March 2013

A Commitment to Activism: In-depth interview with a Planned Parenthood Revolutionary

Who would have guessed that inside a classic and lavish home on a quiet Nutley hillside street would live a tiny woman with a huge spirit? Ruth Bedford is a local hero of sorts; born in 1918, Ruth will be 95 years old in April, and she shows no signs of letting up on her quest to better her community! She is a true community activist, and I had the honor of sitting down with her and MSU Associate Professor Jessica Restaino for a look into her activism work.

 Nathan Rodriguez: When did you begin working for Planned Parenthood?

 Ruth Bedford: Well, I came on the board of Planned Parenthood back in the 70’s. My husband Stanley was on it first. He was in the group Young Republicans with a mutual friend Mary Singletary. She was the Executive Director for Planned Parenthood and wanted a friend on the board, so he got involved.Stanleyhad never been married, but I heard him say he would get married if he found the right one, and he married me!

 So I learned about it through Stanley. When he was on the board, back in those days, women had luncheons. That was my first introduction to planned parenthood. That was during the late 1960’s. Now, he went off the board in 1971, because he became a judge and judges weren’t allowed to do fundraisers. I went on the board a few years later.

 Actually, I recently went back and had a look at all the trustees, from our regular lists, and I discovered that I was actually the secretary back in 1981 and 1982! Later on, I became the Vice President!

 NR: Wow, what year was that?

 RB: That was, I think, from 1990 to 1993. That was just a three year thing; I didn’t go on to President, because I didn’t want to do all the things the President had to do. So those were the main offices I held.

 Honestly though, I would say I watched it grow. We were a ‘mom and pop’ organization when I started, and it was almost all women on the board. We had a couple of men, and gradually there became more of them. When a man became the chairman of the board, that’s when things got a little more business-like. From way back, as far as I can remember, Planned Parenthood’s finances were always government funded. Now, it’s Title X we get a large amount of money from, but we haven’t received any increases and we’re afraid we’ll get cut. It’s dangerous times for Planned Parenthood.

 Jessica Restaino: And Ruth has been on the board this whole time, for over 40 years.

 NR: Let’s take it back a bit and talk about how it was to have a man on the board.

 RB: Well like I said, things became more business-like; more so with the man, I believe he was the second chairman of the board. You start to watch things change. He wanted to run it like a business, and I remember my sister, who was on the board at the time, the both of us were saying, “But we’re not a business. We’re a charitable organization!” And we felt sometimes that what he wanted to do wasn’t quite appropriate for a charitable organization, but he was very good nonetheless.

 I didn’t mention that when I was first on the board, we were meeting in Montclairbefore the town took over the Claremont building. When they took it over, we went up to Verona, and then we decided that we wanted to be back in Montclair, so we bought the building that we’re in now. This is what I found: it must have been 1993 when we moved into our new building. Now this man that really wanted to be business-like was the head of a capital campaign, and we raised the money to buy that building! I think we started out with a mortgage, but we eventually paid it off.

 NR: In other words, that business attitude seems to have paid off, huh? Now then, what would you say were your initial impressions while holding the positions you held in Planned Parenthood?

 RB: It’s hard to say what my initial impressions were, because I learned about everything gradually while Stan was on the board. Up until then, I’m not sure I even knew what Planned Parenthood was! [a brief pause of laughter]

 NR: I can imagine! Now, how about the services provided by Planned Parenthood? What are some of the most important aspects of your job?

 RB: It’s so important to be good in all we do, because it’s so needed. I mean, Planned Parenthood offers services like complete physicals, and there are people who come to us because they can’t afford to do it elsewhere.

 As of right now, we do not do abortions. We are a chapter under the federation, also called an affiliate. Our chapter has not done abortions, but we will starting this month. Now, a lot of our donors were against abortions at first, but I think in this day and age, people are accepting it more, so I’m hoping it doesn’t bother any of them anymore.

 And as far as the abortion issue goes, what we do is, if a girl comes into that situation, we give her all her options. We have social workers that talk to them and give them all the options, and if she really wants the abortion, we then give her the names of a couple of places, and we help them afterward as well.

