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Fighting for Generations of Women

Dani Vilella says she grew up in a "woman-centered family" and identified as a feminist and activist at an early age. She studied anthropology in college as well as women and gender studies. "My leaning was women in religion," she says, "and I got increasingly political during my women and gender studies work." Vilella took internships doing engendered work, crisis counseling, fundraising and domestic violence awareness at Safe Haven Ministries and volunteering at the Heartside Ministry in the artist and writers' rooms. This experience, she says, put her in a position where she understood women in homelessness. "When I got out [of college], I knew that what I wanted to do was help people," she says. "I wanted to be in a sector that was helping women through services or advocacy." When the position of Public Affairs Manager at Planned Parenthood of West and Northern Michigan (PPWNM) came around, Vilella says it fit like a glove.

At PPWNM, Vilella works in advocacy, activism, legislation and public policy work. She coordinates advocacy volunteers, works with outreach programs and does issue education for both grassroots (the public) and grasstops (elected officials) angles. She is involved in lobbying and works to "engage people interested in helping the reproductive movement." She explains, "I work to move them up in the spectrum of involvement and engagement into being direct advocates."

Vilella considers reproductive justice to be one of the most important issues she works with, as well as for women on the whole. "Every other level of equality for women is contingent on women being able to control their own reproduction," she says. "How many children they have, when they have them, under what circumstances. It's vital for pay, education, career fulfillment -- all of it. On a less theoretical level, it's vital because we've been fighting for more than a hundred years in the U.S. We made gains, and now we're losing them, and I feel that we have no right in our generation to waste the work of the women that came before us."

Not to mention she says, the women that will follow us. Vilella accounts the resurgence of the reproductive rights battle to a shift in the conservative platform, beginning in the early 1980s, toward an increasing amount of social conservatism. She likens what is happening now to the same backlash followed by the passing of Roe vs. Wade in 1973. "It has escalated to the point where we're facing the worst attacks we've ever seen," she says. Vilella is not alone in the emphasis she places on reproductive rights. The United Nations offers a comprehensive list of reasons here.

As the election approaches, Vilella is busy. In May, she was a part of organizing the Stop WOW (War on Women) rally held in Rosa Parks Circle. "Stop WOW is a coalition of several organizations around the city and state that got together with the intention of mobilizing women voters in November," she says. The rally drew 500 attendants, one of the largest pro-choice gatherings ever held in the history of Grand Rapids. 

Vilella is also the President of NOW (National Organization for Women) of Greater Grand Rapids. The nation-wide network of NOW is the largest grassroots feminist movement in the country. NOW she says, works on six core issues on top of securing reproductive rights including: eliminating racism, sexism, homophobia and violence against women. This membership-driven organization is smaller with a more minimal budget, and there are many parallels between her work here and at Planed Parenthood, especially during an election year. NOW endorses candidates that relate to the issues the organization cares about, and as a 501c4, "we can tell you that you should vote, when to vote and how to vote," she says. "We work very hard to get the candidates that represent progressive and feminist values elected. We [also] do education and crisis intervention and mobilization in West Michigan, specifically to create a community where feminism is normative."

Vilella says that she and her colleagues can do none of the work they do without volunteers. "If we can't change [the politicians'] minds, then we need to change their faces," she says. Those who are interested in working with either organization can contact Planned Parenthood of Western and Northern Michigan (publicaffairs@PPwnm.org) or NOW GR (info@nowgr.org) via email.

J. Bennett Rylah is the Managing Editor of Rapid Growth Media.

Photography by Adam Bird
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