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Alexis McGill Johnson
President and CEO, Planned Parenthood
President, Planned Parenthood Action Fund
Planned Parenthood had been operating for over a century—providing essential health care and advocating for reproductive rights—when Alexis McGill Johnson took the helm. She moved from its board volunteer to the organization’s acting CEO and President in 2019, to officially stepping into both titles, in addition to President of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, in 2020. Upon entering leadership at the long-standing institution, McGill Johnson initiated a new chapter—one that didn’t simply honor its achievements but also didn’t shy away from confronting its past shortfallings around inclusivity and equity.
McGill Johnson brought with her a resume of groundbreaking activism work—like leading the iconic Vote or Die! campaign of the 2004 election—and an extensive background in research—often studying and working to reduce bias. One of her first commitments at Planned Parenthood was to center the voices and experiences of those whose rights to reproductive freedom and health care have most often been threatened: communities of color and LGBTQIA+ people. It would only be a couple of years into her tenure when, in the summer of 2022, these threats felt even more urgent and devastating with the Dobbs decision and the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
“This year has certainly put hope to the test,” McGill Johnson says of recent events. But hope remains, especially with the midterm election results supporting the notion that when access to safe and legal abortions is on the ballot, voters will show up to protect it. “Keeping up the momentum will take a sustained effort by advocates, elected leaders, and the people,” adds the CEO.
Ahead, Argent connects with McGill Johnson for a closer look at the diverse and culture-shifting career that has brought her to her current leadership role at Planned Parenthood. And we discuss what it takes to protect the freedoms that generations of women have, and continue to, fight for.
HOW DID YOU BECOME PRESIDENT AND CEO OF PLANNED PARENTHOOD AND PRESIDENT OF PLANNED PARENTHOOD ACTION FUND? WHAT EXPERIENCES/QUALITIES DO YOU CREDIT FOR LEADING YOUR PATH TO THIS ROLE?
“I have been a professor, a researcher, a cultural organizer, an electoral strategist, and a corporate consultant on building racial and gender-inclusive cultures. All of these roles, in some way or another, prepared me to lead Planned Parenthood.
“Moving from a board volunteer to President, however, was not on my vision board. It was a process of finding leadership through everyday experiences. Over a decade ago, I came across an anti-abortion billboard in SoHo that said something along the lines of, ‘The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.’ Seeing such a blatant disdain for and distrust in Black women to make decisions about our own bodies, lives, and futures was jarring. Shortly afterward, I met Cecile Richards—who was president of Planned Parenthood at the time—and told her we needed to do something about it. She recruited me to the board and eventually as her board chair and, to put it simply, I just jumped in.
“Sometimes you see a problem you think you can solve. Sometimes you see a fight and you just want in on it. For me, it was a little bit of both. I started by finding things that get me fired up, and in them found an opportunity to lead. We’ve got a lot of work to do to create the world we want to see, and the line for leadership is short.”
YOUR PAST WORK AT HIP-HOP SUMMIT ACTION NETWORK AND CITIZEN CHANGE SPEAKS TO THE INEXTRICABLE LINK BETWEEN CULTURE AND DEMOCRACY. WHAT DID ACTIVISM LOOK LIKE WITHIN THE MUSIC AND ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRIES AT THAT TIME? AND WHY IS IT MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER FOR DEMOCRACY AND CULTURE TO SHARE SPACE?
“I am hip-hop. It’s my era. In the early 2000s, young people were far more apathetic about politics. I saw an opportunity to change that by leveraging the power of culture. Every movement has shown that culture moves before politics or policy. We often experience culture in the form of moments that move us towards imagination and possibility. In a moment, culture can feel spontaneous, but there is often a sophisticated infrastructure driving the moment and our experience.
“Back then—pre-iTunes and YouTube—people lined up outside of record stores for album releases. Albums were released on Tuesdays because Billboard charts came out on Wednesdays, giving an artist an entire week to enter the chart and rise to the top 10. The lines weren’t by accident; they were driven by a marketing and mobilization infrastructure that record labels and other cultural institutions leveraged to turn consumers and fans out. I wondered, ‘if the industry could turn millions of young people out on any given Tuesday, why can’t we use the same infrastructure to turn out millions of young people on Election Day?’ I started to research the model, interviewed some hip-hop heads, and published an article in Savoy magazine about what it would take to transform the hip-hop generation into the next NRA. After interviewing so many legends, I got the opportunity to put it into practice.
“I became political director for the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, which hosted town halls with culture makers to raise political awareness and participation. Later on, I led Citizen Change’s Vote or Die! effort, which leveraged national and statewide networks to support organizing and mobilizing networks on the ground. We worked with artists and brought an urgent message everywhere the people were: on the air—MTV, BET, Clear Channel, Radio One—in the streets, in clubs, in barber shops and beauty salons. Everyone, from celebrities to local influencers to everyday consumers, was in the same conversation around building and growing our power and what it means to engage in democracy.
“In 2004, this work took hold. We helped elect a young skinny kid with a funny name to the Senate, Barack Obama. A decade later, representation from leaders like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaigned on themes related to the power of culture in moving politics through a democracy.
“This work continues to evolve. Culture, artists, and storytellers, will make the critical difference for winning back our rights, helping us reduce stigma, affirming the humanity of people who have abortions, and laying a foundation of compassion for each other.”
"We’ve got a lot of work to do to create the world we want to see, and the line for leadership is short.”
AT THE START OF YOUR LEADERSHIP AT PLANNED PARENTHOOD, YOU WERE INTENTIONAL ABOUT MOVING FORWARD WHILE CENTERING COMMUNITIES OF COLOR AND LGBTQIA+ FOLKS. HOW DO YOU APPROACH THESE MAJOR SHIFTS WITHIN AN ESTABLISHED ORGANIZATION? WHAT HAVE YOU SEEN THAT INDICATE THINGS ARE MOVING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION?
“Planned Parenthood is a critical part of the public health infrastructure. As the largest provider of sexual and reproductive health care, our health centers provide a range of services from birth control and STI testing/treatment to gender-affirming care and abortion. We see patients in all 50 states and the District of Columbia—many of whom have Planned Parenthood as their only source of quality and affordable health care. That means we have a responsibility to ensure that when they step into our health centers, they are getting the compassionate care, accurate information, and resources they deserve, no matter what.
“To meet that responsibility requires us to put health equity at the core of our mission. We work from the understanding that centering people most impacted by threats to reproductive health care and bias in health care delivery will mean better health outcomes for all of our patients. To get us closer to that vision, we continue to train staff across Planned Parenthood on how to prevent bias, racial microaggressions, and stereotypes that directly affect patient experiences.
"When people of color, LGBTQIA+ folks, and people with low incomes are listened to, respected, and trust in providers to deliver the best care, experiences and outcomes improve.
“Equity means having an ownership stake. You can’t do this work without creating belonging for everyone involved. Our affiliate colleagues and health center staff have embraced this work fully. They are innovating programs on infant mortality and Black sexual, reproductive, and maternal health while also co-creating and building health centers in communities with community partners. Directionally, I think we are moving the ways in which Planned Parenthood can make a contribution forward.”
SINCE THE OVERTURNING OF ROE, HOW HAS YOUR APPROACH TO WORK SHIFTED IN THE FACE OF THESE ATTACKS ON REPRODUCTIVE FREEDOM? WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED ABOUT LEADERSHIP, AND HOPE, IN THESE CHALLENGING TIMES?
“This year has certainly put hope to the test. We’ve watched the court first unravel the right to abortion in Texas, and then take away the constitutional right to abortion. We’ve seen the Dobbs decision set off a public health crisis that no amount of preparation and foresight could prevent. We’ve heard stories of people having to travel upwards of 400 miles one way to get basic health care, people being denied access to abortion in emergencies or being refused prescriptions because of the chaos and fear these laws create. We’re also continuing to brace ourselves for what comes next—whether that's in targeting access to birth control and IVF or limiting other freedoms directly tied to living our lives as we see fit.
“With everything we’ve seen and heard, it would be easy to sit in despair. But hope, in and of itself, is an act of resistance. I think about the patients who continue to have hope that they can decide their own futures and control their own lives, no matter what a state lawmaker says. I think about the people who mobilized after the leaked opinion who were mad, but hopeful, for a different result. The people who voted resoundingly in support of reproductive freedom. They will guide how we spend the next 50 years working across the states to get ourselves back into the Constitution—with hope, without fear.”
POST-2022 MIDTERMS, WHAT GUIDANCE CAN YOU SHARE WITH ANYONE WHO WANTS TO CONTINUE TO FIGHT FOR THE RIGHT TO ABORTION ACCESS?
“The midterms were the first time most voters had an opportunity to express their outrage and betrayal after the Dobbs decision came down. The results showed reproductive rights are a winning issue across generations, identities, and political parties. But elections are moments, not movements. Keeping up the momentum will take a sustained effort by advocates, elected leaders, and the people.
“It's important to remember the consequence of losing federal protections, of losing constitutional rights. It means there are some states where we are free and others where we aren’t. It means we must continue to focus on each and every state where there is a fight. It’s going to look different everywhere; in some places, energy will be in ballot measures and in others, on litigating and passing legislation to protect the right to abortion. Whether it’s writing letters, showing up at your statehouse, raising the topic in your employee resource groups, we will need people mobilizing around reproductive freedom within their communities, companies, and on campuses well beyond Election Day.”
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE LOOK LIKE FOR THE CONTINUED FIGHT FOR REPRODUCTIVE FREEDOM?
“We are working toward a country where access to safe and legal abortion is a reality for everyone, no matter where they live, how much money they make, or who they are. Where reproductive health care is accessible and affordable, and sex education is available, accurate, and free of stigma and shame. Where our basic freedom to govern our own bodies doesn't ebb and flow based on who sits on the court, who is in the White House, or who is elected to the statehouse. To get there, the movement for reproductive freedom must be one that is intergenerational and intersectional.
“Since the decision came down, people have asked me some variation of, ‘What can I do?' I turn the question back to them: When you look back, how do you want to remember how you showed up for reproductive rights? I believe we all have a role to play, whether that’s organizing locally, running for office, sharing our stories to shift culture, or simply keeping the conversation going within our own circles. Defining and deciding what we are fighting for—and how we will win over the next generation—will be a collective effort.”