By Julia Smart, Grassroots Organizing Fellow at NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia
Over the past month, we here at NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia have been thrilled and honored to meet an inspiring group of pro-choice activists through our first-ever Pro-Choice Leadership & Advocacy Summits. These daylong trainings on reproductive rights activism, messaging, and policy drew over 60 pro-choice advocates representing 30 Virginia cities. Participants came together in order to learn how they could advance reproductive rights in their own communities, starting with the inaugural training at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg (26 attendees), and following this at George Mason University in Arlington (35 attendees).
Although all participants already identified as pro-choice, their reasons for attending our summits varied from person to person. Some were university students representing women’s health organizations on their own campuses, some were seasoned activists hoping to learn the latest tools and tricks, while others were new to the movement and looking for a way to succinctly and appropriately voice their views. Still, among them one thing was clear: all were dedicated to advancing and protecting reproductive rights in Virginia.
After a quick introduction from the leadership of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, both summits kicked off with an overview of exactly what it means to be pro-choice, followed by a briefing on policy shifts in reproductive health issues over the past few decades. Next, Erin Matson of RH Reality Check spoke to attendees of her own experience implementing change through grassroots activism. After a lunch break, Summit attendees returned for three critical sessions. First, they focused on issue messaging with Travis Ballie, Field Manager of NARAL Pro-Choice America. Next, they were taught effective lobbying from Abbey Philips and Arlene Spinelli, both legislative assistants at the Virginia General Assembly. Finally, they were schooled in online advocacy by social media guru Michelle Kinsey Bruns a.k.a. @clinicescort. From there, attendees were split into groups depending on where they were from in order to draft their own plans of action. These teams would become their choice advocacy circles with whom they would keep pro-choice values alive after the Summit.
Each attendee walked away from our summits as a freshly-minted Choice Ambassador – and we are already seeing their amazing work in communities across the state. It’s only a few weeks out and Williamsburg Choice Ambassadors have already been spotted at farmers markets and visibility events, while those in Arlington have attended choice movies and started personal one-on-one conversations with their families and friends. In the weeks to come, we expect to see even more amazing advocacy, including letter writing parties for Medicaid expansion, meetings with legislators, rallies in Richmond, choice book clubs, and more.
The goal of these Summits was simple: to develop a proactive group of dedicated activists willing to take up the fight on their own to defend their bodily autonomy and personal liberties. I am proud to say that we overwhelmingly achieved our goal.
As Grassroots Organizing Fellow here at NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia (and the person responsible for running these summits), I started off just crossing my fingers that I could get 20 people together who cared enough about this issue that they’d give a day to learning more about it. But to my delight, I found over 60 amazing choice advocates who not only gave up their Saturdays for the training, but have also committed to continuing to organize around choice in their communities for the weeks and months to come.
Reproductive health and rights will likely remain under attack in the Commonwealth for the foreseeable future, but our 60 new Choice Ambassadors leave me more inspired than worried.