By Jessica Semler
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
Editor’ Note: Jessica Semler is the former Public Affairs Director for Planned Parenthood of Western PA (PPWP) and Project Director for Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates & PAC.
On Tuesday, November 24, 2020, Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates (PPPA) staff released an open letter calling on donors, volunteers, patients, partner organizations, community leaders, and elected officials to join them in demanding Executive Director Emily Callen resign. The letter charges Callen with behavior during her nine-month tenure that is “fiscally irresponsible and used racist, transphobic, classist language, and language which perpetuates a stigma against abortion,” and lists summaries of these behaviors.
Additionally, over the previous weekend, workers learned of massive restructuring of staff due to budget issues that include firing a Black Woman who excelled at her job, forcing three remaining staff to compete for one position, and more—all of this during a pandemic, no less. Staff members who organized the Save PPPA campaign allowed me to interview them about their letter and what they want to accomplish.
While the letter explicitly asks for the ousting of current director Emily Callen, the group has put forward other tangible demands meant to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. Callen exhibited very problematic behavior, but she is a symptom of a larger, more deep-seated problem. While the field team is doing real work on the ground, the board members who make structural decisions are removed from a lot of that work.
Save PPPA is aware of this as well. “The field team has been pushing to be a part of hiring decisions for senior leadership for years. To the extent we have been allowed to ‘have a say’ in hiring before, virtually every time we have expressed serious concerns about a candidate, those concerns have been ignored. Because of this, we are demanding that the board bring us into the hiring process as an equal partner… We are the ones who do the work of this organization, and we need a board and an executive director who understands and respects that work.” said Cortney Bouse, Regional Field Director Western PA (she, her).
Goals of Save PPPA:
- Ongoing commitment to DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) and unlearning racism/racial biases from the board
- Access to our operating budget and clarity on our financial deficit
- The creation of hiring committees for open positions
- A seat on the board for the organizing team/staff
- Removal of other board members who have been openly racist, transphobic, or otherwise abusive towards staff and other board members.
As noted above, I am not approaching this issue as an outsider or neutral party. I went to them in high school when I needed birth control, and they’ve provided amazing gynecological care for me over the years. By the time I began working for the Public Affairs department in 2015, PP had also been there for me when I needed an abortion in 2012. When I became a staff person, I couldn’t imagine going anywhere else for my healthcare because the treatment I received from the staff was unmatched, unbiased, and kind.
There is a struggle that is all too common amongst current and former Planned Parenthood staff: We have so much love for the mission, the organization, and the vital work Planned Parenthood does by providing healthcare to folks who would otherwise encounter so many barriers. We are hesitant to disparage or critique the organization publicly because we know that our words and actions can and will be used by anti-choice politicians, protesters, and others who just want to systematically dismantle access to reproductive care. They will cling to any negative development, perceived or otherwise, and use it for their ends. The real issue at hand is that some in positions of power at Planned Parenthood know all of this – they count on it, and they take advantage of it by not making good faith efforts to make real changes, and to avoid accountability. This is wrong, and why it is commendable and important that staff is speaking out.
When asked about how the constant attacks and incessant need to put out fires can be used to keep racial justice and gender issues on the back burner, Brianna Taylor, Southeast PA organizer (she, her), acknowledged, “this is a constant struggle in every movement, but the reality is that allowing these things to fester only opens us up to more attacks. If it is an organized effort by the people in the movement, the movement will emerge stronger.”
“It’s also important in the fight for reproductive rights and expanded access to sexual and reproductive health care that we center our work on the patients most affected by restrictions and cuts to sexual and reproductive health care, and that means centering racial justice and destroying the gender binary,” Taylor added. “We know as Planned Parenthood patients as well as staff that our work for reproductive freedom can not be achieved without prioritizing racial and gender justice.”
The bravery of the PPPA staff to come forward publicly with these demands cannot be overstated, and starting this campaign is an extension of what their jobs demand. As one staffer said, “You can’t hire organizers and expect them not to organize.”
While some may see this campaign as a precarious move considering Planned Parenthood’s position in our current political climate, it’s clear that this decision was made out of love for the organization, the people it serves, and the values it espouses. These issues aren’t unique to Planned Parenthood, nor is the culture of shame and silence around them, which purportedly exists to protect the organization, its mission, and its patients.
In Brene Brown’s “Dare to Lead,” a book about developing brave leaders and courageous cultures, Brown posits, “when the culture of a corporation, nonprofit, etc. mandates that it is more important to protect the reputation of that system and those in power than it is to protect the basic human dignity of individuals or communities, you can be certain of problems.” These workers know the importance of Planned Parenthood’s work, and it is too significant to allow the organization to suffer by not addressing the issues that harm the people it is supposed to protect the most.
Christine O’Donovan-Zavada, Regional Field Director Central PA (she/ her) said, “we cannot afford to have leaders who aren’t committed to abortion access. It’s a disservice to the people we claim to support and to the movement. Abortion access needs to be front and center, and so do the voices of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, & People of Color), TGNC (Transgender & Gender Nonconforming) folks, low-income folks, etc.”
O’Donovan-Zavada added, “We hear it all the time that organizers are the backbone of organizations like PPPA — and it’s time that we have a seat at the table. It’s overdue.”
Support Saves PPPA by signing and sharing their letter.