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*This was first published on the blog for Exhale*

At the age of 19, Shaka Senghor shot and killed a man. “But,” he says, “that wasn’t the end of my story, it was just the beginning.” He spent two decades in prison for murder, nearly half of which were in solitary confinement. He is just one of the 90 percent of people in prison who will eventually return home to their communities.
 
 
Senghor’s opportunities and life after prison are deeply impacted by the way our culture chooses to embrace or marginalize people whose behavior is judged as wrong. In his recent TED talk, Senghor describes his hope that our nation can “embrace a more empathetic approach to incarceration” instead of just locking people up and throwing away the key. Anyone, he believes, can be transformed if we create space for that to happen.
 
 
Humans have a remarkable capacity for empathy.
 
 
And yet, when Zerlina Maxwell, a political analyst and media pundit, revealed on national television that she is a survivor of sexual assault, she was publicly attacked and criticized. As most survivors know, despite the fact that rape is the crime, it is the victims who are often blamed for what happened to them. “You were drinking, what did you expect?” were the first words Maxwell heard after she told someone she had been raped. The more people she told, the more questions she got about what it was she did wrong to warrant this man’s bad behavior.
 
 
As anyone who has shared a stigmatized story knows, it’s common to be on the receiving end of blame, shame, pity and attack. Yet, because the voices and experiences of people who live with stigma are critical to changing the way our culture addresses our most pressing social issues — from mass incarceration to sexual assault — advocates must prioritize supporting those on the leading edge of culture change, the people who publicly share their personal stories.
 
 
Ethical storysharing is a model that ensures a storyteller’s needs and leadership are supported and her rights respected throughout a storytelling process, especially one designed to make a public impact. Approaching storytelling through the eyes of the storyteller opens doors for meaningful connections and engagement across differences with audiences.
 
 
Last year, Exhale put our ethical storysharing model to the test. We supported five leaders who traveled the nation to share their personal abortion stories, reaching over 350 audience members at 19 colleges, universities, churches and community organizations in 5 states. Independently evaluated by Learning for Action, results from the survey’s showed an increase in empathy for women who have had abortions:
 
 
• 88 percent of audiences felt more prepared to hear diverse and complex experiences with abortion after the workshop.
 
• 83 percent of audience members felt a connection to the women who shared their experiences with abortion.
 
• 88 percent of audience members heard a new perspective about women’s experiences with abortions.
 
• 97 percent believed that the workshop was respectful of diverse experiences.
 
Something else happened, too. Comments from audience members showed that many of the people who normally feel excluded from conversations about abortion felt welcomed to participate:
 
 
• “It made me feel at ease to learn that men have a role and a place in all of this that is respected and appreciated.”
 
• “I am personally pro-life and often feel shut out or judged because of my opinion. However, I could one day be in the same position and respect everyone regardless of political stance.”
 
• “I was surprised by the speakers’ compassion, empathy and sensitivity to those who oppose them.”
 
 
We discovered that the secret sauce to generating empathy wasn’t just in the stories that the women told, but in their unique ability to role model empathy before an audience. When the storytellers faced judgment, instead of defensiveness they offered their understanding. By treating others the way they would like to be treated — respectfully and with empathy — they showed that talking about abortion, even with strangers who share different values and beliefs, doesn’t have to be a divisive act. In fact, abortion can be the subject that brings people together.
 
 
This is the true purpose of why we share our stories: to create human bonds powerful enough to change the world as we know it. Personal stories alone can’t humanize taboo topics, but empathetic leaders can.
 
