Julie Zaebst joined the ACLU-PA in July 2014, bringing more than 10 years of experience as a program manager and advocate. Most recently, she directed the Policy Center at the Coalition Against Hunger, where she led the organization’s advocacy initiatives to protect and enhance the federal nutrition programs in Pennsylvania, including food stamps and school meals. Before getting started, we asked Julie some questions about her previous experience and what she’s looking forward to in her new role as Project Manager of the Clara Bell Duvall Reproductive Freedom Project.
What most interested you about this position?
I always imagined that I would devote my career to women’s health and reproductive rights. These were the issues that first politicized me as a student, and I spent much of my time and energy as a student and young professional working on these issues in a volunteer capacity. But a different opportunity came my way. Instead, I had a chance to serve as an advocate for low-income people who are struggling with hunger and for the federal nutrition programs, like food stamps, that help them put healthy food on the table. This has been an incredible experience, and I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to be an effective advocate. I’m excited to have the opportunity to bring my skills and passion to the issue of reproductive rights at the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
Where were you before joining the Clara Bell Duvall Reproductive Freedom Project and the ACLU of Pennsylvania?
Over the past 10 years, I’ve worn many different hats at the Coalition Against Hunger – volunteer coordinator, advocacy coordinator and interim executive director. Most recently, I managed the Coalition’s policy center, where I directed initiatives to protect and enhance the federal nutrition programs in Pennsylvania, including food stamps, school meals, and the child care food program.
Prior to that, I served as the Associate Director of the Civic Engagement Office at Bryn Mawr College, which facilitates service-learning and volunteer opportunities for undergraduates. I learned an enormous amount from the students, faculty and community partners about what it means to be an engaged citizen and how to foster that type of engagement in our communities.
How do you think your previous experiences will help you in this new role?
In my roles at the Coalition Against Hunger and at Bryn Mawr College, I had the chance to hone a diverse set of skills that I’ll be tapping into as the Duvall Project Manager: public education, constituent mobilization, coalition-building, and legislative and administrative advocacy. I love putting these different strategies and skills to work to effect policy change, and I’m thrilled to have the chance to do so in the area of reproductive rights in Pennsylvania.
What are you most excited about taking over the project?
I’m excited to carry forward the incredible work that the Duvall Project has been doing to ensure incarcerated women’s access to reproductive health services. This initiative raises critical civil liberties issues that sit at the intersection of prisoners’ rights and reproductive rights, and I see ACLU-PA as uniquely positioned to address these issues that otherwise might go unnoticed. Carol has laid a terrific groundwork for this initiative, both in terms of research and relationship-building, and the Duvall Project has already achieved some great successes in reforming jails’ policies about reproductive health care.
What are some future projects you foresee the CBD Project taking on?
Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the ways that stigma impacts the issues that I care about and the public policy work that I do. For instance, I’ve worked closely with Witnesses to Hunger, a program at Drexel University that provides a space for mothers to share their personal experiences with hunger through photos and story-telling and that brings their perspectives to bear in policy debates about the nutrition programs. I’ve been humbled by these women’s willingness to share their experiences and impressed with the ways in which their personal stories can humanize and ground technical, often polarized public policy debates and influence their outcomes.
I was excited to hear that the ACLU is having a similar conversation about stigma around reproductive rights. I see great opportunity to address issues of stigma and center the voices and experiences of women and men who have had to grapple with difficult reproductive health decisions. By engaging in public education and organizing with the goal of addressing this stigma, I think we can begin to bring about the cultural shift necessary to ultimately affect public policy.
What do you think are the biggest obstacles to reproductive freedom?
It sometimes seems that the story of reproductive rights is one of death by a thousand cuts. The specific restrictions placed on women’s reproductive rights are often complex or obscure in nature, and considered in isolation they may seem insignificant to much of the general public. Yet together, this patchwork of laws and regulations makes access to safe and affordable abortions – and sometimes other critical reproductive health services – increasingly difficult for women across Pennsylvania, especially low-income women. One of the ongoing challenges for the reproductive rights movement will be to continue to educate supporters about the impact of these restrictions and to galvanize strong opposition to each and every effort to limit women’s reproductive freedoms. This is especially critical as more and more supporters – like myself – belong to the post-Roe generation and don’t have a personal, first-hand understanding of what it would mean to entirely lose the freedoms granted by that court decision.