If I were a conservative Catholic bishop, I would think that God had just answered my prayers.
Planned Parenthood in Seattle recently fired a CEO who has been a hero of the reproductive health and rights sector for the last forty years. It’s not hard to find public examples of the Left eating our own to the detriment of real change (here, here, here, here). But when it comes to reproductive health and rights, this is one of the most stark examples of form over substance that I have witnessed. And given the expected evisceration of Roe v Wade, it couldn’t come at a worse time.
Chris Charbonneau was terminated abruptly under a cloud of implied racism after she accurately described, behind closed doors, a donor’s use of the “n-word” to characterize how women in Texas are being stripped of dignity and bodily autonomy with six-week abortion bans. I’ll come back to that story. But first, I want to underscore that Planned Parenthood has just sidelined one of the most strategic thinkers, unflinching fighters, and accomplished leaders in reproductive health and rights—one who has been formally recognized by Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Bill Clinton and others for her tireless work in underserved communities. If I were a conservative Catholic bishop, I would think that God had just answered my prayers.
Here are just a few of the many ways in which Charbonneau increased access to contraception, abortion and related health services—tangibly and disproportionately improving the lives of young, poor, uninsured people and those from traditionally marginalized backgrounds.
- Built a bulletproof clinic, literally – When abortion foes were bombing clinics during the 1990’s, Charbonneau and her staff launched a capital campaign and built a clinic on the edge of the Central District—Seattle’s predominantly Black neighborhood—with bullet- proof glass, landscape boulders to prevent truck bombing, and a fire-proof lockdown room for staff. Then they carried on.
- Reined in drug pricing nationally – Charbonneau persuaded Planned Parenthood leaders nationally to start their own drug company to stop middle-men from price gouging on contraceptives. The team, with colleagues from Colorado, California and Minnesota, formed Afaxys, with Charbonneau as board chair, and worked with Indian drug manufacturers to produce one of each kind of birth control pill. These contraceptives were then made available at below-market prices to Planned Parenthood clinics and other clinics serving low-income communities. They drove down contraceptive prices for American women across the country. (Co-credit: Ronda Dean, CEO of Afaxys; Linda Williams at Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, Vickie Cowart from P.P. Rocky Mountains, and Sarah Stoesz from P.P. Minnesota)
- Created a peer counseling program – Under the leadership of Charbonneau and her long-time colleague Carole Miller, sex ed staff in Seattle created Teen Council, an evidenced-based youth leadership peer-to-peer program that got franchised to other states. Teen Council members focus on sex education, advocacy, and social justice in presentations to kids in schools and underserved communities.
- Provided collaborative training for modern contraceptive care – When modern get-it-and-forget-it contraceptives (IUDs and implants) became healthier and more effective than pills for most women, Charbonneau and her team led in providing the new technologies. To enhance access beyond their own clinics, they opened doors to medical students and allied health professionals from the University of Washington who needed practice in the new procedures. They provided mentorship for established physicians who wanted to hone their skills. Charbonneau’s leadership, together with that of Linda McCarthy in Bellingham attracted a national initiative, UpstreamUSA, to upgrade contraceptive counseling and services in healthcare systems statewide.
- Won real contraceptive coverage – Charbonneau took on the State of Washington to ensure top tier long-acting contraceptives would be available to Medicaid patients. The high up-front cost of IUDs and implants priced many poor women out of the market for these convenient and reliable long-acting contraceptives, and inadequate reimbursement rates meant that clinicians in Washington State lost money every time they provided an IUD or implant to a Medicaid patient. As a result, many simply didn’t offer the service. This went on for years. Finally, Charbonneau played hardball—threatening to cut off her state contract till the reimbursement was fixed for all clinics across the state. Colleagues Linda McCarthy in Bellingham and Karl Eastlund in Spokane stood with her. Olympia scrambled and solved the problem.
- Co-founded a risk pool and self-insurance program for Planned Parenthood affiliates – When for-profit insurers were unwilling to provide insurance to Planned Parenthood clinics, Charbonneau led the way on forming an insurance collaborative through which they insured their own clinicians and facilities, again ensuring more services at lower cost for millions across the country.
