Partner Profile: Senti Sojwal and Emily Zahn
Senti Sojwal is a 24-year-old India-born, NYC-raised reproductive justice activist, writer, and self-proclaimed sassy feminist. She has been involved in various reproductive justice organizing for the past six years, working with NARAL Pro-Choice America in New York and DC, and radical think tank the Population and Development Program. While attending Hampshire College, Senti was a leading student organizer of the Civil Liberties & Public Policy (CLPP) annual conference “From Abortion Rights to Social Justice: Building the Movement for Reproductive Freedom”. She has written as a columnist for Mic on issues of feminism and politics, and her interests include exploring the intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, and pop culture. Senti currently teaches kindergarten in South Korea.
Emily Zahn was formerly the Field and Organizing Coordinator at NARAL Pro-Choice New York where she works with the organization’s fantastic volunteer activists to elect pro-choice candidates, pass progressive legislation, and protect reproductive rights in New York State. Emily previously held positions at the Planned Parenthood Action Fund of New Jersey, New York Choice PAC, the Guttmacher Institute and Family Planning Advocates of New York State. She graduated from Skidmore College with a B.S. in Social Work and Psychology and a minor in Theater Stage Management and also holds a Master’s in Social Work from New York University.
1. Senti, please tell us about yourself and how you came to be a volunteer with NARAL Pro-Choice New York.
SS: I became involved in reproductive justice organizing early in my time as an undergrad, when I joined the student group that puts together the Civil Liberties & Public Program (CLPP) annual conference, “From Abortion Rights to Social Justice: Building the Movement for Reproductive Freedom” at Hampshire College. Being part of CLPP was kind of earth shattering – it was where I began to really understand myself as a feminist, as a woman of color, and as an activist. Every student at my school had to fulfill a community service requirement during their sophomore year, so I contacted NARAL in New York to see if I could do my service there. Being primarily in an academic setting, I felt like much of how I was encouraged to explore social justice, gender, and feminism was framed in a highly theoretical way. I looked forward to the opportunity to do some work on the ground and expand my understanding of contemporary reproductive health issues in the United States in an active way. I jumped at the chance to participate in NARAL’s ongoing crisis pregnancy center investigations.
2. Tell us about your role in the crisis pregnancy center investigation. What did you learn from your work on CPCs?
SS: My role in the CPC investigations was to go undercover as a young pregnant woman to various centers in the New York area with a hidden recording device. I posed as a young woman who was unsure about what choice to make, seeking guidance as well as answers to reproductive health questions. Sometimes I went alone, sometimes a NARAL staffer went with me posing as my friend, and for a few investigations, I was accompanied by my partner at the time. I was told beforehand that the experience could be emotionally taxing, but I have to say I didn’t feel prepared for how much it would affect me.
I had a variety of experiences while doing the CPC investigations – some of them looked like small community centers, some looked like full-on medical clinics. Almost all were staffed by older women, who were open about sharing their religious, conservative backgrounds. I was struck by how often I was told blatant lies at these places – that abortions cause breast cancer, that women suffer severe emotional and physical trauma from their abortions, that women almost always regret their abortions, that abortions are risky procedures that require months of recovery time. I can only imagine what it’s like for so many young women, who are actually pregnant and in need of support, to encounter such coercive, outrageous lies told as fact.
The CPCs also employed a lot of guilt tactics – I was enraged by the questions they would ask me, like “Wouldn’t your parents be ashamed of you if you had an abortion?” after being prompted to share that I come from a religious family. I was asked if I would be able to live with myself if I had an abortion. I was prayed over, and told that I could still be “saved”. At a few clinics, I would be asked how many weeks along I thought I might be, and subsequently brought a tiny plastic fetus, my “baby”, that I would be asked to hold and look at. I was encouraged to watch a film about abortion, but given the whole experience, I had to refuse. I frequently felt very uncomfortable, as well as shamed for being sexually active, in the course of these conversations.
Participating in NARAL’s CPC investigations was a critical part of my reproductive justice education and growth. The experience opened my eyes more than ever to the urgent need to break our cultural silence around abortion, to demand comprehensive sex ed for youth, to fight harder than ever against anti-choice disregard for women’s agency. How can young people desperately in need of accurate information and affirmation of their right to choose their own futures be given the tools to empower themselves in a world that places such stigma on abortion? On women being sexual? That disregards people’s very basic human rights, and targets those most vulnerable in our communities?
It is an atrocity that there are institutions all over the country that target low-income women and women of color, pretend to look like health providers, lie to young people about their health, and try to coerce them into making decisions about their pregnancies. CPCs are the heart of the anti-choice movement, and as advocates for reproductive freedom, it is essential that stopping them in their tracks is a top priority.
3. It’s been a long journey to get to the point when New York City can begin implementing part of the crisis pregnancy center regulations, passage of which resulted from the publication of NARAL New York’s report on the investigation you were involved in. How does it feel to see your work come to fruition in this way?
SS: It feels really exciting! Especially because so often with reproductive rights in America, the climate can feel overwhelmingly discouraging. Two steps forward, five steps back. Pass a piece of progressive reproductive rights legislation, close a third of the clinics in Texas – you know? Being able to regulate CPCs is HUGE. It is a significant blow to the anti-choice system that daily denies people their right to choose, criminalizes those who do, and spreads rampant and harmful misinformation to some of the most marginalized people in our country. Regulating CPCs is a critical step in the long journey we have before us to an America where all people can make healthy, empowered choices about their bodies, families, and wellbeing. I look forward to seeing how the regulations progress, and feel very grateful to have had a small part in these invaluable investigations. I hope that New York is only the beginning, and that other states will follow suit.
4. What is your advice for volunteers looking to get involved in this movement?
SS: It’s cliché but it’s true that every bit counts. Social justice work is often unglamorous and frustrating – it’s spreadsheets, it’s fundraising phone calls, it’s going door to door in terrible weather. But these acts are, in huge ways, what movement-building is, and they are as critical as any other part of political initiatives. Look for social justice and reproductive justice organizations in your area, and get on their volunteer listservs. Look out for when they have large events – most organizations need a lot of extra help when these things happen. Think about the skills you have to offer, and where you could be most useful.
I would say also that some of the most significant acts of resistance, teaching, and connection are the times where you can openly, lovingly have conversations about these issues with people who may not know as much as you. We all have so much unlearning to do when it comes to destructive, culturally reinforced ideas. Honor that, and consider how to implement reproductive justice frameworks in your daily life: uplift the voices of women of color, of trans people, of incarcerated people, of the economically disenfranchised. I think the reproductive justice movement begins in how you support, encourage, challenge power, and care for others.
5. Emily, as the Field and Organizing Coordinator at NARAL Pro-Choice New York, what other opportunities are there for people to get involved with the organization?
EZ: The best way to get involved with NARAL Pro-Choice New York is to join our Pro-Choice Action Team (P-CAT). P-CAT is our statewide network of activists that work to protect and expand the full range of reproductive rights across New York State. We offer a range of volunteer opportunities including phone banks, film screenings, canvassing and letter writing. Over the next few months P-CAT members will also have the chance to help continue our CPC investigations, expanding our research to centers outside of New York City.
We are also very excited to announce that this year NARAL Pro-Choice New York’s Lobby Day will be on May 5th in Albany. This will be a great event for any and all pro-choice New Yorkers to get involved and learn how to lobby for reproductive rights. For more information on these opportunities or to learn more I can be reached at [email protected].