By Jessica Suriano
Georgia has lawmakers who have tried to push through some of the most repressive anti-abortion legislation in the country, a governor accused of undermining voter access, and a history of fear-inducing anti-immigration policies — but it also has Park Cannon.
During her first term as the youngest woman and youngest Democrat to serve the state’s general assembly, the now-28-year-old Georgia state representative and self-described “activist elected official” wrote legislation that pushed for medically accurate HIV and AIDS prevention to be included in school sex education; expanded protections against discrimination of sexual assault victims; proposed a state constitutional amendment that would allow 17-year-olds to vote in state elections; called for comprehensive state civil laws that would protect people from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations, and more. She also protested the contentious bills that were taking over her state, most notably one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the country. While pro-choice policy might be hard to pass in Georgia, where Republicans control both the state House and Senate, that hasn’t deterred Cannon from seeking equality in reproductive healthcare — or from standing up for everything else she believes in, too.
Her passion is also personal: She is a queer Black woman who has experienced homelessness. She is the daughter of a Vietnam War veteran, and wants more affordable housing for veterans and people living with HIV. She is a doula, a trained individual who helps others throughout pregnancies or terminated pregnancies; has received an abortion herself; and wants to ensure reproductive justice for all of the people living in her state. She knows she's not alone in her circumstances, and she knows life can be easier for the 10.5 million people who live in her state.
“Like many other people in the United States, I have seen the best and worst,” she told MTV News. “It is a human right for anyone to be able to feel as though they're living in a safe community, parenting in a place where they have resources, and mobilizing towards a better version of themselves.”
Her firsthand experiences may have solidified her decision to run for the first time in 2016, but it was the former representative for District 58, Simone Bell, who planted the idea in her brain. At the time, Cannon was working as a health advocate at the Feminist Health Center, where she regularly interacted with Bell through their parallel policy goals. “One of the things that was really important to me was to think about what’s missing in the chamber and what’s missing in the conversations — what’s missing in a seat for someone who can actually vote?” Bell told The Georgia Voice. “That’s how I started thinking about who would be a particularly good person in this position. And when I called Park, I thought about reproductive justice and what she could bring to that conversation.”
Cannon beat opponent Ralph Long III by 18 points in a runoff election in 2016, and in 2018, won her seat in a landslide. She believes that the 2020 election will be key for voters showing up to the polls, in part because it is a census year, which means there is an opportunity for elected officials to balance state funding into causes that merit more financial support.
One of those key causes for Cannon is maternal mortality prevention. Georgia’s maternal mortality rate is one of the highest in the country — almost twice as high as the national rate — and the risk of pregnancy-related deaths for Black women is three to four times higher than that of their white counterparts. With 2019’s House Resolution 447, Cannon and several other representatives are seeking to allocate $10 million to study the causes of infant and maternal mortality and to create a commission that would propose solutions. In practice, Cannon said she plans to dig deeper into how much the hospitals in her district are distributing toward prenatal services, if people pursuing medical school can be adequately trained and afford to complete their educational programs, and if the costs of delivery in a Georgia hospital are too high.
Such healthcare reforms are also intrinsically tied to the conversation surrounding abortion access, and by extension, healthcare as a whole. “People should not only seek reproductive health and reproductive rights, but they should have access to reproductive justice,” she told MTV News. “In order to have access to reproductive justice there are really four tenants of that: that means that you have the right to parent, the right to not parent, the right to live in a safe community, and the right to bodily autonomy.”
When Governor Brian Kemp signed the fetal heartbeat abortion law in May, he touted it as a “declaration that all life has value” and that “all life is worthy of protection” in the state of Georgia. Meanwhile, according to the most recent data available, approximately 62 Black mothers per 100,000 live births in Georgia die and the state had almost 14,000 children in foster care as of May of this year. (Moreover, 20 people in Georgia have been fatally shot by police in 2019 so far.) The law was temporarily blocked from taking effect by a federal judge, but its long-term future remains unclear.
