Ronak is a graduate student at Tufts University in Boston, MA, pursuing a dual M.A./M.S. degree in Urban Environmental Policy and Planning, and Food Policy and Applied Nutrition.
Ronak participated in a Center for Digital Storytelling workshop with Exhale in 2010. She is a 2013 Pro-Voice Fellow with Exhale and is one of five women who has participated in a national abortion storytelling speaking Tour called Sharing Our Stories: Exhale's National Pro-Voice Tour. The Fellows traveled to the San Francisco Bay Area, the Midwest, and New York City to talk with college students and listen, share stories, and spread the pro-voice message.
Exhale is a community of people with personal abortion experiences that uses listening and storysharing to create abortion peace. For over a decade, Exhale has been providing a national after-abortion talkline where women and men can share their stories and receive support. We work with the media, entertainment, and advocates to generate public conversations – online and in person - that address each person's unique abortion experience with dignity and respect.
Visit www.exhaleprovoice.org/sharingourstories for more info on the Tour.
Coming home from the bus stop this evening, I found myself behind two men whose conversation I encroached upon as my legs hurried to get out of the cold. It became apparent, as I caught the word "gay" and the statement, "I still remember coming out to my parents," that these men were sharing a moment of empathy and understanding as they spoke about their lived experience as gay men in America. "In a lot of ways it is like you come out to people a little bit every day," one of them stated. My heart stopped for a moment when I heard those words, the way it does when you hear the utmost of truths. I reflected on the power and weight of that reality, of the strength of my LGBTQ brothers and sisters to live their truths in their worlds each day. And then I realized I could relate, myself. "Isn’t that so true," I thought. Every time I share that I have had an abortion, it feels as though I’m "outing" myself.
I’ve been telling my abortion story publicly for about ten years. What began as an attempt at personal healing and empowerment evolved into a mission to assuage conflicts in our communities around abortion through lived experience and healthy dialogue. When I first told my story publicly, it was at an abortion speak out at a nearby college campus. It felt as though my story took hours to share, as I waded through and navigated my emotions of the then heart wrenching details of my experience. The next time I shared my story publicly was seven years later. I was given fifteen minutes to speak, but the shortest version I could conceive took about thirty. With every detail, I felt I was explaining my decision. Each piece worked to build my story, to defend my decision, to make the listener feel what it was I had felt, all of which I realize in retrospect I had hoped would allay me of the listeners' judgment. The time after that, I kept it to twenty minutes, and at that length, I felt as though I had made a caricature of myself and my abortion story.
It wasn’t until I experimented with telling my story in video form through a workshop with Exhale and the Center for Digital Storytelling that I was forced to create a truly abridged version. Two and a half minutes. What had once felt impossible was edged along by the freedom of creativity. My narrative came to me within minutes. I told a poetic, sparse, pointed story about what I still needed to process around my abortion nearly a decade later – its role in my growth as a woman.
What is interesting about the digital version of my story is that not only is it short, but it is mostly shown without me present. It is recorded, archived, and therefore has a life of its own. I agreed to this through all the proper release forms. When signing I knew full well that I had no idea what the result could be, where my story could go, how it could be received. After one of the first viewings of our movies, Exhale was kind enough to collect and disseminate initial audience feedback to their digital storytellers. I was hurt by what I read: fellow women perceiving me as weak, concentrating on the man in my story, and my relationship rather than the point I felt I was making about my womanhood and the strength I discovered in that. It was in that moment that I realized people take from stories what they want. That which fits their frame. No matter how much detail I provided, people would only hear what they allowed themselves to. It is not about how much is described, but about the place from which one stands when a story is both shared and received.
On tour, the fellows spoke their truths around their abortions, directly, and did it from a place of love, compassion, and honesty. We practiced living in this space, our mantra being, "strength in vulnerability." Before presentations, the fellows huddled together to focus and speak our intentions for each session. A recurring theme in these conversations was to allow us to be a vessel for our stories and for healing. We didn’t speak to convince or to provoke, but to allow honesty and lived experience to pave the road for how our stories would be received. It is from this space of compassion that we were able to create a different dialogue around abortion, allowing people the space to listen differently.
At each session, regardless of the audience's political beliefs around abortion, we were met with the utmost respect. By creating safe spaces, setting ground rules, and modeling the vulnerability and power of stories, we were able to create a moment in time where others felt compelled and safe to listen deeply and to share their own stories, some for the first time. We heard that pro-voice applies across the entire spectrum of experiences, and that people feel stigma, shame, and silence in many areas of their lives. We all have our truths, our stories, that we carry with us each and every day. The more we share and the better we listen, the sooner a cultural shift can occur.
Every time I tell my story, I reveal a part of myself to the world. I share publicly what many think should be kept private. I do it because I want to change our culture around abortion so that women and men feel supported and heard. I see that our collective voices can drive a dialogue of healing rather than conflict. Sharing my story, even if that means "outing" myself to some, is how I choose to help create that place.