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On the 10th Anniversary of the March for Women’s Lives

April 25, 2014

Via NLIRH facebook page

Today marks ten years since the major March for Women’s Lives, held in Washington DC on April 25, 2004. While I wasn’t yet part of the reproductive rights/justice movement in any paid capacity, I was at that March, and my presence there set in motion much of what I’ve done in the ten years since.

I attended along with a group of maybe 100 students from my college in Pennsylvania. That semester I was super involved with feminist and pro-choice organizing on campus, helping to lead two groups, one of which coordinated a school bus full of Swatties (the nickname for students from Swarthmore College) to head down to DC for the march.

It was my first big political rally or march, and it had a huge impact on me. I remember reaching the mall and seeing the hundreds of thousands (reportedly close to a million people attended that day) of people there, and being overtaken by the fact of being surrounded by so many likeminded people. I even ran into a high school friend who I didn’t know would be there, but had come up from North Carolina for the march as well. It was one of the first times I palpably felt like I was part of something approximating a movement–something that was much bigger than me and my small campus organizing.

But the biggest thing about the March that shaped the last decade of my life were the bilingual signs that I saw dotting the crowd. I was so excited to discover a Latina presence, and to see signs in both my native languages. I had never heard of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health before, but I was glad to know that someone represented the cross-section of my identities and interests. I bought a bright yellow t-shirt that day that read “salud, dignidad, justicia.” Two years later I would move to New York City and start my first post-college job working with them as an organizer–and if it weren’t for that March I’m not sure I ever would have known they existed.

Learning about NLIRH led to more than just a job–it led to learning about a movement, and a framework, that felt like home. Reproductive justice has helped me connect the dots between all of my identities and the issues I care about. It’s helped me see what it means to center the experiences of the people in my communities, and other communities who are most impacted by the struggles we face. It helped me see that there was a world beyond my own campus organizing, which I eventually left after just one semester, partially because of burn out, but also because most of those involved were white and straight, and it just didn’t feel like the right place for me.

Years after the March I learned that behind the scenes, the organizing was fraught with what I’ve come to know as typical battles: struggles between the groups with the most resources and visibility, usually white led, and the smaller groups with less resources, usually led by women of color. While I felt a sense of unity and collective power at attending the March, I know now that the dynamics we’re often working to confront show up within our organizing as well. It’s been tough to see so much of that firsthand in the last ten years, but it’s also simply a testament to the ways power and privilege operate as incredibly entrenched dynamics even within progressive organizing.

While it’s been a challenging place to call home, I remain grateful for discovering this community, this framework, this vision for what might be possible. It’s hard to imagine where I’d be without it.

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Remarks from SQUATfest: Birth activism as part of the movement for reproductive justice

September 3, 2013

In early August I had the honor of speaking at the SQUATfest conference. It was a first of its kind gathering that brought together doulas, midwives and other birth activists interested in radical politics. It didn’t have a central theme, but I knew that it was going to be a unique space.

I gave the talk below to the attendees on the morning of the second day. I have a lot more to say about the gathering, and the topics I addressed below, which I’ll do in follow up posts. Makeda Kamara gave an absolutely earth-shattering and life-altering keynote address the following day. I don’t believe that it was recorded, but if you ever have a chance to read Makeda’s writing or see her speak, you have to do it. She has incredible wisdom about midwifery, as well as racial justice movements in the US and abroad.

The gathering was inspiring, but it was also another reminder that there is much work left to do, even within the “radical” parts of our movement, particularly around questions of racial justice and dealing with white privilege.

—————–

The reason I started my blog, Radical Doula, in 2007, was because I couldn’t imagine a room like this one existing. I had been a doula for a few years, and as my own identity and politics developed, I looked around me and felt alone.

I felt alone as a queer and genderqueer person. I felt alone as a Cuban-American, a Latina, a child of immigrants. I felt alone as a reproductive justice activist and someone who supported access to abortion as well as access to homebirth and midwives. I felt alone as someone who approached my work as a doula as social justice activism.

I remember one of the first, possibly the very first, conversation I had with another doula who felt similarly. Christy Hall, who is here today, and I met at a reproductive justice conference, and the memory of crouching in the corner with her, infant in arms, talking about being doulas with radical politics is seared in my brain.

