“Burque, I have one question for you: Se pudo?” Those were the first words I could manage to say to a crowd full of smiling New Mexican faces on November 19, as we received the joyful and shocking news that Albuquerque voters had defeated the harmful anti-abortion ballot measure by a ten-point margin.
Mamas hand-in-hand with their babies, young people jumping, and families holding closed fists in the air responded “Si se pudo, que viva la mujer!”
As a queer Xicana, and daughter of immigrant parents from Mexico, the joy in my heart at the sight of families like mine who showed up in droves to defend our bodies, our lives, and our decisions was unmatched by anything else I’d ever felt.
This ballot measure was the first municipal referendum in the country aimed at restricting access to safe abortion care. Albuquerque is one of four cities across the country that is home to a clinic providing abortions past 20 weeks. The ballot sought to eliminate access to such abortions under any circumstance other than a direct threat to a pregnant woman’s life. If it had passed, the ordinance would have eliminated access to abortion care at and beyond 20 weeks across the entire Southern corridor of the United States.
We knew that attacks on access to abortion care in our city were part of a new strategy to restrict abortion access at the municipal level and that, if successful, the same tactics would be used in other cities and states. Early polling showed that the popular vote favored the ban by a wide margin. We faced a daunting task: Mobilizing voters in fewer than 12 weeks for a special election, just six weeks after a mayoral election. When we started out, a victory by more than ten points was unthinkable.
This incredible win is a testimony to the strength of local organizations and communities that have been building a strong movement for justice in New Mexico for many years. These organizations were at the nexus of the formation of the Respect ABQ Women campaign, the New Mexican-led effort of allied organizations that came together and defeated the ballot measure. Organizations on the campaign’s steering committee provided the strategic direction for all campaign efforts. The groups included the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Southwest Women’s Options, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, the Southwest Women’s Law Center, Young Women United, and Strong Families New Mexico.
From the beginning, the Respect ABQ Women campaign made the clear decision to prioritize the leadership of women of color. Much of this leadership came from Young Women United (YWU) and Strong Families New Mexico (SFNM), two reproductive justice organizations led by and accountable to women of color. Together, we played pivotal roles serving on the Respect ABQ Women campaign’s steering committee, fulfilling essential leadership positions, and implementing core parts of the campaign strategy.
YWU and SFNM decided early on that our goal in this campaign would be to move away from how short-term campaigns are usually run. Our model sought to ensure New Mexican leadership shaped and steered the campaign, shift the narrative on abortion, center the voices of those most affected, and garner the solidarity of national support and resources.
Leading With Local Infrastructure and Strategies
SFNM and YWU were clear that this campaign needed to be uniquely local, and uniquely New Mexican, to have any chance of succeeding. The Respect ABQ Women campaign came out of the pre-existing relationships between organizing and advocacy groups within the New Mexico Coalition for Choice, a longstanding coalition defending reproductive rights in New Mexico.
These relationships had been hard fought, coming from years of reproductive rights and health groups working alongside one another in their successful work to keep bills that would have restricted abortion access from ever leaving committees in the legislature. But this work has not been without challenge, and tensions had grown over the years when strategies and tactics would sometimes conflict.
Fortunately, a number of years ago, with the support of Strong Families, we worked actively with partners from the Coalition for Choice to address these challenges and develop a new way to work together, one that set the stage for our win this fall. This included clear agreements on how we would work together, and a commitment to prioritizing the perspectives of those most affected by our issues—particularly low-income women of color.
With our internal collaboration strengthened, and our external wins each year preventing at least six anti-abortion bills from moving through the legislative process, we were poised to take on the ballot initiative.
Shifting the Narrative on Abortion
YWU and SFNM are proud of the contributions we made to shape messages that reflected New Mexican values. While this ballot measure threatened access to abortion within and beyond the city of Albuquerque, the Respect ABQ Women campaign made a concerted effort to move framing of the issues beyond the polarizing “pro-life” vs. pro-choice language. We knew that language wouldn’t bring our communities out because it presented a falsely black-and-white portrayal of what are complex personal decisions about abortion.
Instead, the Respect ABQ Women campaign’s lead message held that “deeply personal and complex decisions about abortion should remain in the hands of women, families and their doctor without government interference.” This frame spoke directly to the real lives of people who make difficult decisions about their lives every day. The message provided an opportunity to respect the individual circumstances, faith traditions, and life challenges affecting women and families who face the decision to continue or end a pregnancy. The Respect ABQ Women campaign made this conversation ours, acknowledged and embraced the complexity of abortion, and created an opening for various communities to participate in the election.
Centering Those Most Affected
The primary goal of ballot measure campaigns is almost always to do “whatever it takes” to get the votes necessary for the win. This mentality often results in campaigns operating in a bubble, isolated from long-term social change goals and disconnected from the larger political climate.
