Mission Driven

Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin President Tanya Atkinson takes a holistic view of social justice and healthcare advocacy, with plenty of love and laughter along the way.

I’ve washed a lot of animals in my life: A horse, a cow, a pig, a cat (once), a dog—with tomato juice and more recently a high-tech “dry shampoo.” I recently rescued a mouse that we found paddling furiously in our dog’s water dish on the deck. I’m not sure I was necessarily washing the mouse, but it seemed cleaner as it scurried away.

This is when I should probably tell you I grew up on a farm and was in 4-H—hence the washing of the animals. Of course, I’ve since aged out of 4-H. And I have a job. But I still wash the dog and the occasional misplaced mouse.

The point is, when I was knee-deep in cheap shampoo and animal hair (trying to mentally convey to the horse, pig, or cow that they would be the most gorgeous horse, pig, or cow when it was all over), I never dreamt in a million years that I would become a social worker, or activist, or stand-up comedian. Rinsing out all the cheap soap was the extent of the dream for me.

Rural roots  

I grew up on a small dairy farm in southwest Wisconsin, and that’s where the seeds were sown for my future. It’s really those kernels that stick with you (I can do this for days).

In retrospect, I’m so grateful for that childhood. As children we were surrounded by community—neighbors rolling up their sleeves and helping each other get the job done, supporting each other in tough times, or having neighborhood parties with all the kids in tow. A community where casseroles = love and euchre trash-talk is an art form.

My parents Bill and Char were civically engaged, along with my grandparents and a tight-knit family who were farmers, road workers, teachers, nurses, and proud union members. My parents took my little sister Heather and me to the polls when they voted, cementing that right and responsibility early on. I remember spirited family conversations about whom they had voted for and why. They really conveyed that their votes mattered, one of the many reasons I so passionately believe it’s a complete and utter affront to our democracy that there is a sustained and well-resourced effort to take away this fundamental right from those that don’t carry specific kinds of privileges.

Life on a farm can be beautiful, but it can be tough. Being farmers whose income could vary greatly impacted by pricing or even nature, the cost of health care could be a major source of stress. If any of us had health issues when we were uninsured, the bills were devastating. I remember watching my parents sitting at the kitchen table wondering how they were going to manage our medical bills. Mom worked the night shift to provide the family with health insurance. The memory of my parents struggling with health care sticks with me to this day. I believe it connects me in a personal way to Planned Parenthood’s mission to ensure all people have access to the care they need.

Stumbling into social work  

I also believe those roots made social work a natural fit for my future. Originally my plan had been to be a professional actress in the theatre (I’m writing that with dramatic flair). I attended Carroll University, which has a great drama department. I took a social work class mistakenly believing it met a core requirement (I’m not detail oriented). The professor, Claudette McShane, showed us the dynamic nature of individuals and their communities, and I was hooked. Claudette herself became an incredible mentor and that safe person for me when I was just beginning to come out—that person I wish for all of us.

Then the Legislature changed the juvenile justice code with harsher sentences, reaching younger ages. There was not a concurrent community investment. I remember sitting across from kids who were so young and facing incarceration, wondering how this helped anyone. I quickly saw how many of the policies in the juvenile justice system were contrary to the goal of helping young people, or of realizing justice. It was then I decided to go back to graduate school at U.W.-Madison and focus on public policy.

Community-based advocacy  

The second happiest day of my life was our wedding day. A gorgeous beachfront wedding at sunset, friends, family, and a runaway dog all wished us well. It was like a barefoot lesbian fairy tale. The happiest day was a few days prior when my incredible wife Laurie and I got our wedding license. It was 2008 in Santa Barbara, 1.5 months before Prop 8. We went in to the Santa Barbara courthouse and filled out our paperwork.

After we had signed, the clerk stuck his head out of his little glass window, looked to the left, looked to the right, and then looked right at us and said, “See? Society didn’t crumble. Congratulations on your marriage.” We both unexpectedly burst into tears because our marriage was “real.” For us, that meant something.

We were able to have that beautiful wedding because of brave activists who came before us risking their safety and lives to fight for our ability to be our authentic selves and love who we love.

