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Posts Tagged ‘Stigma’

Exhale is a community of people with personal abortion experiences and when it comes to storysharing, we advocate that:  1) women who have had abortions must have the ability to control their own narratives in our public discourse; and 2) that we must have authority and decision-making over when and how our stories are used by advocates.

Thaler Pekar has been writing about the ethical sharing of stories in a series of blog posts; and her insights offer critical thinking for our community members and the advocates who seek to have access to our stories.

In a two-part series in PhilanTopic, Thaler outlines the concept of Ethical StorySharing, in Part 1:

Because stories are powerful, and because they are wholly owned by the person who shares them, we have an ethical obligation to use story in ways that do no harm. Whether we are asking for stories to better understand an organizational challenge, to use in our organizational communications, or for an advocacy campaign, our goal should be to empower, not exploit…

The need to refrain from treating story as a commodity goes beyond nonprofit and advocacy work; it should inform all your work with narrative. True narrative intelligence respects the sharer of the story and recognizes that his or her story is a unique part of them that cannot, and should not, be taken and shared without permission.

In Ethical StorySharing, Part 2, Thaler gives more advice to advocates who seek to work with stories:

Thinking about the stories you’re not hearing is critical to the ethical use of story. Do you have a responsibility to seek them out? Also, do you plan to label and publicly present the stories you do gather? And if so, how will the context affect the way the audience perceives those stories?…

Or you may be working with a stigmatized population, in which case you have a special responsibility to protect the sharer of the story. For example, you have an ethical obligation to share any knowledge you may have about what could happen to the person, personally or professionally, if they decide to share their story. Might you need to provide for the person’s safety? Does the person sharing his or her story understand how s/he could lose control over the context in which the story is shared, especially in super-public places like YouTube?

In “Working with Stories,” on the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Thaler writes about the concept of empathetic engagement, first described by Sam Gregory of WITNESS:

Develop and engage a keen sense of empathy. Consider what people physically and emotionally need in order to share their stories. Make certain that people are in no way coerced into sharing a story, and explore and protect against any possibilities that the teller may be stigmatized, or even harmed, because he or she has shared a story.

Remember that each individual wholly owns his or her stories. Personal stories are not commodities, to be taken from one person and given to another, in exchange for reimbursement of some sort…Remember, too, that the audience is a partner in the story sharing. Create conditions favorable to the listener fully receiving and making sense of the story.

Understand that story begets story. Story is a contagion: By sharing a story, you will elicit stories in response. Keep this in mind, creating both the time and physical requirements that respect and enable a flow of stories.

In order to hear the real range of people’s complex experiences and emotions, you must avoid communicating that only certain stories are acceptable, welcome, and valued.  If you are too descriptive about the types of stories you want to hear, you may not hear anything at all.

Sagely, Thaler writes:

Refrain from starting a narrative project with a predetermined sense of the stories you will hear. When stories are elicited with honesty and benevolence (and they must be!), you will most likely be surprised, delighted, and frightened by what you hear. Commit yourself to the journey, not to the product.

Finally, in “Pro-Voice and Pro-Chaos” in PhilanTopic, Thaler describes how Pro-Voice is inherently a practice of Ethical StorySharing:

Being “pro-voice” means being anti-predetermined story. The people who work with and support Exhale understand that embracing reality is the only authentic choice for those advocating for sustainable conflict resolution and a more peaceful social climate. Imagine if more advocates let go of their fear of being surprised, contradicted, or losing control and looked to solicit and share stories that didn’t necessarily fit predetermined agendas. In their representation of the complexity of reality, the resulting stories might appear to be chaotic. But the odds are excellent that out of that chaos, profound insight would follow.

To learn more about Thaler and her thinking on Ethical StorySharing, follow her on Twitter: @thaler.