 JR: But now, they will be doing them on site. One of the really important things I wanted to point out is first of all, we serve men and women. And also, many of the people come to Planned Parenthood because it’s their only source of medical care, as Ruth said. It’s so often painted in the media as just some place women go to get an abortion, but if you actually look at the pie chart of Planned Parenthood’s services, abortions are actually one of the smallest pieces of our work, with the biggest being primary medical care, and of course, birth control.

 RB: Now, we also have an education department, but unfortunately, that has been cut down with the loss of funds. But we have a teenage group, about ten kids at a time, that are trained in what we do and the services we offer, and they go to different schools and put on skits. What this has helped us to find, is that young people will talk to other young people about these issues, like contraception and sex. This is part of our education department, which I think is so important. I think everybody understands that that’s really what we need.

 JR: It’s called the Teen Links program, and it’s actually a paid position. We’re hoping it’s going to be on the upswing, because it looks like there’s been money that is being given to Planned Parenthood by that huge grant from Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook.

 NR: Well, let’s hope that goes through. I wanted to ask you about some of the major changes you’ve seen over the years. I’ve heard a lot about how underground and secretive it used to be, whereas now it’s a little more open. Is that the main change, or have there been others?

 RB: I think the people’s attitudes about Planned Parenthood has changed tremendously. And the various services we offer have increased over the years. We get our instructions and protocol from the federation, and they provide quite a bit of service for us, but they’re the ones that promote abortion over the years, and we have pulled back because we haven’t been in it until now. But the changes in the education department are particularly outstanding, like going to schools and being accepted. So overall, I think the acceptance of contraceptives is the major change I’ve seen happen. Things change over the years; some people have accepted it and some people haven’t.

 NR: Of course. How have some of your outlooks changed through your work? For example, you’ve talked about seeing people come into Planned Parenthood who literally have nowhere else to go, and I’m sure all kinds of personalities come through your doors. How has that changed you?

 RB: Well I’d say it’s made me more broadminded. I mean, I think I always have been broadminded, but to see the changes that have developed in our own organization, you do change your attitude about things. I can’t even tell you how much I’ve changed. It’s all gradual as you grow older. Your ideas change…well some of them do and some of them don’t!

 NR: Agreed. Now whenever I interview people who do work like this, one of the questions I always try to ask is how MSU students can get involved if this is something that they’re interested in. 

RB: Well I think almost every organization including ours wants volunteers.

 JR: Right, and I think there’s definitely interest on our part to get students involved. There’s always room for connection if there are students interested in getting experience in working with a nonprofit organization, and particularly in women’s health and advocacy. Our Public Relations representative is Jane Celusak; she would be the contact for students to reach out to, or they could always email me if people are interested.

 RB: And as far as volunteer positions go, we are always looking for people to collect money. I mean, with our fundraising, we try to hit everyone. The small donations are very important. There used to be a woman who gave only five dollars a month, but her five meant more than someone else’s hundred. They add up.

Unique and all-encompassing Queer Art that refuses to be pigeon-holed

For some, art is a hobby. For others, it's a catalyst for social change. Lizz Andronaco is a senior at MSU who paints visually striking pieces that make viewers question the lines of gender and sexuality, and reflect on their innermost definitions of who they really are. Her paintings, such as 'But You Used to be Such a Pretty Girl' are usually mixed media, with themes that deal with gender and sexual minorities, bringing visibility to these so often marginalized groups.

 

Nathan Rodriguez: When did you begin making artwork? 

Lizz Andronaco: Since before I can remember, actually. I was a starving artist at the age of three. [chuckle] I used to sit in the corner of my room and draw all day. I also used to make these little books…like, I didn’t write words because I didn’t know how to spell or read yet, so I just made a bunch of lines. But I was always very creative. It was always something that was with me throughout my life. 

When I got to high school and I was trying to figure out what to do career-wise, I was looking more into medicine, but then I had this art teacher who kept pushing me to go and pursue art, so I did.

 NR: So would you say around high school was when you got really serious with it? 

LA: Yeah, around my junior year. I thought about going to school for softball maybe, but I wanted something that would last me more than these four years. Art was really the only thing that could get me out of my head. 

NR: Alright, now at what point did you decide that queer art was going to be your focus? 

