When Kersha Deibel was growing up in New Philadelphia — a predominantly white town in Northeast Ohio — the only thing she wanted to do was get out.
“I had a wonderful childhood,” she says. “But when you look different, your family looks different from other families in the town … growing up was definitely challenging, being a young woman of color.”
Her goal, she explains, was to get as far away as possible while still eligible for in-state tuition, so after she graduated, she attended the University of Cincinnati. Her father also attended UC and she was familiar with the diverse campus.
“It was a no-brainer,” she says about attending.
During her freshman year, her stepmother picked her up and took her to the Planned Parenthood in Mount Auburn
for birth control.
When she saw the protesters outside, she thought, “Goodness, woman, where are you taking me?”
Her stepmother assured her that everything would be fine — and it was.
Now she crosses the pro-life threshold every day.
“I walked into the doors there on Auburn Avenue and immediately, as soon as I talked to one of the staff there, I just felt a sense of relief, there was a sense of calmness inside the building,” Deibel says of her first visit. “People in the waiting room looked like me. There were mostly women, women of color, and I got the care that I needed.”
“For the first time, in that moment, I was talking about facts and sexuality and I was disclosing things that I really hadn’t disclosed before about my own sexuality and my own body and challenges I was having,” she continues. “So I just felt at home and safe.”
This experience led her to volunteer at that location in 2005. Sixteen years later, she’s still there as the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio
“I knew that this was a place that I mentally wanted to give more to,” she says. “I started volunteering for them shortly thereafter calling patients to remind them to come into their visit the next day.”
Deciding between two paths
After graduating from UC, Deibel attended Washington University in St. Louis to get a master’s degree in social work and public health.
But she also wanted to keep working for Planned Parenthood.
“There’s something here,” she says. “The way they talk to the patients, they’re non-judgmental. There’s this energy and this power and safeness and confidence inside this organization that I really liked. So I actually got a job with Planned Parenthood in St. Louis.”
Deibel became an options counselor — someone who talked women seeking abortions through their choices, the process, and anything else they needed to know.
She realized that she could take two paths with social work: clinical or emotional.
“I love the clinical aspects,” says Deibel. “A lot of my skills are really in the ‘heart phase,’ understanding feelings and emotional intelligence.”
She also understood that the laws and restrictions in Missouri kept them operating in a way that didn’t feel right. They had to work around policies that the state enacted on abortion providers which, in her mind, led to additional stigmatizations.
The fight for women’s rights
Deibel was only 18 when she first visited Planned Parenthood with her stepmother.
“For me, as a queer person of color in Ohio, it really did kind of kick start this decision to set my career forward,” she says, “and if this organization had not been here … If they didn’t provide such intentional care that allowed me to explore myself and my needs, I really don’t know where I would have been.”
Her position in St. Louis led her to activism, to figure out the sources of the laws and policies that were being made at the Capital in Jefferson City. She began lobbying every day on behalf of her patients.
From there, Deibel got a job with the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in Washington, D.C., where she ran a youth organizing program that worked with colleges across the country training people to run campaigns and push to elect officials who represented values for young people, queer folk, and the BIOPC community.
Called the Planned Parenthood Action to Run Campaign Issues, the goal, explains Deibel, was to elect people “who cared about values and really represented us.”
She worked at the national office for about eight years, moving up and across the organization in different capacities, but always utilizing and teaching the skills and resources needed to launch and win campaigns.
Expansion, new opportunities
Now Deibel is back where it all started: Mt. Auburn.
“I’m here, back at my roots and it has been an incredible, hard journey over the past 2.5 years, and one that I would never change for the world,” she says.
She credits the staff, the patients, and the young people Planned Parenthood educates in their sex education program — along with the incredible support that the organization has in Southwest Ohio — for making the sometimes difficult journey worth it.
And while the conversation around abortion and places like Planned Parenthood are still fraught with controversy, Deibel isn’t discouraged.
She crosses the line of protestors in Mt. Auburn that consists of about three people daily who, for the past 25-plus years, have only changed their pro-life signs that range from Bible quotes to images of aborted fetuses. And while it’s nothing compared to what larger cities deal with, it can still be intimidating to the people who use Planned Parenthood not just for abortion, but for healthcare as well.
“Our opposition as a whole, they really have one agenda, right? And it is to continue to further stigmatize abortion access and rid abortion care,” she says. “It really is an aggressive anti-abortion agenda that’s not just here in Southwest Ohio — this is a nation-wide agenda that these folks have to do just one thing, and it’s to continue to do one thing, which is ban abortion outright.”
They don’t intimidate Deibel, who says the Mt. Auburn location has an excellent security team, but it could discourage people who use Planned Parenthood from coming in for other important medical needs like birth control, STI testing, and cancer screenings.
“For more than 80% of our patients, we are their only health care provider. So they’re not going to another health care provider,” she says. “We really do have an opportunity to look at the services we’re providing, holistic needs, and how to ensure that we are meeting patients holistic needs when we are the only people they are going to for care.”
That’s not to say that there aren’t dangers associated with the work. In the 80s, there was arson, and there’s always the threat of violent protestors.
“I think it’s resilience, right? For me, there’s no other option to cross, in my mind. I am deeply committed to this work because I know what’s at stake if I don’t,” Deibel says. “And what’s at stake is people not having access to the care that they need and, so, I’m willing to cross the line in order to lead an organization full of people who are even more deeply committed to this work every day.”
“No matter how much we’re committed,” she continues, “we have to always consider safety as a part of our work. And to be honest, [the protesters] are not always harmless. I think the organization has a long history with folks who are deeply out of touch with the views of many people here in Ohio who come to access abortion care.”
Never the less, they persist: The Mt. Auburn location recently launched a gender-confirming care program for trans and gender non-conforming patients. According to Deibel, it was a really big project that was paused during the pandemic, but has now resumed operation and is actively working with the community.
In order to make sure they were speaking a language that makes this community feel seen, heard, valuable, and equitable, the staff trained with Tristan Vaught, co-founder of Transform
, which helps transgender youth outfit themselves for free based on their identified gender.
“No matter what, we are resilient and we continue to fight for our patients so they can live their dreams and make those dreams a reality,” Deibel says.
Planned Parenthood isn’t going anywhere and isn’t backing down: Deibel says there will be additional expansions in programming slated for 2022. According to her, the next strategic plan is big and audacious but it’s designed to make both staff, patients, and the people who help them thrive continue to feel a sense of belonging and equity across the organization.
“At the end of the day, [Planned Parenthood of Southwest Ohio] has been around for over 90 years, so we aren’t going to stand for people who have an aggressive agenda to restrict access,” she says. “And thank goodness we have a strong, really diverse coalition here in Ohio who just fight every day to secure access to abortion care in Ohio and especially for young folks, people of color, folks in poverty, and the LGBTQ+ community.
“No matter what you do, you always have opposition, right? But the beautiful thing is that we fight every day — for our patients — to make sure that the doors stay open,” she says, and they will stay open no matter what.”