There is a racial reckoning happening in the reproductive rights movement. And according to many in the field, it’s been a long time coming.
Employees of color, and especially Black employees, feel stuck in lower-paying roles at powerful organizations primarily run by white women, and they say they regularly experience microaggressions, tokenization, and racism at institutions that often tout intersectional feminism as their ethos. And when they try to push for more inclusivity — both publicly and internally — they say they are ignored or brushed off.
In interviews, internal meetings, and on social media, dozens of current and former employees in the reproductive rights field are pointing out hypocrisy at their own organizations and coming forward with a clear message: The time for “white feminism” is over.
While months of protests over police brutality and racism have sparked calls for change across many industries, the field of reproductive rights is in a unique position. Access to abortion, contraception, and other reproductive and sexual health care have always disproportionately affected Black people.
According to a study of abortion rates in the US published in the American Journal of Public Health, Black people were “overrepresented among abortion patients and had the highest abortion rate” at 27.1 per 1,000 people ages 15 to 44, while non-Hispanic white people had the lowest rate. Another study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Black people are more than three times more likely to die in childbirth than white people.
And yet, 26 employees at Planned Parenthood affiliates and the national office of NARAL, as well as 16 employees of other reproductive rights organizations, told BuzzFeed News that people of color, and especially Black people, were often stuck in lower-paying administrative roles, causing high turnover rates among staff of color and preventing nonwhite employees from rising to positions of power within the organizations. NARAL and Planned Parenthood are two of the most powerful reproductive rights groups in the US.
The employees provided screenshots of emails, text messages, internal staff surveys, union proposals, and other internal documents to support these stories.
“I do think it's worse in reproductive rights, because it is insidious. The movement prides itself on working on issues affecting the most marginalized in society — women, trans and nonbinary folks, and people of color,” one woman who used to work at a major public relations firm that works with reproductive rights organizations told BuzzFeed News. “And yet, in their own workplaces, they don’t value those people.”
Planned Parenthood’s national board is uncharacteristically diverse for the field, and its new president, Alexis McGill Johnson, is Black. But the state-level affiliates, which independently run its clinics across the nation, with their own boards and own CEOs, are much whiter; of Planned Parenthood’s 49 state-level affiliates, only eight CEOs identify as people of color or multiracial.
Black current and former staffers at four of the affiliates told BuzzFeed News they faced racism and were berated and belittled by their bosses while their non-Black colleagues were not. They also said they were unable to move up within the organization, while their white colleagues were promoted.
NARAL lists 10 leadership positions on its website, but only one of them is occupied by a person of color, while four other of the 21 total leadership and director-level staff are Black or Latinx. The board for its electoral and lobbying wing comprises 11 members, only two of whom are Black women, while the education and advocacy side has three Black women on its 14-person board. There are no other employees of color on the board.
Staff at NARAL told BuzzFeed News that it was an “open secret” that the organization is “by and for cis white women,” and that the board is more committed to the appearance of diversity than the reality of it.
Both NARAL and Planned Parenthood said that they are taking steps to address the problems. The organizations also pointed to their diversity, inclusion, and equality initiatives, as well as work they already do fighting racism and prejudice, as examples of their commitment to the issues.
“We have definitely failed in places and certainly fallen short of our goals at times,” NARAL President Ilyse Hogue said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “I take responsibility for each instance where a person on our staff or board, a member, or an ally felt the impact of that failure. This is … an opportunity for institutions like ours to own our history and commit to do better.”
In a statement, Planned Parenthood’s national office told BuzzFeed News, “It is among leadership’s top priorities to ensure our commitments are intentional, actionable, and public so that we, alongside our supporters, patients, and staff, can hold ourselves accountable and more truly fulfill our mission of reproductive freedom for all.”
Many of the current and former employees at NARAL who spoke to BuzzFeed News said that they were made to sign nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) that they interpreted as preventing them from speaking openly about their experiences. A NARAL spokesperson, however, said the agreements "are not intended to and would not be used to prevent any current or former staffer from sharing publicly concerns about discrimination and harassment."
Other employees of NARAL and Planned Parenthood still work at those organizations or elsewhere in the field, and asked to remain anonymous because they fear professional retribution.