LA: Well, my sexuality was something that I very much repressed. I went to Catholic school, and grew up here inNorth Jersey, which isn’t always the most gay friendly place depending on where you go. In college, when I was finally letting myself have these attractions, I started trying to find resources. I searched for things in the media…just trying to learn about it, and there were no really positive images. It was a real search. Especially because gay men are more visible, but with gay women, it’s like you’re either stereotyped as Rosie O’Donnell or fetishized as porn, for men’s pleasure at that. 

I’d say that’s where my work started, just to counter those negative stereotypes, and also to help me deal with the stigmas just for myself. It was therapeutic, especially because that happened right around the time I came out. 

NR: What would you say is the most, or one of the most, important aspects of your artwork? What makes your artwork important? 

LA: I think what’s most important to me is that my artwork has transcended the sort of categorized LGBT, and moved into the all-encompassing Queer. I’m a figure artist, and I paint Queer people, with Queer being anyone who is not conforming to the norm. These can be sex workers, or people who are into S&M, so it’s heterosexual as well. It’s just moving out of the sort-of hierarchical mainstream LGBT.

 My artwork focuses on equality in an intersectional way. It says, ‘I’m not equal until everyone else is equal.’

 NR: What is it like being in a field which is predominantly dominated by men? 

LA: Not only is it dominated by men, but it’s dominated by heteronormativism. It’s like, I’m an artist who happens to be queer, and whose art has queer themes, and yes I happen to be a woman, but don’t pin me into this niche. And I am constantly critiqued. I had a teacher of mine say I don’t have a very ‘gay’ style of painting, and that I had very ‘hetero and masculine’ strokes. I’m like, ‘How does paint have a gender?’ You know? It’s paint! 

Things like that make me angry, but it also fires me up. I’m not the type to back down. 

I also deal with a lot of straight male painters who say things like ‘I guess if I see two guys holding hands inChelsea, it’s fine,’ or ‘People are dealing with the gay thing already.’ Well, it’s not fine, and gay is not Queer. They always want to put the word ‘gay’ back in there, so I constantly have to educate them. Again, it’s frustrating because I want to talk about these issues, but I don’t want to pin them down either.

 NR: Sounds tough…how do you push past all that? 

LA: Well luckily I have enough support and enough people thanking me for what I do and what it means to them. That’s so powerful, and it means so much more to me than the people who don’t get it. 

NR: What would you say is a dream of yours?

 LA: Ultimately what I want to do is help people. My dream job would be to run an art cooperative with Queer youth, especially because of how therapeutic it was for me. I think it can be so cathartic, you know? Even making abstract art and putting colors together. It taps into a part of the brain that doesn’t get accessed in this society.

NR: That’s really great. So, do you have any projects coming up? 

LA: Yes I do. I’m working on a lot of more expressive portraits that I really want to delve into. I want to do more gender-queer or gender ambiguity. The one I just made is called 'Bearded Lady,' and it comments on how others see queer people as circus freaks almost. It’s meant to bring awareness to marginalized groups to bring them to the status of the elite. It challenges the sort of white, heteronormative cis-genderes elite. It comments on things like class and other systems of oppression.

NR: I just love that your platform to do this is visual art, because there’s no hiding in that. You’re painting someone, and everyone who sees that painting will see that person; they become visible.

 LA: Definitely. And I was inspired by the Self-Evident Truths Campaign. I mean, the problem I have with the No H8 Campaign is it’s so focused on same-sex marriage, and it’s like they are so blown out and put into this conformed look that they lose their identity, and it becomes glamorized. The Self-Evident Truths Campaign is all about, ‘This is who I am; this is what I look like.’ That’s so much of what I needed when I was coming out, because we feel so alone and everyone tries to stereotype what Queer people look like, you know? It’s just…I don’t like when there’s so much policing about gender identity or sexuality, things like biphobia or transphobia or racism. I’m about stripping us down to our cores and being able to be us exactly as we are. 

NR: ‘Bearded Lady’ was definitely a fantastic piece of art. Now to close it out, what is kind of the ultimate statement you believe your artwork makes to others?