- Secured medical lab services – As Catholic healthcare corporations gobbled up hospital systems in Washington State, labs began refusing to process bloodwork from Planned Parenthood. Charbonneau opened a medical lab that guaranteed processing for her affiliate and others facing the same predicament. (Co-credit: COO Michael Romo; assistance from Davis, Wright, Tremaine)
- Launched telemedicine to improve access for all women – Back again in her role as a national leader, Charbonneau persuaded Planned Parenthood Federation of America to spin off a telemedicine service, now called Kaleido. The goal was to improve healthcare access and reduce costs for rural women and teens and those with unpredictable work schedules. This again disproportionately benefits the working poor. Imagine a woman calling from a remote community in the Arctic and receiving the contraceptives of her choice a week later. That happened within weeks of the service opening. (Co-credit: huge collective lift by Seattle team and the staff of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota as pilot testers)
- Rescued struggling Planned Parenthood affiliates in red states – On the strength of her fundraising capacity, management skills, and Seattle leadership team—and despite enormous logistical and financial challenges—Charbonneau took on management of Planned Parenthood clinics that were struggling—first in part of Idaho, then Alaska, then Hawaii, then Kentucky and Indiana, which due to COVID are still fragile. These challenges were familiar to Charbonneau: As a young woman in her mid-20s, she founded the first Planned Parenthood clinic in Arkansas. She would later receive an award from Bill Clinton for her work there.
None of this was enough to keep Charbonneau from being fired after she uttered the words “quote-unquote n*****” out loud, in a private space when asked to recount “exactly” the frustrated donor’s comment to her VP of Development, Erika Croxton. According to various insiders, Croxton reported the transgression to a board member, complaining further that Charbonneau had failed to reprimand (humiliate?) the donor at the time. A subset of board members then hired an external DEI consultant, who concluded that no harm had been intended and advised sensitivity training. That took place, and Charbonneau believed the affair was settled.
When Croxton found that Charbonneau was not to be fired, she quit along with Chief Learning Officer Anna Kashner who called Charbonneau’s failure to reprimand the donor and her use of the n-word “inexcusable and unforgivable.” Croxton said, “I cannot in good conscience continue to be part of an organization that fails to seriously respond to this degree of racism.” (Note 1: Both Croxton and Kashner are white.)
Fearing a broader staff exodus and public accusations, the board anointed an ad hoc committee of three, led by Jeff Sprung and Colleen Foster, who opened a second inquiry, this time soliciting opinions from staff broadly via a remote town-hall event. (Note 2: All of this coincided with COVID-strained relationships and fiscal challenges within Planned Parenthood, pay cuts, rising Millennial resentment of older white leaders in the nonprofit sector, and the Great Resignation.) Not surprisingly, the process elicited a variety of dissatisfactions and disagreements with leadership style or decisions. As one nonprofit leader put it, “None of us would survive that kind of a process right now.”
In the weeks that followed, Sprung, on behalf of the board, put out a statement both denying that Charbonneau was accused of racism and yet implying the same. “At no time did PPGNHAIK [Planned Parenthood of the Great North, Hawaii, Alaska, Indiana, and Kentucky] call or suggest that Ms. Charbonneau was racist as some have claimed. Ms. Charbonneau was not removed because she repeated a racially derogatory word. She was removed because, lacking the insight and self-awareness to understand that using a racially derogatory word could be hurtful, staff lost confidence in her continued ability to lead an organization that both employs and serves a large contingent of people of color.” Statements that tainted her character went to her national peers, donors, and the Seattle Times. The rest is history.
A Familiar Pattern
Some Black critics call this sort of public outrage performative anti-racism—an attempt on the part of (often white) progressives to loudly signal “I see racism” by being first to call out smaller and smaller transgressions of verbal or behavioral taboos. No transgression, it seems, is too small; no history too ancient. There’s a reason for that: Psychologically and socially, the smaller the transgression, the more effectively it works as a tribal virtue signal for the first person to call it out or those who join the chorus.
In some progressive advocacy communities, historical hierarchies based on race and gender have been inverted, and privileged white people can compete for status only as allies. But we humans are hierarchical social animals, instinctively vying for inclusion and rank, and progressive activists are no exception. Nuns compete by trying to out-humble each other; chickens peck, squirrels bite, some progressive activists strive to be the most activist-y allies in the room. Melodramatic displays of vicarious outrage have become all too familiar, followed by firings and groveling on the part of self-protective nonprofit boards or corporate managers.
