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On Friday, June 17th, Exhale Executive Director Aspen Baker participated in a panel presentation at Netroots Nation entitled “FTW: Social Networks, Down & Dirty for Change.” Assembled by 16 & Loved architect Deanna Zandt, the panel also included Cheryl Contee from Fission Strategy, Anita Jackson from Moms Rising, and Rachel LaBruyere from Mobile Commons and explored case studied of social media successes. Aspen Baker presented the 16 & Loved campaign to a standing-room only crowd, exploring campaign goals, media reaction, and lessons learned. You can watch the whole panel discussion below [a new browser window will open]:

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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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Exhale partnered with MTV on their groundbreaking special “No Easy Decision” which gave three young women  – Markai, Natalia and Katie – the opportunity to tell their own story with abortion, in their own words.  Our “16 & Loved” campaign, launched in conjunction with the special, gave everyone the opportunity to express their love to Markai, Natalia and Katie to  let them know they are not alone.  They are loved.

The special and our campaign were covered extensively in the media and the blogosphere, successfully creating new public conversations about the need to support and respect each person’s unique experience with abortion.   Our pivotal role in this television milestone and the challenge of being Pro-Voice in a pro-choice/pro-life world were reported on in The New York Times.

Exhale’s own speakers bureau member, Mayah Frank, wrote about her own experience of abortion and what the special means to her on Care2Causes.  Read her blog post:  “MTV’s 16 and Pregnant Takes on Abortion: One Reason Why.”

Here is a roundup of articles featuring “No Easy Decision,” and our “16 & Loved” Campaign:

Lynn Harris, Salon.com: “MTV’s Shockingly Good Abortion Special.”

Circling the wagons against nasty backlash, nonpartisan post-abortion support talkline Exhale, who partnered with MTV on the show, had already planned an online campaign called “16 and Loved” to act as sort of virtual clinic escorts for the young women outing themselves.

Shelby Knox, ShelbyKnox.com: “MTV’s Abortion Show Was…Actually Good.”

Also exceptional was the online space created by Exhale, a multi-lingual after abortion counseling talkline, called 16 and Loved. The site’s sole purpose is to support Markai, Katie, and Natalia and other young women who’ve chosen abortion. Exhale got ahead of the inevitable anti-choice shenanigans and focused most of the conversation online, especially on Twitter during the special, toward loving and accepting the young women rather than arguing the politics of abortion rights.

Of course, the real sheroes of No Easy Decision are Markai, Katie and Natalia. Because of their courage, young women who saw or see the show who’ve had abortions know that they’re not alone and they don’t have to be ashamed.

Jessica Valenti, JessicaValenti.com: “MTV’s abortion special treats issue with compassion, facts.”

Amanda Marcotte, RH Reality Cast (podcast): “Aggressive Women, Rape Myths, And Abortion Realities”

Roxann MtJoy, Change.org: “MTV to Air Special on Teen Abortion Tonight”

MTV is partnering with Exhale, an after-abortion counseling talkline, to make sure that this sensitive subject matter is handled right. Exhale wants to make sure that those brave girls who shared their stories feel loved and supported. To that end, they have launched a major social media campaign called 16 & Loved, and there are plenty of ways for you to get involved.

Linda Lowen, About.com: “MTV’s No Easy Decision Follows Teens Who Choose Abortion”

Knowing that the girls featured on the special will be bombarded with hate after their stories air, the website 16 and Loved is already up and running to provide messages of unconditional love and support to the three girls who are featured in No Easy Decision. The site offers readers a chance to post their own stories about abortion and leave comments for the girls to let them know that going public with their decision is a courageous act.

The driving force behind the site is Exhale, a nonprofit organization that provides a nonjudgmental national, multilingual after-abortion talkline and trained peer counselors.

Sean Daly, NYPost: “MTV Follows ‘Teen Mom’ Who Chose Abortion in Controversial New Show” and “16 & Pregnant Abort Show Furor”

Luchina Fisher, ABCNews.com: “MTV Airing Teen Abortion Special, ‘No Easy Decision'”

To find the young women for the special, MTV partnered with Exhale, an after-abortion counseling hotline …that takes an apolitical or “pro-voice” approach that “honors and respects each person’s unique experience with abortion,” according to volunteer Erika Jackson.

Exhale launched its “16 and Loved”website to support the young women who will tell their stories next week, as well as women who find the stories resonate with them. The group has been posting messages of support to the women on the special and will be live blogging during the program.

“My grand vision is that everyone who has had an abortion or is in the middle of the decision-making process will know that she’s not alone,” Jackson told ABCNews.com.