The threat from the anti-abortion movement, which has been steadily whittling away abortion rights, has also kept many employees from speaking out; they fear giving ammunition to abortion opponents, they said. Four people who worked at Planned Parenthood clinics said that walking through protesters standing outside their office every day made them feel they had to stand in solidarity with their white colleagues.
But the current reckoning has caused many of these workers to change their thinking. In order for the abortion rights movement to survive and grow stronger, they said, it needs to self-examine and change.
A Movement’s Troubled History
This conflict is not new. The feminist movement has been called out for excluding women of color and ignoring the issues that affect them since its inception, and even more loudly in the past several decades.
“The abortion rights activists of the early 1970s should have examined the history of their movement,” Angela Davis wrote in her 1981 book Women, Race, and Class. “Had they done so … they might have understood how important it was to undo the racist deeds of their predecessors, who had advocated birth control as well as compulsory sterilization as a means of eliminating the ‘unfit’ sectors of the population.”
One of the main specters of reproductive rights’ checkered history with race is Margaret Sanger. The founder of Planned Parenthood was an open eugenicist, though whether her views applied to race is widely debated. In July, Planned Parenthood of Greater New York announced it would remove her name from its Manhattan health center.
"The removal of Margaret Sanger's name from our building is both a necessary and overdue step to reckon with our legacy and acknowledge Planned Parenthood's contributions to historical reproductive harm within communities of color," the chair of PPGNY's board, Karen Seltzer, told reporters.
In part because they felt excluded from the movement and had different priorities, Black and Latinx activists began to form a separate, parallel movement. In 1994 it was given the name “reproductive justice.”
“Reproductive health and rights has always been approached as a privacy issue, while reproductive justice has been approached as a human rights issue,” Marcela Howell, the founder and president of the National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda, told BuzzFeed News. “We look at all of the intersections that come into account when Black women and women of color decide whether or not to start a family.”
Traditionally, reproductive health and rights organizations tackle sexual and reproductive health care access and the laws around abortion and contraception. Reproductive justice groups work on those issues as well, but take a hyper-intersectional approach that focuses on specific communities and fights economic injustice, police brutality, anti-gay and anti-trans prejudice, food insecurity, education, inequality, and any other issues that would prevent Black people and people of color from having the freedom to choose whether to have a family.
Generally speaking, reproductive justice groups are smaller and have less funding. They don’t have the network of high-power donors that reproductive rights groups do, leaders of two reproductive justice groups told BuzzFeed News, curbing their ability to expand their work.
Now, reproductive justice leaders say leaders of the mainstream reproductive rights movement need to put their money, and their actions, where their words are.
“Right now, predominantly white women's organizations are struggling as to what their role is in stopping [racism], and we embrace their attempt to figure that out,” Howell told BuzzFeed News. “But I don't believe it's my job to tell them how, it’s not my job as a Black woman to fight white supremacy. I think that's the job of white women.”
Planned Parenthood’s Problems In Local Offices
In response to a request from BuzzFeed News for stories about experiencing racism in the reproductive rights world, eight current and former employees from Planned Parenthood affiliates in Western Pennsylvania, the Great Plains, Washington, DC, and Illinois described race-based pay disparities and “toxic” work environments for employees of color.
At one affiliate, these issues already had bubbled to the surface. Planned Parenthood of Greater New York’s CEO was ousted in late June after being accused of racism and mismanagement in a series of public letters written by staff members.
“After years of complaints from staff about issues of systemic racism, pay inequity, and lack of upward mobility for Black staff, highly-paid consultants were brought in three separate times to assess the situation,” the letter signed by hundreds of Planned Parenthood staff and supporters in New York reads. “Each time, employees of color were brutally honest about their experiences, but nothing changed.”
The employees who spoke to BuzzFeed News described similar problems.
Two former employees of Planned Parenthood affiliates — one in Pittsburgh, and the other in Washington, DC — sent BuzzFeed News copies of their resignation letters, in which they detailed instances of racial ignorance, open racism, and a culture that prevented them from moving up professionally while their white colleagues were promoted. Both women asked to remain anonymous out of fear that speaking up could hurt their careers.
