Alumni Spotlight: Elise Higgins

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Elise and URGE Executive Director, Kierra Johnson

University of Kansas Class of 2010?

Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Political Science

How were you involved with URGE?

Joy Lawson, a former Midwest Regional Field Coordinator from Kansas, brought me into URGE my sophomore year of college. I went to the life-changing 2008 Midwest Gloria Steinem Leadership Institute in Chicago and have been on a path ever since then; I served afterward as Secretary, Vice President and President of my school’s chapter of URGE.

What do you do now and how do you bring a reproductive justice frame to the work you do?

I’m the Kansas Manager of Government Affairs at Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, which means I lobby in the Kansas Statehouse for reproductive rights and do political, communications and grassroots work across the state. Although the work I carry out is pretty strictly reproductive rights to protect reproductive health care provision, I try to use a reproductive justice frame as much as possible by supporting leadership development for the young people I work with, lifting up the access needs of women living in poverty or rural places in Kansas through advocacy for Medicaid expansion, and actively encouraging conversations about reproductive justice like this one with Kierra in June. Using my RJ frame takes practice, and I don’t always succeed at bringing folks “from the margins to the center,” but I’ll never stop trying, and it really helps to be reminded of my values when I spend time with URGE. That’s why I love being the chair of the URGE board of directors-I get to directly represent URGE’s values of lifting up young people’s leadership and centering the needs of red, Midwestern states. Plus, I love spending time with and learning frome staff and other board members who are doing incredible, impactful and inspiring reproductive rights, health and justice work.

What skills or knowledge did you learn from URGE that you use in your current work/life?

I credit my passion for what I do and my entire career trajectory to the training, mentoring and support of URGE. In particular, though, URGE has taught me about allying with people whose experiences I don’t share-trans* folks and people of color in particular-and how their lives are differently impacted than mine by oppression. Oh, and nonprofit lingo-URGE staff taught me through conference presentations to address “folks, “hold space” and talk “around” the issues, which is hilarious and useful in my work today.

What are your top priorities in politics and/or reproductive justice?

My top priority federally is most definitely repealing the Hyde amendment, which denies federal insurance coverage of abortion to people enrolled in Medicaid and other public health care. I love that URGE is a leader in the All* Above All campaign to restore that coverage-they understand that, without access, there are no rights. More locally, I want to see a massive increase in investment in Kansas and other Midwestern and Southern red states by organizations working for reproductive (and just general) health, rights and justice. URGE does wonderful work in a lot of those states, but we need much more sustained support so that locally led work can succeed in transforming our grassroots, health care and political landscapes. Kansas and other states may not swing national elections, but the people who live here matter, and I don’t want to be the only full time person doing legislative/advocacy/electoral work for reproductive rights, health and justice in my state for the rest of my career.

Who inspires you?

So many people inspire me! Kierra Johnson’s ability to blend grace and sass while holding a big picture vision of our movement inspires me all the time, as does my boss Sheila Kostas who’s been doing this work through unbelievable hardship for over 35 years and still leads with kindness. I’m also inspired by the women who did my job before me, Sarah Gillooly and Holly Weatherford. They’re smart, savvy, tough women who taught me how to do this work with class and a sense of humor. And of course I’m inspired by the women in my family, especially my brave sister Clare who’s teaching English in South Korea, my big-hearted sister Meredith who’s doing immigrant rights advocacy as a college student, and my mom Toni who marched for the ERA, loves unconditionally, and raised my sisters and me to be feminists.