Colorlines Q&A: Meet Yamani Hernandez, a Black Person at the Helm of a ‘Revolutionary’ Abortion Org

By Ayana Byrd Feb 19, 2021

During a career in which she has worked with a lot of young people, Yamani Hernandez says there has always been a constant. “Even if the program was never about health or bodies, inevitably somebody would be navigating pregnancy and either needing an abortion or support of being a young parent,” she says. And so it is not surprising that when there was the chance to empower pregnant people, she took it.

In 2015, Hernandez became the first Black person to lead the National Network of Abortion Funds. “It blew me away to find out thousands of people had taken this issue up, at their kitchen tables, deciding to organize themselves and pay for people’s abortions. It is a revolutionary act to me and I wanted to be a part of it,” says the now-executive director. “They’re my superheroes for sure…and they keep me going.”

Here she reflects on how abortion funders survived the Trump years, what they’re bracing for under Joe Biden and how Black reproductive rights activists are changing the framework through which this work is done.

Describe the work that the National Network of Abortion Funds does.

We are a membership-based organization for a network of grassroots, local organizations that fund abortion, help get logistical access to abortion and also fight against the systemic barriers that make our work necessary. We build power with our members, supporting them with strategic communication support, fundraising support, policy training programs, technical assistance around setting up the organizations, and all the compliance needs they may have.

You became executive director in 2015, one year before an anti-abortion president was elected. How did the organization’s work change during his administration?

The interesting thing about our work is that it was necessary even under Democrat presidencies since the Hyde amendment, which was passed in 1976 and says that federal funds can not be spent on abortion.

So the work has been necessary for many decades prior to the Trump administration. But the Trump administration certainly made things more dramatic and theatrical and violent, more threatening. There has definitely been more fear around anti-abortion extremism than in many years. We saw clinic bombings, they brought students on field trips to come and harass people going into clinics. All of the rhetoric around abortion was complete disinformation and misinformation, lies.

How did the National Network of Abortion Funds’ support of its members change as a result of the administration?

Abortion fund budgets have doubled over the last five years on average. And that’s not necessarily solely due to support from us, but we did a lot to amplify the message and raise the profile of abortion funds. Writ large in 2016 is it was the first time you saw the Hyde amendment be on a Democratic party platform. And that is in large part a result of the work of the All Above All campaign, and we have played a big role in helping organize around that campaign.

How has the pandemic and recession impacted your and your members’ work?

The demand for a lot of abortion funds has literally doubled. There are more people out of work, more people struggling to get by and that means that they need more help.

We do a membership survey every year and the last one said that about one in four people is able to be served by an abortion fund. On average, [organizations] have to say no to three out of four people who call—and that was pre-pandemic. So even though those budgets have grown significantly over the last five years, the need is too great to be supported by a volunteer nonprofit infrastructure. It requires a systemic change, healthcare that should be supported by the government.

Do you see any hope coming with the Biden White House?

We have an administration that is going to be very supportive of repealing the Hyde amendment and that’s huge. It’s a major milestone we have been fighting for, for decades. Then, at the Supreme Court level, we have the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett who really tips the scales towards an ultra-conservative court that anti-abortion proponents have basically promised will decimate Roe v. Wade, reverting it back to where [abortion] may or may not be legal depending on the state.

That said, we have seen evidence of hope in a lot of places, a tremendous outpouring of mutual aid networks. People who have never given to abortion funds—younger people with wealth who are just getting clued into funding this issue. This influx of new funders is great.

So there’s hope on one side and despair on the other. I think the next year or two will be very telling.

A small, but increasing, number of your members are Black-led abortion funds. Is their work different from the funds that are non-Black?

Based on the data, we know about 50 percent of people who call abortion funds are Black women. So as a full network, our core constituency is well-rooted in Black people. However, [historically], most abortion funds have been led by charitable white women who could afford to volunteer. There hasn’t always been a broad racial justice analysis or implementation and that has really started to shift over the last few years.

We did a strategic plan at the national level in 2016 that was about moving away from this idea of charity and towards a framework of organizing and helping politicize people around the injustice of the experience they’re having. By that token, that means differences in who leads abortion funds and how they lead them.

So the simple answer to your question is Black-led abortion funds are usually a bit different. I would say people of color-led in general tend to use more of a reproductive justice framework, which is different than an abortion rights framework.

Can you explain that difference?

[Reproductive Justice] is a framework that was developed in 1993 by a group of Black women that basically mixes social justice framing into thinking about reproductive health and the broader range of issues that we navigate. It’s not just about abortion in the sense of wanting to end pregnancies, but wanting to carry pregnancies to term, wanting to parent the children that we have without fear of harm and coercion, and all of these other things.

It also looks at problematizing the term "choice". A lot of the older rhetoric around abortion centers around being quote-unquote pro-choice. You, everybody, has a choice and you choose. It’s not that simple for Black women or people of color more broadly because you’re navigating all of the systemic barriers that impact your choices.

Your choices aren’t your personal choices when you don’t have control over the things that are happening to you, when you’re subjected to economic injustice and housing scarcity, police brutality and all of the things that you hear people saying, like, "I don’t want to raise a kid and be afraid that they’re going to be killed by police."