Fighting for Access and Justice: A Q&A With the Incoming Executive Director of the National Network of Abortion Funds

Yamani Hernandez recently chatted with Rewire about her work to build a broad human rights movement that lives up to its inclusive values, her unconventional professional trajectory, and the people who inspired and stoked her activism.

Yamani Hernandez recently chatted with Rewire about her work to build a broad human rights movement that lives up to its inclusive values, her unconventional professional trajectory, and the people who inspired and stoked her activism. Yamani Hernandez

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

On Friday, Yamani Hernandez steps into the role of executive director at the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF). In that position, she will lead almost 100 nonprofits nationwide that help people fund their abortion procedures and offer other types of assistance. The 37-year-old Chicago native recently chatted with Rewire about her work to build a broad human rights movement that lives up to its inclusive values, her unconventional professional trajectory, and the people who inspired and stoked her activism.

Rewire: Given the near-constant efforts to restrict reproductive rights in this country, now is a difficult time to take the helm of a national organization that works exclusively on abortion. But you did. Why?

Yamani Hernandez: I took the helm of NNAF now because there is such tremendous opportunity. I spent a large part of my time [as past director of the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health or ICAH] trying to create a base. At NNAF, with nearly 100 funds—grassroot funds that are mostly volunteer-run—there’s a base built in to celebrate, support, and mobilize.

Through abortion funding, there is a very direct impact on people’s lives. We’re dealing in real time, with real patients and real threats. We’re also balancing and leveraging our experience on the helplines and in the clinics to move policy through the All Above All campaign.

I’m excited about working with funds to build their strength so that our base is not only the fund board, volunteers, and staff, but the hundreds of thousands of people who received abortion services over our 22-year history. I’m interested in how the interactions with patients move beyond the procedure to a longer-term relationship that results in building power. Abortion isn’t a single floating issue and must be addressed in the context of the multitude of systemic barriers and cultural norms that impact our abilities to access the rights, recognition, and resources to thrive. These issues are all interrelated and should not be talked about in isolation.

Rewire: If we believe the polls, significant numbers of Americans wouldn’t want to see Roe v. Wade overturned. If that’s the case, why don’t we see more Americans actively advocating to keep abortion legal and accessible?

YH: I’m no social scientist but, anecdotally, even if polls say that most Americans are pro-choice, I’m not sure it’s a super accessible movement to join if you’re not in college. How does my neighbor know what’s happening in this movement and how to get involved? Where and how does my 60-year-old dad engage with this movement besides donating or signing an online petition? How do the owners of the diner or taqueria nearby connect? I think we’ve already got a lot of people at the table, and so I’m looking to see more “regular, everyday” people involved—people who may not think of themselves as activists because being “pro-choice” and taking action on the issue are two different things, just like having rights and access are not the same.

I know because I used to be in that boat. I don’t think I understood the urgency before I started doing this work. Anti-choice strategy is crafty. Anti-choice lawmakers are chiseling away at Roe by imposing restrictions on clinics, providers, and women on the local, state, and federal levels. Many Americans may not be aware of these obscure laws, or these laws may not seem like big threats, although they are more dangerous than federal policies in some ways. Public stigma around abortion also remains high and keeps the public from taking more direct action [such as volunteering as a clinic escort or for an abortion fund hotline].

Rewire: On a personal level, how do you talk to friends and family about the work you do? Because many people in The Movement come from families and communities that have not been recognized as part of that movement.

YH: Well, this is sort of complicated, right? I really have no problem at all talking to anyone in earshot (or screen shot) about why abortion access is so important. … There are definitely people in my life who would like to hear about sex, sexuality, pregnancy, birth, and abortion less because they can be uncomfortable topics if you haven’t had all positive experiences. But there are other people who think it’s really cool to see me being so vocal talking about our rights and the systemic barriers that impact when, whether, and how we reproduce. Even if they don’t feel comfortable saying it, they are glad that I am saying what they won’t or at least raising questions that make people think differently.

My immediate family is supportive of my work and the issues, though they may not be out waving flags in protest. After all, people have been murdered by anti-choice folks, and on the scale of priorities, the people of color I know aren’t necessarily looking for one more way to get killed in America. My father is a doctor and has always been proud of my work, having decades of experience in community medicine. I’m pretty sure he’s seen it all and knows the damage associated with restricting health care. My mother is actively engaged in lots of feminist activism. Last year, she wrote about her own abortion after being raped by a stranger in our family home, in a self-published novel, and she also told me the abortion stories of elders in my family before abortion was legal. I think lots of people I love care about this issue but find some of the language, framing, and faces of the movement unfamiliar and distasteful. I want to change that.

The people of color in my life come from largely a Black nationalist framework that, in some ways, sees childbearing and nation building as part of the same thing. So it can get complicated when talking about abortion as a one-liner. It is a nuanced topic for many, many people with so much complexity and thought on one end, and baggage and shame on the other end. But still we have been a part of this struggle. As historical Black feminists like Audre Lorde have articulated, we do not live single-issue lives. So I want to continue to work to break gender, sexuality, misogyny, and racism down to language that meets people where they are and gets straight to the point of humanity. It’s important to me to honor the experience of people like my trans play-unclemy mother’s best childhood friend—who transitioned over 15 years of my childhood. It’s also important that I engage the experience of my sister who once argued with me because I called her “homophobic.” It later became clear that we have different understandings of that word.

