In 2015, Yamani Hernandez earned trailblazer status when she became the first Black executive to head the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF), a collection of more than 80 independent organizations that work to remove barriers to abortion care. At the time she assumed the role, NNAF had a budget of $2.3 million and a staff of 12; under Hernandez’s leadership, the organization has grown fivefold, driving greater awareness of the vital work done by abortion funds.
Next year, however, Hernandez will be leaving NNAF, which she calls “the biggest, best thing I’ve ever been a part of.” In this interview, which has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity, Hernandez shares the thinking behind her decision, the lessons she’s learned, and her hopes for the next generation.
Rewire News Group: Let’s start with the obvious. Why step down now?
Yamani Hernandez: There’s a shift happening at the organization—an intentional shift that we’ve been building toward and that I’m excited about. We’ve been preparing for a more restricted policy environment, and so we’ve set out the last year or so to scale abortion funds so they have a lot more of the resources they need to get people care. Right now, trying to get funds for an abortion, it’s like crowdfunding, where you have to call multiple places and piece the funding together. We have a vision that abortion funds will be fully staffed and can say yes to every caller with fewer hassles. There’s a huge opportunity for someone to lean into this next chapter of what a scaled network looks like. It’s time to pass the mic on to that person.
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That person has big shoes to fill! You are a groundbreaker in abortion advocacy leadership. Can you talk about what that distinction means to you?
YH: When you’re in the role it’s hard to think about that; you’re just getting it done and doing the best you can! But I certainly knew the significance of it, and how much organizational change was going to have to happen within a predominantly white environment, both within the organization and the network [of abortion funds]. And it’s interesting: Any kind of “first Black leader”—or any black leader in a setting that is not an all-Black or all-POC environment—will say that’s an extra aspect of the job. You have your regular job duties and then this huge culture-change piece that’s a long-term project. Because culture change doesn’t get solved with one leadership change. But it’s certainly a start.
Talk more about the added pressure you felt as a Black leader. Because so often we’re asking one person to carry the weight for an entire group of people, which can be not only unfair, but exhausting.
YH: I have heard from a lot of Black leaders and people in this movement who feel like me being in this position has meant something to them. I’m really touched by that. But it’s also a lot of pressure to make sure you’re showing up in the ways people expect you to. One thing I say all the time is just because you hire a Black person doesn’t mean that person is a racial justice equity expert or trainer, but you still get, “Oh, you’re Black—so these bad things will never happen.”
And I think we can sort of create this mythology around having a Black leader, giving that person almost superheroic traits, and that part is really hard because when you don’t do something perfectly it feels like you’ve let someone down. There’s a thing happening right now that’s like, “Let Black women lead everything,” and I think that’s beautiful on the one hand—but on the other, I think that putting people on pedestals is a very dangerous thing, because falling off a pedestal is very painful, for everybody. So it’s important to recognize the humanity of leaders.
Especially when it seems like there are new, unprecedented challenges cropping up all the time, like COVID-19.
YH: Which is why it’s important to recognize that leaders are human beings, too! I’m a parent, and I’ve been working less since online school started because I can’t do that and work at the same time. I’ve had to acknowledge that I’ve been more distant because I’ve been “mama”! And then there are other things, too, that happen to us as leaders of abortion organizations that are just brutal—people saying insidious things about you online, that your children see. This work comes at a cost. It’s a huge opportunity, and I’m so proud, but it’s important to recognize the sacrifices people make in order to contribute to the movement.
What are some of the big priorities NNAF’s new leader will need to tackle?
YH: We need to close the gap between people who call abortion funds and the people who answer those calls—we want people who call to see themselves in the people answering the phone. We don’t think of this work as charity; maybe decades ago that was the prevailing value behind it, the idea of “helping” people, but we see this work differently now. And that is: People should not feel shame and stigma when calling for help, because what they’re experiencing is an injustice. What they’re experiencing is the government refusing to do its job to help and support the people who live and work in this country.
And so who would you like to see step into your role?
YH: My ultimate dream is that someone who called an abortion fund would lead the network. Because it would be the ultimate example of this thing we say all the time: building the power of people who are most impacted.
When you think back on the goals you set for yourself coming into this job, how would you evaluate your performance?
YH: I wanted to organize us as a national organization with expertise and strategies in each of the areas our members needed support in—and we have departments now! A membership department, a communications department, a systems department to handle tech assistance—our members are really getting the value of being part of a network. I’m also proud to say that one-third of our budget goes to our members, which is a testament to our values: We’re working hard to pass through our resources and make our members stronger, which is really our purpose. Then there’s the change we’ve seen in the value people place on abortion funds. There’s less talking about them as scrappy organizations and more recognition of their expertise and strategy on the ground, as important touchpoints with getting care, and with their local policy work. We support the All* Above All campaign to get cities and states voting to fund abortion, and I’m proud to see that growth. In 2019, when the Alabama abortion bans happened, that was a huge cultural moment for us; you had Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris and Hillary Clinton calling to get people to support abortion funds, understanding that there’s this robust ecosystem of organizations that make up abortion care and access.
Looking back, are there any clear lessons you’ve learned—or mistakes you think folks should avoid repeating in the future?
YH: Investing solely in policy solutions has not worked. Like right now, we’re so excited for how close we are to repealing the Hyde Amendment, but once Hyde is repealed there are still a ton of barriers to abortion access. The pandemic has been really helpful for people understanding that things like mutual aid and community care need resourcing. We can’t prioritize policy over getting people care; it has to be a both/and strategy.
You’re raising two children. When you think about the world they’ll inherit, what kind of reproductive and sexual health-care future would you like them to have?
YH: What a beautiful question! I hope they’re inheriting a world that has less hassle and hustle and pain associated with their sexuality, and, more broadly, with their health care. That there’s just a ton less stigma and shame. When I think about generational change, comprehensive sexual education is an underfunded, underrecognized vehicle to some of the things we want most for society. When you hear lawmakers talk about abortion, or sexual assault, or pregnancy, the things they say are so out of touch with reality—you know they haven’t taken sex ed or just don’t know how bodies work! There is so much ignorance—some it is willful, and some of it lying—but a lot of people don’t know because they weren’t taught or they were taught in abstinence-only settings. I’m hoping my grandchildren get to grow up in a world that has sex ed as a normal part of school, and that parents feel more empowered and knowledgeable talking about it, and that there’s less violence and harm around sex and sexuality. More ease. More peace.