We have just endured one of the most divisive, agonizing and, at times, heartbreaking elections in modern US history. Let’s be honest, we ALL felt it! The reason we as a team were so personally invested in it were because of the issues, and more specifically, women’s healthcare and reproductive rights. We have seen a rise in anti-choice legislation in state legislatures and on a federal level since 2010. Supreme Court cases about access to birth control and abortion clinics have threatened to undo the rights hard-fought for an won by women’s rights activists for decades.
But while the political battle over women’s healthcare continues its back and forth, we are apt to remember the organizations and activists who are putting in time in the ground game. Two of the most recognizable organizations in the US, the YWCA and Planned Parenthood, are counted in this group. They have become a safe haven and source of empowerment for Americans everywhere who rely on their services daily. There’s a reason we listed those two together, as they have officially teamed up for an innovative partnership in Ohio to create a state-of-the-art center meeting the needs of many underserved women, men and children.
An agreement that was made back in 2009 between Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio, and YWCA Warren was finally realized in early 2016 to empower some of the most poverty-stricken areas in the United States. Not only are these organizations meeting the needs of people who are often left behind in political conversations about healthcare and community, they also happen to be headed up by two badass women of color.
Iris E. Harvey is the CEO of Planned Parenthood, Greater Ohio, and Kenya A. Roberts-Howard is the Executive Director of YWCA Warren. We mention they are WOC not as a tokenistic gesture, but because their perspectives and own personal experiences growing up in communities of color, at times experiencing disproportionate marginalization and lack of access to healthcare, makes them powerful advocates of the people they are serving. And when young women and men of color grow up seeing people from their own community represented in positions of leadership, it sends a powerful message.
We spoke with both women to find out what the YWCA/Planned Parenthood center hopes to achieve, and why more people need to know about initiatives like this if they care about the politics around poverty, healthcare, and social justice.
Iris E. Harvey, CEO of Planned Parenthood, Greater Ohio
First tell us about your work as the CEO of Planned Parenthood Greater Ohio and how you rose to that position?
I joined the Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio (PPGOH) Board of Directors in 2011 and was Board Chair in 2015. In 2016, I became President and CEO of PPGOH and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Ohio (PPAO). My work at PPGOH focuses on fulfilling our mission to “protect, promote, and provide empowered health care for generations of women, men, and families across Ohio.”
This includes expanding access to low-income individuals, people of color, the LGBT community, and those living in medically under-served and rural areas of Ohio. We are the number one provider of women’s reproductive health care and sex education in the state, and I have a responsibility to speak up for, and represent, our patients and dedicated staff in coalition meetings, at the legislature, and with decision makers both locally and nationally.
What made you want to pursue a career in women’s healthcare?
Good health is every person’s greatest asset and health care should be a human right. It is very disheartening to see a growing trend in our country to limit women’s access to reproductive health care and family planning services, especially for low income and women of color. Moreover, human sexuality is natural and beautiful. It should not be treated as a forbidden subject. Yet our public schools provide very little health education to our young people. In fact, nationally schools teach teens an abstinence only curriculum typically using non-factual and medically inaccurate information.
This approach is detrimental to young people. It’s like turning back the clock to the dark ages. I know this from personal family history. Eighty years ago, a 14-year-old high school student became pregnant. In those days there was no talk about safe sex and prevention of unintended pregnancies. This teenager and her first and only high school sweetheart, who also was 14 years old, found themselves in a desperate situation. They were shamed, their families felt shamed, and their only choice was to drop out of school and get married.
That teenager, my grandmother, gave birth to my mother. When my teenage grandparents left the hospital with my mom they were still uninformed about family planning and how to prevent another unintended pregnancy. So just eleven months later, it was predictable when my grandmother gave birth to another child.
This time her lack of access to family planning education and contraceptives took her life. My grandmother died giving birth to her second child at sixteen. My grandfather, at sixteen became a widower with two infant children under one year’s old. This had multi-generational impact on our family. My mom grew up without knowing her mother. That taught her and she taught me the value and empowerment of family planning.
For many women (and men) around the country who live below the poverty line, PP is their only way to access healthcare. Why is this so?
