At the end of my first year, having just finished my reproductive block, I realized I had yet to hear the word “abortion” in my medical school. Around the same time, my state signed into law a bill that made almost all abortions illegal after 8 weeks (it was partially blocked by a judge shortly after). Through conversations with friends at other schools and brief talks at my own, I heard about MSFC. Early fall of my second year, I connected with Rachel from MSFC. After confirming that there has been no activity on my campus, Rachel asked me, “How would you feel about starting a chapter?”
I have always firmly believed in reproductive care and justice. Like all healthcare, I believe that regardless of personal beliefs, providers must be knowledgeable and trust their patients to make the best choices for their lives and circumstances. At the very least, I figured all schools should introduce abortions to students and exemplify how to have compassionate discussions with our patients. However, I had no previous abortion advocacy experience and had only very basic knowledge surrounding the topics. Many exemplary activists working in the reproductive justice world and starting an MSFC chapter felt like skipping many, many steps. On top of feeling like I was overstepping and wholly underqualified, I had no idea how my peers or the faculty would receive an MSFC chapter. I did not even know what our school policies were and if a chapter would be allowed in our conservative state’s public medical school. Despite my overwhelming doubt, I figured I could try.
I started by individually approaching a few friends to ask if they (hypothetically) would be interested in being involved with an MSFC chapter. Once I had a couple of yeses, I branched a little more to other people I thought would be receptive. It was a simple “hey if we started a chapter of Medical Students for Choice, would you be interested in coming to events or being involved?” It seemed like there was at least a little interest, so I had some reassurance that moving forward might get us somewhere.
We started by compiling a list of students that would be interested in being involved. We decided on a date, ordered some pizza (thanks MSFC funding!), invited t he list, and sent out a school-wide email announcing we were starting a chapter. My goal was to find out what type of chapter folks would be interested in creating. About 30 folks show up. I threw together a quick presentation about the basics of MSFC and the recent anti-abortion legislation that had passed. We went around the room and asked people what type of programs they would be interested in attending. It became abundantly clear that there was a lot of interest. Still, like me, no one felt qualified to move towards legislative or curriculum advocacy because we did not have the background knowledge.
At the start of the following school year, we emailed everyone that had attended an event or expressed interest in the group and created an executive board with five members. To continue growing the group, we participated in the (virtual) student group fair to start recruiting first years. Shortly after, we planned a social event for the board to get together and encouraged younger students to meet us (outdoors in the summer, distanced). Our programming continued focusing on educational events about abortion and the legal status in the state, our average attendance increasing to the 30ish range. Especially due to the pandemic and Zoom fatigue, we were (and are) trying to focus on quality events and not overwhelming with quantity.
About halfway through the school year, we opened up applications for general board positions with no title or specific responsibilities. We intentionally geared this toward first-year students hoping that this would be an easy transition to get more involved, introduce them to the conversations we were having as a board, and help ensure continuity of our initiatives and the group. Being such a new student group with so little framework, we wanted to ensure that if someone new stepped into the role next year, they would not feel completely overwhelmed without direction. We ended up with 4 wonderful applications and expanded our board to 9. One goal has been to identify everyone’s interests and work on brainstorming our future goals, ensuring that our newer board members will have initiatives they feel passionate about pursuing.
While I often find myself wanting to focus on the big national initiatives and am frustrated with the seemingly slow progress we are making, I remind myself that we are building something brand new, and creating a solid framework takes time. Even our most engaged and passionate students need to have baseline knowledge and confidence before advancing toward the community outreach and legislative advocacy initiatives that I would love to see our group participate in sometime in the future. I have high hopes for what this chapter can accomplish, and I feel grateful for the growth we have seen already.
If I could offer advice to anyone that is trying to start a chapter, it would be:
- Trust yourself to learn along the way. Do not wait to become an expert before starting. You will learn what you need to as you go. You are more powerful than your imposter syndrome.
- Find at least one person that will go on this journey with you. It makes all the difference. After I did that, everything felt so much easier. We absolutely faced challenges and bumps, but they all felt so much more manageable. Two people meant we had more time and capacity. It also widened our circles to do the work. We also started sitting in on some of MSFC’s webinars which helped us gain knowledge and feel more confident in speaking to others about these topics.
- Start where you can with what you need. That will look different everywhere but let your community’s needs guide what you do. If you have an incredibly knowledgeable group that feels confident, powerful, and ready to enact change in the legislature on day 1, go do that! If your larger community needs lots of contraception counseling, get on that. If your group wants to make lasting changes to the curriculum, start toward curriculum reform action. If all you feel safe and comfortable with is inviting 5 people to watch a documentary, that is world-changing.
On Part Two (coming up next week) Leeore will talk about the activities her new chapter engaged in.