Archive for January, 2010

The majority of women who have had abortions are religious and a talkline caller will often speak of her relationship with God, her church and her faith.  For many callers, their faith can serve as a source of strength in a time of need while others may have difficulty reconciling their faith with their abortions.  Talking with a woman about her religious and spiritual beliefs is a critical part of the work of an Exhale volunteer counselor.

Darcy Baxter is uniquely positioned for this responsibility.

An Exhale volunteer counselor and fourth-year seminarian at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California, Darcy understands the role God, spirituality and religion can play in a woman’s abortion story.  Featured in a recent blog post, “Spiritual Dilemmas and the Right to Choice,” by the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregants , Darcy talks about her role as a counselor with women who have had abortions:

When women she’s counseled would bring up issues about God in their conversations, Baxter said she would try and remind them, “God knows that life is hard, and God knows our hearts, and that we need to make hard decisions.  And, if we are making this decision for the right reasons, God knows that too.

“There is this moment, when you talk with women about abortion, where the guilt and the shame can lift a little and these women can focus on being a good mother to the other children they want to care for and feel equipped to care for.  And you can see the shift in energy and in the conversation, when the women realize that they are doing a hard but right, and even good, thing.”

Is it ever easy?  Baxter said, “No, never easy, but I would say that there are a number of circumstances where it becomes clear what needs to happen.  But never easy.  The circumstances, when you have an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy, are not easy.  Women have the power to create and nourish life.  And that kind of power can be unsettling.”

For more information on supporting religious and spiritual women who have abortions, please visit Faith Aloud.

Watch Faith Aloud’s clergy video for women who have had abortions:


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Exhale has been testing a private, online community space for women who have had abortions.  We created it in direct response to what we hear from women who call our post-abortion talkline.  They want connection and support from other women who share their experience with abortion.  Kristen Schultz Oliver, Exhale’s Director of Programs, will be presenting information on how social networking can reduce abortion stigma at the upcoming Sex:Tech conference in San Francsico, in February 2010.

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Exhale Pro-Voice Ambassadors Claudia Wu and Ijeoma Ezeofor attended the annual meeting of Sistersong, a women of color reproductive health collective, which took place in Washington DC in November, 2009.  As Pro-Voice Ambassadors Claudia and Ijeoma’s role is to serve as spokespeople and advocates for Exhale’s mission and our constituency: women who have had abortions.  In this interview with Exhale’s Director of Programs, Kristen Schultz Oliver, Claudia and Ijeoma reflect on their experiences and lessons learned for Exhale and future Pro-Voice Ambassadors.

Kristen: Tell us about your experience as a Pro-Voice Ambassador at this conference and as a public spokesperson for Exhale.

Claudia: Adrenaline rushing – this is literally how I felt that day being an Exhale Pro-Voice ambassador at the SisterSong conference in Washington D.C… Being an Exhale ambassador was like reconnecting with fellow friends. It was amazing, empowering, and enriching to voice and advocate for Exhale callers at the SisterSong conference.”

Ijeoma: “I think had I gone as an individual it would have still been as insightful, but the confidence of having an organization behind me might not have been there.  In addition, the fact that I was going as an ambassador of Exhale which clearly works with women who’ve made the decision to have an abortion during a time when the issue of abortion was salient definitely heightened the awareness of my organization. People were intrigued by the pro-voice model and it felt good to share this and see so many head nods, like “this is exactly where the conversation needs to be, finally someone has developed language around respecting the pro-choice & anti-abortion viewpoints.”

Kristen: Who did you meet and what organizations did you get to know?

Ijeoma: Sister Love, Black Women for Reproductive Justice, CDC, Community Education Group, Women’s Health Specialists, Raising Women’s Voices, Reproductive Justice Collective, CHAMP. I was really struck by my encounters with the women I met from RJC and CHAMP. RJC was a new initiative started by a woman who was formerly at Planned Parenthood and saw a lack in leadership on issues of affordable care and teen pregnancy in Milwaukee for people of color. I’m always impressed by people who see a need and take the responsibility to rectify that problem.”

Claudia: There were many organizations there, and I have talked with many people including: Loren Siegal and Juhu Thukral from Opportunity Agenda, Acasia Barrett with CEG Community Education Group who does HIV health education and program for post-incarceration, Britt Wahlin from Ibis Reproductive Health, Ali Finch from Ipas, Janna Zinzi from Guttmacher Institute, and many more people in workshop sessions and the lobbying trips to Capitol Hill.”

Kristen: How did you spread the word about Exhale? What were people interested in hearing about, regarding Exhale’s work? What did you spend the most time talking about with people?

Ijeoma: “I handed out a lot of our cards and showed off our t-shirts. People really loved our t-shirts. Some people asked if our services were national, which I was happy to say they were… I also encouraged women who had constituents back home to pass our number along to the members of their organizations and communities.”