“Planned Parenthood advertises that it exists as a safe space to protect and support women, especially women of color, but from my experiences I can confidently say that it does not practice what it preaches,” the Pittsburgh employee, who worked at the affiliate from 2017 to 2019, wrote in her resignation letter. “An unsafe environment has been created here, one where management is comfortable and unaccountable while employees suffer and go unheard.”
The Pittsburgh affiliate, called Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania, didn’t have an HR department until November 2019, so the woman went to the CEO, Kim Evert, to file complaints and to suggest management implement a diversity and inclusion training and a mentorship program. Evert told her they didn’t have the time or money for that, the former employee said.
Another woman who worked at Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh from 2018 to 2019 had similar experiences and provided BuzzFeed News with notes she kept at the time.
Both women said there was a glaring lack of diversity among staff while they were there and that the few employees of color were frequently undermined while their white colleagues were promoted around them. Without an HR department, they felt helpless.
In response to a request for comment on the specific allegations made by former Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania employees, the organization said that the clinic developed a career ladder for healthcare assistants (many of whom are people of color) to encourage career advancement, and that all employees were required to complete diversity training online annually.
“When our staff speak out about our failures to live up to our values, we must stand with them,” Evert told BuzzFeed News in a statement. “The leadership of PPWP is committed to directly addressing our own internal and structural racism and confirming our commitment to end implicit bias and structural racism within our organization.”
The former employee of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, DC, worked on the administrative side in 2018 and 2019, and said she was the only Black person on her team. She said she was treated noticeably differently from her non-Black colleagues.
Despite her high-ranking role, she said she was constantly told to serve board members food, clean up after meetings, organize people’s parking permits, and other assistant-level work. She and two other Black women who worked at the DC affiliate around the same time said their white colleagues would constantly use racially charged terms like “aggressive,” “domineering,” and “threatening” to describe another black male employee; they found him mild mannered and kind.
In her resignation letter, the woman wrote that she had been repeatedly singled out, berated, and even screamed at by a supervisor. Once when she was on vacation, the supervisor yelled at her so loudly over speakerphone that colleagues and HR reached out to her after the call to make sure she was OK, she told BuzzFeed News.
“I’ve worked at plenty of nonprofits, and I have never been treated so horribly in my life as I was at Planned Parenthood, to the point where I grew very depressed, had a lot of anxiety, and cried in the bathroom almost every day,” the woman said.
Three other employees who worked at the Washington, DC, affiliate told similar stories of their own. Gabrielle Martinez, who worked at the DC affiliate from 2011 to 2018, and Angelica Melendez, who worked there for 90 days in 2017, both of whom are Black and Latinx, said their colleagues would frequently confuse them or imply that they were the “same person.”
All four Planned Parenthood DC employees told BuzzFeed News that the office was segregated, with the few women of color all sitting at the same row of desks. Martinez and Melendez both said that their colleagues, including their white manager, would sometimes refer to the Black and Latinx women in that row as the “barrio” or the “ghetto girls.”
Martinez made many complaints to HR about racially insensitive comments or incidents during her time at Planned Parenthood, emails provided to BuzzFeed News show. In one incident, Martinez told BuzzFeed News, she was wearing a purple headscarf when a non-Black coworker grabbed and shook her hair without asking, saying that she was checking if it was a scarf or if she had dyed her “real hair” purple.
Martinez emailed HR saying that her coworker touched her “very inappropriately,” the emails show. HR responded saying they confirmed the event and its “inappropriateness” with a witness, the emails show, and told Martinez that an apology from her colleague was forthcoming.
Martinez told BuzzFeed News the colleague said, “I’m sorry if you were offended.”
A spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, DC, said she could not speak to “individual personnel matters,” but that the affiliate takes “any allegation of racist actions, harassment, or similar conduct very seriously.” She added that the affiliate provides “multiple avenues for reporting” and thoroughly investigates each report and takes action when appropriate.
In another incident in 2017, Martinez asked her white manager if she and Melendez could attend a summit focusing on Afro-Latina health, and her manager texted back, questioning whether the women were in fact Latinx, both women said. The manager told them that she had never heard Martinez or Melendez speak Spanish, and that she was “more of a Latina” than them because she spent time in Spanish-speaking countries when she was younger, they told BuzzFeed News.