Those of us on the Left like to think ourselves advocates for restorative justice: Gang members who commit murder should be given a second chance; criminal misdemeanors simply forgiven. But that changes when we perceive ourselves to be “punching up,” either across the political aisle or within our own movement. Our response is swift and punitive, and we feel little need for proportionality between harm done and the harms we ourselves mete out in response.
This type of behavior is called performative by Left-leaning critics (ranging from Black linguist John McWhorter in the center to Black Sanders-Socialist Briahna Joy Gray to queer Marxist Freddie DeBoer) because it typically does little to nothing for the people who are struggling with consequences of bigotry, or cascading intergenerational effects of historic racism, or residual racism in our cultural institutions. In this case, the actions of Croxton did tangible harm to the populations Charbonneau served.
Next Phase Strategy, in Charbonneau’s Own Words
Until she was sidelined, Charbonneau was hard at work as a strategist, collaborating with colleagues across several states to prepare for the time when the Supreme Court will plunge a final knife into Roe v. Wade by handing jurisdictional authority to states that stand waiting to remove abortion rights. Were she still in the fight, here, in her own words, are some of the efforts she would be working on.
- “We need a health center in Eastern Oregon to cover the care desert and cater to those in need coming from points east: Idaho, Montana, Utah, etc. This could be built by Planned Parenthood of Columbia Willamette in Portland.
- “We need a health center in Southern Illinois, to cover the care desert, and cater to those in need from Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, parts of Missouri, Kansas etc. This one has to be huge. Built by Planned Parenthood of Illinois, based in Chicago.
- “We need call centers of all Planned Parenthoods and independents to be daisy-chained together to concierge inexperienced travelers to appropriate care settings. This same group could host back up clinicians who could take call from “Plan C” or DIY abortion users who get scared, or have complications which need to be managed, or just need reassurance.
- “We need a massive nationwide push for access to long-acting, or other highly effective contraceptive methods. Prevention is still vital in this mix. It could save the lives of women in states where abortion is illegal or unavailable. In “haven” or “receiving” states, it makes room for more of the resources to go to the abortions displaced out of the illegal states.
- “We need Kaleido [the telemedicine service] everywhere. We have it up in 39 states now, the rest must be added pronto. The 3-year plan for this is 8 million dollars (which I think is cheap), most of which will be funded by money from PPFA. Kaleido will allow us to serve many of our preventative care patients, freeing up clinic space.”
Time for a Pivot from Calling Out and Cancelling to Calling In
I don’t care much what the Right says about cancel culture. I do care when those of us on the Left violate our own values and take down people who are doing the hard work of building a better future.
I have no doubt that the investigation of Charbonneau may have elicited genuine dissatisfactions or flaws in her leadership or current strategy. All of the goodness in the world is accomplished by deeply imperfect human beings, and COVID has made many endeavors more difficult and collegial partnerships more brittle. But I cannot imagine that, in the absence of dynamics of the sort that currently plague the progressive Left more broadly, any problems would have been addressed in the way that they were.
We delude ourselves when we claim that the motivation behind such behavior is righteous or the outcomes effective. (See 6 Signs Your Call-Out Isn’t Actually About Accountability – Everyday Feminism.) Puritanical posturing and punitive macro-aggressions alienate friends along with foes. They leave us looking petty and mean because these actions are petty and mean. They weaken us at the ballot box by providing soundbites to the Right and feeding distaste among members of the “gettable middle.” They do little to attract support for a progressive vision of a just society.
But that is not all. These dynamics also do real harm to the people we claim to serve and the future to which we aspire. When competitive posturing undermines healthcare or education or prison reform or climate mitigation or poverty relief, the people who get hurt the most are those who are already most vulnerable. When these dynamics damage Planned Parenthood specifically, those who lose most are low-income people who need sexual and reproductive healthcare. If there is someone in Washington State who has fought harder or done more to expand sexual and reproductive health services to women of color than Charbonneau, I would love to meet them.
We can do better. But better means wrestling against some deep-rooted instincts.
Moral allegations and taboo violations trigger strong emotional reactions. They shut down the slower, harder processing it takes to understand a multidimensional story and context. We jump to conclusions based on incomplete information. We turn people into cartoon victims and cartoon villains. It is hard to make ourselves dive deeper—to seek out more than one side of a story, but when we can remember the limits of our knowledge and our own imperfections; they keep us humble and so less likely to do harm.
