The titles and roles of activists may differ, but a good activist can be spotted by their passion and dedication to their work. Most of us choose our paths of activism based on the impact we want to have or life sort of decides for us by placing us in social locations where the only path that makes sense is one of resistance. High levels of recognition are typically reserved for men, the wealthy, or those who have a national profile. This blog series is not a remedy to this situation, but rather designed as a way to highlight activists and their justice work through brief interviews.
This installment is an interview with Cortney Bouse, Community Organizer with Planned Parenthood Great Plains. Responses were provided during a one-on-one radio interview on KOPN’s ‘Women’s Issues, Women’s Voices’ show, and this write-up was reviewed and approved by the interviewee prior to publication.
We’re both organizers, but not a lot of people know what that means. How do you explain your work to people who are not familiar with what you do?
My job is to get people involved as supporters and volunteers for reproductive rights and justice issues at the state, federal, and municipal levels.
How did you get into organizing, and in particular reproductive rights organizing?
When I was going to college, I imagined myself providing health services. I originally wanted to be an OB-GYN or a midwife, but I took some nursing classes – this was my first hands on experience – and found out I get really nauseous and pass out when I see blood. So that took nursing out of my career possibilities. I had to figure out what I was going to do because I really wanted to work in women’s healthcare as a direct provider. Around that time, I was starting my junior year at Michigan State University, and some guys from the basketball team were accused of raping a woman and I was super pissed off about it. Independent journalists had reported that the university had essentially did nothing about it and was trying to cover it up. I eventually found some people who were also really mad about it and we started organizing around it. I was also a member of Students for Choice and we were organizing around birth control to be included as part of the preventive coverage mandate for the Affordable Care Act.
Recruiting people to participate in your work is an important aspect of organizing. Have you noticed any significant changes in recruitment since the presidential election of 2016? If so, how have those changes affected your ability to organize folks into supporting your issues?
For sure. I remember I was doing some election work before the presidential election and it was like pulling teeth. I think so many people thought Hillary had it in the bag, but I was trying to convince people that there were so many more issues and people that we needed to show up for and put into office. But right after the election, I know at our affiliate, within a week, we had over 300 people apply to become volunteers and that’s spread out over our region. So in like four days, we had over 300 people who wanted to volunteer and get involved with Planned Parenthood. Some of that has died down a little bit, but since 2016 it seems folks are more aware and less apathetic. It’s sad that it took something so extreme [as electing Donald Trump], but that’s what it took.
The flake rate is when you have ten people you call and they agree to show up, but then some of them don’t show up, even after expressing enthusiasm about the event. The flake rate has gone up a little bit since right after the election when it was way down, but the flake rate has been lower since the presidential election because people feel the urgency around reproductive rights issues and have been better about showing up.
On January 22 we celebrated the 46th anniversary of Roe v, Wade. That decision occurred well before either of us were born, so all we’ve ever known is legalized abortion. Basically, we have to use our imaginations or read other’s accounts of what it was like before Roe v. Wade. What images of the pre-Roe v, Wade era stand out in your mind? How do you use these images to keep you steadfast in your advocacy?
Before abortion was legalized, people were still getting abortions. Especially for poorer folks, the abortions were not safe and often times could and did kill people. When I think about the possibility of Roe v. Wade being overturned, I think of how criminalizing abortion does not stop abortion from happening, it just makes it deadly. [NOTE: Reproaction has been engaged in a national advocacy campaign to educate the public about self-managed abortion with pills, which can be safely and effectively used to end a pregnancy of up to 12 weeks with the World Health Organization protocol. We encourage readers to learn more about self-managed abortion with pills here.] I think about how some folks think Roe v. Wade has to be overturned for the loss of access to abortion, but actually we’re already so close to being back at abortion being illegal.
Ok so, you’re a reproductive rights organizer and people mostly associate that with abortion. Have you found this limited understanding of reproductive rights frustrating?
I have found it frustrating, because obviously access to abortion is a part of being able to live healthy lives. I wish abortion wasn’t politicized, because it’s a basic and necessary health care procedure that’s largely in the hands of politicians, when it’s about living your life and having bodily autonomy. There’s a lot of other things too, like, are you being paid a fair wage? Are you free from harassment? Are you able to access clean water? Are you living in a war zone? Those things impact your reproductive health decisions. What people see as disparate movements, like environmental justice and economic justice, are actually intertwined. For instance, way before there was the Flint water crisis, there was a situation in Detroit where the city was cutting off people’s water for having delinquent water bills. You know whose water they weren’t shutting off, and who had six figures worth of delinquent bills? The golf course. The logic they were using to deny women and families in Detroit access to water were very similar to the things said about women in reproductive healthcare: ‘Maybe they should’ve been more responsible,’ and ‘If they can’t pay their water bill, then they’re too irresponsible to have children.’
Abortion is super important to talk about too, so when I say that it’s frustrating, it’s not to add to abortion stigma, which is another facet of this conversation. Sometimes when people want to distance themselves from the conversation about abortion, because they think it’s icky, they will focus on the other things that Planned Parenthood does. I’m super proud that we do it all. It’s necessary healthcare that people rely and depend on.
What are some things that make your work the most frustrating?
The constant onslaught. I remember in 2017 when our then-governor called a special session specifically because he believed that the legislature needed to pass more restrictive legislation on abortion. At the same time, the federal government was pushing for Affordable Care Act repeal. All of this was wrapped up in the defunding of Planned Parenthood. It can be incredibly tiring and frustrating to be fighting on so many fronts all the time. It feels like one thing with reproductive rights work is that they never let you get a break.
What are some things that make your work the most fulfilling/rewarding?
Part of my work is to get people involved in the fight for reproductive health and justice, and a lot of that involves working with volunteers and reporters. One of my favorite parts is that we have a college student group at Mizzou – The Planned Parenthood Advocates of Mizzou – because I started out as a campus organizer. I get to help them come up with campaigns and strategies. I didn’t know a lot about organizing when I started in college, but I feel like I can help them do it better and they’re kicking ass. Being able to see young people, or any of our supporters find their own voices is rewarding.
What are some things you want to see change this year in regards to reproductive rights?
I want to combat abortion stigma, and make it so abortion is considered a regular part of healthcare. Part of the reason that we have had some trouble with that is because people don’t want to talk about it. We even hear it from people who are trying to be supportive of Planned Parenthood.
Cortney Bouse has been an organizer with Planned Parenthood Great Plains in Columbia, Missouri, for more than two years. She has also worked in sexual health education, as well as sexual and domestic violence advocacy and policy work. She is passionate about helping to create a world where everyone is free from violence in all the many forms it takes. When she isn’t organizing for reproductive justice you can find her playing with her pup, Conan O’Brien, mentoring teens at her church or playing bar trivia (her other passion).
Reproaction is a non-partisan organization that does not endorse or oppose candidates for political office. Views expressed by our activist interviewees should not be construed to reflect the stances of the organization.