that sacrificing for the cause was worth it—didn’t help me at all. Over the last decade, I’ve witnessed how sacrifices like hers can eventually lead to personal resentment, bitterness, and despair. Feelings of hopelessness are a real threat to our ability as leaders to imagine creative new possibilities. Many just give up.

Take Paul Kingsworth, an environmental activist, who is so disheartened by a lack of action on climate change that he’s moved his family to a rural area to begin preparing for the worst. “Whenever I hear the word ‘hope’ these days, I reach for my whiskey bottle,” he has said. “Surely we only hope when we are powerless?”

Not true, says Raven Brooks, executive director of a progressive activist network that influences politics and public policy called Netroots Nation. Brooks has seen bitterness about the state of the world manifest as cynicism and believes it’s something activists “must guard against.” “It’s one thing to be pragmatic,” he acknowledges, but it’s another to “get to the point that you are so cynical that you can’t throw a Hail Mary or think about what’s needed to change the game. You will talk yourself out of everything.”

So, how do leaders do it? How do they wake up everyday, step outside, and face a world full of injustice, hardship, and difficult decisions with no easy answers?

I recently interviewed a number of social entrepreneurs, including Brooks, to find out what it really takes—beyond time and money—to make lasting change. Their answers were inspiring but definitely not simple. People who take leadership seriously develop a host of strategies to wade through the rough waters of social change while also taking care of themselves. Their answers are about discipline and focus.

Here are some of my top takeaways from these conversations:

  • Strong leaders know how to make change. Every single leader I interviewed knows how to make change happen (even one person who said she didn’t went on to describe how she does it—regularly and successfully). Change is a lived experience for them. They might not have known how at first. It took time to get there. They had to overcome obstacles, navigate failures, and make mistakes, but they persevered, adapted, and came out the other side with knowledge and insight. That means that whatever the political or social challenge of the day, leaders have confidence in their own abilities to figure it out. They are ready for more.
  • They use dilemmas to innovate. Whether the cause is prison abolition, contraceptive safety, or climate change, leaders seek to avoid black-and-white thinking and use gray areas to imagine new possibilities. Over and over, the people I interviewed acknowledged the difficult social, political, and cultural terrain in which they operated, and expressed how valuable it was to communicate these challenges clearly, directly, and publicly. Highly ethical, they were most concerned with being truthful, credible, and real—not convincing, persuasive, or right.
  • They don’t sacrifice themselves for the cause. As I mentioned above: Burnout, cynicism, bitterness, and despair get in the way of change, and while the leaders I interviewed said they had moments when they felt all of these things, they have developed methods to not stay stuck there. Each strongly resisted the idea that sacrifice was fundamental to leadership or social change, and noted that creative, joyful, generous people are best suited to social change work. It was also interesting to note that for some changemakers, rejecting upwardly mobile, middle-class aspirations isn’t a sacrifice (despite how others perceive their choices), but a lived reflection of deeply held ethics and values that give their life meaning.
  • They know political risks have more to do with friends than enemies. Here’s the challenge with acknowledging gray areas publicly: The primary risk that leaders I interviewed faced when it came to speaking openly about challenges inherent in issues like abortion or prison abolition is that it can piss off your friends. Friends (the people and organizations that share goals, and the foundations that fund them) sometimes perceive talking about dilemmas as a sign of weakness, believing it signals a lack of conviction or provides enemies with something to exploit. Peer pressure, conflict, and the desire to hold onto relationships for future funding or coalition-building are obstacles leaders face when they use dilemmas to think creatively and spur innovation.

The message I took away was clear. Leaders make mistakes, but they don’t let that stop them. Innovative leaders regroup. They adapt. They go back at it again. They find new ways forward, and they take important risks that can jeopardize future funding or collaboration with allies if it means doing what’s best. That’s how they make change, and how they’re ready to do it time and time again.

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* This post first appeared on Huffington Post – Media*

We don’t always want to be known for the most vulnerable or emotional story of our lives. New York Times best-selling author of How to Be Black, Baratunde Thurston, once asked his live audience not to tweet or record his telling of a personal story at a public venue because he’s “not interested in that story blowing up and getting lots of YouTube hits. I’m not interested in being KNOWN for it…the idea of people streaming and live-tweeting and uploading this personal, intimate tale felt like a violation.”

After she wrote about her abortion experience in the The Texas Observer, Carolyn Jones was shocked to watch it “spread faster than a Texas wildfire” across the internet. She wrote later that sometimes she wakes “up in a cold sweat, shocked at what I’ve done. Not at having the abortion — I’m at peace with the choice we made — but at having written about the most private and painful of traumas.”

