The 2nd Bi-annual inroads Global Member Gathering took place over 5 days in Zagreb, Croatia where the movement for abortion access is working to establish a base of action and support while navigating a relatively young state, a complex ecosystem of historical and regional laws, and an increased appetite of a religious anti-abortion movement.
Looking out from the 17th floor out on Zagreb, 111 inroads members from 40 countries gathered early each morning and well into the evening most nights to band together to better understand abortion stigma, address its causes and effects, and reckon with our shared destiny as people who have, provide, and advocate for abortions. We gathered to discuss, share, laugh, listen, cry, dance, try new things, sing, dance again, and explore topics of expertise and strength in depth. There was deep diversity in the room, with participants across distinct regions and sectors, some who have been members since inroads launched four years ago, and some who joined just in time to register for this gathering.
The results are many and since we brought with us in spirit, web connection, and social media the many members of inroads who couldn’t be there in person, we share the report here openly and welcome questions, comments, and inquiry about what we discovered and plans members made for inroads.
When planning a meeting for members with such different contexts, needs, and expertise can be seen as a series of trade-offs – as deciding between which topic, method, or approach to prioritize. Breadth or depth, survey or masterclass, grief or joy, art or science, global north or global south. While we as a community do need to make decisions and to act, that doesn’t actually mean we always have to choose either or. It requires a lot of flexibility on everyone’s part, some discomfort, and the trust that we, as a community, have the resources and diversity of expertise and experience to be able to generate a Gathering that can benefit us all.
To frame the week, co-conveners Katie Gillum and Kati LeTourneau and inroads Steering Committee member and Executive Director of TICAH, Jediah Maina reflected on the power that we should feel from inroads, not in that we speak in one voice but in the plurality that we respect and live into.
Katie Gillum introduced the crucial link between binary thinking and stigma. “The reality is that we are all holding many stories and many meanings in ourselves at the same time.” In order to truly break through the stigma and discrimination surrounding abortion, we must explore the variation of our thoughts, feelings, and emotions about and around abortion. If we do not acknowledge the variation and diversity of thoughts, feeling, and experience around abortion, we run the risk of assuming we are on the same page or letting personal feelings become more concrete stigma in our field. Because we know silence and repression leads to stigma and discrimination, examining our collective understandings and individual experiences is crucial for we who are attempting to mitigate stigma in ourselves, our organizations, communities, governments, world.
Kati LeTourneau discussed some practical realities about breaking out of these binaries because in order to break them down, we need to make room to share with one another and hear from one another across and within disciplines, across and within organizations, and across and within cultural contexts. There is a strong public health argument for access to abortion that is timely and of high quality. There is a strong human rights argument for access to abortion that is dignified and quality. There is a strong bodily autonomy argument for access to abortion that respects our wishes and humanity. When we can bring the experts of these arguments together, we all become stronger and more effective in our work: “we enhance each other”.
Jade Maina, shared how powerful noticing the binary she was holding in herself was for motivating her work on stigma. At an inroads summit on abortion, stigma, and disability health access back in 2015 she noticed that she never brought her own story into the work she did ensuring access to abortion. “I was labeling and separating”, and when she started cracking open that door and letting her life and work connect she realized what an injustice she was doing to herself and to the work. She challenged us has members to have honest conversations about how abortion stigma affects us as humans and as activists.
Inroads members from Kenya, the Philippines, Mexico, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States held a discussion about the way these binaries trap us as a movement. We and our experiences don’t fit neatly into these categories, and holding ourselves to being in a space of either/or limits our possibilities. These binaries are offered to us or forced upon us by a divided culture. Participants in the session reflected binaries that bind them: legal v. illegal, safe v. unsafe, self-use v. surgical, disability v. ability, human rights v. public health, radical v. strategic, straight v. queer, man v. woman. But our work cannot and should not stay on one side of the binary. Members are working to change the law, and to take abortion out of the law entirely, and to expand access to abortion outside of the legal frameworks. All of these are important. Members are working to expand access to safe abortion, to reframe the definition of safe to include self-use of misoprostol, and also working to stop marginalizing people who access traditional methods. The legacy of thinking abortion is unsafe or dangerous contains a sense of punishment for having sex, and members are working to dismantle this way of thinking. All of this is important. Members are supporting people to have the information and medicines they need for self-use of medical abortion and to ensure that surgical abortion is hiqh-quality and accessible. All parts of this work are important, and they do not negate or compete with one another. Ultimately, people who have abortions or support abortion rights don’t fit one stereotype, one practice, or one discipline. As a network, we practice the difficult art of coexisting where we can’t compromise and supporting diverse approaches, especially on the politics of language. We can share notes and successes and acknowledge that it is OK if we are not united on everything: our plurality is a strength – it is not about centralization but about decentralization.
Over the five-day, action packed agenda, members participated in small-group discussions, artistic collective documentation, mission-building sessions, experimentation with language and visual representation, member-led sessions and demos, and deep group discussions of many difficult issues. Highlights from the agenda include:
We knew from our pre-meeting registration survey what members wanted to learn more about and what they were ready to share with each other. We took that as our mandate for creating the meeting structure and content. The meeting was entirely participatory, using a variety of facilitation methods, and principles of non-hierarchical organizing. We worked and shared with each other in a wealth of ways to ensure we truly understand each other’s work, and we now can start to integrate work being done on different levels and different manifestations of abortion stigma. Members have access to a number of facilitation guides in English and Spanish on the inroads Collaboration Workspace library. Members who want to consult with conveners or other inroads members in more detail about meeting facilitation methods and approaches can request technical support here.
