Amy Irvin, Executive Director of New Orleans Abortion Fund
MEET AMY IRVIN
Amy Irvin is truly an inspiration! She has done it all, from canvassing and working as a Union Organizer across the country, to developing a nonprofit that supports women in the greater New Orleans area.
Amy Irvin is the Executive Director of the New Orleans Abortion Fund, and served as the first intake coordinator. She has worked at abortion clinics in New Orleans and Atlanta, and was recognized as the Volunteer of the Year by Planned Parenthood of Kentucky in 2006. She earned her Master of Science in Social Work at the University of Louisville where she researched the impact of parental consent laws for minors at the ACLU of Kentucky Reproductive Freedom Project, and a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Agnes Scott College. After undergraduate school she taught English as a Second Language, coordinated World Refugee Day activities, and developed a refugee childcare program at the International Rescue Committee. She’s also a former union organizer with the United Food and Commercial Workers, organizing grocery store workers in Arizona and Indiana. Her passions include modern art and mid-century modern furniture.
We can’t wait to see what’s next! We are thrilled for you to read more about Amy’s journey and how she is supporting women in her community.
GET TO KNOW THE NEW ORLEANS ABORTION FUND
In partnership with the National Network of Abortion Funds, the New Orleans Abortion Fund (NOAF) was established in 2012 as a community-based 501(c)(3) organization rooted in social justice, with the purpose of challenging socioeconomic inequalities by providing financial help to women who cannot afford the full cost of an abortion.
NOAF supports a woman’s right to control her body and her destiny, and works to ensure that all people have access to quality medical care, regardless of their economic situation. NOAF works with local medical providers to provide compassionate and empowering assistance for women seeking abortions who are unable to fully fund their abortion, and distribute pledges as available. NOAF has assisted with 1,000 abortions over the last five years. The average pledge has increased from $61 to $175 with the support of members, supporters, and donors.
LET’S DO THIS
LDT: What path led you to New Orleans?
AI: Well my first experience in New Orleans was when I came here on my honeymoon when I was married the first time. Laughs.
I came to NOLA for my honeymoon. We stayed for just a few days and went over to Dauphin Island. I don’t really remember much about it, which might say something about the future of the marriage, which ended in divorce.
But I do remember being in the French Quarter and down by the cathedral. And noticing the fortune tellers and the palm readers. And I remember taking the streetcar. We stopped off at a little junk store and I bought some old floral prints. I also remember being annoyed with my husband and that I didn’t really care for NOLA much.
In the early 2000’s, I took a job as a Union Organizer. I graduated from the University of Louisville in 2008 with a Master in Social Work at a time when the economy was busting. It was the Great Recession and all of the social service agencies were losing grants and not hiring.
So I actually took a job canvassing for Working America, which is a union-based initiative to support then candidate Obama. So I did a lot of canvassing that Summer which led to a position with the union. I did that for two years.
I worked on campaigns in Indiana and Arizona. It was a lot of traveling. I would work ten days on and four days off. Rather than going home to cold, chilly Louisville, I would come to New Orleans and visit a friend of mine who had moved from Louisville to New Orleans. I had helped her move and got her set up in her apartment, so there was always an open door invitation. I would come here in the winter time.
I met someone and dated him long distance. I did that for a year and got to know the city as a tourist essentially because living in NOLA is quite different than visiting NOLA.
When I decided to leave my job with the union – as I mentioned it was a lot of traveling and I missed having a community and being involved in community activities. I was doing all this other organizing work in other communities on behalf of people in those cities. I didn’t have my own community and was living out a hotel most of the time and spending time in airports.
I said, “Well… I’ve been spending time in New Orleans. Why don’t I just move to New Orleans?”
I thought I would invest some energy into that relationship. So I moved in with my friends. We got an apartment in the Lower Garden District. Of course, neither the friendship nor the relationship lasted long. Not surprisingly! Laughs.
