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Bad Home Training: An Open Letter to Melissa Flournoy of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast


A little back story:

Last night, August 13th, there was a screening of We Always Resist: Trust Black Women. The documentary touches on the ways that the pro choice framework abandons black women. It talks about solution oriented community activism and the ways that black women are left in the lurch when the conversation about reproductive rights focuses only on the single issue of abortion.  After the film, local activists Deon Haywood of Women With A Vision and Paris Hatcher of SPARK and Race Forward got together to do a panel discussion about their work and the film.

Melissa Flournoy, Louisiana Director of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, was the first person to speak. She proceeded to rudely derail the entire conversation. 

This is my response as a member of the Women’s Health and Justice Initiative, a queer black femme woman, a New Orleans native, and a daughter of a mother who taught me not to think about my body on anybody else’s terms but my own.

-Kris Ford, WHJI

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To Melissa Flournoy, PhD

Louisiana State Director of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast:

Before you say that I don’t know where you’re coming from, I feel like I do. You spent a lot of last night interrupting me and other women to talk about yourself and your views and motives. You felt that last night’s discussions should have centered on how organizations like Women With A Vision, the communities they serve, and women of color as a whole could “show up” for Planned Parenthood’s pro-choice fight.

Since I’m fairly certain that you didn’t spend a lot of the meeting taking in what by the women around you said, let me sum it up:

  • Black women know the needs of our communities, our families, and our bodies. We trust ourselves to have our best interest at heart.
  • The pro-choice/pro-life framework that Planned Parenthood supports and fuels largely leaves marginalized women behind. We gain nothing from joining your parade or lending our faces or our children’s faces to your billboards.
  • You, Melissa Flournoy, are a perfect example of the schism in work around reproductive rights. Your refusal to listen, your insistence on centering the conversation on your personal wants, and your flippant disregard for the work that organizations led by women of color have done. Worse, the huge organization that supports you is guilty of the same.

Part of why I’m wary of Planned Parenthood is that I lead an intersectional life by default. All black women do. We are not only black, only women, only disabled, only lesbians, only trans, only genderqueer, only poor, only southern, only indigenous, or only anything. We actively resist spaces where we are the only ones. In those spaces, we are profiled. We are shamed and abused. You push us to the front of one charge after another so that you can wave your diversity banners. We fall first and are left bleeding every time.

Last night, I got together with a bunch of members of my community. There were women, men, colored people, white people, babies, various genders and disabilities and personal convictions. We got together to view Trust Black Women and eat some pizza. The film was short, but powerful. We watched person after person talk about the ways that the reproductive rights dichotomy leaves behind black women. It’s produced by Sister Song, the same organization whose member Monica Simpson wrote an open letter to Planned Parenthood on August 5th. Monica’s letter details the ways that Planned Parenthood consistently omits the intersectional work of grassroots organizations on reproductive issues.

The recent exclusion of the long-term work of scores of reproductive justice organizations, activists, and researchers that have challenged the “pro-choice” label for 20 years, seen recently in New York Times and Huffington Post articles, is not only disheartening but, intentionally or not, continues the co-optation and erasure of the tremendously hard work done by Indigenous women and women of color for decades.” – Monica Simpson

Monica published her letter barely two weeks ago, and yet here I am publishing this one today because of your appalling behavior last night.

After we watched We Always Resist: Trust Black Women, Deon Haywood and Paris Hatcher took the floor for a discussion about their reproductive justice activism. Deon detailed some of her work with Women With A Vision. She spoke about working within the community on a person to person level to actively reorganize the power dynamics in black women’s lives. She talked about experiences with research organizations that ask WWAV to give access to “them.” The “them” these organizations want includes black women, sex workers, trans women, homeless women, and many other marginalized folks. She spoke about how important it is for women of color to be not just partners but leaders in  defining what reproductive rights mean to us. Paris spoke about her reproductive justice work as the cofounder of SPARK Reproductive Justice NOW. She talked at length about the importance of viewing reproductive rights outside of the Pro Choice vs. Pro Life framework.

