• Arielle Gorin

What It Means to Confront a Difficult Past



A recent New York Times guest essay by Planned Parenthood Federation of America president Alexis McGill Johnson explained how the group is reckoning with the legacy of its founder, Margaret Sanger, including her embrace of eugenics and ties to white supremacist groups.

Her organization, Johnson argued, cannot simply “scrub [Sanger] from our history, and move on.” Instead, it “must examine how we have perpetuated her harms over the last century” and undo their ongoing impact.” Planned Parenthood is hardly the first organization to face up to a difficult past. But its approach, as outlined by Johnson, exemplifies something important about how organizations confront troubling aspects of their legacy: Doing so requires not just repudiating past wrongs, but also unpacking how those actions and beliefs shape the present. That means understanding how the past shapes culture and behavior. It also means understanding how unspoken assumptions, formed over time, can act as a constraint on change, often at the expense of the organization and its employees, customers, and other stakeholders.


Making those assumptions explicit, just as Planned Parenthood has done, is a necessary first step to moving forward.