Being heard in a whisper

By Joy Portella, President, Minerva Strategies —

For me, being heard means being loud. Maybe it’s a Tri-State area learned behavior or the result of growing up in a high-volume Italian-American family or being in one too many musical productions. Whatever the reason, the takeaway is that the higher your volume, the better you’ll be heard.

There are plenty of wonderful communicators who prove this wrong; people need to – and want to – lean in to hear their soft voices. The world’s most noteworthy and wise spiritual leaders – the Dalai Lama, Pope Francis, Archbishop Tutu – are all soft-spoken men whose voices echo across the planet. President Lincoln endured the civil war, emancipated African-American slaves, and bravely preserved our union but was consistently described as quiet. Rosa Parks sparked the civil rights movement by silently refusing to budge; she was notoriously soft-spoken.

And then there’s Betty Cockrum. Betty is the CEO of Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, which goes by the fabulous acronym PPINK. I met Betty last week because my husband and I had a post-election inspiration to hold a fundraiser for a red state, embattled affiliate of Planned Parenthood. We decided to support PPINK in honor of my husband’s Hoosier upbringing, and to bolster an affiliate that has for years been dealing with Vice President Mike Pence – former governor of Indiana – and his attempts to undercut women’s reproductive freedom. We flew Betty out to tell “the bubble” what we could expect for the next four years.

I met Betty at a mid-day speaking engagement before our evening fundraiser, and I bounded up to her in my usual style, with a firm handshake, a slightly manic grin, and a greeting that was a notch too loud. She gave me a wry smile. “Well hello.” She was calm and quiet, a little reserved. I wondered: Is this woman going to command a room?

Then she got up in front of 50 communications professionals, and in the slightly winding, folksy manner of a good Midwestern storyteller, she systematically eviscerated Vice President Pence and his allies. She set a similar tone at our fundraiser, bringing the rapt crowd in closer to hear her. She spoke slowly and clearly – no fancy words, no big gestures, no TED-talk-like pacing antics. Just simple, direct observations and remarkable insights.

Betty’s got plenty of insights to share. She grew up poor on a farm in northern Indiana, and was the youngest of eight children. She helped raise one of her siblings who had special needs, and when a couple of her brothers got their girlfriends pregnant, she helped take care of those babies too. It’s no wonder that family planning became her passion. She has been leading PPINK for 15 years, and has been doing battle everyday with lawmakers, religious leaders, and angry members of the public and media. That’s included in-the-trenches political battles like opposing legislation that would define life as starting at conception and make all abortions illegal, and suing the state of Indiana – and winning – after they attempted to defund PPINK in 2011. Betty has frequently been called a “baby killer” or “Betty Cockroach” while being
condescendingly assured that people are praying for her.

Betty Cockrum’s job is not fun. It’s not exhilarating. It’s a long, hard slog to protect women’s reproductive health. And she has quietly, persistently been a warrior for 15 years. At some points during her visit to Seattle, she seemed weary and pessimistic, and who can blame her? But Betty still has plenty of fight left in her. Each month she mails VP Pence a letter at his Indiana residence detailing how much people have donated to PPINK. She signs it with just a few words that speak volumes: “We wish you well, and please respect the sovereignty of women.”

I think if Betty Cockrum had been louder, she would have flamed out by now.

Betty will retire from PPINK in June. When we asked how she’ll spend her time, she smiled wistfully and softly said, “I’m going to buy one of those machines that de-pills your sweaters, and I’m going to go over my whole wardrobe.” I leaned in to hear her, and then I smiled too.