I never envisioned being married in my lifetime (legally and the reality of actually meeting someone with the patience of a saint). I flashed back to the moment that anchored my future in activism:

In 1996 when I was attending the U.W., I was fortunate to have an internship in Tammy Baldwin’s state legislative office. Then-Representative Baldwin was leading a fight against a “Defense of Marriage” bill. In a last-minute maneuver, legislative leadership moved the hearing to Wausau, for all the obvious reasons that have nothing to do with fairness or democracy.

That backfired with rainbow-colored beauty, and busloads of people went to Wausau to oppose the legislation. The high school lunchroom was packed, and you could cut the tension with a knife. I stood there and watched beautiful LGBTQ families talk about how this bill would harm them. I watched ally families talk about how important their friends were and how gay relationships did not harm their marriage, incredulous that it even needed to be said out loud—akin to water is wet. Children got up and talked about their moms and their dads and how very loved they are. Not a dry eye on our side.

When the anti-gay marriage people spoke, they claimed that we threatened the very foundation of marriage. Then it got worse. They said vile things about the safety of children around people like us, and at least one person called for our deaths. The chairman of the committee asked for clarification, and it was repeated for clarity. There was no doubt what the man testifying thought should happen to half of the people in that room. In that moment, any questions I had about whether to return to direct practice social work or stay in advocacy evaporated. I spent the next couple of years working in the legislature for Rebecca Young and Peter Bock, both progressive elected officials committed to social justice.

Holding space  

Though marriage equality was achieved, it can’t be said enough that we are so far from achieving justice in the LGBTQ (or any marginalized) community, and under this current “administration” we risk erosion of so many of our rights, including reproductive rights.

The political environment is alarming, not only for the LGBTQ community, but for many others that align with us, like Planned Parenthood. Most people in Wisconsin and across the country value the services Planned Parenthood provides, yet we’re tossed around like a political football. This has a real and almost immediate impact on real people. A few years ago, Governor Walker eliminated Planned Parenthood’s state funding for preventive health care, forcing us to close five rural family planning health centers. No provider has been able to step in and fill that service gap, and they are seeing rising STD rates.

Our current political climate is extremely hostile to so many. At Planned Parenthood, we know that economic security cannot be achieved without reproductive freedom, individual civil rights, and safe, healthy communities. Together, with our partners in social and reproductive justice, we are committed to efforts to eliminate racism, end discrimination against LGBTQ individuals, and advance the rights of immigrants and other marginalized communities.

If there is one positive thing to come out of this current environment, it’s that people are coming together to create community through activism. They are holding space for one another and lifting one another up. Cliché as it may be, they want to divide us. They’ve invested for decades in dividing us. Like the hearing in Wausau, it’s starting to backfire with beautiful glory. My deepest hope is that we stay vigilant, organized, and allies to a larger social justice movement. We have to make sure to stretch and carb-load because this is a marathon!

I’m so honored to be the board chair of Diverse & Resilient, Wisconsin’s statewide LGBTQ public health organization. Their mission embodies working at those intersections that will advance public health and end discrimination. It’s a joy to see so many organizations across Wisconsin working so hard every day to make this a more just and equitable place.

The best medicine  

Throughout my career, I realized that laughter was imperative for a healthy balance! I also never lost the bug for the stage and theatre (written with dramatic flair!). I was in an improv group in college, and then found my way to the stand-up stage—there’s a step stage right. Ba-dum-bump!

I remember my first open-mic at the SafeHouse in Milwaukee, waiting until midnight for my name to be called to be able to have a whole three minutes of stage time. Mike Marvel, who books comedy clubs around the Midwest, took me under his wing and really championed me. He was important for my comedy career proper, and also so supportive of me being my authentic self. Unlike many other comedians that gave me “advice” he never once suggested I hide my identity to achieve success. He also never suggested I bail on some of my terrible bits that were my inside jokes to myself. Mike connected me with others and the rest is proverbial history. I spent about 10 years traveling around the country performing at comedy clubs, casinos, and supper clubs (those were my people!). Shockingly, I did not attain fame on my national tour of bowling alleys that “served up frozen pizzas and fresh laughs.” But I loved it and had a blast. I was performing almost every weekend. It got to a point where I needed to decide to whether I would be a full-time comedian or not. Fortunately I had my other true love, Planned Parenthood.

