Bridging the Generational Divide in the Struggle for Reproductive Justice


Debate over a supposed generational divide in the fight for abortion access has flared up repeatedly in recent months. Working inter-generationally is vital to the success of a movement, yet these conversations have focused on what supposedly separates generations rather than on ways of working together to win reproductive freedom for all.

We have heard repeatedly from older organizers who believe in a generational divide and from youth responding that we are in fact here. Missing from this discussion are the voices of the leaders from the Roe generation, who were there when legal abortion became a reality in the US, and who also work to activate youth, create space for young people, and organize collaboratively across generations. If we are to succeed as a movement we need models of successful mentorship and intergenerational organizing. A few months ago I began speaking with Roe generation leaders who are working with young people to hear their perspectives on the supposed generational divide and who provide suggestions for organizing inter-generationally.

Marlene Fried is the Director of the Civil Liberties and Public Policy program (CLPP), a movement-building reproductive justice organization through which this writer was activated. Generational divide rhetoric does not reflect Fried’s experience within the movement for abortion access. “My reality is CLPP and NLNI (the New Leadership Networking Initiative, a network for emerging reproductive justice leaders), seeing the people go out and come back.”

Betsy Hartmann is the Director of the Population and Development program, CLPP’s partner program that works to counter population control rhetoric and policies. Hartmann thinks the generational divide idea may be blaming young people for a much larger problem. “Sometimes it gets framed as there’s not enough young people, but it’s really that there are not enough people,” Hartmann points out. “Maybe young people are being blamed for apathy when maybe the problem is much larger.” There is a clear need for more people in struggles for social justice, including abortion access. Hartmann also acknowledges that economic hardship can be a major barrier to involvement. There is a very practical need to organize across issues so that enough people can work on abortion rights. Hartmann also believes, though, that young people are the key to reinvigorating movements, and that this is already happening through the reproductive justice movement.

Loretta Ross, a founding member and National Coordinator of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective, does not think the generational divide is a useful idea. “I don’t know how it benefits the movement to imagine a generational divide or exacerbate what are legitimate generational tensions,” says Ross. “We end up as the divided and the conquered if that is the focus of our thinking. It’s so much like a circular firing squad where we’re taking our best shots at each other.”

Ross notes that differences, including age, can be a source of strength, which is part of what makes the reproductive justice framework so powerful. “We’re not building a cult where people are supposed to think alike, we’re building a movement: that’s different people with different thoughts moving together. Differences aren’t the problem, letting them divide us is the problem.”

The myth of the generational divide may in fact be a result of divisions between organizations involved in DC power politics and the grassroots of the movement for abortion access. “It’s a lot about how the structures of power continue to reinforce the view that young people aren’t in [the movement],” says Fried.

Perhaps, says Hartmann, young people are choosing to be involved in different organizations than the ones older leaders are involved with. “Maybe those groups aren’t attracting young people. Maybe the problem is less with the young people than with the groups. Young people are very willing and wanting to get involved. But there’s no conduit because those groups are not creating space to get involved. They’re too top down.” 

James Wagoner is President of Advocates for Youth, which focuses on reproductive and sexual health. From his perspective in Washington, DC, Wagoner has seen a critique of existing styles of leadership and a new approach developed by the young leaders of newer organizations. “Young people have been the most astute at questioning the relationship between the grassroots of this movement and DC-based power brokers. This critique is increasingly looking for more authenticity, more involvement of grassroots in the exercise of that power. The more traditional approach of DC-based organizations—to set policy agendas without a real exchange with the grassroots—results in a disconnection with young people in general and with youth activists in particular. In an era of new media, [on the heels of] the Obama campaign, and before that the Dean campaign, young people expect a reciprocal relationship.”  

While it is important to identify the structures of exclusion, Ross cautions that we need to have a clear understanding of why youth are being excluded. “Youth organizers make a fairly familiar mistake, because I made it too: they mistake power politics for discrimination,” says Ross. Young people are not being excluded because of prejudice against youth, but because they are not seen as power players. “So the question isn’t do they not care about youth,” Ross continues, “but are they operating from a set of power politics and [the problem] is that youth don’t represent power. And the way that played out at the recent Stupak rally was there was intense fighting about who would actually speak at that rally. But that was all about power, it wasn’t about anything else… And it’s not something that the women’s movement created. That’s how Washington operates. So if you can’t bring power to the table you’re not going to be a significant player. The question has got to be, how can the youth voice be organized so it’s such a principle power player that they can’t afford to ignore it.”

