The anatomy of true cooperation

By Margie Mathewson

A few weeks ago, Brenda Kay Zylstra wrote a column explaining the Pregnancy Resource Forum, a project initiated by the Illini Collegians for Life (ICFL) and co-sponsored by UIUC campus National Organization for Women (NOW). Zylstra and Margie Mathewson, NOW’s President, discuss what they learned from this improbable pairing.

Brenda: From the start, my group wanted a broad spectrum of campus units and organizations. We wanted to expand beyond the typical pro-life allies of Republicans, Catholics and Evangelicals. This project has a much broader scope. Furthermore, a genuine pro-life philosophy should necessarily entail caring for quality of life beyond birth. In my introductory e-mail to Margie, I asked for her and NOW’s help as ICFL strove to make real progress on this campus for women, an underlying premise of both groups’ philosophies.

Margie: When I received Brenda’s e-mail, I discussed the possibility of working with ICFL with the rest of my group and we agreed to let her come speak at one of our meetings on behalf of ICFL. Since it was my first semester as president, I was especially tentative about making sure we were upholding the ideals of NOW. We weren’t initially certain this project fit those ideals. Furthermore, this is almost certainly the first time campus NOW has worked with any pro-life group.

BKZ: I came to a NOW meeting. I spoke for an awkward five minutes, tried to smile a lot, and got a lot of blank stares. On my way out, I called ICFL’s president and told her I had bombed.

MM: While Brenda was at the meeting, I tried to remain neutral, because I very much wanted to work by consensus with my group. But when she left, I advocated for working with ICFL. Though we were still slightly wary, ultimately this project seemed to be a worthwhile endeavor and a rare opportunity in finding common ground. The fact that ICFL was reaching out to us, and that Brenda had the guts to come to our meeting really impressed us.

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    BKZ: So (to my surprise), NOW agreed to work with us. We knew their support would give our project enormous momentum. Pro-life and pro-choice college activists working together? More than a few times I heard someone jokingly say we’d see peace in the Middle East first; certainly hyperbole but reflective of the culture in which we live.

    MM: The PRF was quite a success, and both groups are committed to following up and continuing this alliance next year. In retrospect, NOW was very happy with how carefully ICFL treaded the line when working with us. They took care to be respectful of our differences while emphasizing that which we have in common. Giving them our name and support was a bit of a risk and they could have very easily misrepresented us – intentionally or not – but they always were very honest and transparent about what was happening.

    BKZ: Likewise, we knew that NOW was going against the status quo by linking their name with ours. They didn’t have any particular reason to trust us, and perhaps a few reasons to think us suspect, but Margie always gave me the benefit of the doubt in our communications. When it came down to it, one of the strongest lessons I learned from this entire project was that I would far rather work with people who passionately disagree with me than those who apathetically agree.

    MM: This was a great reminder that sometimes the labels we give ourselves wall us off from people for no good reason. Abortion is still an important cause for both sides; we haven’t lost anything there. But it shouldn’t, and didn’t, define our interactions on this project. And because we were able to set that aside, we forged a relationship between our groups which is both lasting and groundbreaking.

    BKZ: Already the PRF was three weeks ago, and graduation looms for many members. But those who remain behind will continue working together to implement the changes necessary for helping women on this campus. Once we got past the semantics, once we met face-to-face and started talking, all the misgivings seemed silly – we have so much in common, after all.