At the Pink Out the Capitol event in February 2016, with State Senator LaTonya Johnson

Saying yes to progress  

Taking a bus to D.C. is a rite of passage for community organizers. The week before I began my career at PPWI I volunteered to be a bus captain for the Women’s March. It was magical: A bus full of pink-shirted forces of nature. The gas station oases didn’t know what hit them, as bus after bus of similarly clad women from across the nation stopped to use the restroom and stock up on Dr. Pepper, corn nuts, and string cheese—the fuel of activists. Or, maybe just me.

The march numbered around a million, and the feeling of community and hope was exhilarating. What a way to begin the next phase of my professional life. It is a thrill and an honor to work for PPWI.

Our staff and supporters know we play a critical role in providing access, that every day that we open our doors, we are supporting a mission that makes a significant impact on the lives of people throughout Wisconsin.

Growing up, we approached our work, and our play, with a real sense of family, teamwork, and community. Very similar to how we approach our work at Planned Parenthood. Our community came together to support one another—especially our young people. Everyone wanted to help them pursue their interests—whether that meant athletics, forensics, mechanics, or the arts. To me that translated into two things: taking care of your family and your neighbors, and elevating others. That is the part of leadership I cherish most—to be in a place where I can elevate the talent of others. I feel so fortunate to have come up in this organization. Every day I have the privilege of seeing an amazing amount of strength and talent in my colleagues at PPWI.

What makes me really proud about Planned Parenthood is the way we are present for people in a deeply compassionate way. I wish everyone could see the Planned Parenthood team up-close and in-action because—whether it’s our patients, our supporters, or our staff—you find yourself surrounded by people with incredible compassion. It’s not just what we do; it’s how we do it—with an intense amount of empathy and love. That may sound like an exaggeration, but I think you would be hard-pressed to find a word other than “love” to describe it.

Early on, I had never envisioned that I would have the opportunity to become the organization’s CEO. I questioned whether I had the background and skill set to achieve that level of service. Over time, my incredible colleagues nurtured, encouraged, and championed me. It sank in that someone with a background as an organizer, policy advocate, social worker, and even comedian could bring value to the mission.

Life on the road as a comic did teach me a few things about being a CEO. There are definitely transferable lessons: the importance of listening, the power of “yes,” and teamwork. In improv comedy, you are taught to listen intently, say “yes,” and work with what your teammate is cooking up. That combination can result in comedic magic. An immediate “no” stops progress and damages the team flow. In stand-up, you engage the audience by taking a journey together. It’s a lesson in the positive power of innovation and adapting to what’s in front of you—even hecklers! Strong organizations have to do the same: work as a team, innovate, adapt, and push through the tough times.

That’s what we plan to do.

Gratitude  

I love to joke a lot about the farm, washing animals, and the incredible amount of vests I owned in the ‘90s. They say humor is a mask we hide behind. That’s true for me as well, to a degree.

I also carry with me an immense amount of gratitude for all the people who have supported, helped, and mentored me along the way. Beginning with my humble farm roots (she writes dramatically and with a Midwestern accent), I had parents, a sister, and family down to the youngest cousin who have been so incredibly supportive and have loved me exactly the way I am in any given moment (it definitely varies).

Throughout my coming out/maturing process, and my professional growth, there have been too many people to list that have watched out for me, mentored me, and kept me safe. To them I owe a debt of gratitude, and some long overdue phone calls. I presently find myself in a place where, professionally, I am surrounded by an incomparable group of brilliant, compassionate, passionate coworkers, volunteers, and supporters. Personally, our friends are incredible, talented, and delightfully wacky in all the right ways. All of this and of course my smart, beautiful, supportive wife, create this reality that I never could have imagined in my suds-soaked days gearing up for the Crawford County Fair.

Simply put, throughout my life, people have demonstrated immeasurable kindness to me. That’s what I ask of myself, and all of us. That we move around this world in a way that we pay attention to the little things, which to someone else may be huge. In this environment, there are a lot of messages coming at us in even louder ways about our worth, our looks, our safety, our “right” to health care—and the list goes on.

We need to seek out justice, fight against the big things—racism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism—and pay close attention to the small things, the kindnesses that to you may be little, but to someone else, in that moment, on that day, that kindness is huge. That one day, where a young person feels alone and we stop to really listen. Or a day someone feels unsafe, and we stay with them. Or a day someone believes they’re invisible, and we really see them. Or a day someone doesn’t believe in themselves, and we tell them “you’ve got this!”

Those small acts of kindness have a cumulative effect on a life.

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