I also think it’s really important to my community that I stay involved in birth justice as well. It’s hard to call someone a “baby killer” when they spend evenings and weekends as a birth doula helping mamas give birth the way they always knew they could. I want to reduce the stigma of pregnancy in general. Whatever the choice, people deserve support.

Rewire: What’s your vision of getting more young people involved in advocating for abortion rights?

YH: I’m not sure how you’re defining young people. I still think of myself as young at 37! But, seriously, I’m coming off working on reproductive justice issues related to 12-to-24-year-olds, and I think there’s a lesson there. Young adults shouldn’t just be hearing or thinking about abortion in college. In younger years, they need to have access to sex education that talks not just about preventing pregnancy, but about consent, pleasure, sexual violence, and pregnancy options without judgment.

There are some powerful social justice movements being led by young people; we can look at #BlackLivesMatter to see that. I don’t think stakeholders at NNAF are an exception. Our member funds are heavily populated by young creative people who want to make a difference. Many funds were started and are still supported by older leaders of the movement. I envision younger people continuing to grow in their leadership through the funds, I see young people changing the movement through social media—reaching more people in need of abortions, but also making our culture shifts and policy fights viral. That said I think, we still have lots of opportunity to connect with more people and build more bridges between movements. I’m ready!

Rewire: This is the first time there’s been a woman of color in this position. What does that mean to you and to NNAF?

YH: To be honest, while I am proud to be a Black woman at the helm of this organization and I know what it means for our movement, I would hope that I was not hired because I am a woman of color, but rather for the experience and vision I bring to the organization. I know that those two are likely intertwined though. For me, during my four years in this movement, it has been painful to watch the ways that women of color and injustices we are encountering on a day-to-day basis are often ignored and poorly framed in the mainstream conversations about reproductive rights. I am excited to bring my day-to-day experience as a Black mother in an urban area to the work of this organization. It means that I don’t know how to talk about abortion without talking about other threats to bodily autonomy. So it means that while we may focus exclusively on abortion, you’re going to see that we approach our work from a myriad of directions. I think the other boldly significant thing about my hire is that I don’t have a super long history in this movement. The history that I have is centered on the sexual health, rights, and identities of minors, who are often discarded in the policy fights. I think that it says a lot about the organization. It inspires me to be a part of a group that wants to really center the leadership of the most affected from the top and throughout the organization. It’s exciting that they are seeking new perspectives on the work.

Rewire: We’re in the midst of a wave of public abortion storytelling to change abortion-related policy, experiences, and people’s minds. You’ve shared your own story. Why was telling your story important?

YH: Yes, I’m very excited about the wave of storytelling. I just hope that the stories are reaching people who aren’t already engaged in the movement. For me, telling my story was important because I don’t think that it is a very uncommon story. The story I told was a bit sanitized, but it wasn’t super simple for me. For some people, it’s very simple: “I needed an abortion and I got one.” For others, it’s more complicated. There’s no one story. Once you hear enough of them, though, it’s easy to see the relationship to economic justice among other issues. At the end of the day, telling your story is important because it’s kind of like “coming out.” The more people I tell that my attractions to people are not based on gender, the more people who think [the issue is] so removed from them can know, actually know, and love one of “those people.” It’s harder to be against someone with a face that you love.

Rewire: You trained as an architect at the University of Washington and worked with Public Allies in Chicago when you were 19. How has your past training informed your work as organizer and advocate?

YH: Public Allies was on a break from undergrad and architecture school was really a speculative endeavor; my thesis was on activist architecture as a new tool for resistance. In terms of activism, I knew we had marches, and signs, and petitions, but I thought people seemed desensitized to them. I wanted to see new and different direct actions that really challenged the idea of public and private space and who has access. When I think about it, I’ve been trying to come at access, community healing, and justice from so many angles. I joke with people that I have the most interdisciplinary education and work history.

I don’t believe in mistakes or coincidences, though. Everything that I have learned and experienced is in play in my past work. My experience working with women and girls in homeless shelters in Chicago through Public Allies really shaped my sense of who my work is for; though people are pushed out of sight, they should never be out of mind.

Lastly, I often tell the story of my beloved mother who trained my siblings and I as “jedi” when I was 5 years old. When my parents separated before their long divorce, we lived without utilities for many, many months. My mother never phrased [that experience] to me as adversity. She gave us cool survival backpacks with flashlights and snacks and told us that we had been selected for the test of jedi training and that we would win. I look back on that, and I don’t discount the pain and difficulty that she must have felt as a single parent with three children under 6 trying to make us feel secure. But seeing her resourcefulness and the magic of her reframing is training that stays with me as well.

This interview was conducted by email and by phone. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.