Words by Lauren Van Schepen // Photos by Marie Ketring
Sarah Stoesz is often behind a microphone. But that’s what happens when you’re the CEO of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota. Whether she’s organizing staff, rallying supporters, or talking to the press, Sarah’s schedule is packed with speaking engagements to groups large and small. But at YNPN-TC’s Breakfast of Champions, Sarah forewent the mike in favor of a more intimate experience to share personal stories with attendees.
Raised in the South by parents involved in the civil rights movement, Stoesz was taught from an early age that “our lives should be purposed toward changing the world and making it a better place.” This underlying ethic led her from cause to cause as she traveled around the world.
She studied in Latin America.
“I was reminded there that the world was unfair and needed fixing.”
She worked in union organizing.
“Women took over Local 17 [hospitality union] and got rid of the ridiculous requirements they had [for us], like wearing high heels or bunny suits to work.”
She also worked for Wellstone.
“That job solidified what I’d always known from my church background and from my family: [That] career decisions need to come from values, integrity, morals, and an ethical commitment.”
This consideration of personal values is what brought Stoesz to work in health care. She described her first position in the field at Allina Health as a crash course in business. “I walked in one day and someone said we’d be looking at financials. I thought to myself, ‘What could those possibly be?’” She laughs at the memory, but the steep learning curve at Allina paid off 14 years ago when a search firm called about the CEO position at Planned Parenthood. Stoesz was thrilled.
“Reproductive rights are essential,” she explained. “There’s a deep struggle in the world over women’s autonomy and it’s articulated through their power — or lack thereof — over their own bodies. There are actually people elected in this country who don’t believe women should have access to birth control. Education, housing, food — those are all deeply important issues. But if you can’t control if and when you have children? Well, that’s just a bottom line health issue.”
But how does Sarah stay motivated to work on an issue that faces such vocal opposition? “You have to set your expectations in a historical context,” Stoesz says. “Everything that’s happening isn’t new and momentous. I mean it is, but it also exists on a continuum of progress. It’s our job to hold the candle, keep it lit for the time we have it, and pass it off to the next person. That perspective makes it all less stressful.”
And when it comes to interacting with those who have differing views? Stoesz quickly pointed out that it’s not about convincing someone to come over to your side. “It’s about listening and letting people live their values in front of you; to explain their human experience. They can still hold their values and you can hold yours, but you have an understanding. That’s the ideal.”
Below, three breakfast-goers share their takeaways from the morning:
I’m walking away from this morning with a new drive to find a job that aligns with my values; to feel passionate and driven to work hard on important issues; to align my work with the rest of my life; and to match it up with what I believe my purpose in life may be.
I was really happy to hear her perspective on how to think of movements and struggles in a historical context. As I’ve made my way through the political and nonprofit world over the past ten years, I’ve found it can be really frustrating. It’s nice to hear someone say “No, things happen bit by bit, and you’re part of something much larger.” I can’t express how helpful that is to hear, especially as you’re starting a career in social justice.
Sarah talked about taking your ethics with you to work and finding a job that aligns with your personal values. That’s not something I considered with my last position, so it’s heavy on my mind as I enter another job search. Hearing that reminder to find people who share your beliefs was an eloquent way of expressing something I hadn’t quite been able to put my finger on before. Other people may say it, but it’s clear Sarah is actually doing it every day and has been for the 14 years she’s been at Planned Parenthood. I think that’s straight up awesome.
This piece is a summary of a conversation with Sarah Stoesz, which took place at Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota on February 13, 2015, as part of Pollen and YNPN-TC’s joint Breakfast of Champions series. For more information, or to register for an upcoming event, check ynpntwincities.org.