So very much has changed since that first conversation all those years ago. The fact that this gathering is happening at all is a major testament to that change.

Needless to say, I no longer feel alone. Instead I’m in awe of the incredible growth in the doula movement, and particularly in the movement of doulas who see their work as part of a broader social justice vision. For so many of us, this work isn’t just about improving a few select people’s experiences with pregnancy and birth–it’s about changing the systems altogether.

This is no easy task. And while the growth and expansion of the doula movement is really good news in many ways, it also presents its own unique challenges.

What I wanted to talk about today is how I see our work as birth activists as part of the broader reproductive justice movement.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, reproductive justice is a movement that was established by women of color in the reproductive rights movement who wanted a framework through which to see their organizing that better mirrored the lives of the people in their communities. It’s an intersectional framework that acknowledges the complexity of people’s lives and the many issues that affects them.

One way I describe it is building a world where everyone has what they need to create the family that they want to create.

While abortion still tends to most of the attention in this work, I think birth workers, are also perfectly suited to be part of this movement and to utilize the framework to support our own efforts.

So what does it really mean to understand our work as doulas, or midwives, or birth activists, as part of the movement for reproductive justice?

First it means we put at the center of our work those who face the most challenges.

Read the rest of this entry »


I am also not Trayvon Martin

July 19, 2013

It’s been tough to say much of anything online, or otherwise, since the verdict came down on Saturday evening in which George Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges for the murder of Trayvon Martin.

The murder has stirred up intense conversations about race, necessary, painful conversations about race. Because George Zimmerman is a mixed-race Latino, (his mother is Peruvian, his father white) his race has been called into question in many ways throughout this process. Some people of color, and Latinos, have tried to minimize his Latino-ness. The right wing has tried to play it up, claiming that his mixed heritage means that race could not possible be a factor in the murder. Some have labeled him a “white Latino or hispanic.”

I felt personally very pulled by these conversations because I too could be put in a category with George Zimmerman. I am a light-skinned Latina. My parents are both immigrants from Cuba, but my mother’s parents immigrated to the island from Eastern Europe as Jews fleeing anti-semitism and persecution. My father’s side had been in Cuba for multiple generations.

Race is a complicated socially-constructed and politically-shaped reality. For Latinos in the US, this reality is very different than the reality we might experience in our family’s country of origin. People who would be seen as White in Latin America may be seen as people of color in the US. These categories are fluid, ever changing and also extremely important in shaping our lived realities.

I am not Trayvon Martin, and as someone who could be George Zimmerman, I have a unique responsibility to work against racism within communities of color, including Latino communities. It’s a responsibility that weighs heavily on me. It’s also one that I see as distinct from the responsibility of white people to fight racism.

My understanding of my own identity has been heavily shaped by my knowledge of the political history of race and racial justice organizing in the US. The term woman of color originated as a term meant to build solidarity between Latinos, Blacks, Asians and Native Americans in the US. Loretta Ross has a great clip I originally found at Racialicious that I often refer to:

You can read the transcript at Racialicious, but this is the part that is most important to me:

And they didn’t see it as a biological designation—you’re born Asian, you’re born Black, you’re born African American, whatever—but it is a solidarity definition, a commitment to work in collaboration with other oppressed women of color who have been “minoritized.”

Now, what’s happened in the 30 years since then is that people see it as biology now.

Race is not a biological reality, it’s a social and political one. And that social and political reality differs widely depending on how you are read, how the world interacts with you. Because I am light-skinned, because I speak English without an accent, I walk through the world with relative privilege when it comes to race. But I also have a clearly marked Latino name. I may not even know how that has shaped interactions that happen virtually, or where my name is the first thing someone sees.  There are many ways in which one can be racialized in this country, and that is why the term woman of color, or person of color, was employed—to build solidarity across groups, not ignore differences or presume we all have the same experience.