Claudia: I spread the word about Exhale verbally and physically. Verbally, I introduced Exhale to every person I talked to and made comments relating from Exhale to the issues discussed at the workshops and at the lobbying activities. I commented on how emotional care is important in reproductive services to women. Physically, I modeled the Exhale Pro-Voice t-shirt and decorated it with Exhale buttons. It really caught people’s attention. There are people who stopped me (and Ijeoma) to read the back of the shirt. One lady even asked where she can buy our shirts! Wearing the Exhale shirt at the conference gave me the feeling of embodying the Exhale spirits both physically and ideologically: it is a great shirt!”

Kristen: What were your most valuable take-aways, new discoveries, lessons learned? How can those be useful to Exhale as an organization, and to other ambassadors who represent Exhale in the future?

Ijeoma: I was moved by the spirit of conviction. I was impressed by how many women had been stirred by a need in their communities and eventually started or joined an organization that catered to that need. At SisterSong, I recognized the need for actively going out and getting to know other people. I saw how important that is for creating alliances nationally and how critical that large support network can be as grass-roots organizations like Exhale work to champion the rights of women against organizations with larger bullhorns, larger purses, and larger resources who aren’t as concerned with these issues and oft stand against them.”

Claudia: Coming away from the SisterSong conference, I realize the power of speaking from my mind about a cause I believe in. Having been a Pro-Voice ambassador, this experience has deepened my feelings about the work that Exhale is doing and its significance. I have learned there are many challenges out there regarding reproductive health and justice. Amidst these challenges, there are many strong groups passionately united to advance together. For other ambassadors who will represent Exhale in the future, my suggestion is simply to relate what you see and hear at the conference to our experience and stories on the talkline. Sincere responses are generally ones that invoke much connection with people.”

Kristen: Would you recommend going again, either to another volunteer or for Exhale as an organization?

Ijeoma: Yes, definitely! Especially to women of color. It is so important to see that just because it’s not being talked about or organized around in your immediate communities, doesn’t mean it’s not an issue that concerns us.  When you do the kind of work we do it can feel isolating, so having the chance to talk with other counselors and share the heavy and emotional experiences of our work was great.”

Claudia: It is great to share the latest work at Exhale with this big community. The various speakers and organizations at the conference empowered me as an Exhale ambassador, and the presence and the work of Exhale definitely empowers others at the conference as well.”

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Exhale was founded in 2000, began operating in 2002 and in 2005 our regional, bilingual service expanded into a national, multilingual one.  2005 was also the year we coined the term “pro-voice” to describe our humanizing response to the cultural war over abortion. At the launch of a new decade, Pro-Voice Ambassadors reflect back on the last 10 years and share their favorite Exhale moments.

#10: Dreams Become Reality

Laura Perez, co-founder:  “I loved reviewing the talkline’s 2008 Call Report and learning the details about calls received: who is calling the line and why. I was moved knowing how the volunteers and staff provide such a valuable service to women, partners and families affected by abortion. The dreams of all of us co-founders came true! The talkline is what we wished existed after we had our abortions.”

#9: Ambassadors Spread the Pro-Voice Message

Claudia Wu, volunteer counselor: “I was so proud to represent Exhale as a Pro-Voice ambassador at the SisterSong conference in Washington D.C. Wearing the Pro-Voice shirt and embodying the stories I have heard from women and loved ones was empowering. I feel privileged to be a face and a voice for Exhale.”

#8: Strength-based Culture Shines

Kristen Schultz Oliver, Director of Programs:  “There’s a new, solid foundation that Exhale is growing from – the fact that we started working from our strengths as an organization in 2007. What that means: we made a conscious decision to shift our organizational culture to one that focuses on the best of who we are and what we do. As a result, the volunteer program has gone from good to great, and every single one of our volunteers is someone I respect and admire. In fact, I can already predict my highlights for the next 10 years – they will always include Exhale volunteers, shining their collective light out in the world.”

#7: Awarded for Excellence in Nonprofit Volunteer Management

Ronak Dave, volunteer counselor: In my first three months as a counselor, I was so impressed with how Exhale recruited and trained its counselors that I nominated Exhale for the Excellence in Volunteer Management award. I was inspired by how Exhale always manages to keep counselors engaged, challenged, and educated.  I was so pleased when they won the award — a truly deserving accolade.”

#6: Leadership with Heart

Aimee Thorne-Thomsen, national advisory council member: “The first time I met Aspen Baker was when she showed up in a room full of pro-choice advocates to introduce Exhale.  She was not greeted with open-arms.  She had only been invited because my colleague, Eshauna, at PEP demanded it.  Eshauna was tired of reading and hearing the criticism, griping and judgments from advocates on listserves and in meetings about Exhale, while knowing that not a single one of them had ever talked to anyone from Exhale.  Everyone at PEP agreed that Exhale should be treated with respect.  And then there was the meeting.  I remember seeing Aspen with her board member, Amy Moy.  And I remember thinking, ‘wow that chick has heart.  Who else would walk into a potential den of wolves like this one?’  Aspen handled herself with poise, grace and humor, qualities that I’ve since learned define much of her character.  Aspen stepped right into a tough situation, made all the more difficult because the people in the room should have been the first ones to understand Exhale’s mission and to be its strongest supporters.”