I decided I was gonna stay. So I stayed in NOLA. I did some traveling overseas for a bit and then came back to NOLA and found myself pregnant.
I got pregnant at age 42.
I had had an abortion when I was 21 and easily made the decision to have an abortion then. But at 42, it was a different time in my life. I had more stability and resources, though I wasn’t in a committed relationship at the time.
So I took time to think through… Do I want to continue this pregnancy? Do I want to become a parent? It felt like this was my last opportunity. This was the moment I could make that decision.
In the end, I decided to terminate the pregnancy. In that decision, I reaffirmed who I was. I was completely happy not being a parent and that was part of my identity. And in making that decision I embraced that identity. So I terminated a pregnancy.
I found you have to ask around to figure out where the clinic is. And I went to the clinic and realized the level of restrictions, and how difficult it is for women to access abortion care here.
There was a big sign over the desk that said, “We don’t accept funding.”
Having been involved with reproductive rights as a grad student and earlier in my life, I had worked at a clinic in Atlanta. So I had that moment of what?! That needs to change. What’s that all about?
There’s a 24-hour waiting period here. The day I was at the clinic, there were many a bunch of women from Baton Rouge. There were a lot of women in the waiting room, but the women from Baton Rouge were worried about being home to meet their children at the bus stops. They were worried about having to wait additional time. The additional cost. They wanted to go to a clinic in their own community.
I remember asking questions at the clinic that day. And it wasn’t long after that I reached out to the clinic about starting an abortion fund. I had been involved with the abortion fund in Louisville, so I already know a little bit about abortion funding. And I knew about the National Network of Abortion Funds. So I reached out to the clinic and asked if they would be interested in partnering. And thus was born the NOLA Abortion Fund and I’ve been doing that work since 2012.
Obviously, my own personal experiences and my own knowledge as a student improved my ability to start a fund. In starting the fund, I created a community for myself. Having left the union, I was seeking a place to have community, and find community. I have created community in this work. I’ve expanded my community through the nature of the work and also built upon my professional skills, and utilized my master’s degree and organizing skills. So New Orleans has been very supportive in that endeavor.
Our primary mission is to provide financial assistance, so we’re constantly doing fundraising and engaging the community and raising money to fund abortions which is pretty radical!
LDT: What is a typical day in your life?
AI: One of the things I enjoy about my job, is there is no typical day. It kind of depends on the time of year.
Right now we’re preparing not only for an annual fundraiser, but gearing up for the legislative session which kicks off April 10th this year. We’re preparing, thinking about possible legislation, reading up on what’s happening in other states. Ensuring our lists are up to date so we can send out advocacy alerts.
We’re also fundraising. Each year we do a Game-A-Thon. We’ve kicked that off early this year – forming teams, doing messaging around that. And of course, even in fundraising there is an educational component. People really do understand the lack of access and the poor outcomes for everyone in this state. The high rates of STD’s, HIV, the low rates of education. Louisiana is next to last for equal pay. There’s a lot of education involved. There’s a lot of activism.
My day also includes a lot of work in the community – talking to people in the community, attending community meetings. I support minimum wage here. I am very much involved in supporting the Louisiana Coalition for Reproductive Freedom. NOAF was an original co-convener, so preparing those meetings.
I’m also very much involved in supporting student groups. I have four interns that I’m working with presently. And building out programs and thinking out new initiatives in a very different political climate.
We’re focusing on story gathering and story sharing. And trying to engage people on this issue on a very basic level. We’re in people’s homes around abortion and reproductive health because it’s all very connected.
My day usually starts late and goes long. An organizer usually does a lot of work in the evenings. I am not a nine to five-er, sitting at my desk kind of person. This work is a really good fit for my skills, and my passions, and my natural rhythms.
I have lots of coffee dates and I’m a coffeeholic.
LDT: What is your rose? Thorn? I.e. what frustrates or challenges you in your work? And what is the most valuable, exciting part?