There was a feeling of reverence for the heaviness of the topics we’d discussed. Out of the three seconds of silence, your hand went up and the whole meeting went off the tracks. You started by introducing yourself as the Louisiana State director of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast. After that, you proceeded to ask Deon what she could “do about Katrina.” Though you didn’t pause to give context, you were talking about Katrina Jackson, the state representative out of Monroe, Louisiana who penned HB388. The bill effectively shuts down some of the abortion providers here in Louisiana. You complained about the representative’s unwillingness to hear your pleas, and jokingly said that you wanted to “put (Deon) into a ring and let you kick her ass!” Didn’t we JUST get done talking about how hurtful it is for black women to constantly be profiled as dangerous? Violent? Subhuman? How is this helpful? Deon had told us about the police reports she sees where police officers describe black women as primarily “big,” “black,” and “angry.” YOU TURNED AROUND AND DID THE SAME THING. Deon stated that she’s not going to go fight any other black women. She’s not doing this work to go be the black person who can tame other black people for you. None of us are. It was clear that you weren’t getting the answers or feedback that you wanted. I’m sure you were aware of the people expressing their dismay in the background as you charged on to talk at length about how what we REALLY need to just focus on less race stuff and more political stuff. According to you, the solution lies in pressuring elected officials and voting the bad eggs out of office. You asked question after question, made statement after statement, and barely paused for Deon or anyone else to answer. When she was able to sneak a word in edgewise, you cut her off again! This went round and around. You interrupted most of the people who spoke last night, including me. I explained that I rejected the Pro Choice vs. Pro Life framework because it leaves behind many of the communities represented in that room. I stated that while I was glad you came, I didn’t want this entire conversation to become us simply focused on and responding to you. I also said that when you ask questions of people like Deon, like Paris, like the many activists and organizers in that room who have exactly the kind of analysis that your organization sorely lacks, you need to shut up and listen. You didn’t. In fact, you cut me off before I could finish talking. Here’s more of what I want to say:

How dare you, Melissa? How dare you show up to an event by and for women of color, then go ahead to tell us that we’re not focusing on YOUR organization enough? That we aren’t showing up for YOU enough? We afforded you every opportunity last night to get a feel for where women of color are coming from on this issue. The answers to why we aren’t as common as we could be among the Planned Parenthood ranks was staring you in the face, and you turned away every time. You heard it from black women, you heard it from black men, you heard it from faith leaders and scholars and activists and average folks walking down the street. You even heard it from Laura McTighe, a white ally who was so upset by your behavior that she stepped forward to name that you had effectively derailed the entire conversation and wrapped it around yourself, and that it was inappropriate of you to ask women of color why they weren’t doing more for YOU. Did you listen to her? Did you listen when she said that she felt the more appropriate question to ask was how you, your organization, and white people in general could show up and be better allies for US?

I don’t think you did. What you did was talk over people, take up too much space emotionally and physically in the room. I knew you weren’t really engaged with us because people were standing uncomfortably in the back of the room while you sprawled across two chairs of your own. How can you show up to a screening of We Always Resist: Trust Black Women when you clearly don’t even trust black women enough to pay attention when we decide on what strategies are most effective for our communities?

After last night’s distasteful experience, I’m left with three very real truths:

  • If the Louisiana State director of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast can listen to the lived experiences of women of color and then try to mock us and disrupt our meetings, then what hope is there for Planned Parenthood to work in an anti-racist framework? Why should I bother with trusting or investing in any of your political ventures if you can’t see the merit in my community based activism?
  • Black women’s bodies are the scapegoat here. No matter how you turn it, when we view ourselves on your terms, the jokes fly about how we should go fight people for you. We are damned for having children, damned for having abortions, damned for refusing to navigate our bodies within your framework, and then chastised for not showing up for you.
  • I trust black women. I trust us to know what is best for ourselves, our communities, our families, and our wellbeing. I do NOT trust YOU.

After being in a room with black women while we talked about concrete solutions to the issues that affect us most, you still took it upon yourself to push our thoughts and feelings and very humanity aside to talk about how we could better serve your agenda. Rather than listen to the way that you could have been more constructive, you told me not to make assumptions about you. Rather than listen to the young people in the room, you reminded us that you’re 53. Rather than resist the urge to stack oppressions like a playground contest, you tossed out you’re a lesbian from Shreveport and that I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. I think I judged you appropriately. I think I had you figured out when I reluctantly had to lump you in with the rest of the big money non-profits that just want to hijack our stories for convenient marketing. I think I had you right when I assumed that you wouldn’t be able to simply be a member of the community that night. I think I was correct in assuming that you and the organization that you represent have a long way to go. If you commonly behave this way professionally, expect to alienate more and more people.

Want to attract younger folks? Look how you behaved. Want to attract women of color? Look how you behaved. Want to attract more women of New Orleans? Look how you behaved.

To sum it up, you cannot cry foul when black women and our community based organizations are not always interested in working with you. You cannot wonder why backs were turned and feelings ran high in that room last night. The kind of disregard for us, our bodies, and our spaces that you displayed last night showed us that we knew already. You don’t. We are the right people to decide what happens to our bodies. We know what is right for our communities. You don’t. We love our families and our friends and our neighbors. You don’t.

I thought our meeting would go to hell as soon as you spoke up about who you were, and I was right.

