Ruth Richardson is an optimistic trailblazer, an accidental politician, and a dedicated do-gooder. Named CEO of the Planned Parenthood North Central States in September, Richardson also is a third-term representative in the Minnesota House of Representatives after winning re-election in her Mendota Heights district in November. She recently helped author a paid family and medical leave bill that will be presented when the state Legislature convenes in January and likely will be approved.
Richardson’s life has been described as “a remarkable mix of history, trauma, grit, and progress,” with a lineage that includes enslaved great-great grandparents and family members who served as Black midwives, leading into a journey marked with milestones, including being the first person in her family to go to college.
We recently sat down with Richardson at the St. Paul headquarters of Planned Parenthood North Central States, which operates 28 health centers in five states and serves more than 100,000 patients each year with sexual and reproductive health care programming. She started her new role there in October after the previous CEO, Sarah Stoesz, retired. Richardson is the first Black female to lead the organization, and she previously headed up the nonprofit Wayside Recovery Center focusing on mental health and support for substance use disorders.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Congratulations on your new role at Planned Parenthood and your re-election win. Can you please give us some background information on your life?
I actually grew up not too far from here. I grew up in St. Paul, in Frogtown. My parents made the decision to move to Minnesota shortly before I was born, from Mississippi. They came in search of more economic opportunity, and, frankly, they were also facing some pretty horrific challenges in the segregated South.
I have seven brothers and sisters. My parents were definitely outnumbered by us. I grew up with three siblings with disabilities, and even though my parents had their hands full, they opened up their home to foster children throughout our childhood.
I think in a lot of ways my mom was a visionary. When we saw a lot of family separation with the war on drugs, particularly the crack cocaine crisis, she knew how important it was for kids to stay connected within their communities, with kinship and with relatives. So that was my early upbringing. I learned a lot about the challenges within the system, and it was something that really, I think, sparked something in me and in most of my siblings because most of us have been foster parents at some point along the way.
Has being a foster parent and your previous focus on health care influenced your new role?
I think the things that really influenced my passion for health care, health equity, and equitable access grew out of my childhood. It was experiences like seeing how difficult it could be to navigate systems for kids in the foster care system, having siblings with disabilities, and just seeing firsthand some of the challenges that they faced as well. And also, coming from a long line of really amazing storytellers, I would hear the stories from my mom of growing up in the segregated South. Her birth stories and my aunt’s birth stories sparked a passion in me around health equity. I didn’t know it was called health equity back then, but the horror stories that I heard made me know there were opportunities for making a difference.
My great grandma was a traditional Black midwife. The power of these Black midwives was not just around delivering babies—or catching babies, as they would say. They also brought so much connection and support within communities. They were prayer partners; they provided support and therapy for families who were struggling with marriages; they were loan officers. They were the centerpieces of so many communities.
And then traditional Black midwives were pushed out of the medical field after centuries of being really integral to communities. The loss of that connection, that support, that tradition are impacts we’re still filling feeling today. And now we’re in this strange space today where we’re trying to create more traditional Black midwives after they’ve been pushed out.
You said your parents moved to Minnesota for better opportunities before you were born. I understand you started attending college at age 16 and graduated from Hamline Mitchell Law School in 2006, paying your way through law school while also raising your kids.
I went to St. Paul Central High School and took advantage of the post-secondary program [at the University of Minnesota]. I was probably one of the early beneficiaries of that program, and it was something that I sort of discovered by accident. I was part time for the first semester, and then I transitioned to full time for the second semester. When I decided to go to the University of Minnesota, being the first person in my family to go to college, I didn’t have the benefit of a lot of people around me understanding the process. I only applied to one school because it didn’t occur to me that they could say no. Luckily, I was accepted. William Mitchell was a place in St. Paul that I drove by all the time, and my dad would always tell me, “You could go there.” I definitely took advantage of the courses that had real-world applications to make a difference in the world.
Can you expand on that? Is that your mission?
My mission, frankly, is to try hard to leave this world better than what I came into. Watching family members struggle to navigate systems, I knew I wanted to be a problem-solver, a connector. It started with my family, but it grew out of that. Early on, I noticed that I had this ability to find things out that other people didn’t know. And I wanted to use that power for good to try to help others. Even as I learned more about navigating systems, I saw all of the lost opportunities. Growing up with siblings with disabilities, people oftentimes don’t know the services to access, the nonprofits that can help to support you. Still to this day, I get a lot of those calls from extended family members, and I try to be a resource as much as I can for people.
With everything you juggle, is it ever exhausting? Or does it motivate you? What drives you, gives you energy, gives you hope?
When you’re passionate about what you do, not everything feels like work. Do I get exhausted? Sometimes, 100% for sure. And it can be a struggle sometimes to find those moments of respite and those moments of peace, but they’re also really critical, because oftentimes, it’s in those quiet moments that you can sort of spark something that’s really impactful. So as hard as that is, I do try to find time for that rest and that quiet space. And I also recognize that in many ways, rest is resistance, especially for women who have not always been in places where they get to decide when they rest.