 LA: I think…I want to be the voice for people who feel powerless. I want to make something out there that happens to deal with queer themes, but can be enjoyed as art. I’m always trying to make a statement. I’m always trying to challenge people. Of course there’s a line between being in someone’s face and making them uncomfortable, which sometimes turns people off, and doing things in a way that makes them think about their own actions. It’s the same way I thought about my own privilege with being white and middle class. It’s even about seeing the things I don’t like about myself and working to change that. Hopefully, I can open up that dialogue for others to do that and let everyone know that it’s okay to look at your own flaws. If you’re in denial because you don’t want to admit you’re like ‘that guy,’ you’re just perpetuating the system. My art is the platform to have that dialogue.

A voice that spreads love, and fights for solidarity among all people

 Cynthia Alicea

Cynthia Alicea is a Puerto Rican singer from Newark, NJ. She often goes by the name Ms. Lovelee, because her message is always about loving one another. She has performed for thousands around the world, and I had the distinct pleasure of getting an intimate and in-depth look into what it means for this strong Latina to spread her message through her gift of music.

Nathan Rodriguez: When did you know that you wanted to be a singer?

Cynthia Alicea: Well, singing has definitely been something that I’ve always done. Dancing though, was actually what I first stepped into when I was about eight years old, but I was always singing along. It wasn’t until sixth grade that my chorus teacher Ms. Ferguson pulled me aside and asked if I realized I ‘had a voice.’ I didn’t think about it much; I was this little dork with glasses hopping around, but she really pushed me. She told me one day she was giving me a solo; she wanted me to sing “Hero” by Mariah Carey. From there, I went on to my eighth grade graduation where I got picked to do the solo as well, but again, at that point singing was something I liked to do, but I was still way more focused on the dancing. I still went on with it at the graduation, but I did have a moment that put a pause in my singing for a little while.

I went up there to sing Whitney Houston’s “One Moment in Time,” and I choked. Stage fright totally captivated me, and I actually ran off the stage. I cried like a baby. Still, something inside me couldn’t see myself not getting back up there to finish the song because it was such a disappointing moment for me, so I got back up there and I finished it. I got a standing ovation.

From there, I started joining chorus classes. But after I graduated high school, I worked for John Corzine’s office, and that was when my singing really took off because he had me sing for all his events. He used to hear me singing in the office, so before I knew it, I sang the National Anthem when he got sworn in as Governor of New Jersey. Then there was the Frank Lautenberg post office in Newark; they swore that in under his name, and he wanted me to sing then as well. I sang for Newark Bears games, then I auditioned for American Idol, but I was so shy for camera that they told me I had to come back and prepare.

NR: So it wasn’t an event, but more of a recurring theme in your life.

CA: Exactly. No one ever forgets that I sing. I could be anywhere and if I know someone, they’ll probably ask me to sing something. I used to get really shy about it, but I’ve broken out of that, especially with the label I’m with now: MJ Records. They have done an amazing job of building me up as an artist. They’re patient; they’re dedicated to making sure I’m successful. It’s wonderful.  

NR: What and/or who inspires you? Was there an artist’s style you liked, or a subject that you like to sing about?

CA: I am a love guru without a doubt. My nickname for a long time was “Lovely” and it stuck. Even my twitter information goes by that name, but I spell it “Lovelee” because my middle name is Lee. But love is definitely something I’m obsessed with. It can be love for your family members, love for yourself, love for another person…it’s just that heartbeat that you feel. I like to sing songs that mimic that heartbeat in a way where you can feel it. So love definitely inspires me.

My all-time favorite singer is Whitney Houston. When she passed on…I cried like it was my mother. She was just this voice that was extremely inspiring. It was in her character, the way she delivered herself on stage as an artist; she commanded that you listen to her by the way she delivered her voice. Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, all top favorites. Another really big impact was Crystal Lewis. She’s a contemporary Christian singer, for those who don’t know, and she gives me chills every time she sings.

NR: I love that all the artists you listed are women, mostly women of color. For you, being a woman in this industry…what are some of your struggles, and what are some of the things you do to incorporate your strengths as a woman?

