by Frank Murtaugh
Ashley Coffield grew up in Hot Springs, Arkansas, with a twin sister. Walking the halls of Lakeside High School, both Ashley and Courtney grew accustomed to being identified as “the twins.” But never did they hear such a tag from their mother. And not once were they dressed as children to serve as mirror reflections of one another. They were raised as the unique, distinctive individuals they happen to be. Meet Ashley today and it shows.
“I went to a great public high school,” says Coffield, since 2013 the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region (PPGMR). “I was encouraged to be a leader and to get involved in my community. I was involved in student government; always wanted to make things better. I was the kid who talked out in class and said, ‘I don’t think that’s right.’ I’d go to the principal’s office and say we should do things differently.”
The Coffield sisters made a conscious decision to go their separate ways for college, with Courtney attending the University of Arkansas and Ashley heading to Memphis to attend Rhodes. (“I loved the urban environment that Rhodes sat in, and I wanted to try a big city. I liked the small class sizes.”) After graduating in 1992 with a degree in urban studies, Coffield earned a master’s in public administration at Texas A&M. She then moved to Washington, D.C., and started a career in healthcare advocacy, thriving on the buzz — and reach — found in the nation’s capital. “People there,” she says, “in their own nerdy way, think they’re the center of the universe. My focus when I left graduate school was finding a job with a focus on population health.”
Coffield seemed to have found a home at Partnership for Prevention, a nonpartisan collaboration between corporations and government leaders tasked with studying and implementing disease-prevention strategies. She was named executive director in 1998 (still shy of her 30th birthday), but chose to return to Memphis in 2001 when she and her husband, Mac, decided to start a family. (They’re now the parents of two boys, ages 12 and 15.) Coffield continued to work with Partnership for Prevention from her new Memphis home, and joined the board of Planned Parenthood, where she’d been a patient and volunteer during her days at Rhodes. Shortly after leaving the board, having served the maximum nine years, Coffield got a call with a request to help in the search for the local affiliate’s new president.
“The head of the search committee asked if I would help as a non-board member,” explains Coffield. “I said, ‘I’d love to do that, but let me think about it, because I might apply for the job.’ It took me a while to make the decision because I knew how hard this job would be and I wasn’t sure I was the right person. I wanted to connect with Memphis in a more substantial way. I was a little lonely professionally [telecommuting for Partnership for Prevention]. But this is a 24/7 job; we’re never really closed. I needed to know that I could fit that in and keep focus on my family.”
Leading an affiliate of Planned Parenthood means you are, to a degree, following the lead of the national entity (currently under the leadership of Cecile Richards). There are guidelines, standards, and a shared mission. Affiliate presidents gather quarterly to share ideas and exchange views on policies and procedures, and the national office offers expertise in public policy, law, and communications. But beyond the standard mission (healthcare, education, and advocacy), there is room for every affiliate — as an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit — to steer its own course. “I had absolutely no doubt about the mission,” stresses Coffield. “I’ve been a Planned Parenthood donor for 25 years and a volunteer for much of that time. I believed in it very strongly. I’m a risk-taker and I don’t have a lot of fear in standing up for this mission. But at the same time, I knew I was going to be in the spotlight from time to time, and that made me nervous. I had always been a behind-the-scenes person.”
That spotlight Coffield mentions can be especially hot under the Planned Parenthood brand. The organization — which marks its 100th anniversary nationally this year, and 75th in Memphis — is often politicized and dangers exist, from sham videographers (depicting the “sale” of fetal tissue) to gun-wielding, pro-life radicals like the man who attacked a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs last November, killing three people.
“When we’re attacked,” says Coffield, “we can all feel scared and confused for a few moments, but it’s remarkable to me how quickly we all come together. When the shooting happened in Colorado, we were on the phone with Cecile by the end of the day, with legal counsel. It happened on Thanksgiving weekend and we had made the decision to close. But we talked all weekend about what we’d do Monday morning to make our staff and patients feel safe. How would we move forward?”
Leadership is easily measured by how a person acts. Less clear are the qualities that go into not acting at times of duress. “There’s a lot of support for us in the community,” says Coffield. “I can’t focus on what’s important if I’m distracted by [threats of violence]. I’m not going to let those things distract me from what’s important. It’s a total waste of time. It’s important for the staff to see that I’m ignoring it. By and large, they do too.”
The local Planned Parenthood affiliate is one of 58 across the country and, with a staff of 30, one of the smallest. It’s staffed almost entirely by women — with a five-person management team — but Coffield emphasizes her team’s greatest strength is its diversity. “I have a very consultative management style,” she says. “I like to hear from everybody’s perspective, and I like to synthesize that before I make a decision. I don’t like to bark orders, I like there to be consensus. It’s worked out really well, people appreciate it. A diverse staff makes a stronger organization. If you can’t work with people who have really different life experiences than you have, and you’re not willing to listen and be open-minded to the way they’ve experienced the world, this is not the right place for you.”
If Coffield’s career ambition was to impact population health — and particularly here in Memphis — it’s hard to imagine a better fit than the role she now plays, and the impact is measurable. Abortion makes the news, and PPGMR performed more than 3,300 in 2015. But that’s a fraction of the difference in health quality the organization is making. Almost 13,000 patients visited the clinic last year. More than 170 classes on sex health were conducted. More than 4,000 HIV and STD tests were administered. And 645,000 free condoms were distributed.
“We stand for full equality and dignity for all members of our region,” says Coffield. “We’re going to be here to provide you healthcare regardless of who you are or what decisions you’ve made. We’re going to come at you with no judgment. It’s an important part of the culture. We listen; we hear what the patient wants. There are so many options for women today. We’re living in the golden age of family planning.”
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