Planned Parenthood’s new acting president, Alexis McGill Johnson, sat down with TIME on Monday in one of her first interviews since she was elected to the role by the organization’s board July 16. It was just her second day in her new office in Planned Parenthood’s D.C. headquarters.
McGill Johnson spoke on a wide range of issues, including the abortion-restriction laws sweeping the country, how she plans to unite Planned Parenthood’s workers in the fight for reproductive access following former president Leana Wen’s abrupt departure last week and what role the organization will play in the 2020 election.
McGill Johnson plans to attend the Democratic debates this week and teased that Planned Parenthood does have plans to eventually endorse a candidate. Here’s an excerpt from TIME’s conversation with McGill Johnson.
TIME: Planned Parenthood endorsed a candidate in the Democratic primary for the first time in its history in 2016. Do you foresee the organization endorsing a candidate during the 2020 primary?
Not in the immediate term. I think what’s actually been very healthy for our democracy and helpful to us as a nonprofit organization is to have all of the candidates give their vision for women’s healthcare in reproductive freedom. We are hearing from our supporters, we’re hearing from our our stakeholders, and as time moves forward the political action committee will make some recommendations on an endorsement. But it doesn’t feel urgent given that the field still includes so many people.
You have worked quite a bit on strategy to mobilize voters, both as an academic and at a grassroots level with movements like “Vote or Die.” Can you talk a little bit about that?
When I was studying political science on a graduate level, I had written an article about organizing the hip-hop generation. I felt as though so much of our politics, particularly for the immediate post-Civil Rights generation, was organized around charismatic leadership and identity politics. And yet there was this whole other world where young people were starting to define how they wanted to show up in the world.
Back in the day, when they used to have Tower Records and Virgin Records and people used to line up every day on a Tuesday to wait for the next album to drop, I thought [someone could use] that infrastructure to support broad political participation. And that work eventually lead me to [Citizen Change, the political service group behind “Vote or Die.”]
Then when I came to the board of Planned Parenthood almost a decade ago, that was work I wanted to continue to support: Going to beauty salons and barber shops and reaching people where they are to talk about the impact of policy decisions on their daily lives.
What have you learned from your experiences that can apply to your new role as head of Planned Parenthood ahead of the election?
I think we’ve seen that the best way to ensure people’s participation in the election is to connect it to the issues that they care about. We have millions of supporters who care about their ability to be free, essentially, to make free choices about their own bodies and lives. And so we will be working to lift up their voices to ensure that the kind of movement continues through the next generation.
Are there lessons to be learned from 2016?
“Don’t leave anything on the field.” Right? I think there was a presumption that the last election was going to go one way, and it probably limited participation because people thought my vote doesn’t count. When I look at the 10,000 votes in Michigan that were left on the table, those are the sorts of things that I think have to be in the back of our minds. Can we ensure that our supporters are out in every single state in order to vote on access to women’s healthcare?