Bianca Laureno, Latino Sexuality: “No Easy Decision/16 & Loved: MTVs Airing of Teen Stories About Abortion” and “Reflecting On “No Easy Decision”

I’m not a huge fan of the “speak outs” especially when connected to abortion, personally. Part of this stems from seeing people who are not prepared to hear those testimonios respond to them, youth thinking they are expected to share when they are not prepared or ready to do so, and the somewhat voyeuristic space that may be created. However, I have not ever spoken out against these spaces existing, or the importance and need they fill for many people. Any way for such healing and consciousness-raising to occur is essential. There is enough space for all of us to heal and build together.

Vanessa Valenti, Feministing: “MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” to air special on abortion tomorrow”

Samhita Mukhopadhyay, Feministing: “On MTV’s special, “No Easy Decision.”

Beth Saunders, RH Reality Check: “Morning Roundup: Alaska, Wisconsin, and 16 and Loved”

Kelsey Wallace, Bitch: “Love for the Women of MTV’s “No Easy Decision”

Barbara Glickstein, WBAI Healthstyles (MP3)

Jill Fillipovic, Feministe: “16 & Loved”

I’m sure the show will be controversial (and Dr. Drew is the worst, so that part concerns me). I’m also sure that the young women who have abortions will not be warmly received by many members of the “pro-life” community.

Which is why I’m glad that Exhale is doing a “16 & Loved” campaign to support these (and all) women who terminate pregnancies. It’s important for women to know that no matter what their story and what reproductive choices they make, they are supported.

Irin Carmon, Jezebel: “MTV Airing Teen Abortion Special”

LATimes Show Tracker: “How groundbreaking was MTV’s abortion special?”

But Pinsky earned raves from abortion rights advocates, as did MTV’s decision to partner with Exhale, a “pro-voice” counseling service for women who’ve had abortions.

Sarah Seltzer, The Washington Post: “MTV’s ’16 and Pregnant’ exploits teen moms but addresses abortion with dignity”

BostonHerald.com: “MTV Abortion Special: No Easy Decision”

Steph Herold, AbortionGang: “16 and Loved: Supporting Women Who Have Had Abortions”

Jamia Wilson, Womens Media Center: “MTV Abortion Special “No Easy Decision” Addresses Abortion with Compassionate Integrity”

I appreciate MTV’s portrayal of the three women on the show, presenting them authentically without promoting stereotypes as they often do in other reality shows. I loved their positive depiction of an African American/Multiracial family, their engagement with spirituality, and their portrayal of women with families and partners who were loving, supportive, and respectful of each woman’s choice.

We don’t often hear these stories and I am glad they gave air time to Natalia, Markai, and Katie’s realities. When Katie, explained that she made a “parenting decision” by making the choice to end her pregnancy, I regarded the concept of choice with a more enlightened perspective. I am proud of these young women for living their truth.

Jennifer Pozner, Reality Bites Back: “Viewers Guide to MTV Abortion Special: Send young women your love but give Dr. Drew the sideeye” and “Liveblogging ’16 & Pregnant’ Reunion Show and MTV abortion special No Easy Decision”

I’m pleasantly surprised: the framing of Markai’s abortion experience has been respectful, and seemingly true to her authentic reactions during pregnancy, through her decision-making process with her boyfriend, mother and friend, and finally in the aftermath of how she has been coping with the choice she made. She seems resigned to knowing it was the right decision, but feeling doubt and sadness that this choice was necessary — which, of course, is how a great many women feel when they find themselves having to terminate an unexpected pregnancy. I knew it was possible that MTV could produce a reality special that handled abortion with nuance, respect and authenticity. But having documented ten years of reality TV manipulations, misrepresentations and regressive anti-feminist backlash for my book, Reality Bites Back, I was skeptical that they would really want to do so, or know how to do so even if the good intentions were there. So far, at least for this first 1/3 of the special, I’m really glad that my concerns have been misplaced…

Dr. Drew ended the special encouraging those who have had abortions to visit Exhale’s website if they need support. Unfortunately, the special never mentioned “16 and Loved,” the Exhale-led companion campaign to this special aimed at showering Markai, Katie (and the other teen whose name I didn’t catch) with support and love, which I blogged about earlier. Was this a perfect special? No. Did it cover all the reasons young women have abortions? No. But it was far more honest, and allowed far more authenticity of girls’ experiences, than I expected. And my biggest surprise: Dr. Drew wasn’t the moralizing, judgmental, faux-sincere jerk he has often been on his other MTV shows, Celebrity Rehab, Sex Rehab, and Sober House.


Thank you to every person who participated in conversations about the need to support and respect each woman’s unique experience with abortion, whether she shares her story in private on our talkline or in public on MTV.  Every woman deserves the opportunity to feel heard, understood, supported and respected.  And, most of all, loved.

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Watch the first Pro-Voice show on MTV

Exhale has partnered with MTV, home of the the popular “16 & Pregnant” series, as it ventures into new territory with a special that features young women telling their abortion stories.  The special will promote the Exhale web site and will encourage viewers to reach out and talk with someone about their abortion.

