Three weeks ago, I was standing in a Cleveland crowd of Planned Parenthood supporters, when 19-year-old Claudia Stadler walked up and introduced herself as a peer educator for the organization.
"Peer educator?" I said. "Where do you teach?"
She smiled. "Everywhere."
Stadler is a freshman at John Carroll University, a private college near Cleveland. (Our youngest daughter graduated from JCU in 2010.) The more I thought about Stadler talking about women's reproductive rights on a Jesuit college campus the more curious I became about her willingness to do it.
"My mom had a huge influence on me regarding my activism," she told me this week. "She's a nurse now, studying to be a midwife, so she's always been on the medical side. It's the social justice side that affects me and my friends."
Her mother, Katie Stadler, told me she was marching for women's reproductive rights long before Claudia was born. She is not surprised that her only daughter has taken up the cause — and with a crusader's heart.
"Ever since she was very little, Claudia has stood up for what she believes," Katie said. "She will not stand down." She laughed. "Ask her brothers."
Still, Claudia attends college, where a lot of the students are more conservative than she. How does that work out? I wondered.
They're not so different, she said.
"I grew up in the most open and liberal community (Lakewood, Ohio), but there were still a lot of kids who were reluctant to bring up issues of reproductive health. I think sexually transmitted disease and even birth control is kind of an awkward discussion at times."
That's where her training comes in. She looks for opportunities that naturally bubble up in conversations.
"Sometimes someone will say, 'Oh, you work for Planned Parenthood,'" she said. "I tell them, 'Yeah, but I'm not sure you know what Planned Parenthood does.' The conversation starts there."
Recently, she gave a speech about Planned Parenthood for a class. After she had finished, a male student asked a question parroting false claims repeated over and over by some of the Republican presidential candidates: "How do you feel about all the fetuses they're selling?"
Claudia didn't flinch. "I told him that wasn't true. Because it's not. ... A lot of people don't do the research. I feel like I'm educating a lot more students now than I did in high school."
She is never afraid to start that conversation. "I don't get nervous, but I sometimes feel the judgment. It doesn't stop me. Honestly, I love doing this."
Kelly Novak was one of Claudia's instructors for the peer educator training. Novak started as a patient of Planned Parenthood, at the age of 25. "I had such a great, supportive experience in a time of crisis," she said. "I walked out of that building and said, 'I'm going to work there one day because that's how people should be treated.'"
Novak is now director of education and outreach for Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio and runs the training for adolescent peer educators.
"They learn how to talk about birth control, sexually transmitted diseases and healthy relationships, about boundaries — 'what are deal breakers for you?' We also talk a lot about consent."
Peer educators get age-appropriate instruction, she said. "Our mantra is 'facts, not fear.' One thing we emphasize is how to know their audience and how to find common ground."
That notion of "common ground" has often struck me as an impossible goal in debates about abortion rights. But Novak's definition is instructive — and makes me wish Planned Parenthood offered peer education for adults.
"Common ground is where everyone feels included in the conversation. I think of common ground as a safe and inclusive space in which we can engage a spectrum of viewpoints. If you want to get your message across, you have to be thoughtful about how we start the conversation and how we end it."
Last Friday, police say, Robert L. Dear Jr. killed three people and wounded nine at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Novak was sitting at her desk at Planned Parenthood when she first heard the news.
She described her reaction in halting language, a series of blurbs: "Hand over my mouth. Tears in my eyes. Heart pounding with worry for my colleagues. ... You knew right away that something had gone terribly wrong. The environment has been getting hotter and more intense. This was your worst fear coming to pass."
Claudia and Katie Stadler were in the kitchen of their family home. "We were trying immediately to get more information," Katie said. "I honestly didn't feel shocked, as horrible as it was. We had just watched a documentary about Dr. (George) Tiller," she added, referring to an abortion provider who was murdered.
I asked Claudia whether the shootings in Colorado would have any impact on her willingness to speak out for Planned Parenthood.
She didn't hesitate. "It makes me feel more emboldened."
I shared that with her mother. "Wow," she said. "That brings tears to my eyes. Oh, wow."
She took a breath. "Of course, as a mother, the shootings made me pause. But she..."
Her voice trailed off, and for a moment we were silent, both of us grateful for a young woman named Claudia who will not stand down.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. She is the author of two books, including "...and His Lovely Wife," which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. To find out more about Connie Schultz ([email protected]) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
Photo credit: Tim