The manager, they said, then sent the women a photograph of herself in what Martinez described as “white girl vacation braids.” Neither woman currently has access to this correspondence, which was sent to their work phones, but Martinez also provided BuzzFeed News with emails to HR from March 2018 in which she told them that she did not feel safe meeting with her manager alone.
“I feel I am being forced into a hostile work environment where I am micro aggressively being bullied,” she wrote. “I would like to request that until you and I are able to sit down and have a conversation that I am not obligated to meet with [my manager] on my own.”
She said that after that email she still had to regularly meet alone with her manager. Melendez and another employee at the affiliate said that the manager would frequently make staff of color feel “othered” and uncomfortable.
“When you know there are no consequences for your actions, you can say whatever, do whatever, say ignorant or just rude things and know it will go unpunished,” the other employee said.
BuzzFeed News tried repeatedly to reach the manager for comment but received no response. The manager still works at Planned Parenthood’s DC affiliate. Melendez no longer works in reproductive rights.
“You’re losing quality highly educated people with a wealth of knowledge because of that behavior,” she said. “The white fragility there is really getting in the way of the reproductive justice work — you can’t be as radical in the work because of the insecurities of some of these women.”
The spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington highlighted that the current leadership at the affiliate, for both the medical clinic and administrative side of the organization, is diverse, with four of the eight members of the executive leadership team identifying as Black or African American, and 73% of the 30 members of management identifying as Black, Indigenous, and people of color.
The spokesperson also provided BuzzFeed News with a list of diversity trainings conducted since 2016, as well as other efforts, both completed or in the works. This included an all-staff training on racial microaggressions, plans to establish a diversity, equity, and inclusion council, and a collaboration with outside consultants to develop an “affiliate-wide, multi-year” diversity and inclusion plan.
“We know, of course, that PPMW is not immune to the systemic racism that permeates our society, and over the past several years we have prioritized our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, including training on microaggression and engaging an outside consulting group to conduct a comprehensive assessment and plan to strengthen this work,” the spokesperson said.
Dissent Within NARAL
Renee Bracey Sherman, a major figure in the reproductive rights movement, left NARAL in 2017. This June, amid a flood of tweets from fellow people of color who left reproductive rights organizations, she tweeted, “anti-Blackness and refusal to address racism is why I quit the board.”
The last straw, she told BuzzFeed News, came during a conversation with the incoming chair of the organization’s board of directors, Brina Milikowsky, in October 2017.
“I asked her point-blank what she was going to do to address the racism on the board and how things were going to change, because I was frustrated that all but one seat on the executive committee was held by a white person,” Bracey Sherman said.
Milikowsky, she said, brushed off the question. But Bracey Sherman kept asking, she said, while getting the same nonanswers each time.
“And then I asked her, ‘Do you think that racism is a problem? Do you think it's a problem that almost no people of color were voted into these seats?’ And she kept avoiding it,” Bracey Sherman continued. “So I resigned on the spot.”
Bracey Sherman was one of only a few women of color on the board during her three years at NARAL, the country’s oldest abortion rights organization (and one of only two on the executive committee before she left). She said she was repeatedly questioned by her fellow board members for voicing dissent.
Five former NARAL employees and board members told BuzzFeed News that Bracey Sherman was often described by NARAL leadership as a “problem child.” When Bracey Sherman fought back on proposals or language she saw as exclusionary to women of color or trans people, they said, she was met with resistance and eye rolls.
In an email to a fellow board member about why she resigned, which was provided to BuzzFeed News, Bracey Sherman wrote, “I said that I simply could not move forward with an organization that questioned me like that after I voiced dissent in support of Black women and people of color.”
Toward the end of her time at NARAL, Bracey Sherman was pushing for another woman of color, a South Asian lawyer, to be added to the board, and one of her white colleagues asked her, “Well, how is she different from you? What can she bring that you can’t?” Bracey Sherman recalled.
“Mind you, this woman is a lawyer, I’m not. She’s queer, I’m not. She’s a completely different race and ethnicity than me, the difference was clear,” Bracey Sherman said. “It was just really so frustrating to be reminded that as folks of color we are interchangeable to them. It was dehumanizing.”
