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NARAL affiliates up in arms at new direction by National office

by | Jul 13, 2021

By Dave Andrusko

A friend forwarded me a message sent out by one of the 11 affiliates of NARAL Pro-Choice America just an hour or so before I read “With Abortion Rights On The Brink, NARAL Splits Over New Direction.” 

Written by Amanda Terkel for the Huffington Post, the subhead perfectly captures what the soon to be former affiliate was saying: “The abortion rights advocacy group plans to move away from an affiliate network, igniting a furor with its state partners.”

I quickly doubled back to “An open letter from the Executive Committee of the NARAL Pro-Choice America Board” which ran yesterday and is evidently the product of what Terkel describes as a new five-year “Strategic Roadmap” released in late June by NARAL. 

While the firestorm is about the national office’s decision to abandon its affiliate network, at the core is exactly what fractured Planned Parenthood–a nonstop fight over direction, diversity, and angry allegations by staffers of endemic racism going all the way back to PPFA’s founder, Margaret Sanger.

“Women of color are far more likely to get an abortion than white women, meaning they are far more affected by the restrictions put in place nationwide,” Terkel writes. “But the national abortion rights movement has largely been led by white women.” 

Or, as she amplifies later, NARAL says it “will no longer center the experiences of cis, female, middle and upper-class white individuals to the exclusion of others.”

Let’s quote Terkel at length:

NARAL currently has 11 state affiliates, which are independent organizations tied to the national organization. They set their own agendas and raise their own funds ― with some money coming from national ― while working with the other state affiliates and the national group. 

As the Strategic Roadmap lays out, NARAL intends to turn to a “chapter” model, meaning the state groups will lose their independence and become NARAL staffers. The move gives the national organization more control over strategy, communications and policies. But whether that’s a good thing is where the disagreement comes in. 

The NARAL board argues that the new approach will make sure that the entire NARAL community is “aligned around the same strategic vision” and that members receive the same experience with the group, regardless of where one lives. 

The NARAL board, Terkel writes, believes eliminating the affiliates’ structure means everyone will be “aligned around the same strategic vision.”

Terkel quotes reassurances from NARAL board member Kimberly Peeler-Allen who said, “We’re still going to lean in deeply and work in the states because we believe that that is one of the next frontiers of this work.”

This is going over like a lead balloon. The affiliates “are furious.”

HuffPost first heard about the issue from a spokesperson and a lawyer representing the interests of all 11 affiliates. They said they weren’t meaningfully included in the decision and are being pushed out of the network at a time when state issues are more important than ever.

NARAL prides itself on its 2.5 million members and its ability to mobilize around reproductive rights. But the latest move risks alienating and driving away some of its key leaders doing on-the-ground work around the country. 

“What is a real missed opportunity here is losing the networks that have those direct communications and direct input and boots on the ground,” said Mallory Schwarz, executive director of NARAL Missouri, adding, “Without that, we’re talking about a top-down political organization that isn’t a reflection of what’s happening on the ground and that shouldn’t be as responsive to what’s going to be the next fight.”

Of course the driving force for all of this is the recognition that many “red” states are routinely passing pro-life legislation and the fear that the Supreme Court will give states much more leeway than it ever has before in what they can do. Adding additional pressure is that Ilyse Hogue, NARAL’s president, is stepping down.

Reading the Terkel story and the “Open Letter,” it’s easy to see why the NARAL affiliates are angry. The national office touts the importance of a “unified message” and “allowing the folks on the ground to not get bogged down in the HR practices and payroll and all of those pieces and really focus on the work,” to quote a condescending Peeler-Allen again. “And that’s what we see this reorganization is really doing.”

By contrast the affiliates celebrate the power of being close to the grassroots, of not having the agenda “controlled by national staffers who may not know the issues on the ground,” according to Terkel.

“I would point to what I think national has been doing, which is AstroTurf” [pretend grassroots], said Kellie Copeland, executive director of NARAL Ohio. 

Of course, there are layers and layers to this story. The move by the national office is “bringing long-simmering grievances and frustrations out into the open.” Or, as Terkel writes later in the story, the relationships overall “seemed to have high levels of mistrust.” 

But the Plan is clear about where NARAL wants to be by end of 2023: a “single nationwide entity”:

“As the affiliate structure transitions ― where some may become part of NARAL while others transition to become active partners and allies, NARAL is determined to enter this next phase with the great care, respect, humility and humanity that the affiliate staff and affiliate Board leadership deserve,” the plan reads.

Stay tuned. More will be coming out over the next few days about the “soul-searching” taking place at “the nation’s oldest abortion rights organization.”

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