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Illuminated only by parking lot lights, multicolored slogans and designs decorated the exterior of the Planned Parenthood of Southern New England health clinic on Wednesday night. The art was the work of those attending this month’s Volunteer Night, hosted on Feb. 21, and was organized by the center to forge community and solidarity among supporters. In the morning, Planned Parenthood patients and staff were greeted by the work of the previous evening.

On Volunteer Night, volunteers help out with a variety of tasks: making buttons, writing letters to legislators, putting together safe-sex kits and phone banking for political action. These nights also serve as an opportunity for Planned Parenthood organizers to give political updates, informing members of the organization’s most recent advocacy agenda.

“What we are trying to do right now is really build on the momentum of last year … and the enormous amount of energy among the people in Connecticut,” said Gretchen Raffa, director of public policy, advocacy and strategic engagement at planned parenthood of Southern New England. “What we are trying to do in this year is really going on the offense … really to look towards fighting forward and thinking about fighting for a broader aspirational agenda of what the reproductive freedom movement can look like in Connecticut.”

The monthly Volunteer Nights supplement an array of other strategies to galvanize Planned Parenthood supporters. Throughout the last month, three Planned Parenthood locations in Connecticut coordinated “Week of Action” forums, opportunities for constituents to share their stories and learn about activism. Beyond “Week of Action” events, Planned Parenthood is organizing specific “Days of Action” at the State Capitol: The next date on March 14 will focus on campaigning for universal health care coverage and protection of the Affordable Care Act in Connecticut.

In particular, the organization is encouraging supporters to share their stories about how state policies has affected their lives. Raffa noted that everyone, including students, can start a dialogue by writing letters to publications, speaking at upcoming hearings and hosting house or dorm “parties” dedicated to conversations about personal experiences.

“Sharing stories is a really important piece of the organizing we’re doing because we really want folks to see the power of using their own voice,” Raffa said. “We think about our policy and organizing agenda as really centering the lived experience of our patients and the communities that we serve through our health centers, asking people to really step into their own power.”

Because Connecticut is currently in the middle of its state legislative session, one of Planned Parenthood of Southern New England’s main objectives this month is to advocate for bills that will codify the ten “essential health benefits” of the Affordable Care Act. These bills would preserve coverage for preventative, sexually transmitted infections testing and mammograms, as well as expanded prescription coverage for contraception.

But defending the Affordable Care Act is only one component of Planned Parenthood’s larger legislative agenda, which supports bills that address a variety of issues, such as paid family medical leave, pay equity, a $15 minimum wage and fair-work weeks. Planned Parenthood of Southern New England is also part of a statewide coalition working on broader protections for immigrants; locally, Planned Parenthood is invested in protecting New Haven’s sanctuary city status.

“For us, this is a matter of reproductive justice, because we know that our patients don’t just need sex education, birth control or access to cancer screenings,” Raffa said. “We have a robust, aspirational legislative agenda that really focuses on not just health care but really thinking about the other issues that intersect with people’s ability to access health care, to control their bodies and to be able to live a healthy and safe life.”

According to Raffa, young people have been integral to supporting Planned Parenthood’s initiatives and grassroots advocacy in Connecticut. In the face of the Trump administration’s attempted rollback on contraceptives provided by employers and universities, student activists have been championing access to reproductive care.

“A little bit of time goes a long way — and it seems like the same holds true for a lot of social justice, advocacy and health care organizations in New Haven,” said Sarah Stein ’19, the volunteer coordinator for the Reproductive Justice Action League at Yale and a staff reporter for the news. “At Planned Parenthood, volunteers are what make the organization. Yale students have the power to make a difference in the fight for reproductive freedom.”

Students from the action league often volunteer as part of Planned Parenthood of Southern New England’s Health Center Advocacy Program, encouraging visitors in the clinic to support the organization by taking action.

The action league also contributes volunteers to the welcome crew, which escorts patients into the health center when there is protest activity.

“[Planned Parenthood administrators] appreciate any help that students can give them. There’s a lot of flexibility in what you can do to volunteer,” said Anusha Manglik ’21, a volunteer with the action league. “If you want to get involved, just reach out to the staff at the center, who are more than happy to receive any help.”

Looking forward, Planned Parenthood of Southern New England intends to continue its coalition-building with other advocacy groups, such as Protect Our Care CT and the CT Immigrant Rights Alliance. The organization will also focus on engaging with its constituency and grassroots supporters: Planned Parenthood is hosting an organizing training this weekend and door-to-door canvassing in the near future.

“One of the big things we are seeing is an unstoppable grassroots movement throughout the state that was really fueled after the 2016 election, in a way that we haven’t seen in the reproductive rights movement in decades,” Raffa said. “We feel really positive that … we can advance and fight forward for policies that will improve people’s access to health care and other basic human rights”

Planned Parenthood of Southern New England is located at 345 Whitney Ave.

Ruiyan Wang | ruiyan.wang@yale.edu