Nonfiction: A Professional Troublemaker’s Guide for Young Activists


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Cecile Richards at a House Government Oversight committee hearing.

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Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

MAKE TROUBLE
Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead
By Cecile Richards with Lauren Peterson
304 pp. Touchstone. $27.

Cecile Richards — the outgoing president of Planned Parenthood — may look calm and unflappable with her trademark blue suits and neat cap of golden hair, but she’s a troublemaker from way back. As a sixth grader in Dallas she refused to say the Lord’s Prayer in class. As a junior high schooler in Austin, she wore a black armband to express solidarity with the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, infuriating the principal. The rest is history. “Make Trouble” takes us through Richards’s life in activism and politics: Before Planned Parenthood, she had a full and varied career that included union organizing, starting the progressive organization America Votes and working for Nancy Pelosi. But there’s lots more, including loving depictions of family and friends, from the legendary Texas journalist Molly Ivins to her mother, Ann Richards, the “frustrated housewife” who became the beloved first (and so far only) woman governor of Texas.

Richards paints some vivid pictures of life in politics, too. For example, despite misgivings, she reached out to Ivanka Trump after hearing that she might want to help Planned Parenthood. They met at a Trump golf club in New Jersey, where Ivanka and her husband, Jared, offered her a deal: If Planned Parenthood stopped performing abortions, funding for birth control might go up. “Jared and Ivanka were there for one reason: to deliver a political win. In their eyes, if they could stop Planned Parenthood from providing abortions, it would confirm their reputation as savvy dealmakers. It was surreal, essentially being asked to barter away women’s rights for more money.”

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Books by public figures, especially when written with help from others — Lauren Peterson is a speechwriter — are often pretty deadly, but “Make Trouble” manages to be genial, engaging and humorous. (“It was almost like dealing with kidnappers,” is how Richards describes the months of waking to find yet another doctored video claiming to prove that Planned Parenthood sold fetal tissue.) She’s good at sharing credit and giving praise — especially to her husband, the longtime labor organizer Kirk Adams, who was always game to move to a new city, take on a new adventure and pitch in with raising their three children. Her portrait of Nancy Pelosi as a nice person, a thoughtful boss and a brilliant strategist largely responsible for the passage of the Affordable Care Act (without the Stupak amendment that would have banned insurance coverage for abortion) is a pleasant corrective to the increasingly common view of her as an incompetent witch.

As its title implies, this is not just a memoir but a call to action. Richards wants you to know that you too can make social change. She also wants you to know that a life of social activism is fun. She offers career advice (“never turn down a new opportunity”) and even travel tips (“try to know where the best ice cream is in any given airport terminal”). Considering how often progressives are portrayed as joyless scolds, this is a message that needs to get out more. There’s a lot of satisfaction in activism, even if you don’t win every battle.

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