State Sen. JP Morrell (left) addresses lobby day participants.
At the Louisiana State Capitol Building, there are imposing elevators with brass-coated doors, gold-painted Ionic columns, marble walls, lots of men clad in navy sportcoats and blue and gray suits, lobbyists with shiny "LOBBYIST" badges, security guards and school groups in matching T-shirts. And today, there were feminists.
A group of more than 100 women, many of them affiliated with women's advocacy groups including Lift Louisiana, Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, Feminist Majority Foundation, Women With a Vision, New Orleans Abortion Fund and Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault, convened at the nearby Capitol Park Welcome Center on the morning of April 11 for "Justice for Louisiana Women." The event was part lobby day, part activist workshop and part response to a legislative session that has included a great number of bills that would be consequential for Louisiana women.
From bills that affect health care for women who are incarcerated
to bills preventing people convicted of stalking from owning a firearm
to bills preventing Medicaid service providers (such as Planned Parenthood) from simultaneously holding an abortion license
, legislation currently being considered could endanger women's health, economic security and, some argue, even their lives. At today's lobby day, organizers seemed prepared to train a new generation of activists in the grinding, sometimes multi-year process of influencing and educating legislators, often with the threat of evicting them from their seats.
"Lawmakers have often overlooked and outright ignored the plight of women in this state ... by passing laws that have negatively impacted us," Petrice Sams-Abiodun, vice-president of external services for Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, said. "You know what we need to remember, women? [The Capitol] is our house."
"As a young, queer woman ... I'm so tired of not being listened to," Feminist Majority Foundation student organizer Meg Denny said. "What if our legislators depended on our opinion of them? What if they depended on us to keep their jobs?"
Participants fill out cards for the opportunity to speak in House and Senate committees.
Women (and a few men) who attended the event spent the day learning details and nuts-and-bolts of legislative advocacy that aren't easily found on the Louisiana Legislature's website. In the morning, groups filled out the red and green cards that offer constituents a chance to speak before joining legislators in committee hearings, where bills advance or stall out. In the afternoon, after a program of speakers who highlighted current bills in the legislative session and greater challenges facing women statewide, participants got a crash course in summoning their representatives off the House or Senate floor to give face-to-face thoughts on bills or issues — before heading into the chambers to do just that.
As Lift Louisiana executive director Michelle Erenberg points out, this kind of direct advocacy can be especially important in a state where women are represented by a legislative body that is heavily male. (Of 39 state senators, just five are female; 15 of 105 representatives in the House are women.) And in conservative Louisiana, women who are legislators aren't always guaranteed to support causes — such as reproductive rights —that often are championed by women-centric groups.
Other organizers talked about the importance of demystifying the bustling legislative chambers, which can be intimidating for people who lack experience working in that space. "It isn't always easy to get to the Capitol; it isn't always easy to be in that building, which can seem a little oppressive," New Orleans Abortion Fund executive director Amy Irvin says. "But self-determination and agency are not values just for men or people in power, but for everyone."
"If they are not hearing from you, they are hearing from somebody else who does not have your best interests at heart," Independent Women's Organization advocacy chair Julie Schwam Harris says.
In discussions of their work, more experienced activists described the agonizing pace of moving legislation forward. Raegan Carter of Louisiana Public Health Institute spelled out the process of trying to advance comprehensive sex education over a period of eight to 10 years. (Sex education bills recently were rejected
by the House Committee on Education.) As she tells it, it's important for advocates to count even small victories, such as a representative's "no" vote changing to a "yes" the following year — even if the bill fails.
The anecdote provided a sobering look at the climate would-be women's advocates are up against.
Organizers, including some from Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, listen to remarks.
As participants — many of whom were making their first visits to the Capitol — prepared to go lobby lawmakers, they broke out into issue-based groups focusing on sexual assault, gun violence, abortion rights and economic justice. Gambit
accompanied the abortion rights group, who filled out cards to speak to try to speak to legislators including state Sens. Conrad Appel, Dan Claitor and J.P. Morrell about a spate of abortion-related bills (including a proposed ban
after 15 weeks of pregnancy) during the current session. The group reached the (sympathetic) Morrell, who chatted with constituents for a few minutes about their issues
After their talk, Simone Cifuentes — a paralegal who was able to speak to Morrell — said she might prefer a different style of lobbying.
"[This was] kind of hectic. ... I feel like would have preferred to go to his office and be like, 'This is how I feel,'" she said. But she praised the event for connecting the dots between so many issues that impact women in the state, where high poverty rates and rates of gun violence, poor access to women's health care, a large wage gap and more interact to consistently place Louisiana on lists of the nation's worst states for women
. "Nothing exists in a vacuum," Cifuentes says.
Though this event focused on influencing sitting lawmakers, it wasn't hard to imagine some participants ultimately joining the record number of women
running for office themselves — or at least digging deep into the long, often-frustrating process of changing representative's minds, one bill and one vote at a a time.
"You will sit with them, educate them, and then they will do the opposite of what we ask," Women With a Vision executive director Deon Haywood said. "[But] black women have shifted what voting looks like. ... We want you to know that we are coming for you."
Women With a Vision executive director Deon Haywood and her granddaughter.