There is a great post at Black Girl Dangerous, by Asam Ahmad, further extrapolating on this in reference to Trayvon:

We are NOT all Trayvon Martin. People of color keep getting hella mad for being called out on white passing privilege, for being asked to hold themselves accountable to the ways they are not like Trayvon and more like Zimmerman. So many folks seem to be having a hard time acknowledging that this murderer was a Latino who had light-skinned privilege and played into the rules of White supremacy to get away with murder. The fact that so many white folks are identifying with him should tell you something: it is a marker of how some people of color gain access to the toxic privilege of passing for White, of choosing not to identify themselves as poc but coopting into the system of White supremacy instead. Sometimes we do this for our own safety but sometimes, obviously, we do it for other reasons altogether. These are all realities of this case, and they are realities of a hierarchy that accords privilege and oppression on the basis of the amount of melanin in our bodies.

Why do these facts make you mad? Why is it so hard to acknowledge that you have access to forms of privilege that Black folks simply never have? As poc we are so often taught to think of ourselves as oppressed and as nothing else. But oppression is not a static entity and it does not remain constant for all POC. How can this not be obvious to anyone paying the slightest amount of attention right now?

Those of us who are not Black need to be very explicitly clear about this: Trayvon was not murdered because he was a person of color. This verdict was not delivered because he was a person of color. Trayvon was murdered because he was Black. This verdict was delivered because he was Black. Given the amount of intense anti-Black racism that continues to circulate in non-Black poc communities, given the number of ways we continue to benefit from anti-Black racism, it is paramount that we do not forget this. To appropriate the specificity of this injustice, to attempt to universalize this travesty as one faced by all people of color is to perpetuate another form of violence. To not acknowledge the role and specificity of anti-Black racism in this whole charade is another form of violence. This murder and this verdict are very specifically about anti-black racism – about the power of White supremacy and about what it means to have a black body in a White supremacist society.

And our inability to acknowledge these facts are hurting Black folks and African descended folks right now. This is not solidarity. This is not what solidarity can ever look like. It shouldn’t be that fucking hard to sit back and listen to the grieving voices of black people in this moment. It shouldn’t be this hard to not get defensive and keep your mouth shut and just listen.

I’ve been heartened by this and other efforts, like the tumblr We Are Not All Trayvon Martin, have taken on to try and explain the difference between solidarity and appropriation, between allyship and silencing.

Personally, I’ve grown and changed in countless ways over the years in my identity and understanding of my role within the broader community of color. From refusing to write an accent on my last name as a kid and the inclination to be silent about my identity and how I see myself, to instead insisting on spelling out clearly where my privilege lies and what I see as my role, it’s ever evolving. I have big thanks to give to many mixed-race and light-skinned people of color for walking the journey with me.

I’ve realized in the many years that I’ve written this blog, I’ve often assumed my audience was predominantly white. That’s because the doula community is predominantly white, and the full-spectrum doula community I’ve met and interacted with is also predominantly white. I know I’ve been able to feel comfortable, or be welcomed into some of these spaces because of my passing privilege, and it’s something that I think about constantly.

I also know that for doula work to be truly radical, truly transformational, we have to center race as a key factor that shapes the experiences of pregnancy and parenting in this country. We have to talk about it politically, personally, in every aspect of our work. So I’ll start with my vulnerable place, my story, my experience.


The dynamics of movement success

July 3, 2013

A good friend of mine, Veronica Bayetti Flores, wrote a blog post today for Feministing about what movements are deemed successful.

In the past few years I have heard over and over – usually from straight women – that the reproductive health movement should look to the marriage equality movement as a model for success. With the recent Supreme Court decisions around marriage equality, I expect to hear this now more than ever.  And yet every time I hear this, I shudder. Not just because the marriage equality movement – one that has largely been led by wealthy, white gays – has been so problematic, but because it is being said in the face of an extremely successful movement led by undocumented youth, the overwhelming majority of whom are people of color, many of whom are also women, and many of whom are also queer.