Daniel Grossman, who was on the board with Bracey Sherman at the time, said the issues she raised around race were “hard for people to hear.”
“I can corroborate that,” Grossman said of that specific circumstance, as well as the reasons Bracey Sherman left the board. “I saw the way she was treated by others on the board, for sure.”
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Milikowsky did not directly address the incidents recounted by Bracey Sherman, but wrote that the NARAL board has “been actively engaged for many years to increase diversity and equity at the board, staff, and membership levels, and to foster an inclusive environment.”
Ten staff members — three of whom overlapped with Bracey Sherman and six of whom worked there after she left — told BuzzFeed News that the resistance Bracey Sherman said she faced at the top exists throughout the entire organization. “The fact that NARAL is by and for cis white women is an open secret in the reproductive rights world,” one current NARAL employee told BuzzFeed News.
Twelve current and former employees who worked at the organization from 2014 to present told BuzzFeed News that the few staff of color at NARAL were concentrated in lower-paying roles and on the finance and operations side of the organization, rather than in roles that interact with members or have a say over the organization’s direction. The few staff members of color who did work there were frequently used in photos and at public events.
A spokesperson for NARAL told BuzzFeed News the organization recognized that Black and brown employees felt tokenized and that NARAL was sorry about the actions that had caused those feelings.
All of the NARAL staff who spoke to BuzzFeed News said that when people raised issues about diversity, pay equity, or microaggressions, they were ignored, dismissed, and sometimes reprimanded.
One incident recounted by several employees who spoke to BuzzFeed News took place at an annual staff retreat in the summer of 2018. NARAL held a mandatory diversity, equity, and inclusion session, which staffers, particularly people of color, felt didn’t adequately address issues of racial inequity, especially at NARAL itself.
The following day, at another all-staff meeting, several employees expressed disappointment with the training, and one of the few women of color told Hogue, NARAL’s president, that she believed the organization had a race equity and inclusivity problem, both in the work it does and the makeup of staff.
In response, four members of staff present at the meeting told BuzzFeed News, Hogue launched into a heated rebuttal, defending her work to eradicate racial inequality. Throughout her remarks, she kept looking at or motioning toward a small group of Black operations staff sitting together, two members of staff told BuzzFeed News, and suggested that the staff of color present should start a working group on the issue. Two employees present said the staff of color looked visibly uncomfortable.
At the end of the meeting, two people present said, Hogue told staff to provide suggestions to managers and executives on ways NARAL could improve its diversity and inclusivity. In the days following, six managers, including two who spoke to BuzzFeed News — Leslie McGorman, the deputy policy director at the time, and another manager who asked to remain anonymous — collected feedback from their employees and compiled a document to provide executives.
“I got a call after hours from my boss and she basically asked me, ‘Why did you guys do this?’’’ the second manager said, adding that she felt reprimanded. “She said one page we couldn’t even send to Ilyse because it was just all attacking her.”
A spokesperson for NARAL told BuzzFeed News that the organization does not condone any reprisals or reprimands for staff voicing complaints. She added that Hogue and the executives were aware of the staff’s issues with the retreat, and that they recognized the training at the retreat and the following conversation were missteps.
The executives received the letter from management and held a meeting about it, the spokesperson said. These incidents caused executives to seek to improve diversity and inclusion at the organization, they said, and NARAL has begun concrete efforts to do so.
A year after the 2018 incident at the retreat, Hogue announced that they were hiring a managing director who would lead NARAL’s diversity initiative as one of their chief responsibilities. They hired a white woman.
Staff currently at the organization say that a full year after that hire, NARAL has not had a diversity and inclusion training. NARAL said training sessions are, in fact, being planned.
“Living out our values around diversity, equity and inclusion is both an ethical and a strategic imperative not only for NARAL, but also for our broader movement,” Hogue told BuzzFeed News in a statement when asked about the incidents described at her organization. “We are proud of the work we are doing to grow and improve and I take responsibility for where we’ve fallen short. … [W]e know that we must continue to listen, learn and evolve.”