CA: The music industry is extremely tough on women, I have to admit. I was in a group called Concepto Sabor which was managed by an individual named Junior Zunega. Unfortunately, because we were woman, he took advantage of us. For a while, we did production with him, we performed places, and we never saw a dime. It was pocketed by our manager. Things like that seem to happen a lot, because what happens is the women tend to forget to put that business cap on. People have to realize that. I love singing, but my voice isn’t for me. My voice is for the listener. When you look at it that way, your voice is a product; your voice is a brand. It’s a business. When you look at your gift as a business, you begin to think like a business woman. When you think like a business woman, personal no longer matters. Offending people is irrelevant. What matters is getting what’s owed to you. It’s knowing how to read contracts, and getting what you deserve. When people focus too much on saying ‘I just want to sing,’ they run the risk of being taken advantage of.

NR: So is that advice you’d give to other girls who feel this is their passion and want to sing?

CA: Absolutely. In music, everyone wants the bigger percentage, and you end up being a slave to the market if you aren’t careful. You have to go for what you want and not let anyone get in your way. If you feel like you’re right about something, you have to own it, in a professional way of course. You have to stand your ground when people attack you and knock you down. You have to rise above it.

Another piece of advice I’d give, that I learned myself from people in the industry, is ask questions. It is okay to trust people, and it’s also okay to get second opinions. Just because you get outside opinions doesn’t mean you don’t trust people; it means you’re doing your due diligence, and that means everything when it comes to protecting yourself.

NR: What would you say are some of your greatest successes as an artist so far?

CA: I would have to say one of my milestones was singing the National Anthem for the Governor. That was a moment I can never forget…seeing myself on TV was surreal. I was there for a historic moment.

NR: That must have been really special. What about your traveling? You’ve been doing a lot of that, haven’t you?

CA: Oh yeah. Well that is hugely because of the label I’m with now. They hooked me up with a very famous Latin artist named Henry Santos; he was part of the group Aventura. They introduced us, and at the time he was looking for a backup vocalist, and he had said something that really stood out: he said, “I love the color of your voice.” When he said that, it just made me feel so good, because when you hear other artists, sometimes you’re hard on yourself because you don’t sound like them, and you might feel like you aren’t as good. But when Henry said that to me, I instantly thought of a crayon box, where they are all different colors, but they’re all the same thing. One is not better than another, and that was so encouraging to me. So in May 2012, Henry and I linked up. I got to spend my 29th birthday in Switzerland, which was a phenomenal experience. Since then, I’ve been to Belgium, I’ve been to Chile…Texas, Atlanta, and if all goes well, we’ll be hitting the West Coast at the end of the month. It’s amazing. I mean, performing in front of twenty or fifty thousand people is a feeling I can’t even explain.

NR: Lastly, I know when I asked if you’d like to post a video of yours, you immediately suggested “Read All About It.” What is the special significance to that song?

CA: Well, as many people know, my sister is a Trans Woman. She was born my ‘brother,’ now she’s my sister. By no means was that transition an easy one. I mean, for the family, we have always been supportive. We love each other, and that is why love is such an important topic for me. When you look past who likes who, or what their personal decisions are, and just love each other…it just makes the world a better place. It was the first phrase of that song that caught my attention: “You have the words to change a nation, but you’re biting your tongue. You spend a lifetime stuck in silence feeling like you do something wrong. If no one ever hears you, how are they going to learn your song?” And she starts saying, “Come on, come on.” So with regards to the LGBT community, I mean look at the news. How many people have committed suicide because they are so embarrassed by something that’s so natural for them? We all have a voice to do good, and a voice to do bad. The song asks, ‘What are you going to do with that voice?’

I’m tired of seeing people feel like they need to be hidden because of who they are, who they were born to be. At the end of the day, the divorce rate is over 50% already…those are heterosexual relationships. They take advantage of that. When you have a community of people that fight to be able to have that commitment…that to me is special.

So when I heard that first phrase of the song, and of course with me having my sister in that community, that song stuck out to me. I looked at it as enough is enough, stand up and be yourself. Your voice can save lives whatever your topic is, whether it’s women who are abused or anything like that. You have to speak out, because you never know whose life you are going to change, and that’s why I sing. I might not have a voice to speak publicly in front of people, but if I can sing and change a life, that is what I am here for.‌