Access to health care is a social justice issue. Too many people live in medically underserved and rural areas where there are no or few health care providers. Planned Parenthood is in communities where people need us. We never turn a patient away because he or she doesn’t have insurance or can’t self-pay. Moreover, Planned Parenthood is not just bricks and mortar.
We have hundreds of health care and health education workers in the field. We meet people where they live, work and play. For instance, as a service for a county public health department we bring needed clinicians to do testing and treatment through a health mobile that drives right into vulnerable neighborhoods. We have health educators who visit churches, community events and even night life venues to offer STD and HIV testing.
We provide health education and life skills preparation, including financial literacy and career planning to juveniles in foster care. Our Healthy Moms and Healthy Babies program provides home visitations and care management to hundreds of Ohio families with expectant moms, new moms and their babies for two years to help reduce the high infant mortality among African American women.
You work in an area that is ranked first in US Poverty. What are some of the things you want the rest of the country to know what how PP is working to fill the gap?
Planned Parenthood is part of American’s health care system and a major contributor to a health care safety net. Often those who want to deny women access to reproductive care and family planning say that women have other places to go. But that is not necessarily true.
Planned Parenthood heath centers are in 491 American countries, that’s about one in six. We see 2.7 million patients annually. We don’t just duplicate other health care clinics. The Guttmacher Institute, a major research institute estimates that there are 103 counties in the United States where Planned Parenthood is the only provider of publicly funded contraceptives.
In an additional 229 counties, Planned Parenthood serves the majority of women who are low-income and qualify for options like Medicaid to help pay for birth control. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t meet someone who upon learning that I work for Planned Parenthood doesn’t tell me a great story about the treatment they received at our health centers, some insist we saved their lives by detecting breast cancer.
As a woman of color, how do you see the disparities regarding healthcare in minority communities?
People of color in Ohio face disparities that reach far beyond just accessing quality, affordable health care. These inequities include being denied access to quality education in our community schools – which leads to low paying jobs and high levels of unemployment. This is significant as we operate in a system where employers are the central mechanism for health insurance.
Too frequently our communities have been marginalized. Built infrastructures, including highways, isolate neighborhoods and push out businesses and jobs. As neighborhoods are stressed so are families and individuals. For example, the nutritional options available frequently do not promote healthy choices. Food deserts lead to poor eating habits that manifest into chronic diseases.
Tell us about the health center initiative with YWCA and how it began in 2009?
I couldn’t be prouder of our collaboration with the YWCA. Both our organizations support the empowerment of women. We believe that when women are given the tools to make their own health care decisions, they have the control to define their future. It seems a natural fit for a Planned Parenthood health center to be located in proximity to a YWCA facility. While our center provides health care and sexuality education, the YWCA offers a compliment of shelter and life skills that will educate the whole women, including financial counseling and employment services.
What do you hope to achieve with this health center and who are you aiming to serve the most?
Location is everything. We are really excited to be “at home” for the women and their children who have found shelter at the YWCA and now live in high quality, safe housing free from fear of homeless. Our location not only makes us accessible to those who use the YWCA but also to the broader population in the city of Warren whose residents number over 41,000.
We are conveniently located to other city services including city government. Warren city officials are supportive of this collaboration and welcome Planned Parenthood’s commitment to contribute to a healthy community. Local Foundations who helped fund construction of the health center appreciate that their philanthropy will have a greater impact because of the synergy between the Warren YWCA and Planned Parenthood.
There is a lot of focus on sexual and reproductive health right now, especially during the recent presidential election and ongoing elections. Can you tell our readers some of the issues that are at stake?
Planned Parenthood’s vision is to create a world where sexual and reproductive rights are basic human rights, where access to health care does not depend upon who you are, and where every woman has the opportunity to choose her own path to a healthy and meaningful life. That access to reproductive health care has a national forum is important.
We know that 65% of American’s support the access to care that Planned Parenthood provides. While public debate is good it is just as important, to have a conversation with a family member or friend. When we stop thinking in the abstract about a Planned Parenthood patient, but instead understand they’re a human being in search of compassionate care and someone to listen to them, we begin to break down barriers of judgment and shame.