She goes on:

It’s time that we paid attention to the forces behind movements’ political successes, and what that says about whom they are ultimately serving. It says a lot about the ways that racism plays out in progressive communities when a movement that has been led largely by wealthy white folks gets consistently named as the one to model – even when the demand is conservative, even when queer and trans folks of color consistently call out its racism, even when a successful movement led by those who are some of the most distinct targets of injustice in our society is under way. In mainstream reproductive health and rights circles, undocumented youth might get a few kudos, maybe some “they’re so brave.” But from there it moves on quickly, without further analysis, as though there were nothing there from which we could possibly learn. This has incredibly deep implications that go beyond just perceptions of success, but cut into reputability, access to funding and resources, and ultimately movements’ progress, sustainability, and survival.

I’ve had a lot of similar thoughts about witnessing the undocumented movement in the US these past years−the DREAMers, the NYSYLC, undocuqueer, the NIYA and many, many more. I’ve become friends with some of the folks involved, but mostly I’ve been in awe of their savvy and political influence. The fact that a group of young people, most of whom are not even constituents of the elected officials they influence (because they cannot vote because of their status) have been able to influence policy and political dialogue to the degree they have has been incredible. And this without most of the resources flowing to the more mainstream groups working on immigration. While there are a few non-profits set up to support the undocumented movement, the resources are minuscule in comparison to most. And let’s remember, of course, that many of the folks involved in this work can’t get paid to work legally in the US, which means that they likely aren’t getting full-time non-profit salaries while they are putting themselves into detention to help other immigrants inside. (To learn more about this aspect of their movement, last week’s episode of This American Life chronicled it.)

A few things that I think about this, in addition to the amazing analysis by Veronica.

One is that I question whether our current non-profit centered model of organizing and activism can ever truly fuel the kind of major change we know we need on many fronts. These organizations, while well-meaning and mission-driven, are in many ways simply tax-shelters for the wealthy. They allow people with resources to give their money away tax-free. The vast majority of the resources coming to non-profit organizations comes from private foundations whose wealth was accrued through private business (Ford, Hewlett, Gates). I question whether these funders actually want to do much to change the status quo—at least not in the more extreme ways some activist groups would want to. So the model of professionalized activism—still relatively new in many ways—may be fundamentally opposed to the kind of changes our movement wants to see. I realize this is not new thinking. So it’s no surprise that the movement with little to no institutional support is the one that actually has evidence of being successful.

The second thing I think a lot about is how the success of the undocumented movement has been based on the willingness of the individuals involved to put themselves on the line. Many of their actions center around civil disobedience, knowingly putting themselves at risk of arrest, and even in recent years purposefully entering detention centers as detainees to help the immigrants inside.

Remember, the vast majority of the folks doing these things are undocumented. Which means that a simple arrest for protesting, or taking over an elected official’s office, could mean deportation and the inability to come back to the US, ever. Talk about putting it all on the line. Now obviously these folks are smart, they work with good lawyers, and they know what they are doing. They take calculated risks, and many of the activists who’ve been arrested have also stayed in the US. But the possibility is always there. It’s why their work gets the much-deserved attention.

Are you willing to risk deportation, possibly to a country you haven’t lived in since you were a baby, for your movement? I don’t know that I would be willing.

The moments that we see the most effective activism, the most inspiring acts of courage and resistance, are often in the face of extreme challenge. What happened in Texas last week. What’s going on in North Carolina today as I write this.

It’s at times a crippling reality, this sense that change will never come from the institutions I hope can be responsible for fighting for justice. It makes me question my choices, where my time lies, how I make a living and what I think about my own activist contributions. But when I’m feeling hopeful, when I take a note from folks like Veronica, I think maybe we just need to be learning the lessons of our history. Maybe we can transform our world, inside of institutions and outside of them. Maybe we can learn how to be brave enough to take real risks, to put it all on the line, because even if we feel our little slice of life is protected, we know that it wouldn’t take much for us to lose it all.

I’ll leave you with another incredible video from the folks at SONG, who inspire me everyday with lessons about what transformational activism can look like (even within a non-profit org).

Queering Immigration from Southerners on New Ground (SONG) on Vimeo.

