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Jovida Ross

By Jovida Ross, Exhale’s Director of Programs

I first came out as Queer when I was 17. At first I told a few close friends; when that went OK I told more people. Then I was out socially. I told my parents; moved in with a girlfriend for the first time; and eventually I became a leader in an LGBTQ organization.

Each of those steps brought a new coming out process: mustering my courage, taking the risk to speak my truth without knowing what response I would get, and living with the consequences. I’m fortunate that my experience has been overwhelmingly positive, with very few instances of shaming or overt discrimination.

Yet still, every time I find myself in a context where people assume I am straight, I face the question of whether I should come out yet again.

As ESPN contributor Mary Buckheit recently told NPR:

Most people think of a person’s coming out as one momentous day, or one unnerving phone call home, or one blurted sentence, even. But the truth is you come out a thousand times. (more…)

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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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