Do better.

10 thoughts on “Bad Home Training: An Open Letter to Melissa Flournoy of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast”

  1. This letter is so powerful. I have been in several meeting with Melissa Flournouy. You summed up her behavior concisely. I, as a woman, a black women, a southern women, and many other roles in which I occupy, have decided not to fully engage with Mesissa Flournouy because her character appears to be devisive, condescending, and not furthering any agenda besides her own. It would be so much better if we, as all women, all people could work together to help improve Louisiana. This could be done first by respecting one another and earnestly listening to other’s point of view.

    Like

  2. It’s the blatant refusal to comply with a simple request…Trust Black Women….Trust Latina Women. Trust API Women. Trust Indigenous Women. Trust Women of Color. What is clear, is that Planned Parenthood refuses to get out of its own privilege to trust the very populations which keep you in business. Even after all of what has happened between RJ and planned parenthood in the last 2 weeks, you STILL refuse to be respectful. Imagine what would happen if WE…women of color… no longer were in the community speaking on YOUR behalf. Oh you thought your MONEY was why you were doing your thing in OUR communities?!?!? HA! Cause I think y’all are too damn high minded and pompous in this situation. I think y’all believe that our contribution is not valuable. Imagine a Planned Parenthood WITHOUT the support of women of color…WITHOUT the support of Reproductive Justice…Frightening, isn’t it?

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  3. Ms. Ford,
    Thank you for speaking so honestly in your open letter addressing the events that occurred at the Women With A Vision film screening and discussion that took place yesterday evening.

    Melissa Flournoy, the Louisiana State Director, made comments and conducted herself in a manner not at all reflective of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast’s and Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s values and beliefs. This is absolutely unacceptable and I will take immediate action to address this situation. On behalf of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, I offer my sincerest apology to you and others who were in attendance.

    I truly understand that Planned Parenthood must do better. Not just in New Orleans, but in every community we serve. That is our intent and our commitment. Thank you for calling us out. It is essential that we be able to engage in an open, honest dialogue. We are striving to do more, to understand more deeply, and to be an authentic ally to all. I look forward to speaking with and listening to you and others about how we at Planned Parenthood can become a true partner and work better together.

    Respectfully,
    Melaney A. Linton
    President & CEO, Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast

    Like

    1. Ms. Linton,

      Nothing about this is surprising.

      Of course you are responding to this letter by blaming Melissa Flournoy. Of course you are saying that her comments and behavior do not reflect the values of Planned Parenthood. Of course you are saying that you will take immediate action to address the situation.

      Melissa Flournoy did not conduct herself in the discussion after the film in a productive or respectful way. She inadvertantly altered the dynamic in a space that people desperately need in order to survive and thrive in a state like Louisiana and a world like the one we live in that still punishes people for who they are. The people in the room looking for community and connection were not able to achieve that after the screening of this powerful film. It was a bad night.

      Planned Parenthood in Louisiana and across the country has operated as an empire building enterprise for years. Planned Parenthood has ignored the voices of women of color and the organizations that women of color lead for years. Planned Parenthood continues to raise large sums of money off of issues of reproductive justice while framing the issues as a binary that leaves out the experiences of women and communities of color. Pro-Choice and Pro-Life don’t mean much of anything when you are punished for your sexuality, gender, and race by society and by organizations like Planned Parenthood that are supposedly advocating for you.

      Rather than just posting a response to this provocative and important discussion that disrespects the author of the piece and the lived realities of people around the country that she is surfacing you have an opportunity to do something real. You can scapegoat the state director of Planned Parenthood Louisiana, but that won’t change that this is a national problem with Planned Parenthood. You can fire the state director of Planned Parenthood Louisiana. That won’t change the realities of the organization on the state level unless the organization changes.

      Are you considering resigning because this is just another example of a long trend of ignoring large portions of the community that the organization you lead is meant to serve? Are you going to have a real discussion about the action you are going to take? Are you going to redirect some of the millions of dollars your organizations raises in Louisiana to community organizations like Women with Vision and Women’s Health and Justice Initiative?

      When you say you are going to take immediate action do you simply mean that you are going to scapegoat a Louisiana woman who needs to change her view, listen, and do better by firing her or do you mean that you are going to advocate within your organization for a different more just way of conducting business?

      Melissa Flournoy made mistakes and behaved inappropriately. The problem with Planned Parenthood is systemic and organizational. Rather than throwing your state director under the bus you should accept responsibility for your organization and work with your state staff to do better. Don’t expect us and the communities we work in to be satisfied with you scapegoating one person.

      Your organization must change how it works. It needs to do so today. Please tell us what you are going to do to change the culture within Planned Parenthood rather than try to make this issue one that is about one person.

