In this month’s At the Helm, our Senior Consultant Lynn Shevory spoke with Brittany Fonteno, CEO at our client Planned Parenthood Arizona. Brittany held senior positions at Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood of Southern New England before taking on her current role in November of last year. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe vs. Wade, Brittany shares how the organization is responding, what’s on the horizon for their healthcare services, education, and advocacy efforts, and the most rewarding and challenging aspects of her first year as President & CEO.
Lynn: You have dedicated the majority of your career to advocating for sexual and reproductive health rights. What brought you specifically to Planned Parenthood Arizona?
Brittany: What really drew me to Arizona was watching the 2020 election unfold and seeing the shift that was taking place on the ground in the state. Arizona’s communities—and specifically, communities of color—organized to turn out the vote and help deliver a democratic president. Seeing Arizona go blue (even if only at the federal level) and the same happen in other historically conservative states – it was really exciting. I grew up in Virginia, and during my childhood, the state was reliably red. Then, the past several elections, it has become reliably blue. I wanted to be a part of making that same shift happen here in Arizona. The work had already begun, so we had to make sure it wasn’t a fluke – that especially, in this pivotal moment for reproductive rights, Arizona would continue progressing.
Now, we’re a couple months shy of your first-year anniversary as President & CEO. What have been the most rewarding moments? The most challenging?
It has been a whirlwind – what a time to step into a CEO role at Planned Parenthood!
I would say there are 3 things that have been especially rewarding. The first has been launching new service offerings to better meet the needs of our patients. A majority of our patient population is Gen Z or millennial, women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community. Understanding the demographics and diversity of our patient base – that was one of the reasons we decided to roll out gender-affirming care. We knew we had trans or non-binary patients who already trusted us for sex education and advocacy, and they were telling us gender-affirming care was also something they wanted. It’s been a really popular offering. In the past year, we also rolled out telehealth. We know that young people are less likely to come to a health center in person. They live their lives on their phones, and they want the flexibility of being able to see their Planned Parenthood provider from wherever they are. Telehealth has also provided a great opportunity to connect with patients living in rural communities. Arizona has a lot of wide-open spaces – places where it would take people hours to get to their nearest provider. Telehealth has been an effective solution. In addition, we have established the organization’s first research department which is designed to help aid advancements for sexual and reproductive healthcare. It’s an incredible feeling to know we are serving our patients better so they can live their healthiest lives.
Second, it’s been very rewarding to hire an executive leadership team. Granted, it was daunting to have to build out the team when I first came onboard, but now that I’m coming to the end of that process, it feels really good to have had that opportunity. I’m confident that the team we have created will lead us into the next chapter.
Lastly, it was rewarding to help our organization prepare for the fall of Roe vs. Wade. We knew for quite some that the writing was on the wall, so seeing how teams from across the organization were able to come together, galvanize, and prepare for this historic event – I’m very proud. And it wasn’t just that we prepared for the day, we prepared for how we would have to evolve our business model, operations, and advocacy work – the Supreme Court’s decision touches every aspect of the work we do. And while planning for this new future, our organization always remained there for our patients and communities. It was inspiring to see.
Of course, the Supreme Court’s decision is also the most challenging experience I’ve had since becoming CEO. We have never lost a constitutional right in the history of our country, and now we have. Not only does this impact our work, it impacts us as people who have lost a fundamental right. It’s challenging to hold and make space for multiple truths: that you can be angry but also energized to make a difference, devastated but also empowered to stand up and lead during an unprecedented and uncertain time. That’s been hard.
It’s been impressive to see how you and your team have kept up morale.
We are committed to the work we do. The overturning of Roe vs. Wade only underscores why our mission is so critical and must be fought for every single day.
You touched on the wide range of sexual and reproductive health services that Planned Parenthood offers. Some people think that you only provide such healthcare services just to women, but that’s not the case, is it?
That’s right. A lot of people assume Planned Parenthood only provides women’s healthcare. I think it’s important for people to understand that we really serve everyone: people of all ages, genders, races, sexual orientations, immigration statuses, and so on. We strive to make sure our services and staff are as inclusive as possible in delivering healthcare that is affordable, culturally competent and humble, and responsive to our community’s needs. We are actually engaging in a market analysis right now to better understand the gaps between the services our communities desire and what we are currently offering so we can adjust our services accordingly.
You mentioned the Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Can you share more about how that has impacted the organization’s ability to deliver on mission? How are you responding?
