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Archive for March, 2011

Leah Uberseder brings to Exhale more than ten years experience in peace-building, community health education and grassroots fundraising. A lifelong Quaker and graduate of Earlham College’s Peace & Global Studies program, Leah’s work at Exhale is informed by her experiences at the intersection of personal identity and social conflict. From human rights reporting in Israel and Palestine to teaching sexuality education and HIV prevention to teenagers, Leah’s work focuses on the real, personal stories that exist in the middle of highly politicized issues. Leah is an experienced facilitator, and enjoys finding creative ways to instill sustainable fundraising values and practices into non-profit organizations.

Leah has incredible experiences navigating polarized conflicts through a pro-voice approach.   In her former role as a sexuality education teacher with youth in western Massachusetts, Leah understands what it means to put a woman’s story front and center.  She describes her experiences here:

For the 3 & 1/2 years I spent teaching sex education to teens, I kept an unusual photocopy taped to the wall near my desk. Like most state-funded programs, mine was required to measure our success by tracking changes in our groups’ attitudes through anonymous pre- and post-program testing. Occasionally someone would eschew the multiple choices for a write-in answer, and it was one of these that I preserved. “Indicate the likelihood you will engage in sexual activity within the next six months” was followed by selections ranging from “very likely” to “not at all likely.” This particular test taker had circled “not at all likely,” then crossed it out, defiantly writing instead: “But really, I don’t know. Stuff happens.”

As I framed my work as a sex educator in the context of my peace studies degree, I worked to separate my daily facilitation from the firestorm of controversy that typifies sex ed. Though deeply aware of the politics-infused stage on which I stood, I saw my role as imparting knowledge that spoke to the real circumstances of young peoples’ lives and helped them safely make choices that honored their own values.

I kept that post-test page to remind me of the reality, not the ideological struggle, of sex education. That heavily polarized debate dissipated each time I sat across from a young woman in my office asking me how to get a pregnancy test. There was no room in those conversations for abstract caricatures—only for her voice, her fears, and her needs, as well as my desire to work toward a world that affirmed her story.

In my experience, the Pro-Voice culture that Exhale is pioneering puts this young woman front and center and constructs its narrative with her. A Pro-Voice culture means that there is no single, shiny marketable story that demonstrates the “proper” circumstances of reproductive choice. Rather, every story is validated, and we work together to find and fund innovative platforms that ensure these stories are heard in ways that are non-exploitative, respectful of privacy, and provide opportunities for meaningful connections and dialogue. For young women like those I’ve known, so similar to Markai, Natalia and Katie in “No Easy Decision,” empathy for their experiences and trust in their decisions were their most visceral needs on the path to healing.

I come to Exhale from a diverse career in social justice. I am a fundraiser, a peace activist, a storyteller, a person of faith, a woman and a sex educator. And I had an abortion too. Of all the experiences that make up who I am, one of the most influential to me is the one I speak about the least. I’m certainly not the first person to wake up and discover my very identity has become politicized, but I work for a culture in which the safe spaces for all of us to share our truths with dignity and without judgment are ever-expanding. And I’m incredibly honored to continue these efforts alongside the Exhale community.

In her role as National Engagement Coordinator, Leah will be working with pro-voice advocates and donors from within Exhale and across the country, leveraging each person’s individual talents and strengths towards growing the pro-voice movement.

Welcome Leah!

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Jovida Ross

Deanna Zandt

The 16 & Loved campaign was built and managed by a fantastic team: social media strategist & technologist Deanna Zandt, with media campaign consultant Sonal Bains.

During the campaign, Exhale Director of Programs Jovida Ross worked with Deanna & Sonal to infuse the campaign with Exhale’s Pro-Voice philosophy.

Deanna wrote a behind-the-scenes look at the campaign on her blog as a “case study in social media for social justice”.

Now that the dust from the campaign has settled, Jovida asked Deanna about her experience with the Pro-Voice approach.

Jovida: Talking about abortion online can trigger a lot of controversy. The 16 & Loved campaign was different: we got an overwhelmingly positive response, both in the media coverage and in the posts submitted to the site. We even received a number of submissions of personal abortion stories, even though we hadn’t requested them.

In what way was 16 & Loved similar to or different from other online conversations you’ve seen? What are essential elements to have in place for more respectful, proactive online conversations about abortion?

Deanna: What was different was how we keep overt advocacy politics out of this particular conversation. I’ve learned from Exhale that polarizing rhetoric doesn’t do anything for the women we’re trying to serve, in terms of offering support. By keeping advocacy out, and letting woman tell their own stories, I feel like a huge space was created for those stories to flood in.

I don’t think every conversation about abortion has to be advocacy-politics-free; it’s always going to be a matter of choosing the right tool for the right moment. We hit the nail on the head here. By creating this safe space, we also didn’t give those who are opposed to abortion, under any circumstance, much to work with. Who can argue with love?

Jovida: Exhale is a pro-voice organization. This can bring up a range of challenges for talking about abortion in a pro-choice/pro-life world.  Did your understanding of pro-voice change at all through the campaign? If so, how?

Deanna: Oh, it sure did. As the submissions first started coming in, I was having a real hard time as the one moderating submissions, deciding which ones were pro-voice and which ones weren’t. Because I hadn’t myself yet experienced the value of having a pro-voice conversation, I didn’t see the nuance.

I admit that at the beginning of the campaign I was skeptical of “keeping politics out of the conversation;” I didn’t see how that could be done, or what the big picture benefit was. The women who told their stories to us were the ones who changed my mind. Seeing messages like “I know now I am not alone in my feelings and a little of my shame is gone!” just blew me away. I feel tremendous gratitude to the women who taught me why pro-voice is critical.

Jovida: From when you were first approached about the project to now, can you describe what, if anything, you’ve learned or come to understand differently about women’s personal experiences with abortion?

Deanna: I don’t think there’s an intellectual or rational thing that I’ve learned; it’s much more that this experience is stored in my emotional memory. In my book, I write about how all storytelling, big and small, creates empathy, and empathy is the fundamental building block of any kind of social change. This campaign was a stellar example of that–because of the women who participated and shared, I have a fundamentally deeper, more human understanding of abortion experiences.

Jovida: Anything else you’d like to add/share?

Deanna: Thank you, thank you for letting me be a part of this campaign!

Jovida: Thank you, Deanna, for being such a big part of bringing our Pro-Voice campaign to life!

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