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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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Kate Cockrill, a researcher who studies stigma and abortion at UCSF, recently wrote about her attendance at the Princeton Open Hearts/Open Minds conference on the blog of ANSIRH (a Pro-Voice High-Five Awardee for New Research).   In contemplating the lack of women’s voices at the conference, Kate poses some good questions about the role of women who have had abortions in public discussion.  She writes:

If 1.3 million women have an abortion every year, then why is it that so few women speak publicly or even privately about their abortions? What would happen if women began to speak up? How would it change the debate? I think that it is safe to say that the prochoice movement is a movement for women who are considering abortions or need abortions. It is a legal movement oriented toward preserving the right to abortion.

Addressing the role of stigma in women’s silence, Kate writes:

Stigma is clearly a major culprit in women’s public silence about their abortions. To talk about one’s abortion publicly is to risk losing credibility on a variety of levels. But there are many other reasons that women don’t talk publicly about their abortions. Maybe the reason for their own abortion is not the reason they are attempting to highlight in their advocacy. Maybe they don’t want to upset a family member or ex-partner who might be sensitive to their decision. Maybe it feels like a private experience that they don’t want to explore publicly at that moment. Maybe it still feels raw. Maybe it just doesn’t feel salient anymore.

No matter the reason, speaking about a personal abortion experience publicly means taking on personal risk. Instead of asking where the voices are, we could work harder to reduce the risk that women incur when they speak from their own experience. We can and should be demonstrating and demanding nonjudgmental listening. We should encourage honesty and should support a range of experiences. We should not discriminate against some experiences while highlighting others. We should support private spaces for women to discuss their experiences with those who can listen and understand, better yet, people who have also “been there.” We should demand that all women have access to emotional care at the time of their abortion and after. In fact, I would argue that when these demands are absent from our advocacy, we aren’t really advocating for women who have had abortions.

Women who have abortions do not live in a world of nonjudgmental support. When their own abortion is at issue they can expect judgment, criticism and rejection.  So many women are very careful about who they share their experience with or who they seek support from. In fact if you do not personally know someone who has had an abortion, it’s most likely because you are not considered a safe person to tell. While politically-motivated public and private disclosure is encouraged by both sides of the debate, the real stories of real women are not adequately supported by either side of the public debate.  So, when women don’t come forward with their stories…we have to wonder if we’re partly to blame.

In relating how she experienced the conference, Kate summarizes:

Conversations like the ones I had at OHOM may not bring us any closer to common ground on the abortion issue; however, I think they do promote a common culture based on values that can be shared by either side. Curiosity. Dignity. Respect. Peace.

Thank you Kate!

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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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In celebration of our 5th Anniversary of expanded service, Exhale is excited to present a very special award – our “Pro-Voice High-Five” – to five individuals and organizations who have made significant contributions to creating a more supportive and respectful social climate for women who have had abortions.

Our “Pro-Voice High-Five” Awards go toooooo……(drumroll please)….:

I invite you to read the interviews of each of our awardees to learn more about their passion and commitment to creating something positive, purposeful and powerful for every woman who has experienced abortion.

Congratulations to all of our “Pro-Voice High-Five” Awardees!

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Yes, it’s true that abortion is stigmatized and that the voices of those who have had them are often hidden and neglected.  We rarely hear them in public discussion.  But that doesn’t mean that personal abortion stories are never shared. They are.  Lots of them.

To hear personal abortion stories, you have to be willing to listen and show up when, where and how a woman wants to be heard, on each woman’s terms.  You have to literally “meet her where she’s at” including the forums she chooses.

Despite the great risks that can come with sharing a personal story, thousands of women make this choice everyday.  A woman makes the choice – and faces the risk – every time she seeks support from her friends, faith, family or community.  She makes the choice and faces the risk when she picks up the phone and calls the Exhale talkline. Or she joins the online community.  Or she accepts abortion doula services.  Or she answers questions from a researcher.  Or she completes a digital storytelling workshop.   There are many stories to be told and many ways for a woman to tell hers.  However a woman chooses to share her story, she must be recognized and honored for her unique experience.

Exhale honors the Courage of every woman who has ever made the choice to share her story.

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