Meet Carmen Berkley. On June 28, 2017, at the height of Planned Parenthood’s health care fight, she led thousands of people in a march around the U.S. Capitol building. It was also her birthday.
“The health care bill wasn’t about Republicans and Democrats,” Berkley said. “It was about every single person who relies on Medicaid, has gone to a Planned Parenthood clinic, or gotten sick."
With access to health care on the line for millions, Berkley was on the frontlines, fighting to block Senate Republicans’ attempts to pass Trumpcare. She helped to mobilize more than 1,000 Planned Parenthood supporters to march around the Capitol. Wearing a pink vest and holding up a megaphone, Berkely led “no health care, no peace” chants as thousands followed her.
“Everyone at the rally that day came because they cared, and to show the people inside the Capitol that we, the people, have power. Rallies and marches always give me hope,” she said.
Carmen decked out in pink for the June 28 rally.
Carmen (pink vest, center) leads the march.
The event was a huge success. That day, the Senate announced that it would postpone the vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act because there weren’t enough votes. And after the march, dozens of members of Congress came directly from the Senate floor to thank the crowd for speaking out.
“That made me smile. But the thing that made me the most proud was leading the march and looking backwards at this huge crowd, on this very hot day — on my birthday!” Berkley said, laughing.
Women’s health has always been a priority for Berkley. Some of her family members are health care providers, and she went to college with the goal of pursuing a career as a gynecologist.
But that changed after she arrived at the University of Pittsburgh. Between starring in The Vagina Monologues, attending a conference in Washington, D.C. on college affordability, and getting involved with her campus’s Generation Action chapter (then called Vox), Berkley found her calling.
“That’s when I realized the impact of organizing work,” Berkley said.
Read more of our interview with Carmen below
Planned Parenthood Action Fund: You’re the managing director of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, where you coordinate a lot of community organizing. Could you briefly describe your career path in getting to where you are now?
Carmen Berkley: Long story short, I’ve had a number of jobs. But the ones that are most notable are where I’ve done reproductive rights and social justice work. After I graduated from Pitt, I became president of the United States Student Association, where I fought for higher education access.
Then, I was a field director at the NAACP where I really cut my teeth on organizing tactics. I was also the field director for URGE, which does a lot of great work for reproductive and gender equality.
Next, I went into the labor movement. I was the director of Women, Human and Civil Rights at AFL-CIO. We represented 56 unions [at the time], and I got the chance to truly represent women and workers of color and LGBTQ workers who often times are struggling in the workplace.
And now I have the most amazing job at Planned Parenthood! I always want to be doing organizing. I always want to be figuring out how I can be communicating directly to women, to people of color, and the LGBTQ community.
Carmen speaking at an AFL-CIO event.
PPAF: So clearly you’ve had a lot of experience with organizing! What are some skills that are essential to getting the job done and being an effective organizer?
CB: Organizers have to be willing to do every type of job. It doesn’t matter what my title is — I’m still going to pack boxes and lift heavy packages or make copies. I think sometimes when people move up in their career, they forget where they came from. But I want to always be in a job where I can do every type of job. At Planned Parenthood, I lead the rally just as much as I lead the registration table.
I also think it has to do with having good relationships in the organizing community. Whether a person stays in the same job for 20 years or whether they jump jobs like I did, you end up meeting the same network of people that do progressive organizing time and time again.
PPAF: Intersectionality has become really important to Planned Parenthood’s work. How do you try to incorporate intersectionality into community organizing and the spaces where you work?
CB: I’m a Black woman. I don’t have the luxury to not think about intersectionality. So how I try to make sure [intersectionality] is integrated is by asking our team a lot of questions as we’re planning. I make sure we are being very intentional about how we structure our budget, how we structure our consultants, and how we’re hiring, ensuring that our candidate pools are as diverse as possible. For example, when we’re designing a workshop event, we want to make sure it’s diverse from a multitude of levels.
We are now in a place in the workforce and in society where if you’re not showing up with an intersectional lens, it’s a threat to the organization. Younger people are attracted to diversity. So to not show up that way means we would be putting ourselves in line for young people to not identify with Planned Parenthood. And we will not allow for that to happen.
I feel blessed to look around at Planned Parenthood’s management table and see that there are Black folks, Asian folks, Latinos, white folks — and that we are all thinking very critically about how to do intersectional organizing.
Making change at PPFA!
PPAF: What is your vision for racial equity?
CB: From an institutional level, my vision is eliminating racial discrimination within our policies and practices. Period. Getting to a place, as a country, where we don’t have policies and practices that hurt communities — such as some of the policies that are being enacted right now, like who can and cannot immigrate to this country. If we move away from those types of policies, then we could all get free.
Also, I think there is a lot of work that needs to happen in the workplace. Boards and staff of our organizations — particularly progressive organizations, corporations, and tech companies — need to reflect the people who use our products and want to be a part of our organizations.
Finally, I want to get to a place where people of color feel safe walking around, going to work, going to the grocery store — and even doing things as large as immigrating to our country without feeling like there’s going to be a repercussion because of the color of their skin.
At the end of the day, people of color don’t necessarily want to talk about race. Race is something that we have to address because of someone else’s [discomfort] with our identity. I don’t wake up every morning and say, “I’m a Black person.” I wake up every morning as Carmen. I become a Black person when I’m being discriminated against.
PPAF: Could you describe a time where you were able to use your organizing skills to make a difference?
CB: Sure! At the AFL-CIO, I looked at all the different unions we represented and identified that almost all of them had women, people of color, and queer people within their leadership structures. And I made it my personal business to build relationships with them so that when we had ideas, we could go directly to each other to make the shifts we wanted to make. By creating space for union leaders to share their visions and talk about the issues they cared about, I was then able to turn the issues that they cared about into policy.
PPAF: What was it like working with other Planned Parenthood staff throughout the health care fight? How did it feel the night the bill finally got voted down?
CB: What was hard about working on the health care bill was the thought that our federal government was willing to turn their back on millions of people because of partisan politics. That, for me, was the most nerve wracking. This wasn’t about Republicans and Democrats, it was about every single person who relies on Medicaid, has gone to a Planned Parenthood clinic or gotten sick.
But on the day that we didn’t have a repeal bill, I couldn’t believe it! After basically kicking the can the down the road for eight months, I just thought that the next day, something else was going to happen.
But after it sunk in? I feel like I won for my future daughter. Sometimes we win the battle, sometimes we lose. But when we have such a huge win like this, organizing wins.
Carmen and Cecile Richards.
PPAF: What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not making social change?
CB: I love going to concerts! I go to at least three concerts a month. This summer, I’ve seen Common, Fantasia, and Babyface. My next concert is gonna be Janet Jackson. I love the physical movement that good music gives you, that good percussion gives you. When I’m planning a rally, I try to exude the same energy as a concert.