* Post by Kristen Schultz Oliver, Exhale Director of Programs
I used to think: “I can recruit anyone to do anything!”
Give me a cause I believe in, a chance to use my powers of persuasion, and I’ll have people lining up to volunteer. I have a track record of being able to motivate people to step up and contribute, and I confess that I thought that power went pretty far. I have a lot of experience “rounding up the troops” and naturally I thought that applied to most volunteer opportunities.
Imagine my surprise this January when I discovered that I was coming up empty-handed in recruiting volunteers for a new project at Exhale: a digital storytelling workshop where participants would be expected to share intimate details about their personal experiences with abortion, and their experiences of listening to callers on our after-abortion talkline.
My invitation at the time went something like this, in paraphrase: “Hey Exhalers! We’re doing something new and cool and you should totally get involved! We’re going to tell our abortion stories and listening stories in a creative format! I’m so excited and want you to be too! Who’s in?”
Then there was the deafening roar of silence in return.
That’s not entirely correct – there were just a few people, all experienced storytellers and public speakers, who approached me immediately and said that they were interested. And one or two people who expressed curiosity and asked me a few questions, then said, “I’d like to be involved the next time you do this, after you’ve figured out whether the benefits outweigh the risks.” And there were lots of people who I expected to be interested who never replied to my cheerful, mass invitation at all.
Why was I having trouble getting women to volunteer to share their abortion and listening stories? After all, we talk about abortion every day on our talkline, and this new forum couldn’t be too different.
I spend a great deal of my time recruiting volunteers, soliciting volunteer assistance on various projects, putting volunteers to substantive work and thanking volunteers for their service. The recruitment, development and recognition of volunteers have become second nature to me. It all relies on the relationship I establish with someone – from our first interaction to how I show up with them on a daily basis. I attempt to get to know a volunteer first, demonstrate the regard I have for her in what I say and do, outline clear expectations for volunteering, respect her boundaries, be grateful for her generosity, and support her needs as best as I can.
After I’ve gotten to know a volunteer in this way, our relationship becomes a foundation for future work together. I can ask an individual to volunteer in particular ways and on special projects with the confidence that I am being responsible and respectful in the way I ask. We start from a place of trust.
Without trust, I can ask for the moon and get nowhere fast.
There are huge reasons to feel wary and distrustful of an invitation to share a very personal story publicly when it concerns abortion. The individual risks of telling an abortion story in public are significant and very well-documented. Take Angie Jackson, for example. The individual benefits of telling your story publicly are less-well-known and even in question. At Exhale we’re actually trying to determine if there are personal benefits to telling an abortion story publicly, and what those benefits might be. Do they contribute to the storyteller’s well-being? Or are they being used mainly to wage a political battle, in which the well-being of regular people affected by the issue is secondary if not simply ignored?
Where public abortion storytelling is concerned, the pro-choice movement often seems to want every woman who’s had an abortion to do the same thing, in the same way, namely: TELL YOUR STORY TO EVERYONE NOW. Then they seem surprised or frustrated that everyone everywhere doesn’t heed the call.
I think there’s something crucial missing in their “ask”, and it isn’t inspirational words or noble intentions; there are plenty of eloquent, well-meaning people leading the charge for public abortion storytelling, with lots of altruistic reasons and idealistic end results in mind, including 45 Million Voices.
This prompts the question: what do women need in order to share their experience with a wider audience? I have a few ideas now about the necessary ingredients for public abortion storytelling. My thoughts are on HOW to invite people to tell their stories, and they come from my recent almost-failure at recruiting storytellers.
Here’s what I think we need to add into the mix when we ask someone to speak about something very personal: know that person first. Have regard for them. Be clear in your expectations. Honor boundaries. Be grateful. Support needs. Continue the relationship through time. Be responsible and respectful. Establish trust.
Taking my own advice, after my initial dismal results in drumming up interest in our storytelling workshop, I took a hard look at the way in which I was inviting people, and I went back to the drawing board. I started inviting people individually, remembering their unique situations in life and what I already knew of their stories, and offered the invitation with more gentleness and openness to dialogue.
Everyone I approached individually called or wrote back, and I had a week of long phone conversations with people about their hopes, fears, and concerns about engaging in a potentially vulnerable process. I let go of my need to persuade and approached each person without expectations. I learned as much from people who said, “No thanks” as I did from the people who said, “Yes”.
I’m calling this “inviting with integrity”, and I intend to make it a regular practice! I’m so excited for this discovery and want others to join me in making this the status quo around public storytelling. So, “who’s in?”