Planned Parenthood’s New Leader On Racial Equity and Reproductive Health Freedom

By Ayana Byrd Aug 09, 2019

Alexis McGill Johnson was not planning to undergo a transformation in the direction of her life’s work. But one day in 2010, while walking down the street, she passed a billboard that featured a young Black girl and read: “The most dangerous place in the world for African-American children is in the womb.”

Johnson—who has a background in racial equity and justice—was not just livid, she was energized. “I couldn’t stop talking about the billboard and then one day I met Cecile [Richards, then-president of Planned Parenthood] and mentioned my experience, and she said, ‘I have a job for you,’” Johnson recalls. That job was joining the organization’s board. After serving a stint that included two years as board chair, Johnson cemented her connection to the organization in July 2019 when she was appointed acting president and CEO.

Johnson is no less angry today than she was in 2010, as the assaults on women’s reproductive health care access—particularly for Brown and Black women—have multiplied. Here, the lifelong political organizer discusses how Planned Parenthood will continue to fight for reproductive health and why she is uniquely qualified to lead the battle.  

How would you describe Planned Parenthood's position in the current reproductive rights legislative fight that is happening in the country?

We are very concerned about Roe v. Wade. The ability to access safe, legal abortion in this country currently hangs in the balance. State legislatures have enacted 26 bills to ban abortion this year alone. And as we speak, the Trump administration is attempting to dismantle our nation’s program for affordable birth control. These attacks are unprecedented, and this administration is not just coming after abortion, it is coming after birth control, too.

But we know that’s not what the American people want. In fact, 77 percent of Americans do not want to see Roe overturned. That’s because we all understand what is at stake here—our ability to control our own bodies and our own lives. 

In my nearly a decade as a part of the Planned Parenthood family, we have seen our fair share of attacks, and through it all we’ve always been able to be there for our patients. We don’t intend on changing that, not now, not ever. We are prepared to fight back and we are going to fight like hell in the courts, in Congress, in state houses, in this election cycle and in the streets for our patients to be able to access the full range of reproductive health care, including safe, legal, abortion—no matter what. 

In many ways and to many people, Planned Parenthood is a politicized organization. Yet for many women, it is also simply where they get their health care. What is your message for those women as you enter this new era for the organization?

Planned Parenthood is not political by nature, but we’ve been politicized by our opposition who do not believe people should have the power to make their own decisions about their bodies. We are first and foremost a health care provider, and we are proud to provide safe, legal abortion. If we didn’t have to constantly worry about our ability to provide abortion—a part of the full range of reproductive health care, and a fundamental right in this country—we would not have to fight. 

State lawmakers across the country, this administration and our opposition have zeroed in on abortion and on Planned Parenthood, and they have made it so that we have to fight to stay alive and to fulfill our mission. We don’t have the luxury to pretend that these attacks can be ignored. There is no sitting this out and hoping for the best. So we fight, because we have to, and because we are right. Everyone deserves access to health care, it’s a basic human right. 

Soon after becoming acting president, you retweeted a post from Patrisse Cullors that said, "The fight for Black trans people, and women in particular, is critical for the health of Black communities." What is Planned Parenthood's role in this fight?  

Similarly to us not having the luxury to not fight in this moment, we also don’t have the luxury to pretend that health care, racism, homophobia and transphobia are not inextricably linked. At Planned Parenthood, we have a stake in the fight for Black trans people because they are members of our community, they are our patients and they are, like everyone else, entitled to access to health care. 

You are the co-founder of Perception Institute, which creates solutions to reduce discrimination that stems from race, gender and other identity differences. How does this background in racial equity and implicit bias training intersect with the mission of Planned Parenthood?

When we created Perception Institute, our aim was to translate the best of what we know about how our brains operate, often unconsciously, on race into concrete practices to reduce disparity in treatment. In examining inequity in any sector, we have to understand how structural racism operates and how implicit biases are formed that impact our interactions, our policies and our ability to live our lives.

This plays out very clearly in health care access, where there is a very real history of mistreatment from the medical community that stills impacts care today—providers tend to spend less time with Black patients, take our symptoms less seriously and undertreat our pain. These inequities lead to many illnesses going undetected and often untreated until it’s too late. Racial inequity and implicit bias can literally kill people, so the link between health care and race is not only clear but extremely important to get right. 

You are stepping into the acting president role at a time of increasing—and, in many ways, frightening—restrictions on reproductive health care. What makes you the person to lead Planned Parenthood in this current political climate?

It is a frightening time for access to reproductive health care. These attacks are like nothing we’ve ever seen before and for the first time in my time working with Planned Parenthood, Roe v. Wade is truly on the line. It’s also a time when we’ve seen this administration lead unprecedented attacks on people of color. From blatantly racist rhetoric used to malign women of color in Congress, to the inhumane treatment of immigrants at the border, to hatred and racism that has been emboldened under this administration—it is a frightening time for us all. 

But after spending my career organizing communities of color and young people to vote, advocating for social justice and leading trainings on implicit bias and structural racism, one thing remains true: we all have the power to make a difference. I have seen young people get engaged and swing elections, I have seen health care organizations make real internal change in an effort to move toward health equity, and I have seen Planned Parenthood overcome fight after fight and always come out on top. 

I understand that our patients, supporters and staff are not living one-issue lives but that they carry their whole selves and often have to navigate a web of oppression and discrimination just to live their day-to-day lives, let alone access health care. I fundamentally believe that access to health care is a social justice issue and that we can only be truly free, when all of us are free. 

I am honored to bring that lens to Planned Parenthood and work toward achieving our mission of affordable accessible health care for all, and getting us closer to the freedom we all deserve.

This interview has been edited for clarity and space.