There are few things I enjoy more than the discomfort and ambiguity that comes with discovering a new dilemma. When I find a one, I know that opportunity, invention and change are right around the corner.
I first learned about the power of dilemma after I had my abortion and was surprised to find that the only places that provided emotional support came from those who advocated against abortion. There was nothing available from the other side. That dilemma showcased a previously unmet need and I saw the opportunity in the obstacle: to build a place of nonjudgmental support. I co-founded Exhale, the nation’s first organization designed by and for women who have had abortions, with a mission to change the social climate from one of judgment and shame to one of support and respect.
Fourteen years later, because of Exhale’s services and the broader social impact of our mission, thousands of women and men have found the comfort and connection they need after abortion, and more advocates and organizations across the entire political spectrum are doing their part to promote emotional well being after abortion.
In the meantime, I kept searching out new dilemmas.
Once Exhale figured out how to support women and their loved ones emotionally after abortion, we found the problem of stigma kept women silent about their experiences, but pushing or prodding them to speak up could, in fact, do more harm than good. In our desire to shift the public conversation, we knew we couldn’t exploit women, nor did we want to further shame them by suggesting they weren’t “doing their abortion” the right way if they chose to keep it to themselves, or spoke about it in ways that were outside the current political frameworks.
Our new dilemma- how to expand the influence of women’s voices while promoting their emotional wellbeing– helped us define the field of ethical storysharing, a practice that keeps the storyteller- not the political or strategic agenda- front and center in any storytelling effort. We put this approach into practice last year with a pilot project supporting five women as they traveled the nation to share their stories at colleges, churches and community centers across the nation. Turns out, when you put the storyteller first, they work wonders. Survey results shows that audiences not only learned new things about personal abortion experiences but they also felt ready to hear diverse stories later.
The tour also taught us that what makes it possible to build connections around divisive issues like abortion is a feeling of intimacy. But, we can’t put every American through a 2-hour interactive workshop with only 20 other people to have this special experience, so now we’re faced with a new dilemma: how do we scale intimacy?
Innovation comes from the ability to ask the right questions, the ones that allow us to unearth a fundamental paradox, an unseen dilemma or the layers that exist within gray areas like we find in abortion experiences, storytelling around stigmatized issues and social conflict of all kinds. Discovering and pursuing dilemmas allows Exhale to grow in creative ways that I could never have imagined if I thought I always had the best answers.
This approach has worked personally, too.
Several years ago I felt stuck as a leader and I was faced with my own dilemma: how could I be a leader working on one of the nation’s toughest issues without drowning in bitterness or despair? It took trial and error and the embrace of yet even more dilemmas but I found a way to be an influential leader with a joyful life. It is possible.
“The gray area,” Justin Timberlake once explained, is “the place between black and white. That’s the place where life happens.” It also happens to be the best place to discover dilemmas, to find the opportunity in the obstacle, and to invent creative solutions that inspire change, whether in your own life or in the world.
Aspen Baker is the leading voice in the nation on how to transform the abortion conflict. Aspen was named a “Fun, Fearless Female” by Cosmopolitan in 2013; awarded with the Gerbode Professional Development Fellowship in 2012; was named a “Local Hero” in 2009 by San Francisco’s KQED during Women’s History Month; “Young Executive Director of the Year” in 2005 by the Bay Area’s Young Non-Profit Professional Network; and a “Top Activist Under 30” in 2003 by Choice USA. Aspen served on the City of Oakland’s Public Ethics Commission 2011-2014. As a spokesperson for Exhale, Aspen has been featured by media outlets across the country, including CNN Headline News, Fox National News, Ladies Home Journal, The New York Times, National Public Radio, Associated Press, Newsweek, San Francisco Chronicle, Bust and many more. Her essay “My Abortion Brought Us Together” was featured in the anthology Nothing But The Truth So Help Me God: 51 Women Reveal the Power of Positive Female Connection. She is currently working on her first book, Pro-Voice: How to Keep Listening When the World Wants to Fight, due out in 2015.
Photo credit: Reny Photography.