“Do it afraid” and other lessons from leading from Emmeline Rodriguez, reproductive justice champion.

Athena Alum Network
5 min readAug 4, 2023

Lessons From Leading is a series featuring alums of the Athena Center for Leadership at Barnard College discussing what they learned about leadership from Athena — and what leading looks like for them now.

Photo of Emmeline Rodriguez holding a sign saying ‘Respect Existence or Expect Resistance’ in English with smaller red lettering reading ‘Respecto Salud / Dignidad Justicia’ in spanish. She is on the street joined by other protesters near the Capitol building in Washington D.C. All people in the photo wear warm clothing, including Emmeline who wears a black jacket and black scarf.
Emmeline at the Women’s March in 2017. Following this, Emmeline participated in many protests in support of protecting access to sexual and reproductive health care.

Emmeline Rodriguez is a public health professional, reproductive justice expert, and alumna of Barnard College (class of 2013) and the Athena Center for Leadership, where she was an Athena Scholar, Athena intern, and a Williams Fellow — what we at Athena call an Athena superuser!

Emmeline sat down with Alexis Brown ’25 to reflect on how she found her path, what she’s come to center in her work, and what she’s discovered about her strengths.

On not knowing my direction before, and making sense of it all now

While at Barnard, I majored in Political Science at Barnard and also minored in Psychology. At the time, I did not know what public health was or that I could pursue a career in this field, but looking back at my academic and extracurricular pursuits during that time, it all makes a lot of sense to me now. Thankfully, there were a few experiences that helped guide me in this direction, including a summer internship at the NYC Administration for Children’s Services, which later turned into a full-time job opportunity post-graduation in 2013.

After working in government and nonprofit roles for two years, I thought I wanted to return back to school to become a nurse when a mentor suggested I look at Master of Public Health programs as a way to merge my professional experience in policy and nonprofit management with my interest in health care. I started working at Public Health Solutions managing sexual and reproductive health grant programs the year before I applied to graduate school and was able to continue working there part-time while pursuing my MPH at the CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy. It was at this point that everything finally felt aligned for me and I knew I had found my professional home. Shortly after graduating, I spent a year at Planned Parenthood Federation of America where I worked on state policy initiatives related to birth control access, maternal health, Medicaid, telehealth, and vote-by-mail reform.

Currently, I work as a Program Director for the New Jersey Family Planning League, an organization committed to enhancing access to person-centered sexual and reproductive health services for all people regardless of identity, income, insurance, or immigration status. In my role at the League, I manage federal and state grant-funded sexual and reproductive health programs that serve over 115,000 New Jerseyans annually.

Photo of Emmeline Rodriguez with Dr. Ayman El-Mohandes (right), Dean of the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy & Dr. Christian Grov (left) Chair of the Community Health and Social Sciences Department. She is dressed in her Master’s regalia and black cap.
Emmeline’s MPH commencement at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

On centering reproductive justice in my work

Access to the full spectrum of sexual and reproductive health care has been under threat for the last several years and there continue to be immense challenges in the aftermath of the overturning of Roe and continued political attacks on bodily autonomy. However, these setbacks have also highlighted the ways in which our public health and legal systems were inadequately set up to protect and ensure access to sexual and reproductive health care for all people.

As we look to the future, it is imperative that we work towards creating new systems that will go beyond securing and protecting reproductive rights and support the realization of reproductive justice for all people.

I am excited about working alongside colleagues, advocates, communities, and individuals who are committed to making this a reality for all of us and future generations to come.

On discovering volunteering as a gateway to expansive networking— when I’m volunteering, networking is meaningful

The best way I’ve been able to expand my personal/professional network is through volunteering. Currently, I am serving on the Board of Directors for the New Jersey Abortion Access Fund. Throughout my career, I’ve volunteered with organizations like Planned Parenthood, All-Options, and the NYC Department of Health. Volunteering is a great way to meet other people from different backgrounds that have similar interests and passions as you do. It’s also a great way to make more meaningful connections because you get to work closely with other people and get to know them on a deeper level than if you just met them through a brief introduction/interaction. I’ve learned so much from my volunteer experiences and the people I’ve met through each one — I’m grateful for the ways in which these experiences have helped me grow personally and professionally.

Photo of Emmeline Rodriguez, wearing the yellow dress, with Barnard alumnae: Sooji Park (current President of the Alumnae Association of Barnard); Kai Purnell (panelist); and Michelle Choy (AOC Dinner 2023 Co-Chair) (from right to left).
During Barnard’s Reunion Weekend 2023, Emmeline spoke at the Alumnae of Color dinner on a panel discussion on reproductive justice. She shared her perspectives on the increased threats to contraceptive access and bodily autonomy since the overturning of Roe last year and highlighted her organization’s leadership in enhancing access to sexual and reproductive health services in NJ.

On recognizing my great interpersonal skillset

I think what has most helped me professionally is my diplomatic approach to interacting with others. This has allowed me to build and maintain positive and collaborative relationships with colleagues, key external stakeholders, and grant funders throughout my career. I was able to develop this skill through my academic and professional experiences as I learned that being able to work successfully with others meant taking the time to listen, understand other perspectives outside of my own, and make adjustments accordingly in order to achieve a common goal. When other people feel heard and understood, you are more likely to get that from them in return. The easiest way to practice this is in your everyday interactions through active listening and self-reflection.

On confronting anxiety and getting out of my comfort zone

I’ve always struggled with anxiety, but entering the working world made my social anxiety exponentially worse. I always thought that my anxiety would hold me back from growing professionally and I couldn’t see myself taking on positions of leadership because I felt like my anxiety would get in the way of things that I saw leaders excelling at — things like public speaking, presentations, meeting facilitation, networking, etc. However, I’ve learned that the best way to help my anxiety overtime was by showing myself that I could do all these things while feeling afraid. It took a lot of time for me to get to this point and it was not at all a linear journey. Even though I still struggle with anxiety, I try to say yes to opportunities that will take me out of my comfort zone so I can prove to myself that I can do it despite the fear of failure, shame, and judgment.

If you struggle with anxiety, know that you’re not alone, it can and does get better, and you can do it afraid.

Photo of Emmeline Rodriguez, holding the glass award in the middle in the blue patterned dress. She is surrounded by her colleagues and manager from the New Jersey Family Planning League (to the left), her husband (middle), Clare Coleman (NFPRHA’s CEO, to the right) and Kathie Nixon (also to the right).
The National Family Planning & Reproductive Health Association (NFPRHA) presented the Rising Star Award to Emmeline at their National Conference in 2023. This award recognizes a rising star, an early or mid-career level individual, who demonstrates aptitude and potential at their organization.

Our sincere thanks to Emmeline Rodriguez ’13 for sharing her inspiring story. Barnard and Athena alums, feel free to connect with Emmeline on LinkedIn here.

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