In many cases, the internet has helped people who once felt alone find others who understand what they’re going through, whether its an abortion experience, divorce or death. Yet, the intricacies of what’s private and what’s public are getting harder to navigate. Those who seek connection and self-expression online to mitigate their feelings of isolation, or to challenge myths and stereotypes about sensitive experiences, can find a number of difficulties, including the unexpected emotional impact of strangers curating and sharing their stories.

Does viral, vulnerable personal content challenge cultural stigmas or does it exploit it? (more…)

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*This first appeared under Inspiring Voices on The Women Take Over*

There are few things I enjoy more than the discomfort and ambiguity that comes with discovering a new dilemma. When I find a one, I know that opportunity, invention and change are right around the corner.

I first learned about the power of dilemma after I had my abortion and was surprised to find that the only places that provided emotional support came from those who advocated against abortion. There was nothing available from the other side. That dilemma showcased a previously unmet need and I saw the opportunity in the obstacle: to build a place of nonjudgmental support. I co-founded Exhale, the nation’s first organization designed by and for women who have had abortions, with a mission to change the social climate from one of judgment and shame to one of support and respect.

Fourteen years later, because of Exhale’s services and the broader social impact of our mission, thousands of women and men have found the comfort and connection they need after abortion, and more advocates and organizations across the entire political spectrum are doing their part to promote emotional well being after abortion. (more…)

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* This was first published on Huffington Post Impact *

Michelle Goldberg’s cover article for The Nation, “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars,” details what many of us have already seen — or personally experienced — online: judging, shaming, marginalizing attacks couched as credible “feminist critique.”

The consequences of such behavior have been so debilitating to the cause of feminist power and influence that even some of the entrepreneurs of “online feminism” have looked for new ways to make a difference. Anna Holmes, founder of Jezebel, notes in the article that the blogosphere “feels like a much more insular, protective, brittle environment than it did before. It’s really depressing,” she adds. “It makes me think I got out at the right time.”

While the pain and hurt that many feminists have experienced as a result of our online interactions with each other is quite real, I hope it is not the end of our story. (more…)

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*This was first published on HuffPo Impact*

2013 revealed a promising new political trend: A renewed interest in listening, connection and acknowledgment of gray areas to spur innovation and possibility. It’s not surprising that activists, leaders and organizations would respond to the dysfunction of the federal government by exploring ideas and practices to resolve conflicts and develop common ground.

No one understands the challenges of conflict more than Planned Parenthood, so it makes sense that they stepped out early. Last January, Planned Parenthood made a major announcement acknowledging that Americans’ views on abortion weren’t so cut and dry. Their willingness to adopt the gray area so proudly and publicly signaled potential for a major shift in the abortion conversation.

Less than a year later, they are less alone in their approach. More and more public figures are advocating for better ways of dealing with our differences.

In a fall TEDTalk, Sally Kohn, the liberal pundit formerly of Fox News, spoke about a concept she calls emotional correctness: “You can’t get anyone to agree with you if you don’t listen to them first… we spend so much time talking past each other and not enough time talking through our disagreements.”

Philanthropy publicly embraced the idea of building bridges across divides this year too. The Board of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation announced a new initiative, which will “zero in on the problem of political polarization. We believe… that alleviating polarization is a precondition for successfully addressing the other problems that bedevil us.”

This desire to try something beyond fighting is happening on the local level too. (more…)

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*This was first published in HuffingtonPost Politics*

Years ago, there was a rural clinic in Northern California where women who got abortions one week would bring lasagna to women getting their abortions the next. When I heard about this, I couldn’t help but imagine myself with them. Would I be hungry enough to eat after my abortion, or would cheesy lasagna make me nauseous? Would I want to talk with other women or hang out quietly, feeling cared for?

This room of women swapping stories and plates of food is an image I equate with the ultimate expression of support, connection, and wellbeing after an abortion.

What if we could turn America into a community known for lovingly providing potlucks and supporting friends and family after an abortion?

We may not be as far away from this vision as you think.

Last month, when New York Magazine published “My Abortion,” featuring 26 different women sharing 26 different stories, women and men came together in the comments section and social media, offering support and compassion. We were all able to witness community being formed across a range of diverse abortion experiences. (more…)

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*This was first published on Storycenter, the blog of the Center for Digital Storytelling*

“We are wary of listening to stories that we think are being told to manipulate our emotions or push us to believe a certain way,” said Francesca Polletta, author of It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics in a phone call with me last year. “On the other hand,” she says, “ambivalent stories, stories with no clear moral agenda, invite the listener to imagine themselves in the story. True engagement happens when the listener can see multiple outcomes for a story and is able to come to their own conclusions.”  (more…)

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