All the movement leaders I spoke with for this piece talked about coming up as young activists. These leaders remember the important relationships they had with mentors and know working with new generations of organizers is vital for the continuation and growth of this work. Elsa Ríos, President of Strategies for Social Change, remembers organizing around reproductive health issues, specifically the sterilization of Puerto Rican women, when she was in her twenties. Ríos now works with new movement leaders in her role as a consultant with nonprofits, including the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. Ríos says of her experiences in the movement, “I’ve been able to see the younger generation of leaders develop and to have a small contribution in making that happen by supporting their development. But I also remember when I was a young leader I had those coaches and those mentors and they made that difference. I pass it on because it’s been passed on to me.”

Wagoner and Advocates for Youth center the idea of partnership in their work, meaning that both their more established staff and youth organizers bring something valuable to the table. “Our leadership team brings networks, access to resources, and access to institutions that can help make change,” says Wagoner. “Yet without vibrant youth involvement and leadership these processes can atrophy, lack Velcro, don’t stick, aren’t relevant. The engine- driving macro social change in this country is youth culture and given the speed with which that culture changes social change institutions need to have young people intimately engaged in the formation, implementation, and evaluation of their work or they risk being consigned to the dustbin of history.”

Young people need to be trusted with a substantive role and ownership of their work. Often youth are the troops – organizations want them to turn out in large numbers for events, but don’t actually include them in organizing. Youth voices and perspectives are lost, but youth also lack a chance to feel committed and connected. CLPP’s annual reproductive justice conference has always had a student group helping with the organizing, but they used to be more like the troops with a lead staff organizer playing the role of expert. The organizing of the conference evolved from there, though, to a point where students take ownership of major aspects of conference organizing. “The payoff was very clear, at least to me,” Fried explains, “that in that evolution what happened is the students were totally invested. It became their conference, and before it wasn’t. There would be certain frustrations of people not coming through, doing their committee work, whatever. It’s just so clear that this is the student group’s conference… If somebody doesn’t show up they’re going ballistic, not me.”

Ross does not think of herself as a youth organizer and does not have a youth-specific program at SisterSong, though the organization has older and younger people working together. But Ross believes youth should be involved in every level of SisterSong’s work. The organization’s approach to difference assures the involvement of youth, as well as other often underrepresented constituencies. “Just like I have to make sure I don’t pull together a body of people that doesn’t have a Latina representative, I don’t pull together a body of people that doesn’t have a youth representative,” Ross explains. “You invest to make sure all voices are present but at any given minute it will be different which voices are missing. But you constantly ask, who’s not at this table [that] should be at this table. Sometimes it’s young people; sometimes it’s young people taking the lead so it should be indigenous women. The [goal] is to make sure the necessary voices are participating in the decisions that are affecting their lives.”

It is important that, in countering the generational divide rhetoric, we do not discount the vital work of the Roe generation. “Sometimes leaders and activists from the Roe generation think that if there are strong calls for a new approach to advancing reproductive justice that their own work over the years is somehow invalidated or unappreciated,” Wagoner observes. “I think young people too can advance new ideas quicker by first acknowledging with respect and admiration the work of prior generations. Having said that, we still must forge a new way forward and that isn’t going to come without some friction, some pushing. But you can push within a framework of respect. The fact is that sometimes the older generation of leaders clings to their strategic approaches. It’s their relevance, their life’s work and to surrender that to wholly new approaches, can leave one feeling dismissed. It’s not invalid, but the pace of cultural and technological change means we have to keep turning over more quickly and young people are key to that. And if we can institutionalize that awareness, each new generation will recognize that change is not a threat but an opportunity. It’s not easy, when you have to shift things like leadership, organizational culture, and the relationship to grassroots, that’s all a big deal. However, the rewards are enormous and the unacceptable alternative to significant change is to see our movement lapse into irrelevance. That’s the last thing I want, to see–decades or work cast aside.”

Models do exist for successful intergenerational organizing. The work of Roe generation leaders who lift up youth organizing keeps the struggle for abortion access moving forward. Learning from these examples can help us continue growing a vibrant movement and building the power to win victories now.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

  • juliesunday

    My experience at the Sex:Tech conference in San Francisco this year echoed some of the concerns you raise here. There were some youth there, primarily some teen peer educators I think, and there was no programming for them nor was there an opportunity for them to tell those of us who design sexual health programs for teenagers to hear, you know, what they think they need. There’s no representative democratic body for teenagers under 18, so it’s hard to find out what they want or what they’re thinking. It would have been helpful I think at Sex:Tech to have a large number of young people there to powwow with us program folks so we’re up to date on their concerns. I think Advocates does a good job of pulling in youth to their work but most of the other big sexual health organizations (Planned Parenthood national, SIECUS, Naral, etc.) really don’t. And it shows.