#5: Board Grants the Executive Director a Paid Sabbatical

Jen Rudy, Board President: “Hands down, one of my favorite Exhale moments of the last decade was witnessing our board unanimously vote to support Aspen’s request for a sabbatical! The decision meant that we were unified in supporting and celebrating the personal and professional challenges and accomplishments that were unique unto our founding Executive Director.  It was an opportunity to honor her work, give her time to reflect and relax and for us to “walk the walk” of the strength-based model we’d adopted as an organization.  As a board of non-profit professionals, we all understood the burn-out that often occurs among nonprofit leaders. We, as an organization, were trying to change the tide of the sacrificing mode in which our sector often operates.  This sabbatical was about recharging and preventing burn-out, yes.  But, it was primarily one about trust, celebration and an act to say “thank you” to a tremendous leader.  We were proud of Aspen for asking for the sabbatical; we were proud of ourselves for granting the sabbatical. It set us on a path of real organizational cohesiveness.”

#4: Critics Become Champions

Khadine Bennett, former volunteer counselor and board member: “I love how Exhale transitioned from being an organization that was viewed as some kind of “anti”-group in disguise – simply because Exhale: (1) acknowledged that women who have had abortions experience a wide range of feelings and (2) created a non-judgmental, agenda-free space where women and their partners could talk about their abortion experience – into being a leader in the reproductive health field.  They have garnered the respect of former detractors in the pro-choice movement and shifted how the pro-choice movement deals with the issue of post-abortion counseling. Now Exhale’s non-judgmental, women-centered approach is promoted and it is common knowledge that women have a right to express their post-abortion feelings without fear of stigmatization from either side.”

#3: Online Community Builds Connections

Erika Jackson, volunteer counselor: “Recently on the online community, we started to notice two community members commenting back and forth on each other’s pages. It was powerful to witness two women who were so different come together to support each other through their common experience. The comments spanned several weeks and eventually they also talked about other areas of their lives. It was in that moment that I was able to see how important it is to share and hear each other’s stories. These women, who previously felt completely isolated and alone, now had each other to lean on.”

#2: E-cards Make Big News

Julie Davidson-Gomez, board member: “After Exhale launched the post-abortion e-cards, I watched our press release get picked up by the Associated Press and then spread like wildfire over outlets across the nation. I remember feeling exhilarated and terrified (at times). The criticism heated up, and some even turned into outright attacks on Exhale. I was so impressed by how Exhale responded – proactively, directly, and most importantly from a strengths-based, Pro-Voice place. Accompanying Aspen on a national Fox News interview, I got to witness Pro-Voice in action. Aspen was not only poised, she was able to utilize the interviewer’s manipulative and leading questions to educate Exhale’s national audience. In the process, she broke down stigma for women who have abortions, and shifted the dialogue in a way that respected the personal experience of abortion. Subsequent interviews began from the premise that abortion is a common event in women’s lives, and provided a human touch (e.g. “We all know someone who has had an abortion”) that had never before existed in the mainstream media.”

#1: The First Talkline Call & Every Call Since

Lisa Lepson, former volunteer counselor and founding board president: “I took the very first talkline call on my first night on shift. We had just launched the line three days before and we had not received a call yet.  I took my shift believing that the talkline was destined to be a success but that it would take time for word to spread that it was available. So, imagine my surprise when my Exhale cell phone range. I answered and there was a male voice on the other end of the line! At first I thought, “this must be Aspen’s boyfriend testing me, to make sure I’m here” but I quickly realized it wasn’t.  The caller was a father wanting to support his daughter who had recently had an abortion. The volunteer training and all of the hard work volunteers had done to make the talkline a reality came together in that moment. This was indeed a service that community members needed and desired.”

Aries Hines, volunteer counselor: “I have felt a divine spiritual connections with many of my calls, as if it was meant for me to take that call at that moment. Many of my callers have moved me to also Exhale, at the end of a call. In some of my calls I felt like I was holding the hand of friend while she explained, laying on the lap of a mother while she told her story, rubbed my hair, and I listened to her tears, or just standing by hearing and hugging a woman who’s never been heard. This is the power of Exhale. It has bonded me to strangers who are my sisters in the struggle. ”

Neda Saleh, volunteer counselor: “It is transformative to listen to a caller in Spanish. It is very clear to me that we are all connected and our human emotions and experiences are shared across our ethnicity or origin. Una momenta transformativa!”

What is your favorite Exhale story of the Decade?  Please join the conversation and share your Exhale story today!

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