MPA Student's Encounter with the Former President of Planned Parenthood

By Zak Hill-Whilton (MPA-PNP)

Having arrived late to microeconomics several weeks ago, one of my biggest academic fears came to fruition when I forgot to hand in a homework assignment. As a first-time offender, I was allowed to submit the assignment the following week. The night I came to Puck to submit my work, a large crowd was starting to collect in the lobby around a sign of someone. The sign read the words “Cecile Richards: Former President of Planned Parenthood.”

I was sold. Over a decade ago, I had received my first HIV test at Planned Parenthood. The rapid, cheap, and gay-friendly service dramatically mitigated the otherwise anxiety-provoking experience. Having been very nervous and ignorant about testing options at that age, I was fortunate to learn about the organization. Suffice it to say that the organization’s work resonates deeply with my personal experience and my values, and I had to meet its former leader.

By virtue of the terrible weather that Tuesday night, the at-capacity event suddenly had capacity, and I was granted access. Cecile spoke with encyclopedic knowledge about hot-button social issues like the gender wage gap (spoiler: women get paid less than men), improving healthcare access, and encouraging civic participation. She was a fighter speaking to a room of fighters: students, alumni, and faculty dedicating their careers to social justice. She emphasized doing the kind of job that people want to thank you for; and if you care about a cause, you need to do more than you are doing. Don’t wait for instructions on how to affect change, but start before you are ready.

Photo of Zak Hill-Whilton and Cecile Richards
Zak Hill-Whilton (left) pictured with Cecile Richards (right), the former president of Planned Parenthood

As her talk opened up to questions, I found the microphone in my hand before I knew what had happened.  I shakily raised it to my lips and said:

“I was raised by a single mom along with a ton of siblings, so the gender wage gap is a very personal issue for me. Paid paternity leave (some also refer to the term ‘family leave’) was part of Hillary Clinton’s campaign strategy in the last election to address the wage gap. To what extent do you think it would be helpful to incentivize companies to provide paternity leave in addition to maternity leave in order to reduce the risk aversion that many companies face when hiring women, and if so, how do we create buy-in from conservatives?”

Cecile’s answer made me feel like she was proud of me. She responded by explaining the extent of the problem in the United States, and how certain politicians have allowed this problem to fester. At the heart of the issue is the competitive disadvantage that companies face for offering paid family leave because no one is doing it. Even more impressive than her broad knowledge of social issues, however, was her emotional intelligence. She kept drawing the conversation back to critical gaps that we need to fill, including:

  1. The importance of effective messaging.

  2. The responsibility of people like me to validate fellow voters’ concerns regardless of our political differences.

  3. To change our language by using vernacular more familiar to those with different political views.

  4. To engage with people before election time.

  5. To ask women what they think would benefit them the most, and empower them to be and feel heard.

After the conversation, she followed up with me privately with one final thought: Hold your ground, but know that you do not make gains by slinging mud against your opposition. When Cecile testified to a largely hostile congressional committee in 2016 about Planned Parenthood’s crucial public health services, she refused to share in their anger. She instead chose to testify with facts and simple honesty. That is how a point is made.

Cecile was dignified yet compassionate; intelligent yet approachable. She gave individual goodbyes and handshakes to everyone as the evening drew to a close, and offered genuine validations to the myriad questions, thoughts, and stories people voiced.

I walked away from The Puck Building that night with a laundry list of innovative social justice tactics penciled into my notebook. More importantly, though, I walked away feeling a call to action, and at Wagner, I am in good company with that feeling. Our school is for people who care about other people. We are united in this value, regardless of our individual political or social beliefs. No approach to social justice issues is without controversy, but the absence of a panacea is why we are here. We are here to discuss and debate these topics, and to become the kinds of changemakers needed to make the world a better place.