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*This was originally posted on the blog Exhale is Pro-Voice*

On Friday, June 17th, Exhale Executive Director Aspen Baker participated in a panel presentation at Netroots Nation entitled “FTW: Social Networks, Down & Dirty for Change.” Assembled by 16 & Loved architect Deanna Zandt, the panel also included Cheryl Contee from Fission Strategy, Anita Jackson from Moms Rising, and Rachel LaBruyere from Mobile Commons and explored case studied of social media successes. Aspen Baker presented the 16 & Loved campaign to a standing-room only crowd, exploring campaign goals, media reaction, and lessons learned. You can watch the whole panel discussion below [a new browser window will open]:

Panel attendees also helped generate quite a bit of buzz on social media about the presentation while it was happening, and you can read some of their Tweets below:

Thank you to all who attended and helped us grow the conversation through social media and beyond! If you’re not already following Exhale on Twitter and Facebook, we hope you’ll join us there in the Pro-Voice

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*This post first appeared on the blog for MAG-Net.org, the Media Action Grassroots Network, a project of the Center for Media Justice.

After an abortion, women who want to connect personally with others who share their experience face incredible social and political challenges, such as stigma, judgment and manipulation. They risk losing their job or straining relationships with friends and family.

Yet, the desire to share stories and feel connected to others who understand is so strong that a woman will take great risks with the hope that her voice will be heard and that she will no longer feel alone.

At the recent National Conference on Media Reform, Malkia Cyril of the Center for Media Justice spoke in a workshop on how to use mobile phones for social change. She shared with us that technology is so much more than a tool for organizing or politics.  When a woman living as an inmate in a federal prison pays $7.00 every time she calls home to hear her daughter’s voice; or an African immigrant in New York pays $5 for a phone card he’s promised will give him twenty minutes with his family back home, only to have his time cut short after 5 minutes, technology becomes a matter of human dignity. Malkia reminded all of us attending the workshop that we love technology because “we love to connect.” We call, text, tweet, and email not because we love our gadgets, but because our gadgets help us meet a deep, human need for personal connection.

Exhale, an organization created by and for women who have had abortions, uses technology to facilitate connection and communication between women who have had abortions; and to shape public conversations about our personal experiences with abortion. Our pro-voice programs offer women who have had abortions the opportunity to speak for themselves – to tell their own stories, in their own words and in the forums of their choice – and feel heard with dignity and respect. (more…)

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The day of President Obama’s Presidential Address I posted an article on RH Reality Check, asking President Obama to directly address the millions of American women, and our loved ones, who have personally experienced abortion. Along with my article, I published the voices of women who have had abortions and who said – in one sentence – what it is they want to hear. The conversation continues and with over 75 comments made on the article so far, it continues to be one of the most popular discussions on the site.

One of the women who has been very active in the discussion is a woman named Lisa. Lisa has had 3 abortions and is filled with regret. She is strongly against abortion and has made several comments on my post speaking out about her beliefs.

As a woman who has had an abortion, I invited Lisa to join the campaign and to say what is she wants to hear from President Obama. How can he express his support and respect for her unique experience? Our conversation grew. Here is the dialogue between Lisa and I. My goal was to express respect and nonjudgment for her experience and beliefs and to advocate this approach for every woman who has had an abortion.

Lisa, Feb. 24th [in response to a woman who used the word choice in her one sentence]:

It would be helpful if you would state what is actually occurring rather that gloss over it with that idiotic word “choice”. It would read like this: …”I know it pains some commenters here to be reminded that women are humans who decide to kill their babies for good reasons…” I am saying this as a woman who had three abortions when I was young, scared, and with no true understanding of what I was doing. I regret killing my babies. I WISH there had been a law to save myself and those little human lives from my own stupidity and I wish there had been SOMEONE pulling for me to be a mother to my babies instead of killing them. I pray this nation and the world WAKES UP about this senseless, barbaric baby killing that has been going on for far too long. Your remark about sperm is brilliant also. WAKE UP PEOPLE!

Aspen, Feb. 24th:

Hi Lisa,

As a woman who has had abortions you are invited to join in this campaign. If President Obama could say one sentence tonight that would make you feel seen and heard for the experience you are describing above – what would that sentence be? What would you like to hear? I hope you will contribute.

Lisa, Feb. 25th:

You could sum up yourself from my comments what I wish he would say! He won’t say it–not now. He and the other liberals in Washington currently are chomping at the bit to kill as many pre-born children as they can. Thanks for the invitation, but I am not like the post-abortive women here, I suspect. I came here off a link from Jill Staneck. I regret my abortions. I wish not another woman would choose it for herself and the unborn human baby she carries. Abortion is satan’s PRIZE on this earth.