Campaigns to defeat anti-choice ballot measures are often reluctant to engage young people and communities of color because of widely held perceptions that these voters will not turn out or that they hold opposing views on abortion.
YWU and SFNM made sure the Respect ABQ Women campaign would steer clear of tactics that would compromise or marginalize our communities, and instead in all our efforts made long-term organizational decisions to focus closely on those most affected.
For example, our campaign’s message embracing abortion as a complex and personal decision placed communities of color at the center—specifically speaking to the value our community places on respect for individual and family decisions. Ensuring communities of color were included in this election influenced decisions about what imagery to use, whose faces should represent the campaign, and how to reach folks where they were at in terms of their feelings about abortion. The campaign allowed our leadership, alongside other groups led by women of color, to guide the strategies that brought our community into the discussion. Dolores Huerta, a labor rights leader and well-respected New Mexican, supported YWU’s efforts by recording radio ads in English and Spanish ensuring Latin@ communities were hearing directly from another Latina who reflected the real lives of New Mexican families.
As one of the leads on the communications strategy, YWU maintained a constant social media presence and ensured our campaign reflected the lived experiences of our communities. YWU values the voice of culture, art, and imagery in all of our work and integrated those perspectives into the communications strategy. We did this by working with local photographers and designers to create a photo campaign uplifting the strength of Albuquerque families and neighborhoods standing against the ban. YWU centered the voices of Albuquerque’s communities by leading the Spanish-language efforts of the Respect ABQ Women Campaign.
We were so inspired by the solidarity of Dolores Huerta, who complemented our work on the ground knocking on doors, and leveraging her reputation as a trusted community leader to build an intergenerational collaboration with Young Women United. With her support, we ensured our communities could hear from us on the radio, which we know can be a more accessible medium for those who don’t have access to Internet or television.
In the Field
For decades, many in the reproductive rights movement have labeled Latina/o and Hispanic communities as inherently conservative and have chosen to ignore communities of color in civic engagement efforts.
Strong Families New Mexico led a field strategy that focused on neighborhoods that were predominantly people of color. Phone banks and canvassing hosted by SFNM and YWU not only reached out to young people, queer and trans* communities, and communities of color, but also created a welcoming space for volunteers who were active in progressive movements but had not previously worked on the issue of abortion. SFNM and YWU managed more than 153 volunteers, nearly 40 percent of Respect ABQ Women’s total volunteer base. We used this as an opportunity to engage our communities to speak about reproductive justice, the need to defeat anti-abortion measures, and the need to build more capacity to mobilize our own communities for change. Of the 153 volunteers we engaged, nearly half were people of color, a significant portion were young people, 20 percent were men (many were young men of color), and more than 30 percent were LGBTQ.
Garnering National Solidarity and Resources
The strategic direction of the Respect ABQ Women campaign was supported by the solidarity of national organizations and resources. Effective national-local partnerships are going to be key to winning other local and state-level battles, and we’re proud to be creating a model for how to do that in a way that builds power and respects local expertise.
For example, one of our campaign’s first press conferences was held by Strong Families, who joined with national reproductive justice leaders from Black, Latina, and Asian communities delivering a message of solidarity for Respect ABQ Women and connecting the local campaign to other attacks across the country.
Organizations like the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and Advocates for Youth also stood in solidarity with New Mexican women of color leadership by supporting radio ads developed by YWU to engage Latina/o communities.
For YWU and SFNM, the win was one moment in time in the effort to build a larger vision of reproductive justice. We know that the work doesn’t end here. Although this election is over, we are committed to continued mobilization of our communities and the resources we built during the campaign to increase access to the rights, resources, and recognition that all people and families need to thrive. While this campaign was a true testament to New Mexico’s leadership, it serves as a learning moment for our reproductive justice work. We learned that we can win if we build local leadership, while tapping national resources, focusing on those most affected, and shifting the abortion narrative.
As I came off the stage on election night, my cheeks rattling with adrenaline and emotion, I felt a soft hand squeeze mine in solidarity. Dolores Huerta, a woman who has fought many battles and celebrated numerous victories in her time, held my hand and whispered into my ear, “Gracias, our communities really needed this.”
Young Women United is a reproductive justice organizing and policy organization by and for young women of color in New Mexico working to ensure all people have access to the information, education, and resources necessary to make real decisions about their bodies and lives. YWU works with self-identified women of color ages 13 to 35 to advance an intersectional vision of reproductive justice.
Strong Families New Mexico is the first state-based action site of the National Strong Families Initiative, staffed by Forward Together. Strong Families nationally is home to more than 120 organizations across the country that are changing the way we think, feel, and act on behalf of families. A key part of Forward Together’s movement-building model is to partner with strong, local organizations, so that the local is lifted to influence the national agenda. SFNM is building a network of organizations across the state that can grow a broader social justice movement in New Mexico.