Drive across the Midwest and you’ll find cities and interstates peppered with anti-abortion billboards. Even in progressive neighborhoods of progressive cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul, the billboards feel inescapable. Recently, one St. Paul couple decided to take countering the anti-choice messaging into their own hands and the Minnesota Billboard Project was born.
The brainchild of Kelly Searle, an epidemiologist and professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, and Kristin Brietzke, a statistician working for the state of Minnesota, the effort is a mission to counter the ubiquitous, guilt-inducing pro-life billboards around the city and state.
While the couple are certinaly not the first to counter anti-abortion billboards with pro-choice focused ones, many of the other efforts that have taken place around the country have come with some level of organizational backing. Searle and Brietzke, however, have taken a grassroots approach.
“We were noticing a lot of anti-choice billboards popping up in the neighborhood close to our home and we live around the State Fair [grounds],” says Searle. “I’ve lived in the neighborhood for about two years,” her partner Brietzke chimes in to say, “and I’ve noticed that the uptick in anti-choice billboards is always in the summer. I believe it’s correlated with the State Fair.”
The duo began wondering why there weren’t more billboards around to counter the anti-choice messaging with more inclusive ideas. Eventually that conversation transitioned into action this past spring. After Brietzke tried reaching out to similarly minded organizations that they thought might want to participate in the project and getting rejections across the board, the couple decided it was up to them to turn their vision into reality.
The first step was finding a billboard company that would accept their subject matter. “Not all billboard companies will even entertain pro-choice messages or pro-women messages or anything like that,” Brietzke says. Once they secured a billboard location near the State Fairgrounds — in an effort to reach as many people from around the state as possible during the “Great Minnesota Get Together” — the next step was to find some artists to create the visuals.
Brietzke and Searle put a call out on a queer personals Instagram page asking for bold, inclusive, pro-choice, womxn content from local artists and, according to Searle, “it just blow up. People were screenshotting it and posting it on Facebook.” The original Instagram post itself was liked a few thousand times, so soon the submissions started pouring in and they received several hundred inquiries.
Kristin Brietzke, left, and Kelly Searle. (Photo courtesy Brietzke and Searle)
Eventually, with the help of an intentionally diverse panel that they convened, they whittled the selections down to the top ten and let the public decide from there. The finalists were published on Facebook and Instagram around July and five were selected after about a week of voting. Around this same time, Brietzke and Searle launched a website and began fundraising in order to compensate the artists and cover the billboard costs coming down the line. Within a month, they raised the $3,400 that was needed to put up the five billboards around the State Fair. “We had people requesting to send us money well before we even planned to fundraise,” Brietzke says.
All five billboards were located within four miles of the State Fair, and the pro-choice messages ran from mid-August through mid-September, spanning the entire run of the fair. Billboards highlight messages like “Not just a womb,” “Support womxn’s right to choose,” and “Abortion is healthcare” paired with imagery like a uterus composed of flowers and a female version of Paul Bunyan, a traditionally male icon in Minnesota folklore.
When asked about the responses they’ve gotten so far, Searle characterizes them as overwhelmingly positive. “The artists we worked with were fantastic. They were really involved in the project and really wanted to be a part of it. And then it was really cool to see all of them supporting each other during the voting process,” she says. An unintended bonus has been that many of the finalists were up-and-coming artists who have gotten recognition and gigs as a result of the project.
However, Searle and Brietzke are far from done with their billboard project. In addition to funneling any leftover proceeds from the fundraising to Planned Parenthood, billboards are still going up. Most recently the reproductive rights organization H.O.T.D.I.S.H Militia helped put up a billboard in Duluth, Minnesota, where the group is based. A second Duluth-based billboard is in the works for Thanksgiving time.
Searle and Brietzke plan to launch another State Fair-focused set next year. “It has just turned into something that’s so much bigger,” Brietzke says, “with the positive response we’ve had, with the fundraising that we’ve had, and with it being an election year next year too.”
In the meantime, the couple is moving into creating apparel with the art from their billboard designs and are continuing to fundraise to support their efforts. Looking forward, Brietzke and Searle are looking forward to refining and streamlining the learn-as-you-go approach they took this time and they’re open to collaborating with local organizers and artists in other cities across the state and country to get billboards on the ground in as many locations as possible moving forward.
“It was great, and it was really organic,” Searle says. “Now we have a much clearer plan for next year.”
Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.