“It’s an honor for me to be there and hear this person break open their heart.”
All-Options National Programs Director Paulina Guerrero’s extensive experiences in abortion counseling, social work, harm reduction, and research have shaped her time leading the All-Options Talkline. Since 2018, Paulina has taken our Talkline and Faith Aloud programs to new heights by strengthening our judgment-free and caller-centered approach, developing our training curriculum, and building a talented, diverse team of nationally distributed volunteer Advocates and clergy counselors.
From starting out as the volunteer coordinator at the All-Options Pregnancy Resource Center in Bloomington, to providing Congressional testimony on the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Paulina’s leadership has allowed All-Options to emotionally support over 8,000 callers in their decisions regarding pregnancy, parenting, adoption and abortion. To commemorate the Talkline’s 19th anniversary, Paulina reflected on All-Options’ full-spectrum approach to counseling, connections between folklore and abortion storytelling, and the Talkline’s evolution over the past five years. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity).
When I joined All-Options in 2018, I was in the middle of a PhD at Indiana University. My PhD is in Folklore, which doesn’t seem to correlate with my work, but I’ve always been deeply interested in personal narrative and how stories shape our perceptions of the world.
From 2001 to 2011, I worked at an organization that helped folks access money for abortions. At the time, we were working with a tiny budget and were meant to do “financial counseling,” which often felt coercive and judgmental. Abortion funds had a lot less money in the 2000s — our total budget for one month was $350. Back then, even if folks could get abortions for as little as $275, we had to break that money apart to as many patients as possible. In hindsight, it would have been more equitable and humane to spread out the funding, first-come-first-serve, without vetting which clients had “skin in the game.” Assuming that people weren’t working hard enough to get their abortion felt absurd.
Before joining All-Options, I was at an organization doing harm reduction work and also working in mental health and substance use in southern Indiana. I was hired at All-Options to be the volunteer coordinator. When I took the Talkline training, I knew right away that it was something I wanted to be a part of. I found that the philosophy of harm reduction correlated with All-Options’ approach of radical unbiased, compassionate care for people making pregnancy decisions.
The All-Options counseling approach
People often come into abortion and pregnancy counseling thinking that they are the expert, and that they are going to educate clients. All-Options believes that the client has the answer, not the counselor. Another harm reduction principle we adhere to is that the client is the authority over their own lives. There is no wisdom we have that the person we’re supporting does not. We might have information and resources to offer, but ultimately, the decision lies with that person.
Part of the work is to foster an environment where people are able to hear themselves and what’s best for them without the influence of ideas or judgements from media, family, or others in their lives. We want to show up for someone and communicate that it’s understandable that they are making this decision. I’m not going to tell you what to do because I’m not in your shoes at all. That’s the approach I learned at All-Options, from harm reduction frameworks on mental health, as well as in folklore.
Clarifying the values that we hold is a crucial part of our trainings. Once you can recognize your own values, biases, and judgments, counseling becomes much easier because you can let go of your need to fix and solve someone’s life. You have to keep the problem-solving at bay at all times. We’re all connected, you see someone suffering and you want to fix it. But that desire often comes from a place of anxiety — e.g. “What you’re saying is making me anxious, and I want to solve it because I don’t want to feel this way anymore.” Releasing that need to problem-solve makes the work a lot more sustainable. I’ve seen people become burnt out and fall back to saviorism, but I’ve also seen people understand that if they sit back and use these skills and let go of an outcome, that approach liberates them too.
“We are simply here as peers to hold space and cut out the noise so that people can hear what’s going on inside of themselves.”
I reject the idea that just because I listened and gave you space, that I’m somehow your savior. That’s not what it’s about. It’s an honor for me to be there and hear this person break open their heart. I do hear people being very grateful to me and to the Talkline, and I’m really glad that Advocates are able to get that feedback from callers about what it means to them to have those conversations. Something I heard in a presentation on intimate partner violence is that it takes someone an average of 7 times to leave their abuser. Rarely are you that person who comes in at the end. I’m just one more person on this person’s path to healing. I don’t say that to disparage myself, but rather because it keeps me right-sized. The minute I think I know more than our callers, it won’t lead to much except boosting my ego.
The All-Options approach recognizes the client as valuable just for being here. We aren’t better or worse than them — we are simply here as peers to hold space and cut out the noise so that people can hear what’s going on inside of themselves. What makes these conversations so poignant, even in a short amount of time, is that Advocates are not trying to problem-solve, unlike the majority of folks who hear this person’s story. Instead, we ask about the scariest thing that someone says. For example — if someone says, “I wish I could go to sleep and not wake up,” that’s a scary statement. Instead of freaking out or ignoring it altogether, which is a common response, Advocates are trained to ask about that in a gentle, compassionate way, such as, “You mentioned wanting to go to sleep and not wake up. Can you say more about that?” Once a caller feels the safety of knowing that there is nothing they can say that would scare you or put you off, that generates a completely different conversation.