And Cannon believes that reframing the Georgia General Assembly’s demographics is key in ensuring that such laws become few and far between. Women comprise slightly more than half of the state population, but less than one-third of elected officials in its General Assembly are women, and only about 16 percent are women of color. Five members — roughly 2 percent — are openly LGBTQ+; per the latest census. “What we know is that the majority of the people who are elected to the state right now are men over reproductive age who are not of color,” she told MTV News. “And so they do not actually involve themselves with or work with any of the people who need to access this specific reproductive healthcare service.”
In the meantime, Cannon and some of her colleagues have drafted bills that would appoint women to regulate men’s reproductive health as a way to underscore the need for parity in the lawmaking process. One of these, HR 498, proposed the creation of an all-women committee to study erectile dysfunction and recommend any new legislation about it. Another, HB 618 or the “Vanishing Viagra Act,” would remove Viagra from the prescription benefits of state employees’ health insurance. And Dar’shun Kendrick of the 93rd district wrote an entire legislative package called the “Testicular Bill of Rights,” which proposed banning vasectomies and requiring cisgender men to get permission from a sexual partner before seeking a Viagra prescription; the package was intended to show what regulation of male cisgender bodies and reproductive choices would look like from a legislative standpoint.
Cannon herself introduced House Bill 604, which would require any man who is 55 years of age or older to report to a local law enforcement agency every time he “releases sperm from his testicles.” These pieces of legislation won’t get hearings; in fact, Cannon acknowledged they won’t move anywhere in the political process in Georgia. “But we did show for the first time in that chamber that women and people who have been impacted by men's decisions on their reproductive health – we have the right as well to write any legislation that we want and that we will be very intentional about it,” she says.
It’s too soon to tell who Cannon’s opponents will be in 2020 — qualifying for the next election hasn’t happened yet — but she already notices something different about the campaign cycle: “The instances of voter suppression are continuing to rise and we are concerned that leading into the 2020 election, people will have more voter apathy,” she told MTV News.
Of particular note is the cautionary tale of Georgia’s last gubernatorial race: One month before election day in 2018, the Associated Press reported that over 53,000 voter registration applications, nearly 70 percent of them from Black applicants, were put on hold in then-Secretary of State Kemp’s office because of the state’s contentious “exact match” policy. Kemp won the election over Stacey Abrams; her voting rights nonprofit, Fair Fight Action, then joined forces with the domestic-worker organization Care in Action to file a lawsuit about allegations of voter suppression. Their opening argument claims Kemp and the State Election Board, “grossly mismanaged an election that deprived Georgia citizens, and particularly citizens of color, of their fundamental right to vote.” Abrams also launched the Fair Fight 2020 campaign to ensure voter protections next year and beyond.
Sparking change by going to the voting booth or rallies is one side to the fight; just as important, Cannon said, is supporting people from marginalized communities, and ensuring that they not only have access to their elected officials, but also feel heard by them.
“One of the first steps towards culture change is listening to understand,” she said. “And some of the people who I serve with, they don't understand me until they listen to understand me. They don't understand the experiences of my trans staff members until they actually work with my trans staff members.”
But that kind of work doesn’t come without a cost; for her part, Cannon had to safeguard her mental health to avoid burnout, and she understands why other politically active young people may need to prioritize self-care at times, too.
“It takes courage to be vulnerable,” she said. “As you walk through vulnerability, sometimes you are shamed by others. The political experiences that I have felt over the past four years have absolutely tried to knock me down or to ask me to be silent.”
She has a routine to get through those experiences and says others others who want to claim their stake in our political process need one, too: “If it means that sometimes you have to turn off your phone, close out the Internet and channel your ancestors, well go ahead and do it,” she continued. “If it means that you actually need to make concerted efforts to make changes to the community that you live in so that there is accessibility for yoga in libraries or that there is actually a space for requesting peace, then we need to do that.”
Most of all, working toward her goals in Georgia is not a mission Cannon is pursuing alone. “Surrounding myself with people who are passionate about the [same] things as I am” is central to the work of reminding herself that things will turn out OK, she explained. “And that way, I'll be alongside other people as they change and make our democracy better.”