Quick Hit: Toxic workplaces in the reproductive health, rights, and justice fields

Steph Herold has a brave and necessary piece at The Abortion Gang today about the reproductive health, rights, and justice movement’s dirty secret: we’re full of organizations that are toxic places to work.

A co-worker once told me that in her 10+ years of working in the reproductive health field, her peers in other movements validated time and again that our movement is the most fucked up. Not fucked up because we don’t have our hearts in the right place (we do) or because we don’t have science on our side (we do), but because of the way we treat each other, and the way our intra-movement politics operate.

In an effort to be less vague, let me make it painfully obvious. Here are a few clues that the reproductive health, rights, or justice organization you work at may be a toxic work environment:

  • You’re expected to treat your members/patients/donors better than the way your boss/upper management treats you.
  • You’re afraid to confront your co-worker/your boss about something racist/classist/transphobic/etc she said for fear of losing your job.
  • You don’t get insurance coverage. The insurance coverage you get doesn’t cover pre-natal care, contraception, or abortion. You don’t get decent maternity or paternity leave. Yet these are all values your organization supposedly champions.
  • There is frequent turn over and burn-out because of low pay and high stress.
  • Your volunteers, interns, or anyone with “assistant” in their title are treated as a commodity.
  • Young people, people of color, and/or queer folks are not valued, are not expected to be leaders, and are tokenized.

That’s just the first half of the list. Read the rest here.

Real talk: yes, this is a problem in the big national organizations you’re probably thinking of. But it’s also a problem in the smaller national orgs, and local grassroots ones, too. I’m speaking so broadly because, of all the movement organizations I’ve gotten to know about internally, there’s not a one that doesn’t have most or all of these problems. Employees are consistently told to just deal with it, that the cause is bigger than us. But this is coming from the leaders who aren’t actually doing their job – you know, winning. We haven’t had a major win on abortion since Roe v. Wade, and we’ve had so many losses that we’ve started calling not losing winning (ie: clinics not losing their funding).

I firmly believe that you can’t create justice in the world without creating justice in your life. Fundamentally unjust workplaces produce – you guessed it – injustice. Which is why I don’t work in a movement org anymore.

This is a serious problem, and until it’s addressed the reproductive health, rights, and justice field is going to keep chewing up young people and spitting us out. And it’s going to keep losing.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

Read more about Jos

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  • http://feministing.com/members/seisy/ Seisy

    I’m not in a reproductive rights field, but I do work for an explicitly feminist organization (even if it’s the more moderate sort)…..and points 1, 3,4, 5, match my experience to a T. Which is grating for very similar reasons. Everything we teach the girls, everything we say about how our goal is to see the position of women elevated, to see women become leaders…yeah, none of it is worth anything at the organizational level.

  • zill222

    Your link to the rest of the list doesn’t work.

  • http://feministing.com/members/stellarose/ Stella

    Another biggie that I noticed (as an outsider) is that the movement is very beholden to the AMA and other medical organizations . And ladies, our interests are not always the same and the medico-industrial complex. It would be nice if you could work on cultivating a source of legitimacy outside of the support of docs. Then you could actually start advocating a little more strongly for affordable, and women centered repro rights care outside the OB/GYN as provider model. You know, like all other major countries have.

  • http://feministing.com/members/kirstizoe/ Kirsten

    As a non profit worker looking to get into reproductive rights work, this is strongly disconcerting. Not to the point where I believe the cause isn’t worth the effort, but frustrating none the less. And it isn’t just women’s issues. It’s Non profits in general. I think the problem is that we treat our non profits like larger corporations, and treat the larger goals as profit margins.

    And frankly in my time as an AmeriCorps VISTA member (national service) it was just as bad. Not within the local organization, but the larger National Corporation for Community Service. Minimal health care. Laughable pay, and it took years of battle for coverage of one GYN visit a year. And I’m not allowed to take on a part time job to help or I’m fired. Oh. And lets not forget the student loans. All of this under the model that I’m expected to work under the conditions that teach me about those I serve.

    Can we say larger excuse for poor benefits?

    My point being, as a young person out of college, this is how I was treated “for the larger mission” Its unfortuntetly not linked to womens health NPs alone.

  • http://feministing.com/members/nellodee/ Nellodee

    I work at a dry cleaners, and the woman who works the counter in the morning (when most of the cleaning gets done) has had multiple miscarriages. I don’t really know what chemicals we use in our cleaning, but we kind of assume that all the fumes have something to do with it. The man who does the dry cleaning has various health problems (I don’t know the details), and one of the pressers is, last I heard, at home waiting to die of a brain tumor (no health insurance, so no treatment, I guess). So in addition to the metaphorical toxicity of our workplace (everything on your list applies to us), we also have to worry about literal toxicity. Isn’t life wonderful?