Of course, the biggest impact for us in Arizona is that there’s no longer clarity on what the abortion law is. For several weeks now, we have been living in a state of chaos and confusion. Because of that, we have had to pause abortion services. That was an incredibly devastating decision to have to make. It was a decision none of us wanted to make, but we were forced to. Anti-abortion politicians in the state of Arizona are working hard to create an environment where providers are fearful and patients don’t fully understand their rights. We have also had to increase security at some of our health centers. Unfortunately, there are people who turn to violence when they disagree with the healthcare we are providing. It’s been a difficult time.
Another change we are seeing is an increase in requests for birth control – which is not surprising. We have patients coming in and asking more and more for long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs) such as IUDs or implants. They can last 3-7 years and are the most effective forms of contraceptive for preventing unintended pregnancy. So, the request for them has skyrocketed. We have also seen a lot of people coming in asking for vasectomies – that’s a service we’re hoping to expand to include this fall.
We’re also responding to the Supreme Court’s decision by creating what we’re calling “safer s3x sacks” (that’s how the young people are spelling it these days!). These are free kits that are distributed in our health centers and through community partners and contain emergency contraception, condoms, lube, resources for abortion access and other sex education resources, and a voter registration card. We want to try to empower people to take control of their bodies and their lives at a time when the Supreme Court is trying to strip them of that ability.
And then lastly, we’re responding by really focusing our time and efforts on the midterm elections. Here in Arizona and across the country, there has been renewed energy around midterms. Midterms typically have low turnout and don’t go well for the party that is in federal power. I think before the Supreme Court’s decision, the midterms were not competitive. But now they are. People are mad as hell that their rights have been taken away, and it’s our focus at Planned Parenthood to help advocate on their behalf.
Looking ahead, what’s on the horizon for Planned Parenthood Arizona?
While we are devastated, enraged, and grieving the Supreme Court’s decision, it will not stop us from delivering on our mission now or in the future. Our mission is really a 3-legged stool: healthcare, advocacy, and education. So in terms of healthcare, we are going to continue our service expansion by rolling out vasectomies and completing our market analysis, as I mentioned. We are also working to rapidly expand our family planning services, with the understanding that such services are much more critical in a state like Arizona where abortion may or may not be legal.
In terms of education, we’re focused on growing our footprint across the state, both in person and online. We are piloting a peer education program for young people starting next year. It’s going to be designed to provide them with medically accurate, inclusive, and comprehensive sex education that they can share with other young people in their lives. After all, we know that young people often turn to each other for information about sexuality, so we want to equip them with the right information. Prior to my current role, I worked at another Planned Parenthood affiliate, and one of the teams I led there actually had an award-winning peer education program. I have seen firsthand how impactful it can be for young people. So, we are really excited about that program.
And then lastly, when it comes to our advocacy efforts, we will be focused on midterms as I mentioned. We want to see pro-reproductive rights champions elected, with the hope that we can partner with them during the next legislative session to pass proactive legislation that would support reproductive freedom and our patients’ abilities to access reproductive healthcare. And of course, perhaps most obviously, we are focused on securing abortion access and rights for Arizonians in the future. We are in the process of exploring different avenues to make that a reality.
This is all such important work – and of course, work that requires funding. What role does fundraising play in the vision?
As you point out, it takes resources to deliver on mission – especially during this time of immense challenge and transition. Fundraising plays a very critical role in our next chapter. We are currently hiring for a Chief Development Officer; they are the last piece of the puzzle of the leadership team I’m building. I think it’s a great opportunity for a number of reasons. We have so many incredible stalwart donors who are very dedicated to supporting our mission. At the same time, there are a lot of new donors we are attracting, who share our rage about the Supreme Court and who want to make a difference. Of course, it’ll be an important task to make sure they’re not just one-time donors, but really part of our lasting community. I think there’s also a lot of room for innovation in the CDO role. Since we are in a moment of transition, now is the time for new leaders to really form the teams they want and make their mark. It’s a chance to benefit from a solid foundation while also shaping a program into the future – especially as we are currently embarking on a strategic planning process for the next three years.
I’m excited for us to find a strategic, creative, and relationships-oriented leader who will help us take our fundraising to a new level. So, if that appeals to you—and you want to play an important role in shaping the future of our organization and reproductive freedom in Arizona—please be in touch!
One final question: what advice would you share with fellow new leaders?
Two things come to mind as most important. First, perseverance. There are going to be days when you feel like you can’t do it; you have to keep going even when you hit roadblocks and just know that it will get better. Second, trust yourself. Of course, be open to feedback and evolving; no single person knows everything. But at the same time, trust your gut and trust your vision.