Ten people who worked at NARAL told BuzzFeed News that leadership constantly cited the fact that their donors and volunteers are majority white, middle class, and centrist as the reason for not always using more trans-inclusive language, like changing “pregnant women” to “pregnant people” in press releases, or signing onto progressive, intersectional causes.
One woman who worked at NARAL in 2018 said that when she asked a member of leadership why they didn’t do more outreach to women of color, she was told that NARAL’s “target was suburban women.”
At an all-staff meeting in May, an outside messaging research contractor gave a presentation, alongside NARAL’s communications team, in which the contractor argued against using transgender-inclusive language. “We recognize that using ‘woman’ (or ‘women’) does not reflect the real lived experience of transgender men and people who are non-binary who need abortion care,” the slide read. “However, we have found that using ‘people’ instead of ‘women’ can create considerable confusion among our audience.”
The slide suggested that using the singular “a woman” in messaging helps communicate how personal the decision to have an abortion is, while using “people” could “trigger a suspicion that we are implying men should have more control” over abortion care.
In response, a spokesperson for NARAL said the research presented was conducted on its behalf by the outside contractor to inform NARAL’s messaging to “conflicted voters.”
Employees who attended the presentation said this did not come across, and they interpreted the slide — which referred to “our audience” and had no specific mention of conflicted voters — as a direction of how to speak to all voters.
NARAL’s spokesperson added that the organization is “committed to educating our members and voters” on how attacks on reproductive rights affect “not only women, but also people who are trans and non-binary."
Trans and nonbinary people are also leaders in our movement and members of our organization,” the spokesperson said. “We believe that using both gendered and gender-inclusive language is our most effective strategy to acknowledge the important realities of who needs access to reproductive healthcare."
Internal emails reviewed by BuzzFeed News also show that despite recently expanding NARAL into Arizona and Nevada, which have large Latinx populations, NARAL didn’t hire Spanish-language translators. When staff pushed back in meetings and emails, NARAL leadership said they wanted to focus on current donors, according to emails reviewed by BuzzFeed News.
In response to questions about their resistance to hire translators, a spokesperson for NARAL said that the organization has "recognized the need to provide more materials and resources in different languages” as it expands into more states, and that it has begun the work to do so.
China Dickerson, who worked as NARAL’s deputy national political director from 2017 to 2018, said that she felt she was “labeled a problem” for pushing for more intersectionality in NARAL’s work and pushing back on racist or discriminatory attitudes.
“Every single time we wanted to in a way embrace reproductive justice, to talk about the people most impacted, it was essentially a ‘no, because our audience is white middle-class women and they’re not gonna understand,’” she said.
When she left, she said, she told NARAL all of her issues in her exit interview.
“I don't think it was blindness, because you can't be blind if I'm telling you over and over again that this is a problem,” Dickerson told BuzzFeed News. “None of us were quiet about these issues, even the white women who I consider accomplices.”
In a statement sent to BuzzFeed News, Hogue said she was “not aware of skipping opportunities because of donor or member concerns.’’
Spokespeople for NARAL provided several examples from the past year of the organization using gender-inclusive language in its tweets and emails to donors and volunteers, as well as intersectional issues NARAL participated in, including sponsoring the Movement for Black Lives conference and supporting criminal justice reform.
They also highlighted a recent summit the organization held for their donors and volunteers during which they openly discussed white fragility, white supremacy, and the importance of intersectionality and anti-racism. Hogue also recently held a call with donors in which she explained transgender-inclusive language, the spokespeople said.
Monica Simpson, executive director of SisterSong, a reproductive justice organization, has challenged organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL for years over racial issues.
When there is a major cultural moment, like the recent protests surrounding the killing of Black people by police or when the Black Lives Matter movement began in 2015, there will be signs of progress and major reproductive rights groups will be more proactive about collaborating and making changes, Simpson said. But when pressure on the groups subsides, Simpson said, that progress can stall.
“We, as folks of color, will shine this light on these larger, mainstream organizations and say, ‘Hey, we need you to do things differently,’” Simpson said.
“And when the light is on, we’re doing great, the changes are being made, we’re moving forward. But then it’s like, are we the ones who have to keep the light on? To keep checking up on you?” ●