At 20, I didn’t know who I was. I knew that I was artistic and that I had a drive to try to make the world a better place, but despite that, I didn’t understand, trust, or value my own voice. As a child, I was often described as shy, a quality that was never questioned at the time. But looking back, I would instead describe myself as frequently crippled with anxiety, and simply aware enough to figure out how to cover it up. By the time I got to college, I had mastered the art of faking it in social situations so that everyone thought I was fine — but in reality, I was anxious and couldn’t always relate to my peers.
Around that time, I was also looking for a work-study job. My college had a program where students could work at local nonprofit agencies, and I was interested in finding a job that could help to make a difference in my community. I found one at Women’s Medical Fund (WMF), an abortion fund in Philadelphia. When I first started at WMF, I was nervous. I didn’t know quite what to expect, and I worried that I was in over my head. I had always considered myself to be pro-choice, but I didn’t know much about reproductive rights before I got the job.
But once I began working there, I quickly learned what abortion funds do: help their clients pay for abortion care. I also learned about the Hyde Amendment, a federal law which denies people who are enrolled in Medicaid from having their abortion care covered, which is one of the reasons why abortion funds are so necessary.
Working at an abortion fund is a difficult job. We only had a set amount of money that we were able to give out each week to help people pay for their abortions, and that meant that I wasn’t able to help everyone who called. I ended up having to tell a lot of people no, or that they should try calling back the following week. It was upsetting to be the gatekeeper of financial resources for people in desperate situations — a situation that shouldn't even have to exist.
So many people are carrying systems of oppression like Olympic barbells on their shoulders: the weight of racism, poverty, abortion stigma, and more. They are expected to go about their daily lives while holding constant emotional trauma in the back of their minds...All that I could do was try to tell people that they are forced to carry that weight, but it is not who they are.
It took time, but I eventually became more comfortable over the phone, and I made peace with the things that were outside of my immediate control. I did have to have a lot of difficult conversations. I also had conversations with people who, despite the significant barriers to getting their abortions, were able to overcome what seemed like insurmountable obstacles. It put a lot of my own fears and anxieties into perspective — I felt like if the people I talked to were fighting to have their basic needs met with dignity, then the least I could do was talk to them over the phone.
Being a phone counselor can be intimate and distancing at the same time. People shared very personal things with me, not just about their pregnancies, but about their lives, their joys, and their losses. I thought a lot about how similar I was to so many of the people I talked to, many of whom were around my age and just trying to make it through this pregnancy decision to move forward with their lives.
But at the same time, I was also so far removed from them. I had never been pregnant or had an abortion, struggled to put food on the table, or lived with the constant threat of violence. It was eye-opening to hear directly from people who were experiencing and pushing through such difficult things. All of this made me realize how much power and privilege I hold in my life. I made a commitment to try to leverage that power to make change. In the short term, I would do that by advocating for my abortion fund clients to be able to access the care they deserve. In the long term, I committed to challenging myself to disrupting and pushing back against unjust systems and laws like abortion restrictions.
Working at an abortion fund changed my life, and not just by giving me a framework to name and understand oppression. It gave me an even bigger gift: the gift of learning how to listen, to others and to myself. It is powerful, difficult, and humbling to hold space for another human being who is grappling with something no person should have to go through. I learned that sometimes being there was all I could do. At times that was enough, and at other times, it wasn’t.
So many people are carrying systems of oppression like Olympic barbells on their shoulders: the weight of racism, poverty, abortion stigma, and more. They are expected to go about their daily lives while holding constant emotional trauma in the back of their minds. On top of that, the world sends subliminal messages to make people think that that burden is their fault, or even part of them. All that I could do was try to tell people that they are forced to carry that weight, but it is not who they are. Working in abortion care taught me how to say “You are valuable” and “You are worthy.”
I try to remind myself that individual people have created systems of oppression, so that also means that individual people have the power to dismantle them. It doesn’t mean that it’s not going to be lifelong hard work or that I don’t have a lot of learning to do, but it does mean that it’s possible.
The more I started to say those things to other people, the more I also started to believe them about myself. Before working in abortion care, I believed that I was someone whose voice didn’t matter and that I didn’t have anything valuable to say. So each time I repeated those messages I so deeply believed about others, I tried to make myself believe it about me, too. I am still doing that. That’s the reason I make art, really — I am just trying to say that to as many people as possible.
The noxious Hyde Amendment turns 40 today, and 40 years too long. Sometimes it feels like too much to hold. I try to remind myself that individual people have created systems of oppression, so that also means that individual people, like me, have the power to dismantle them. It doesn’t mean that it’s not going to be lifelong hard work or that I don’t have a lot of learning to do, but it does mean that it’s possible. As an artist and human being I am trying harder to stop, listen, reflect, and then shout. I am taking a step back and taking a step forward all at once. I am working on finding my voice and trying to be louder. I am learning to take care of and value myself. And I am using what I have to keep fighting.