AI: Well the rose of this job, for me, is financially supporting women and their choices so that they can live a genuine and authentic life, based on their own terms. Just as I’ve had that choice and chose not to parent, and to be the most authentic me. And I want that choice for other people.
Unfortunately, access is difficult here. It’s financially out of reach for many people here. Most people that we provide a financial pledge to already have children – they’re already raising children. I want to support them in raising their kids in the way that they want. It’s important to me.
I would also say in doing community organizing, I’m living my most authentic life. Not only am I able to help other people, but I’m living an authentic life. What I’m doing has real meaning for me, in building or creating communities that support reproductive health care and access in a state where it’s so restrictive.
I think the thorn is that there’s just cultural, institutional… how do I want to say this… Though we talk about women’s equality and bodily autonomy, those values really aren’t being supported in our society and actually are being further reduced through legislation and policymakers.
So it’s not only the day-to-day sort of struggle against those specific policies and the outcomes of the policies, but the realization that the society isn’t really as supportive of women and families as we claimed we are. And that is greatly reinforced all the time. All the aspects of this work.
LDT: What do you feel most proud about in your current role?
AI: That I’ve assisted more than 700 women who are getting abortion care. That I’ve engaged the community on this issue in a very thoughtful, compassionate way. That I’ve made great relationships with the people that have supported this work, particularly thinking of all usernames… Sylvia Cochren, the admin of the Women’s Healthcare Center. And also Jessie Nieblas, who started the organization with me. And all the other people who have supported us as volunteers and donors.
I’m really proud of the work we continue to do with students, many of whom are not from NOLA. We’re connecting them with very practical and genuine experience, of what it’s like to live here. I think that people that come to NOLA as visitors don’t get the full picture of the ways in which families struggle here. They don’t have a full appreciation of the poverty and the way families struggle to make ends meet.
LDT: What is your target audience?
AI: We have assisted women ages 14-43.
Obviously, the target audience is women who are seeking abortion care and the community of NOLA who wants to support our mission. But, more importantly, my target audience are people that support this issue quietly or aren’t as public as we know they need to be now.
In regard to abortion rights, reproductive rights are under threat and we need people to publicly provide their support for a wide range of issues and women’s health care. Perhaps the target audience is people who are seeking ways to become involved in changing the discourse.
LDT: What is your outlet from work?
AI: We’re in the midst of Mardi Gras and so… in years past I always sort of resented Mardi Gras because it’s essentially a three-week festival and so little work gets done. But this year I especially feel thankful for the distraction of Mardi Gras. The spirit of Mardi Gras and the sense of community that Mardi Gras represents.
In NOLA, there’s such a sense of work-life balance. There’s a better balance of work-life balance here in NOLA and it leans more towards life, which is what makes NOLA special and engaging. My outlets are all the things that NOLA offers, whether it’s the warm weather… Here we are sitting on the sidewalk in February. It’s a beautiful day! To music and food. And sort of the acceptance that you can be whomever you want to be in NOLA. And I think that’s very unique.
LDT: How do you maintain work-life balance?
AI: I actually live on the beach about an hour away from here. I did that purposefully.
I had to create some boundaries for myself and bring more balance into my life. I’m a workaholic and I think it’s the nature of community organizing and also starting a nonprofit in that, I would go to every meeting, every film screening… I would try to attend as many things as I could. My life was just work.
So when I was looking to move, and taking into consideration… I can’t really afford the rents here and live by myself as a single person. So I was fortunate to find a very affordable apartment on the beach. It really is my escape. It’s where I’m myself. It’s very quiet. There’s the water. There’s the beach. I feel a sense of security and safety there.
As a sexual assault survivor, safety is important to me. And to do this work that is already very volatile… I have to find places where I feel safe and rested. It imposes a lot of boundaries and imposes a sense of solace for me. I have a cat and dog and it’s nice that way. And when I do come to NOLA and do this work, which is daily, I’m at my best self.