To prevent situations like the one at Seattle’s Planned Parenthood, or to right wrongs, we must be willing to stand against our own tribe at times. Every tribe has their own hierarchy of sins and their own perceptions of who is worth protecting. Most tribes, to some degree, engage in moral mobbing, and most of us go along. It’s easy to defy outsiders—far more risky to disagree with people we value, respect and depend on. We risk been tagged as disloyal or morally suspect. We risk burning our reputations and relationships and becoming outsiders—and not by choice. But in the words of Loretta Ross, “Your reputation is what everybody thinks they know about you, but your integrity is what you know about yourself. And you have to sleep with yourself every night. Protect your own integrity; screw the reputation.”
Ross is an African American academic and long-time reproductive justice advocate who used to monitor hate groups and work with people leaving them. When your moral core feels violated by someone else’s words or actions, Ross suggests a process of calling in rather than calling out. “A ‘callout’ is when you publicly shame somebody, throw shade on them, humiliate them for something you think they’ve said or they’ve done. It’s always done publicly, either with social media or in real life. But the point is to humiliate the person because you’re seeking accountability. Now, “calling in” is the opposite. You’re seeking accountability, but you’re doing so usually privately. And you’re doing it with love and respect.” Calling in, as she puts it, requires context, compassion and conversation. In the words of ecumenical pastor Jim Henderson, it requires us to stay in the room with difference. If Ross could learn to take this approach with members of hate groups, perhaps those of us who are Left-leaning activists can learn to do it with each other.
P.S. Planned Parenthood in Seattle (PPGNHAIK) may be floundering right now, but many partner organizations and other Planned Parenthood affiliates are forging ahead, preparing for the end of Roe. If you want to donate, volunteer, or simply learn more, links throughout this article will take you to their sites. If you’d like to send a message to Chris Charbonneau herself, comments sent to my email (on the last tab of this site) will be forwarded.
Additional Readings and Resources:
Black Linguist and Columbia University Professor writes about this incident in his column in the NYT: The New N-word Standard isn’t Progress.
Former Seattle City Councilwoman Judy Nicastro interviews Chris Charbonneau just before the implosion. Do It Together Podcast – Chris Charbonneau: Planned Parenthood
A range of heterodox Black thinkers encourage less-divisive approaches to DEIJ or anti-racism or the n-word specifically.
Loretta Ross – Co-founder of Sister Song
LORETTA J. ROSS (lorettajross.com) Loretta J. Ross: Don’t call people out — call them in | TED Talk
Chloe Valdary – Social, Emotional Learning, Theory of Enchantment
Can Chloé Valdary Sell Skeptics on DEI? – The Atlantic
Chloé Valdary: How love can help repair social inequality | TED Talk
Sheena Mason – English Professor – SUNY, consultant
About — Theory of Racelessness
Class & “Race” in Theory of Racelessness feat. Bertrand Cooper – YouTube
Bertrand Cooper –
Who Actually Gets to Create Black Pop Culture? ❧ Current Affairs
Erec Smith – York College of PA, Rhetoric
Towards Practical Empowerment (quillette.com)
A Critique of Anti-racism in Rhetoric and Composition: The Semblance of Empowerment: Smith, Erec: 9781498590402: Amazon.com: Books
Olúfémi O. Táíwò – Georgetown – Philosophy
Elite Capture and Epistemic Deference – Olufemi O. Taiwo (thephilosopher1923.org)
Briahna Joy Gray – Editor Current Affairs, National Press Secretary for Bernie Sanders
Debating Glenn Loury: Are Racial Disparities Caused by “Culture”? – YouTube
Debating “Woke” Elites & Free College w/ Batya Ungar-Sargon – YouTube
John McWhorter – Columbia – Linguistics
Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America by John McWhorter (goodreads.com)
Randall Kennedy – Harvard – Law
Here, Kennedy discusses the re-issue of his book, Nigger: The strange career of a troublesome word.
Lastly, here is a small, related resource that I ran across, from a Seattle liberal pastor. It seems to correspond really well with Loretta Ross’s work.
Three Practices for Crossing the Difference Divide The 3Practices — 3Practices.com
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Quillette, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.