Planned Parenthood’s Nikki Miller readied for high alert after the 2016 presidential election. The trusted health care provider was bracing for a massive fight against a new administration threatening to slash funding and limit access to health screenings and birth control for millions of low-income women.
But Miller, director of volunteer engagement, didn’t anticipate another big challenge facing Planned Parenthood postelection:
What to do with all those new volunteers?
After the election, and Miller means right after the election, “like, by Wednesday morning,” Planned Parenthood got an affirming boost that, six months out, shows no signs of waning.
Via phone calls and website visits, Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota has been swamped by new volunteer requests from people of all ages, eager to make phone calls and write letters to the editor, carry signs to the State Capitol or canvass door-to-door. Others, drawing on their professional capacities, are offering to devise business plans or crunch numbers.
Call it a much needed silver lining.
• Unique page views to Planned Parenthood’s volunteer section soared from 45 the week before the election to 1,960 the week after.
• Seventy people showed up for a volunteer orientation the Saturday after the Nov. 8 election — up from an average of five. People ended up (happily) sitting on the floor.
• The number of clinic advocates grew from seven a week pre-election to 26 a week postelection. General activists jumped from 40 to 250, and 3,000 supporters attended a rally on April 14, up from 760 last year.
• Guest escort positions, the essential folks who stand outside clinics to welcome women coming for care, were quickly filled, too.
“People are finding their way to us,” Miller said. One supporter reached out from the Dominican Republic. A self-identified lifelong conservative told Miller, “I cannot believe we’re still fighting for this” — this being the right to quality health care and birth control access for every woman, regardless of socio-economic status.
“A lot of people are fed up,” Miller said.
Planned Parenthood mobilizer Allie Carlson-Stehlin reports the same frustration.
“People said they were really afraid, uncertain about the future,” she said. “They couldn’t sit back and do nothing.”
Olivia Bobrowsky, 27, is one example. She moved to the Twin Cities from Maryland six years ago and “had been meaning to volunteer at Planned Parenthood for a long time.”
Her high school in Maryland had a nursery for teenage moms, “and I saw at a really young age how disruptive unplanned pregnancies can be for a woman.” In college, she volunteered for a program that taught comprehensive health to students in Chicago.
In addition, her sister-in-law is an abortion provider “and it gets ridiculous that I have to worry about her safety.”
The election left her feeling “devastated. But, finally, it gave me the kick in the butt to step up and say, ‘OK, I can channel my anger.’ ”
About twice a month, Bobrowsky heads to the Planned Parenthood headquarters in St. Paul, where she makes calls encouraging supporters to contact their congressional representatives.
“I have found it so valuable to find this outlet where we can talk about what’s going on and vent and not feel like you’re alone in your frustration,” she said. “Phone banking sounds so tedious, but calling people who will benefit by what you’re doing is so rewarding.”
While most volunteers are female, male volunteers across the region total about 10 percent. “They’re showing up and saying, ‘Yes, this is where I need to be,’ ” Miller said.
Jonathan Brown, 31, of Minneapolis, has dabbled in volunteerism, but this is “definitely the first big opportunity to really dig in.”
He added, “To me, it was time to step up. With the administration turnover and sensing that a lot of vulnerable individuals on Medicaid are being targeted, this just seemed extra salient. Health care and reproductive rights are fundamental issues.”
Dana Bedessem, a strategist with business and design innovation company Zeus Jones, is a new kind of volunteer.
On A Day Without a Woman (March 8), her work team organized a two-hour brainstorming session with Planned Parenthood’s marketing and communications group. Together, they developed ways for Planned Parenthood to encourage volunteers and activists to broaden their support by becoming patients, and highlight the organization’s expert reproductive health care.
More than 8,000 women a day benefit from Planned Parenthood’s professional staffs nationwide. Planned Parenthood provides birth control, well-woman exams, Pap tests for cervical cancer and STD testing.
While the organization receives about $500 million annually in federal funding, none of that money pays for abortions, which represent 3 to 5 percent of Planned Parenthood’s services. And when safe and legal abortions are provided, they are followed up with STD testing and birth control consultations.
Despite those facts, Miller knows that political rhetoric is a powerful foe. Restrictions to safe and legal abortion have been attempted in states including Wisconsin but, so far, have been blocked. Other states are proposing bans and gag rules.
Having a steadily growing number of friends is comforting.
“We are up against so much politically by those who seek to shut us down,” Miller said. The election, she said, solidified the need “for people to have our backs. Support for us is unwavering.
“That’s more than a silver lining,” she said. “That’s hope.”