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.
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.”