      You say you know you need to do better so tell us what you are going to do better and then show us. Words are easy. Blaming someone is easy. Blaming someone who doesn’t actually control the agenda of the organization or how it works is easy. Doing something different is hard. It takes real work. It takes commitment. At the moment you have taken the easy way out and blamed your employee. Take responsibility and change your organization.

      Show us something real.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Ms. Linton, Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter. Thank you Ms. Ford for writing this important and pivotal piece to how the sisters in Louisiana are being treated. We stand with each of you now and moving forward. Hoping for a fruitful relationship with WOC and Planned Parenthood in Louisiana. #ReproJustice

    Like

  5. Ms. Linton,

    Nothing about this is surprising.

    Of course you are responding to this letter by blaming Melissa Flournoy. Of course you are saying that her comments and behavior do not reflect the values of Planned Parenthood. Of course you are saying that you will take immediate action to address the situation.

    Melissa Flournoy did not conduct herself in the discussion after the film in a productive or respectful way. She inadvertantly altered the dynamic in a space that people desperately need in order to survive and thrive in a state like Louisiana and a world like the one we live in that still punishes people for who they are. The people in the room looking for community and connection were not able to achieve that after the screening of this powerful film. It was a bad night.

    Planned Parenthood in Louisiana and across the country has operated as an empire building enterprise for years. Planned Parenthood has ignored the voices of women of color and the organizations that women of color lead for years. Planned Parenthood continues to raise large sums of money off of issues of reproductive justice while framing the issues as a binary that leaves out the experiences of women and communities of color. Pro-Choice and Pro-Life don’t mean much of anything when you are punished for your sexuality, gender, and race by society and by organizations like Planned Parenthood that are supposedly advocating for you.

    Rather than just posting a response to this provocative and important discussion that disrespects the author of the piece and the lived realities of people around the country that she is surfacing you have an opportunity to do something real. You can scapegoat the state director of Planned Parenthood Louisiana, but that won’t change that this is a national problem with Planned Parenthood. You can fire the state director of Planned Parenthood Louisiana. That won’t change the realities of the organization on the state level unless the organization changes.

    Are you considering resigning because this is just another example of a long trend of ignoring large portions of the community that the organization you lead is meant to serve? Are you going to have a real discussion about the action you are going to take? Are you going to redirect some of the millions of dollars your organizations raises in Louisiana to community organizations like Women with Vision and Women’s Health and Justice Initiative?

    When you say you are going to take immediate action do simply mean that you are going to scapegoat a Louisiana woman who needs to change her view, listen, and do better by firing her or do you mean that you are going to advocate within your organization for a different more just way of conducting business.

    Melissa Flournoy made mistakes and behaved inappropriately. The problem with Planned Parenthood is systemic and organizational. Rather than throwing your state director under the bus you should accept responsibility for your organization and work with your state staff to do better. Don’t expect us and the communities we work in to be satisfied with you scapegoating one person.

    Your organization must how it works. It needs to do so today. Please tell us what you are going to do to change the culture within Planned Parenthood rather than try to make this issue one that is about one person.

    You say you know you need to do better so tell us what you are going to do better and then show us. Words are easy. Blaming someone is easy. Blaming someone who doesn’t actually control the agenda of the organization or how it works is easy. Doing something different is hard. It takes real work. It takes commitment. At the moment you have taken the easy way out and blamed your employee. Take responsibility and change your organization.

    Show us something real.

    Like

  6. We received a phone call from the Director of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast to apologize to Birthmark Doula Collective for Ms. Flourney’s behavior Wednesday night. While Birthmark only provided the physical space for the event, we appreciate receiving an apology, since our space was disrespected. Though the apology is appreciated, we want to make clear that we support the right of women of color to determine their own reproductive health needs and to have those needs listened to and respected by the organizations that claim to serve them. We are disappointed by Ms. Flourney’s behavior, and do see it as representative of a trend in Planned Parenthood’s institutional policies, both internally and in our communities. We support WWAV and WHJI in vocalizing their concerns through this open letter.
    -Latona Giwa, Birthmark

    Like

  7. I’d love to see this reblogged on RH Reality Check, too. Beautiful letter–lays it out with honesty and calls for better, gives real concrete steps to take. Let’s hope Ms. Flournoy and the entire administrative hierarchy at PPGC and PPFA can get beyond their defensive “not *us*” stance and learn from it! Thank you for taking the time and energy to write this–those of us who are white do not always appreciate what it means to invest enough to speak hard truths to us. And we don’t always deserve that investment. But we sure can benefit from it, if we will.

    Liked by 1 person

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