Hope is critical. Right now, that whole idea that tomorrow can be better than what we’re experiencing today is really important. And it’s really important to also find those moments of joy in the midst of everything that is going on. One of my big moments of joy right now, as a grandma, is baby Trinity.
Beyond your family’s experience in midwifery, how did you end up at Planned Parenthood? What was that journey?
I think two of the birth stories that I heard as a child were defining moments while growing up in St. Paul. I was hearing all these birth stories, like of my peers, [but] when I was talking to my mom about her birth stories, I just noticed a difference. From others, I heard all of these funny stories, these stories of happiness and joy. When my mom shared her story of my oldest sister’s birth with me, it shocked me.
Being in Mississippi, the hospitals were segregated. She talked about how she was laboring on the table, and she had a nurse in the room. There were two doctors at the foot of her bed, and they were engaged in a conversation. As my sister’s head was starting to crown, my mom said that the nurse called out to the doctor and said, “Doctor, it’s time, the baby is coming.” But he was annoyed that she would interrupt his conversation. And he said, “We’re not ready yet,” and reached over and pushed my sister’s head back in the birth canal. My mom told me that it was the most excruciating pain that she had ever felt in her entire life. But she also said that that pain saved her life. Because if she could have gotten off of the table and retaliated, she would have. When she told me the story, I kept thinking about how unjust it was and how unfair it was. She followed that up to say she wasn’t the only person that happened to and there was a pattern of doing this to Black women in the South. [My mother said] when they did it to [my] auntie Katie, her baby died, her little girl didn’t survive.
Fast forward to today, and we know Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes, and Black infants are twice as likely to die before their first birthday. There’s one major exception—if they have a Black pediatrician, that mortality rate is cut in half. It’s in this moment that we recognize the fact that 80% of these deaths are preventable. It’s just that reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Looking to the future of Planned Parenthood—with the overturning of Roe v. Wade in June—what changes and what opportunities do you feel like you can bring to Planned Parenthood in your new role?
When I got a call from a recruiter about the Planned Parenthood position, it was before Roe v. Wade was officially overturned, but the decision had been leaked. At that time, I remember we were all just sort of waiting, wondering what was going to happen. When I heard that it had been overturned, it was this sort of surreal impact in some ways. Because when you look back over some of the history and the legacy of the reproductive health of Black women within this country, we think about chattel slavery and forced birth. We think about the eugenics movement and forced sterilizations, about the ways that reproductive health has been criminalized like the war on drugs, which was an abject failure. This is the continuation of a long line of injustices, and is just another example. Data tells us the states that have abortion bans have the worst maternal health outcomes as well. These things are connected; there are these really strong intersections. And so the work right now is more critical, more crucial than ever.
As someone who has dedicated much of my career to ensuring there’s equitable access for health care and for services, I’m feeling that heavily right now. Minnesota is sort of this island within the Midwest, and so we’re really focused on the access piece. We have folks coming [from] as far away as Texas and Louisiana and other states. And so the access piece is very front and center, but also just knowing that we’re in this this sort of ever-shifting landscape, we’re watching what’s happening—the courts, the elections—because all of those things we know are going to have a huge impact.
How did you become a politician and how do you plan to balance that with your position at Planned Parenthood?
I am 100% an accidental politician. I wasn’t the person who said at age 10, “You know what I really want is to become a politician.” When I made the decision to run back in 2018, it was really an extension of the work that I had been doing in the community for a number of years in terms of just thinking about the ways that we can break down barriers for people to have equal opportunity and equitable opportunity for things.
After I graduated from law school, I spent some time in the government sector working with the city of St. Paul under Mayor Chris Coleman as the deputy director of human rights and equal economic opportunity. It was a brand new position. After that, I moved to the Minnesota Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which is just down the street [and is today called Proof Alliance], and worked for a number of years there around disability issues and disability rights before moving on to Wayside Recovery Center.
Looking at the work that I’ve done in the House of Representatives, it’s pretty diverse. I authored bills around environmental protections, bills around equity, like in the utility sector, disability rights, and ensuring that discrimination in organ transplants is prohibited not only for people with disabilities but also for race and ethnicity. A lot of people don’t recognize some of the ways that our systems have been designed to disadvantage, and one that just really stood out to me is the Black coefficient that has been used to determine access to treatment and placement on the kidney transplant waitlist. For medical providers who use the Black coefficient, they actually add points to the kidney functioning score of Black patients, which can add anywhere from two to four years of delay to getting them access to treatment.
With a U.S. citizens legislature, it’s expected that people will be working other jobs. We have farmers who vote on farm bills, educators who vote on education bills. What this really comes down to is, ‘Are you voting on something that would be a specific economic advantage to you personally, versus in general?’