At Planned Parenthood and the YWCA, we do not serve the other. We serve your neighbors, our fellow citizens. It’s our shared human experience that brings us together. And when we realize this fundamental truth, and attempt to understand someone else’s story, we are all better because of it.
How do we as a nation get to a place where your zip code or bank account does not determine whether you get good healthcare or not?
We volunteer. We vote. When we see injustice, we speak up. And we hold our elected officials accountable. We take an interest in our fellow citizens. We fundamentally acknowledge that we have a system excluding large groups of people from the health care they deserve as members of our nation. Once we acknowledge this inequity, it becomes easier to help craft policy that will bring needed change.
When we realize that an issue like paid sick leave will not only help an individual to heal quicker, but also helps support the family relying on their sick caregiver, we become a stronger nation. When we understand a woman’s right to reproductive health care is a legal right and should not be made harder but easier to access, we lift up our wives, mothers, and daughters. When we provide quality education, we give every child a head start, beginning at the same starting point on their lifelong journey.
How can people support this health center joint initiative?
First and foremost is to use our services. I like to imagine that women who are attending empowerment programs and events at the YWCA will understand that getting regular well woman examinations including breast and cervical cancer screenings is essential to being empowered. Likewise, many of patients are not aware of all the services offered at the YWCA so I expect that we will see some of them taking advantage of services like before and after school programming for their children and leadership skills development for young women.
Kenya A. Roberts-Howard, Executive Director of the YWCA Warren
Tell us about your background with YWCA and what your job entails?
In my youth, I learned to swim and do gymnastics at the YWCA Warren. As a teenager I attended health and wellness classes with my mother. Hence, I was very excited when I was invited to learn more about the current things happening at the YWCA warren and invited to become a Board member.
I was sworn in May 2011 and served as Secretary from Nov. 2011 until Nov. 2012 at which time I resigned from the Board to apply for the Associate Director position. I began working for the YW in January 2013 and in April 2013 was informed that the current Executive Director would be leaving. In July 2013, I became the interim ED and the official ED in October 2013.
Why did you decide to team up with Planned Parenthood on the health center initiative?
The initiative with PP began in 2010 with the past Executive Director, but I was on the Board of Directors during much of the preliminary discussions. I had a lot of history working with young ladies, their families and PP when they were located in Downtown Warren in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Hence, it was one of my first priorities to continue the discussions about bringing the Health Center back into the City to provide much needed services to often low income, uninsured or under-insured women and families.
What is YWCA’s mission for the women it is serving in Warren?
YWCA Warren shares a mission with YWCA’s all over the world, adopted in 2009 by the YWCA General Assembly: to eliminate racism, empower women and promote peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all. YWCA Warren’s work is rooted in this mission, and our vision is to transform YWCA Warren so that we can transform women and the community.
As a woman of color yourself, can you tell us more about how working with minority communities is important to you?
I feel it is so important to develop the potential and talents of young people of color, and to invest in their futures. I am a member of several community-based groups, committees and boards and an avid volunteer at grassroots community-based events to which I may or may not have an association. Anything that you ask, I will do it if it is within my power. I am a member of the Trumbull County Martin Luther King Dream Team which holds an annual Youth Celebration the Friday before MLK Day. It is a youth-led event that highlights and showcases the leadership and talent of our youth.
There are very few female CEOs in this country, and even fewer female CEOs of color. How do you hope to inspire young minority girls as they look up to you as a community leader?
As the Executive Director of the YWCA Warren, an organization whose mission is to Empower Women and Eliminate Racism, I take this mission to heart by acting as a mentor and role model to the women on my staff, the women and families that reside at the WINGS (our permanent supportive housing), and the young ladies in our Girls’ Leadership program for high school-age girls.
I have a long history of working with children and families as a tutor, a school community liaison, a child care administrator, a youth bible study teacher and now as the Executive Director of a woman-focused organization. I take the responsibility of mentoring young women and young ladies very seriously and work hard to live a life that is representative of true integrity and character.