16 & Pregnant

Watch: “No Easy Decision” on MTV
December 28th, at 11:30 p.m. East Coast Time, directly after the reunion show of 16 & Pregnant.
(Check local listings)

Announcing Exhale’s  “16 & Loved”! campaign:

Several courageous young women – including a previous “16 & Pregnant” subject, Markai – will be featured on MTV’s special telling their personal story with abortion. They’re doing their part to let other young women know: “you are not alone. I’ve been there too.

Now, it’s time to do our part.  We need to make sure these brave young women feel our unconditional love and our support.

With your help, we are launching a major social media campaign to send our love to the guests of the special.

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*Guest Blogger*

Nat Okey, Exhale Volunteer:

The recent media attention over the Twitter thread, “#ihadanabortion”, reveals the deep difference between online networking and social change.  I hope that every woman who tweeted about her abortion found the experience to be a positive one, and yet in order to have a lasting effect on the abortion debate, the campaign must be connected to a broader culture change agenda.

Recently, best-selling author and cultural commentator, Malcolm Gladwell, wrote in the New Yorker magazine about the difference between the weak ties of social networking and the strong ties needed for social change. He makes his point that people take on great personal risks, like violence or death, in order to change culture because of strong ties, with examples of the early lunch counter sit-ins and the Freedom Summer campaign. On the other hand, weak social ties, like the kind we have with people on Facebook or Twitter, don’t give us what is really needed to face our own fears and the real risks to our lives or livelihoods.

The problem of weak social ties played out with #ihadanabortion, as it quickly became politicized and was used as another culture war proxy.  The thread digressed to include pleas for people to go sign a Planned Parenthood petition, amongst many other things.   You can’t have a transformative conversation, which is necessary to change the debate, in 140 characters or less with anonymous strangers with constant tangents being introduced.  The multitudes of nuance that the abortion debate contains and which must be respected can not be adequately addressed by tweeting.

Instead of trying to speak to the masses one tweet at a time, we should focus on supporting women who have had abortions, as it is their relationships with their own friends and family that will prove the tipping point to cultural change. When people have strong personal ties to you, they will view an issue differently if it affects you. Where once something was unacceptable, through their prism of you they can see and feel the issue differently.

Sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell describe this in their new book, American Grace.  In a recent review in the New York Times, Robert Wright discusses this effect in regards to LGBT people in the U.S. and how our society has become much more accepting with relative quickness:

Putnam and Campbell favor the “bridging” model. The idea is that tolerance is largely a question of getting to know people. If, say, your work brings you in touch with gay people or Muslims — and especially if your relationship with them is collaborative — this can brighten your attitude toward the whole tribe they’re part of. And if this broader tolerance requires ignoring or reinterpreting certain scriptures, so be it; the meaning of scripture is shaped by social relations.

The bridging model explains how attitudes toward gays could have made such rapid progress. A few decades ago, people all over America knew and liked gay people — they just didn’t realize these people were gay. So by the time gays started coming out of the closet, the bridge had already been built.

And once straight Americans followed the bridge’s logic — once they, having already accepted people who turned out to be gay, accepted gayness itself — more gay people felt comfortable coming out. And the more openly gay people there were, the more straight people there were who realized they had gay friends, and so on: a virtuous circle.

Once people realize that their co-workers, partners, friends and family members have had abortions, we can develop our own Pro-Voice virtuous circle.

This kind of bridge-building work won’t happen through Twitter.  As Gladwell writes, online social networking is

a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections… It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.”

A Twitter campaign alone will not de-stigmatize abortion.  We need to build more bridges and foster more strong ties.  This approach can give us a world where all the women who’ve had an abortion can speak freely about their experiences, and a world where the rest of us can see abortion less as a political issue to be debated and more about abortion as an experience lived by a woman we love.

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Last week, Steph Herold, the pro-choice activist behind IAmDr.Tiller launched a Twitter campaign to get women to come out about their abortions, using #ihadanabortion. Emily Douglas at The Nation invited us both to exchange our thoughts and ideas about the role of public abortion storytelling for changing the debate.

Read our exchange: “I Had An Abortion” in 140 Characters or Less: An Exchange with Steph Herold and Aspen Baker.

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My name is Erika Jackson and I have been a volunteer at Exhale for two-and-a-half years. I started as a talkline counselor and I’ve been a moderator in the Online Community since it launched last year.  I know how important Exhale is to the women we serve, which is why I just donated $50 to celebrate our 5th Anniversary of expanded service.

I’m writing to invite you join me by making your own contribution to Exhale today. We are just $2,000 away from reaching our $15,000 goal, and I know that with your donation, we will ge there by Tuesday, August 31st!  Every donation makes a big difference.

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