LDT: What do you want to do next? What is your next goal or initiative?
AI: Well, I want to ensure the Abortion Fund is sustainable and healthy. And I certainly have different projects that I’m going to work on to ensure that.
I’ve said in the past that I won’t be around as a Co-Founder of the fund. I won’t be around forever for the fund, but I want the fund to be around when I’m gone. So it’s important that it’s sustained.
But more importantly, there’s a real need for women to run for office. This is something that I’ve thought about in the past and been approached about in the past. The work that I’ve done in the last five years provides an opportunity for that, so perhaps that’s one initiative.
I’m also interested in thinking about other ways in which to engage people on a variety of issues particularly through art, writing, and story gathering. This work is done on multiple levels. We tend to think about culture change and oftentimes, on a legislative or policy level, it happens every day through conversations, art, film, literature. I’m curious and interested in thinking about that. This is very stressful work.
I really didn’t expect to do this work. I didn’t come to New Orleans thinking I would start an abortion fund. Truthfully I came up with the idea of being more involved with art – starting a gallery, sort of feeding my own artistic interests.
LDT: What kind of connections are you looking to make or do you need?
AI: Well on a professional level, I just need more supporters, more donors, more volunteers.
I need more genuine conversations with legislators, and legislators who are willing to be bold and genuine, to address the real needs of Louisianans and place their own motives or careers first.
On a personal level, I need more outlets of escape. Laughs.
More time to think less about work. And time to think about art. Thinking about art really refuels me. Whenever I’m out of town, I make a point of going to museums and I could spend hours at museums. So it’s real active nourishment for me. I need more creativity in my life and creative people in my life. More vacations.
LDT: How do you think your industry is going to change in the next five years? ten years?
AI: I don’t know. I think that it’s very uncertain about the accessibility and the continued legality of abortion access. But I think also things will be very much the same.
People in Louisiana have been living and working under very harsh and depleted sorts of situations for a long time. And have developed coping strategies and developed community to do all the things they need to do to survive. That’s why Mardi Gras happens. I wasn’t here for Hurricane Katrina but a friend of mine reminded me that even immediately following Hurricane Katrina, there was a Mardi Gras.
Each interview on Let’s Do This features a guest question from a previous collaborator. This question comes from Ashley Shabankareh, the Director of Programs for the Preservation Hall Foundation. Preservation Hall Foundation is an institution that strives to supports music education, academic research, historical archiving and promotional outreach campaigns to create greater awareness and appreciation for Traditional New Orleans Jazz in New Orleans and beyond.
Ashley Shabankareh: Where do you do to find inspiration in your everyday life?
AI: Since we began making pledges in 2013, the New Orleans Abortion Hotline has never been turned off. It’s always running and we’re not always able to fund every person that calls us, but the hotline is always open.
And each day, every conversation I have… Every meeting I have, every opportunity to do this work is just one more effort towards this vision of a fairness and justice for women and families. It’s sort of cliche, but it’s the small victories in this work. It’s the small victories. If you’re expecting big victories, you won’t last long.
LDT: What’s your question for the next interview? What do you want to know?
AI: How has living or working in New Orleans supported you? Or your work?
LET’S DO THIS! STOP, COLLABORATE & LISTEN
If you’re interested in a future collaboration or learning more about Amy Irvin & the New Orleans Abortion Fund, you can connect and follow her using the links below.
Phone: 504.363.1112 (Please note, this is a voicemail only line and it is only checked once per day.)
DONATE TO THE NEW ORLEANS ABORTION FUND
Please note, all financial assistance that the New Orleans Abortion Fund provides is due to the generosity of donors. If you are interested in donating to support NOAF, you can support in the form of a PayPal donation or by mailing your gift to:
PO Box 770141
New Orleans, LA 70117
[Interview conducted on February 21, 2017]