social movements + innovation lab


Kelly Baden’s Story

Kelly is a leader in national reproductive rights advocacy for state policy. Her time at CoreAlign taught her the importance of a community of practice as she learned to build relationships and value her own emotional connection to her work. After CoreAlign, she built SiX’s Reproductive Rights program from the ground up, letting the spirit of innovation, feedback, and trusted relationships guide her strategy.

No one in my family would have identified as a feminist, but by the time I was in middle school I knew I wanted to work in politics in a way that helped women. My parents weren’t activists, but they were committed voters. We would talk about voting and politics at our kitchen table while the news was on, and these conversations stuck with me in a big way. It’s actually hard to pinpoint when I decided to become involved with reproductive rights because it’s been instinctual for me. Or rather, I’ve always been the peacemaker. That was my nickname as a kid. I’ve always wanted fairness and diplomacy, and to help people flourish and live their lives accordingly. As a child, I recognized being part of the political system as a way to facilitate change. 

After studying political science and women’s studies in college (and bopping between pro-choice non-profits), I focused on state policy and advocacy from a national lens. I connected with SiX (State Innovation Exchange) and created a position for myself to build out their reproductive rights program. Nobody else was doing it. So, why not me? I felt an obligation to at least try. 

In some ways, it felt like my whole career rested on whether this program would succeed. This was the first time I’d ever built a project from scratch by myself. I worried that my program either needed to work or I would have to leave the movement altogether. While SiX trusted me to do the work, I had very little internal supervision. I kept the organizational leaders informed, but nobody kind of knew enough about reproductive rights to provide the kind of feedback I needed. It was both freeing and terrifying. 

This was also right after Trump was elected, so on the other hand I thought… What are any of us doing? We’re all failing miserably. Before this political moment, I had the idea that the people who put up ideas already know their ideas are good. But post-2016 (post- conventional wisdom around politics), I had a light bulb moment. I realized we all have opinions, and people whose ideas get realized just happen to be the loudest voices in the room, with a powerful organization behind them. I thought, if nobody knows anything… that means I know just as much as everybody else and therefore I should trust myself more. Let me try something new. From there, I operated with integrity and a spirit of innovation, prioritizing trusted relationships and feedback as core parts of my strategy.

My work with SiX came after my time working with CoreAlign, and I was part of the Rockwood Reproductive Justice fellowship when I took the position. The leadership development and community from both programs gave me a feeling that I could do this. In my first three months building the reproductive rights program at SiX, I did upwards of 60 partner stakeholder conversations and meetings with national and state coalition partners, just to float my ideas and get feedback. It was an exercise in vulnerability and leadership, and also gave me an understanding of how I’d spent the previous 10 years of my career building relationships that could make this work possible.

I quickly realized that I needed an external, movement-based advisory board to help shape the program. I felt and still, feel, accountable to them. Over time, I’ve also come to understand that there is a deep seated, long history of black state legislators not trusting my organization and not trusting the predecessor organizations that came to form SiX. There was and still is an intense amount of relationship repair that has been done, is being done, and still needs to be done. There’s a huge element of trust and relationship building in this work. I learned that from CoreAlign. 

This program was originally part of a one-year small grant. I was aware that if I didn’t deliver tangible outcomes there was no guarantee it would be renewed. So, I delivered. It’s now a much more significantly resourced project due to the team I built and the legislator relationships we’ve formed. I have a legislator cohort of 425 state legislators who declare themselves to be champions on reproductive freedom. We’re working to help them build their networks and relationships with each other; to get the support that they need. We are trying to make sure that we amplify the women of color in our legislative cohort and that they feel trusted and supported because there’ll be the first ones hung out to dry, as we’ve seen. 

I don’t know that I would have given myself the same permission to try things out even though they might fail without my time with CoreAlign. Through CoreAlign, I’d also learned to really recognize the emotional component of the work we do. Due to my whiteness, and white supremacy as a whole, before CoreAlign I hadn’t connected that in order to do this work I would I have to actually like tap into my emotions. It was just not the way I had built my career for the first 10 years. The practice connecting with other people in the movement, receiving feedback, and having authentic conversations and vulnerable conversations at CoreAlign was incredibly helpful to me and to the success of the SiX Reproductive Rights Program.