Aspen, Feb. 26th:

Thanks for responding Lisa. One of the first things I noticed after my own abortion was that there seemed to be two groups of women who have had abortions – pro-life women who regret it, and pro-choice women who don’t – and that somehow these groups saw each other as the enemy. This hurts my heart, deeply. What I really want is for us to listen and learn from each other. You may not be like the other women here, and you do share something in common with them. And there are many others here who may have more in common with you than you know, but who aren’t public with their story. Judgment and blaming are big parts of why women will chose to keep their story to themselves. That is why listening and understanding is so important.

Regret is real and hard and can stay in your life for many, many years. I also believe that healing is possible and I have heard from many women, as I’m guessing you have as well, who have found peace and a way to reconcile their pain. I want that for every woman like you.

My pro-voice work with Exhale is about creating support and respect for women like you, and others who have had abortions, across the range of experiences, values and beliefs. What we have in common is the need to be seen and heard.

Lisa, Feb. 28th:

Aspen,
I have attended Rachel’s Vineyard and that began my healing process. I do not know if one can ever be fully “healed” from abortion, but I have fully faced my abortions and am continuing the healing journey through activism and speaking out. I am part of the Silent No More Awareness campaign. I will ALWAYS regret my abortions, I do not see how I could ever NOT regret taking human life. It isn’t something you can just one day not regret having done. That doesn’t mean I will not have joy in my life, it just means I will always regret taking another human life. I have to say, my own belief about pro-abortion women who have had abortions is that they do not want to face the reality of what they have done. To do so is for your world to come crashing down on you with the realization that you have killed a human person in the safest place that would be known to them. Period. Now, I understand what it is like to be in that place very well. It is a ‘safe’ place, where you tell yourself you were a victim of your circumstances and oh thank God I had the choice. Like I said in another response- this debate is all about how you choose to look at it. The problem with that is IT DOESN’T MATTER whether or not you choose to deny it, that beating heart is a life, and before that it was still simply growing into that beating heart. Science has proven it no matter how much people choose to deny it. Like I said, say, “Women deserve the choice to kill their unborn child” and “I am glad I had the choice to murder my child in my womb so I could finish college” or “I am relieved that I have the option to murder my fetus so I do not have to deliver a baby I cannot afford” When abortion is not candy coated and glossed over, it sounds different, doesn’t it?

Aspen, Feb. 28th:

Many callers to Exhale’s talkline have also attended retreats with Rachels Vineyard and have benefitted from that experience. I agree with you, regret and healing can be lifelong journey’s, and its never about arriving at a static place in time, as in today, “I am healed.” I am glad to hear that you can relate to other women’s experiences, having been there yourself, but I think we disagree about one thing, and that is what it means to truly understand others, and have empathy for them. I believe you when you tell me you regret your abortion and I believe women when they say they did their best. I believe that what women say is true for them (even if I may disagree with it or not like it). I want to be believed, I want you to be believed, and I want every other woman to be believed. For me, this isn’t about glossing over the reality of what abortion is, it is about understanding each person who experienced one. If there is to be any change on this issue, this is where I believe it will come from, not from attacking or judging each other. Thanks for the dialogue, Lisa, I appreciate it.

Lisa, March 1st:

Aspen,
What do you mean by ‘change on this issue’? Are you saying that you would like to see abortion unavailable, or against the law, or reduced, or still a choice to be had for whoever wants it for all time? Do you want women to know that it is not a good choice, or is a good choice, just for them to decide?
I will never attack a woman because she aborted, or wants to abort. Speaking the truth is not attacking, but, it can FEEL like an attack if you are in denial about what the REAL issue is, no?
An abortion is: The purposeful killing of a human life at a point where that life has absolutely no power to stop the killing of it, in the safest place that it will ever find on this earth, it’s mothers womb.
Do you agree with this statement? It is a true statement, yet the wording of it is what will make women feel attacked. The word ‘killing’. I will never ever be able to both regret my own killing of my unborn children, and at the same time pat another post-abortive woman on the back to comfort her in her denial of what has happened. That hinders a TRUE healing journey. I do not agree that healing of a symptom rather than the real issue is of any benefit to anyone, for any reason. The woman also deserves to MOURN that baby, mourn the loss of her baby whom she will never hold in her arms, never provide comfort for. It takes pure honesty to be able to do that. My hope is that not another woman would choose abortion for any reason because it ends the life of the unborn, and it also takes a large chunk of the mother’s life as she spends the rest of her life contemplating the abortion. I thank you too, Aspen for this forum for women to discuss this! It is so important for all ideas to be heard and shared without being filtered. Thank you so much!

Aspen, March 1st:

Hi Lisa,

This might be the longest online discussion I’ve had with any one person. We got a marathon session going here.

In our back and forth I was reminded about the way personal experiences with abortion get stereotyped and understood. There is this idea that women who don’t regret their abortions are somehow “in denial” of the truth or their personal pain, while women like you who do regret their abortions and have found healing and forgiveness from God are somehow “brainwashed” or “manipulated” by others. Which stereotype you believe depends upon which side of the political issue you find yourself on.

I don’t believe either. I don’t believe that you are brainwashed or manipulated – I believe you speak your truth. I give that same level of credit and belief to women who say their decision was best – I believe they speak their truth. I don’t think they are in denial.

When I talk about bringing change on the issue, this is what I mean. I want to transform this conflict, a conflict that pits women with a shared experience against each other and stereotypes (in one way or the other) all women who have had abortions. This is personal and hurtful and we can do better. We should listen to each other.

I will be posting my second article in my series “peace for the abortion war” within the next week. I write much more directly about what I mean when I talk about change. I hope you come back and read it. I hope you comment too!

Lisa, March 2nd:

Aspen, do you agree with the statement I made on what abortion is in my last comment? Please respond.
And, is there “a truth” in addition to “your truth” and “my truth” ?

I have not answered Lisa’s question. I would love to. Unfortunately, the online format and discussion we are in is not a safe place to discuss our deepest ideas and beliefs, as you can see from reading the entirety of the online discussion around my article, and in order for me to answer, that is what I need. It also reminds me yet again of the pro-voice challenge – both sides are always looking to nail us down to one side or the other – they want to know, are you with me? or are you my enemy? This is part of the problem, and what contributes to lack of safety, the lack of trust. Answering the question doesn’t build either, it just serves to place me in a category, to make people think they know who I am, to invite their judgment, their stereotype. Today, I don’t answer. Maybe later.

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Last weeks Sunday edition of the New York Times Magazine features Neko Case in the article, Wild Thing, where Neko says:

“I should have been an abortion,” Case says, with her customary frankness. “The only reason I wasn’t was that my father was a Christian.” Air quotes didn’t quite land on that proper noun, but they hovered close by. He was also a heavy drinker, she says, and used drugs, and “he hated his life. And he reminded us of that every day.” Abortion rights is an important issue for Case — she emphasizes that she has seen and lived the misery of unwanted children. (Another cause of hers is humane treatment for animals that suffer cruelty and neglect at people’s hands.)”

This weeks edition of the The New York Times Style magazine features Rosario Dawson, in article titled “The Kid Stays in the Pictures,” where Rosario says:

My mom told me so much about sex at an early age that she scared me: I didn’t have sex until was 20. I got into trouble at school because one of my friends said, ‘‘Lesbians do it with straws.’’ I said, ‘‘I can tell you how lesbians do it, and there are no straws involved!’’ But I think all that talk of sex put me off. The first time I had it, I think it was in a head-to-toe rubber. I was terrified of getting pregnant. My mom was planning to get an abortion when she was pregnant with me. She was at the clinic waiting for her appointment and she felt me move in her stomach. I always tell her it was probably gas. I thank God for gas.

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