University of Michigan students gathered to hear former Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards speak Wednesday evening about her experience as an activist and organizer as well as her advice on how to mobilize Democratic voters.
The University of Michigan’s chapter of College Democrats, along with Students for Whitmer, hosted Richards, who was in town to help with Gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer’s campaign. Public Policy senior Kellie Lounds, the chair of College Democrats, noted how inspiring Richards is for people wanting to make change.
“Our women’s issues committee, which is a part of College Dems, is one of our strongest groups, so I know there are people who were really excited about it,” Lounds said. “She is such an incredible and inspiring figure for young women across the country who want to get involved in organizing and want to make a difference in the political process without being an elected official is a really important speaker to have.”
Richards opened the talk by speaking about her familiarity with Michigan, recalling her time with Planned Parenthood providing health care services and family planning in the state. She knew Michigan and Ann Arbor, well enough to consider a trip to Zingerman’s a must, she joked.
She then turned to a more serious note, talking about how liberals may feel upset or despondent about Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court this past weekend. Richards emphasized, though, the importance of perseverance. This time in history is one of the most exciting for activists, she said.
“For folks who want to be involved in social change and changing the world, for good or bad, there's never been a better time to do that,” Richards said.
To enact this change, Richards urged students to get out into the community and register people to vote. In response to a question about how to talk to people with opposite beliefs, Richards said while engaging with the other side is important, the focus should be on increasing the voter base.
“Right now, if the people in this room just focused on students and other folks who are registered to vote but who do not vote in midterms, your job is done,” Richards said.
Though Richards said her primary focus as president of Planned Parenthood was on affordable health care and reproductive rights, she noted these issues intersect with a broad spectrum of others. The people she helped during her time at Planned Parenthood, Richards said, are also struggling to find access to basic human needs such as clean water or a safe community.
“Same folks who are having trouble accessing affordable health care, are having trouble accessing clean water, right here in Michigan, or trouble accessing a community or a school that feels safe for their children,” Richards said. “All of these things are completely connected. So we have to be thinking about how do we change inequality on all of these issues.”
Richards started her career as a labor organizer, working across several states to help service workers with minimum wage and no benefits organize unions campaigns. Many of the people she worked with, she said, were not originally a part of the labor movement and are now doing more work than ever before, even with stricter laws against organizing. Richards emphasized repeatedly throughout her talk how this type of grassroots work is the way to make an impact in the government.
“We need to imagine the country we want, and then work to build it,” Richards said. “Because it's not going to come from Washington down, it's going to come from the grassroots up.”
LSA junior Emily Nistad, a member of College Democrats, said what stayed with her after Richards’ talk was how even by just encouraging her friends to vote, she could make a change.
“What really resonates with me right now is talking to your friends and getting them to vote and how to get people who are your peers interested and excited about the elections that are coming up,” Nistad said. “I feel like a lot of college students have a harder time thinking about that, but really the focus should be on just talking to your friends about it and the small things you can do.”
In the last election, campus voter turned out ranged from 42.8 percent to 49.71 percent. So, according to Richards, voting is key. She said while acts of protest are important, Democrats need to work to make a lasting change.
“Knitting your pussy hat, fantastic,” Richards said. “Showing up with hilarious signs, drinking wine with your friends and writing irate postcards to Mitch McConnell is good therapy. But voting and actually building political power that lasts is … so that's kind of what I'm interested in. How do we take this moment, and make it a movement?”