Almost all of the participants shared what they thought and felt about the Gathering in a brief survey at the end of the last day. Members shared about the benefits of this gathering. We asked participants to share what worked well at this Gathering and to let us know what they suggest for changing. Here are some highlights:
Members highlighted the participatory approach to facilitation and agenda design as an element that kept them engaged and allowed them to learn from so many other participants. Many participants highlighted the diversity of the expertise of other participants as a key element. Participants also had suggestions for shifting the structures of meetings to support more training and capacity strengthening activities, as well as having more formal translation available to support participation. We share more detail along with some of the inroads actions moving forward on the inroads Collaboration Workspace.
To share about the launch of this tool, Katie Gillum writes from her perspective about how inroads members using the new Sentiment Gatherer expanded her view of what is possible in changing the language culture around abortion: From the outset, we knew we weren’t trying to build a tool that would tell us who was for and who was against abortion, or the strength of peoples’ feelings about abortion. During its development, I would often explain that we were trying to create a tool that would help us see how people talked and thought about abortion, beyond polarized pro/anti debates. Of course, sentiment would be part of it – we have a whole domain dedicated to psychological and emotional processes, and throughout the lexicon are words and phrases that likely indicate a person’s stance on or opinions about abortion (e.g. sin, pro-life, anti-, empowerment, choice). But it actually wasn’t until Cesar said what he did (“the results look like life, the diversity and totality of life”-Cesar) that I fully understood – more than just seeing how people talked about abortion, we were trying to build a tool that would help to give us as complete a picture as possible of the ways in which people think about abortion, experience abortion, understand abortion’s place in their own lives.
The two inroads team members, Kyle and Alli, who facilitated the process during the meeting were touched by the thoughtful, intentional way that some people curated their word lists, bringing lists up to the computer station sharing them as cherished possessions, offerings. Alli shared “It was quite poignant. It made me feel all the more concerned about how carefully we need to treat those words – as precious as they were to the people who gave them, I wanted to make sure they were in precisely the right homes (domains and subdomains), with precisely the right word-neighbors. I was most surprised about the degree to which I felt responsibility for shepherding those words, for not misrepresenting them or misunderstanding them, for making sure they’re all included.”
Key challenges we’re still grappling with: how to build a thesaurus that’s focused enough/controlled enough to let us collect and visualize data with precision – but still reflect as fully as possible all of the nuanced, complex associations people have with abortion.
One of the aims of this gathering was to fully identify who “we” are – “we” at inroads means all of us: co-conveners, staff, Steering Committee, members. Anyone who is engaging with this global network to help understand and transform stigma and discrimination related to abortion. As individuals and as organizations, we are doing this work in different ways. As a network, we are doing it together. Participants participated in a crowd-sourcing activity to identify ways that the network can move forward in collective action. Some key priorities emerged:
Individual participants also shared their commitments in the evaluation survey:
Participants were excited about what they plan on applying in their own organizations, regions, and contexts, including using the facilitation approached employed at this gathering. Some participants plan on adapting some of the interventions and methods that where shared by other members, including Story Circles, a post-abortion intervention from Mexico, and building positive connections with religious communities, after attending a workshop about working with religious communities in Uganda.
Participants also expressed a strong commitment to shifting their own language around abortion, including using less binary language like “safe abortion” versus “unsafe abortion” and increasing inclusive language to make their movements more welcoming to all people who need abortion.
Participants shared that they will apply new skills that they learned, including working with the media more confidently, conducting research about abortion stigma in their settings, and working to destigmatize abortion with abortion providers in new ways.
Finally, participants began the work of collective action, specifically with an effort to address online censorship in collaboration with members in different country settings. Several participants indicated this commitment in the evaluation responses, and we are already seeing that action take shape on the inroads Collaboration Workspace listserv.
Mutual learning and co-mentorship. Network weaving. Solidarity and safe spaces. Knowledge and skill sharing. Members of inroads not only brought immense energy in Zagreb, energy and willingness to learn from each other, to connect with each other, and to do the hard work of ending stigma. to learn, ready to connect, and ready to work. So not only did the set of members help keep the fires of the network roaring with energy and inspiration, they brought in the final days of the Gathering a lot of actionable ideas for the network as a movement and for collaborations that members themselves can lead:
Several of these activities have already begun on the inroads Collaboration Workspace and are underway in local and regional communities. We look forward to other ideas and supporting each other to make these plans into concrete steps and actions.
Finally and definitely not least, inroads members reminded each other that what sets a movement like this apart is our collective ability to find value, dignity, and joy in an area of humanity that social forces would like to only ever paint as dark, dangerous, and secretive. To put it lightly, inroads members know how to enjoy themselves and enjoy each other’s company. We feel all the feelings: the solidarity, the pain, the humor, the trauma, the itchiness, the difference, and we can let each other feel different things about our work. There is power in our plurality, our diversity, and openness, and our rhythm. Solid as a rock, inroads, and driving as the beat!