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An Advocate’s Advocate: The Divine Ms. Valerie DeFilippo

Stories and Profiles Wendy Turnbull, Senior Advisor, International Advocacy

Much has been written about Val’s passion and commitment to sexual and reproductive health and rights in the days since we learned of her death — all of it spot on. I’m still in disbelief she’s gone, that there will be no more planned or accidental trips together. She was and remains one of the most masterful and formidable advocates many of us have worked with. To say Val was a fierce defender of providers and services in the field is an understatement. The field was her touchstone. We didn’t always see eye to eye going into a raw strategy discussion, but we always ended up on the same page.

Such was the case when the Global Gag Rule was reinstated in 2001. Soon thereafter she arrived in DC to rebuild Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) Global Partners, quickly and methodically hiring the best and brightest from colleague organizations (and causing some angst within the community). At PAI, we’d been working with Pathfinder International, EngenderHealth, Ipas, and The Guttmacher Institute on a policy research initiative documenting the impact of the Gag Rule on family planning and reproductive health services and supplies in select countries.

Val and PPFA joined our determined Gag Rule consortium after we were partly underway. She dove into the work headfirst: reviewing country case studies, writing fact sheets, and framing our messages. What I loved more than her brilliant mind was her ego, which she parked outside the door. She listened to, wrote alongside, and engaged mid-level and junior staff as her peers in group discussions. She won our admiration and appreciation.

By 2007, during Val’s time with the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) London, we’d finally orchestrated a congressional hearing on the Gag Rule’s impact. Showcasing country experiences was paramount, and Ghana was chosen in short order. Val worked with Planned Parenthood Association of Ghana (PPAG) advocacy and program staff to craft the written testimony. It was as factual and detailed a statement as it was emotional and gripping. Val helped infuse PPAG’s statement with personal stories and potent service delivery stats—including a documented increase in post-abortion care cases after PPAG’s community-based distribution of contraceptives was ended due to the Gag Rule restrictions. As Val knew would be the case, evidence of ongoing Gag Rule impact was just under the surface and it strengthened our hand in persuading Congress to exempt contraceptives from the Gag Rule.

Val taught us how to have fun doing the advocacy work we love, with partners who make it worthwhile.  She was a mentor, career advisor, wise mother, and seasoned advocate. Although I didn’t fully realize it at the time, she was also a gifted grief counselor to me after Terri Bartlett died suddenly in 2008, and we spent hours talking about ‘what if’ while cleaning out Terri’s DC condo for her family. Leading FP2020 was tailor-made for Val, and she relished the challenges and bold vision it encompassed. The unofficial motto of the Opportunity Fund of AFP—“Commitments get headlines, advocates get results”—is one I know she wholeheartedly concurred with and made happen on a daily basis.

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