There is a lot of focus on racism in this presidential election and the divisive conversations can be exhausting. How does the YWCA cut through rhetoric to cater to the individual lives being affected by injustice?
The YWCA has had a consistent message for decades: that all people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, no matter what. Our programming, while not exclusive to girls and women of color, offers a space for them to explore their feelings, heal, and grow as individuals. We work to make space for people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds to grapples with these issues that are overlapping: police brutality, poverty, racism.
When we do that, we build community, and help girls and women to develop resiliency and find their voices. The issues surrounding race, like police brutality and poverty, that have come up in this election are not going away after November 9—they’re issues we’ll continue to address through our programming.
In the media we see a lot of discussion about injustice toward black men, how can we elevate the conversation to include women in an equal measure?
We recognize that progress isn’t a zero sum game: including women and girls in the conversation about race relations in our country doesn’t have to come at the expense of black men. We can hold both groups in mind when we talk about race or when we talk about injustice. Very often, the stories of women and girls of color facing injustice simply don’t get heard. We are here to be a voice for them, to tell their stories, to give them a platform to share their own experiences. We have to recognize that each group of people face unique challenges as a result of the way our society treats their gender, race, ethnic background. There’s plenty of space to include everyone in the conversation.
How can medical access empower women in low-income communities?
YWCA USA commissioned a 2012 survey of nearly 1,500 adult women nationwide with Lake Research Partners and the polling company, inc./WomanTrend. They found that health care is a major concern for women, in terms of their personal access and their both personally and at the policy level. Women are very often the ones who handle health care for the entire family—they schedule the appointments, take kids to the doctor, and fill prescriptions. So it makes sense that women see access, price, and quality as high priority issues for their families. Hence, access to affordable, quality health care is the most important public health policy facing women today.
What are some of the biggest issues facing women that you come across in your line of work?
YWCA USA has been at the forefront of some of the most pressing social issues for over 150 years, advocating for women’s empowerment and civil rights, access to affordable housing, an end to the wage gap, stronger laws to protect domestic violence survivors, and increased access to health care. These issues have been and continue to be of greatest concern to women in Warren and across the nation.
The nature of our work at YWCA Warren has changed over the past century to keep up with an evolving world, but our mission has always been to meet women where they are and give them the tools to become empowered, strong individuals. We know that an investment in women and girls is a wise one, because they turn around and invest in their families and communities. That’s why we are helping families rebuild their lives and get back on their feet in the WINGS, our permanent supportive housing.
We know that women and girls are pure potential waiting to be tapped, limited only by their surroundings. That’s why YWCA engages girls in STEM education to prepare for the jobs of the future. We know that families need a hand to juggle it all—work, school, soccer practice, football, chess club, getting dinner on the table, whatever life throws at them. So we offer affordable child care that helps parents make time and make ends meet.
How can readers support this joint initiative?
The 2012 YWCA USA survey found that women comprise 80% of the voters who say that a candidate’s positions on health care influences how they’ll vote. Women consistently identify health care as a major priority, and their concerns about health care policy reflect their own concerns about their own health and the health of their families. The survey showed that for women, access for women who are uninsured or under-insured to affordable, quality women’s health care like breast cancer screenings and annual exams, is a critical concern.
Our initiative is an attempt to address that concern and fill the gap between women who have ready access and those who don’t. Readers can support the joint initiative between YWCA Warren and Planned Parenthood by staying informed about the issues relating to health care, supporting policy changes at the state, local and federal levels that have a positive impact on health care, and making their vote count by considering candidates’ stances on health care.
P.S. Did you know…
- YWCA Warren’s mission is to eliminate racism, empower women, and promote peace, justice, dignity and freedom for all.
- Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio believes in a world where sexual and reproductive rights are basic human rights, and where access to health care does not depend on who you are.
- A Guttmacher report found that, among women who receive care from a family planning center like Planned Parenthood, nearly 4 in 10 report that it is their only source of health care.
- In 2013, 78 percent of Planned Parenthood patients had incomes at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $36,375 a year for a family of four.
- 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the YWCA of Warren and the 100th anniversary of Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio.