Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards talks life of activism, importance of youth

Cecile Richards was raised a troublemaker, and hasn’t given up a fight since.

The outgoing Planned Parenthood president, and daughter of late Texas Gov. Ann Richards, will release her first memoir “Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead” on April 3.

Richards grew up campaigning for local Democratic politicians in conservative 1960s Texas, propelling her into a lifetime of activism, organizing, and challenging authority.

amNewYork spoke with Richards about fighting for social change and her farewell to Planned Parenthood.

What’s a little-known detail about you that readers discover in “Make Trouble”?

I campaigned for governor with my mom when I was pregnant with twins and spent a lot of time traveling around the state of Texas in maternity clothes. I talk a lot about what that was like to work for my mom’s campaign for governor and how improbable that entire election was. It’s one of the interesting stories because she never had any chance of winning. I think it’s a good lesson in trying things even if they seem impossible because every once in a while, they work out.

What lessons from your early career working in labor organizing and representing maintenance workers still guide you today?

To me, that was the most formative work of my lifetime. To spend years working with women whose job it was to clean hotel rooms, or to work as janitors, who were basically raising families on minimum wage and their courage and what they would do just to try to make things better for their kids was amazing. They are the folks who have really fueled everything I’ve done ever since.

What are your plans post Planned Parenthood?

I’m going on book tour across the country, and I’m hoping during that time I have the chance to talk to women and hear from them. I think women in this country are the most important, powerful political force and really have the opportunity to change the direction on issues that we care about. So I’m really interested in learning and listening as much as anything else. I don’t know what my future will be exactly, but I do know that I’ve had the privilege of working for social justice my entire lifetime and whatever it is, it will be to make progressive social change.

What is your advice to women as they continue to fight for their Planned Parenthood services over a year into Trump’s presidency?

It was because of the outpouring of people showing up at town hall meetings, calling their members of congress, and telling their stories about being a patient at Planned Parenthood that fueled our victory this year of defeating the efforts to shut our doors. I hope the lesson is that you never know what individual action or person might be the difference. Over these last 14 months, every single thing that every person has done has been important. Sometimes it feels overwhelming, all of the issues and things that are happening in Washington that are distressing to people. I hope the message of this book is that every action you take can make the difference. It wasn’t because people in Washington changed their minds, it’s because people back home spoke up and showed up and that’s how we won.

Do you have a favorite chapter or section of the book?

Probably the chapter about raising activist kids. I have three kids, and they really grew up on campaigns. You never know how that’s going to work out, but they turned out to be such amazing, independent thinking and speaking adults. I think sometimes you could look back and say, would it have been better to stay home and be there for them every moment of the day? But I think what I really found out is that bringing them along the journey with me was an incredible gift for both of us.

“Make Trouble” mentions Planned Parenthood employees that have inspired you. What lessons have you learned from them?

What I really learned is from not so much employees but from young people who are peer advocates. Young high school kids who learn everything there is to know about sex and sex education, and they become like the underground railroad of sex ed in their high schools. One of the young people I met my first month on the job is named Lindsay Swisher, who had been a peer educator. She not only went away to college, she was a leader there, went to the Peace Corps, and now she’s studying to get her masters. She said it really was her experience of being an advocate for Planned Parenthood in high school that gave her the skills and the commitment to do this work for the rest of her life. It was reminiscent of what a lot of us saw this last weekend in marches across the country of young people who are speaking up about gun violence. To me, investing in young people is the most important thing we can do as an organization and as a country.

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