Folklore and abortion storytelling
Folklore is a discipline rooted in ethnographic research, which often includes longform interviews with people. Conducting these interviews requires many core counseling skills, such as active listening, reflecting, reframing, validating, and normalizing. A professor from my PhD program said that such interviews usually only last around 40 minutes before your interviewee gets tired. At this time, I was already working within the time frame of Talkline conversations, which are typically 30-40 minutes. Every 40-minute conversation contains an entire wealth of possibility — that is something for the caller to recognize, and for the advocate to facilitate. Talkline Advocates act more as midwives of the conversation, opening these doors and supporting these places where the caller might not have gone before.
I’ve been taught to look at narratives for red flags that I may want to go back to, or for different places where I can continue a conversation with someone. When I train Advocates, I’ll often unpack a scenario in training such as a client saying, “I need to get an abortion because of x, y, and z reasons… I’m also feeling guilt and fear, but…” Newer Advocates might try to problem-solve immediately. What I try to teach them is that there are glaring red flags in this narrative that I want to know more about. Not the logistics, but the feelings. I see the words “fear” and “guilt” — those are huge emotions, and that’s what I want to know more about. All I have to do is ask, “You mentioned fear. Can you talk about that?” People will talk about fear.
I wish we could have more transparent, nuanced narratives about abortion experiences. Storytelling is sometimes edited or managed to the point where it loses its granular intricacies and complexities. I’m a folklorist academic, so I could listen to someone talk about their abortion experience in great detail! Personal narrative is something that takes time to establish with someone. You can do six interviews with someone and still not get to the real stuff. Personal narrative allows you to analyze what people are saying to gain insight into how they experience the world. The words that encapsulate feelings are the doors that open for that person and yourself to engage each other authentically.
Talkline Through the Years
When I joined All-Options at the Pregnancy Resource Center in Bloomington, my main job was to run the Talkline. When the Talkline operated in-person from Bloomington, IN, there were a lot of younger white women volunteering. We really wanted to diversify along all lines, including race, gender, ethnicity, age, and experiences with parenting, pregnancy, adoption, and abortion. We really suffer from the monopolization of white women in feminist and reproductive rights movements, which has been catastrophic in certain cases. Reproductive justice has shifted the conversation by shedding light on the challenges to accessing abortion which are multiplied and exacerbated for Black, Indigenous, POC, LGBTQ, and other marginalized communities. It became pivotal to have a cohort of Advocates that reflected the folks calling us for support, who are extremely diverse along intersectional lines. Once we turned the Talkline into a remote program, we were able to recruit more and diverse advocates that better reflected the experiences of callers. And, the majority of Talkline Advocate applicants are still white women, so we continue to brainstorm ways to recruit diverse applicants.
Another major shift we made to the Talkline as our cohorts grew larger was setting up processes of support for Advocates. When we were in-person, our monthly meetings were at the Pregnancy Resource Center and usually included food and speakers, which fostered a strong community. Recreating this for remote cohorts was challenging at first, but we found success by cultivating the leadership of senior Advocates to mentor and emotionally support newer Advocates. These Advocates now run small mentor groups of 6-10 people for call processing support every other month. If you haven’t done this type of counseling before, you are going to need support around feelings that come up when someone tells a really challenging, brutal story.
I don’t let this work become my whole identity. I see people who want to make it theirs, and I understand why. We all become friends, the work is stressful, and we bond really quickly. That’s great! But in the long term, I’ve told volunteers and interns to go do something completely different when you aren’t working here, something that has nothing to do with abortion or reproductive justice. That way, you remember that when things go sideways, it’s not your whole life. It can’t be. As much as working on the Talkline has given me so much in my heart that I’ll never be able to capture, doing things outside of work that have nothing to do with abortion is so necessary.
I hope that All-Options can eventually expand the Talkline to answer the majority of the calls we receive. It’s unfortunate that funders don’t really prioritize emotional support – they think it’s all about clinic and legal work. But the data we collect at the Talkline shows us that when people had a positive experience receiving emotional support, they were more likely to support others in their pregnancy experiences. This is the kind of support that promotes culture change, and it’s the most important component of the work we do!
We recently participated in an 18-month study with Ibis Reproductive Health on the impacts of emotional support on abortion seekers. The study’s findings will be presented in an upcoming academic research paper and our new podcast, Support Unseen! Emotional support is the crux of the reproductive justice movement, in my opinion. That will be the key indicator for our movement to gain more ground. Giving people the opportunity to be a Talkline Advocate is also a life-changing experience. I have worked with so many people who shared that their Talkline Advocate experience changed the trajectory of their lives, which has been incredible to see.
I’ve always loved to teach and mentor. My experience at All-Options and providing Congressional testimony last year helped me to teach a class at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies department, and I’ve been offered a full-time position starting in January 2024. The training, mentoring, and teaching aspects of the Talkline have always been my favorite part of the job, and now I get to do this in a university capacity. I currently teach a 300 level history of reproductive health, rights, and justice course, and I get to incorporate a lot of what I’ve learned at All-Options in my classes. Working at All-Options on the Talkline has not always been easy, but it has been incredibly healing. It’s mind-blowing to be able to do such radical, compassionate care. This work not only helps people outside of you but can help heal you as well.