Producer: Southerners On New Ground
Director, Cinematographer, Editor: Sowjanya Kudva

southernersonnewground.org
sowjfilms.com

[ Ngowo Nuemeh / Itai Marshall Jeffries / Ashe Helm-Hernandez / Vanessa / Taryn Jordan / Paulina Helm-Hernandez ]
_______________________________________

Queering Immigration #queerimmigration

We offer this video as a love letter to our Immigrant communities, LGBTQ communities, and communities of color about our inter-connected destinies. On the Fourth of July, SONG knows real independence is inter-dependence. Real independence requires community beyond citizenship. For all those who live between and beyond borders of all kinds, this one is for you.


What movement are you married to?

June 27, 2013

Marry the Movement from Southerners on New Ground (SONG) on Vimeo.

Closed Captioning Available
[Producer] Southerners On New Ground [Director, Cinematographer, Editor, GFX] Sowjanya Kudva #marrythemovement

This is a video Southerners On New Ground (SONG) made as a love letter to the LGBTQ movement and our allies. We want to encourage the promise and commitment of love for each other as LGBTQ people, beyond any one issue or win.

What a week.

This video made by SONG did a lot to bring me back to the essence of all this media, rulings, celebrations, explanations. What movement am I married to? Whose movement is it? Who is funding that movement?

The marriage wins at the Supreme Court this week feel big. But I’m not sure that they feel like mine. Marriage is not an institution that I personally am particularly interested in joining, nor do I think inclusive marriage will be the site of our collective liberation. Gay marriage means there are now benefits available to me if I’m willing to join this particular vision of a legal contract for my romantic partnership. And don’t get it twisted−these benefits are huge and vastly important in our world. They are difficult to survive without.

In the context in which we understand marriage as a fundamentally conservative value or entity, in that it encourages the formation of families and romantic partnerships in a particular way that benefits a particular view of society, of family, of economics and capitalism, then it’s not so hard to understand how these marriage rulings came down from the same court that also gutted the Voting Rights Act, dissolved a Native man’s legal rights to his biological child, and refused to make a ruling regarding Affirmative Action.

Radical Doula, over these almost 7 years I’ve been posting here, has morphed many times. In the last few years I’ve written almost exclusively about things that are birth activism related, mostly because other writing I did went elsewhere−often places that paid me for my writing. But that has meant that this space no longer truly encapsulates the breadth of my political perspective–the picture of my true movement–because I’ve limited myself to one box.

No longer. After four years as a self-employed writer, consultant and speaker I’ve accepted a full-time job beginning in September. You can read more about that journey and decision here. That means a lot of things for my life, but what it means for this space, and for Radical Doula, is that it can once again be a home for all of my political writing, not just what fits into the “birth activism” box, or more honestly, fits into the “no one is going to pay me for this so I’ll publish it at RD.”

While getting paid to write has done much for my ability to pay my rent, and has also given me access to audiences broader than this one, it’s also limited me in different ways that I’m excited to let go of.

So, dear Radical Doula readers, I hope you’ll indulge me in my political musings beyond birth activism exclusively. It’s all, however loosely, tied to this bigger vision, this bigger movement that I’m searching for and craving and waiting for−one that won’t ask me to choose or prioritize or wait for my turn.


A different kind of Mother’s Day celebration

May 10, 2013
An image of a person holding a baby, with text that says "Radical Doulas: Your love and care for pregnant and parenting people makes every day a Mama's Day!

Make your own card at mamasday.org

The vast majority of my living comes from the work I do with non-profit organizations, the majority of whom are in the reproductive justice arena, helping them with their online and digital communications work. It’s a skillset I’ve developed over the years of running this blog, as well as my time working at Feministing, and the work with these groups. It’s often very invisible work because I’m behind the scenes, providing support to staff, helping to plan campaigns, crafting strategies for how to use social media and other platforms.

But right now is the culmination of one of my main projects so far this year, for a group I’ve worked with going on three years now. They are called Forward Together, and they:

Forward Together is a multi-racial organization that works with community leaders and organizations to transform culture and policy to catalyze social change. Our mission is to ensure that women, youth and families have the power and resources they need to reach their full potential.  By developing strong leaders, building networks across communities, and implementing innovative campaigns, we are making our mission a reality.

This is the third year I’ve worked with them on their annual Mama’s Day campaign. It’s a campaign that seeks to shift the narrative on motherhood, and specifically bring love and light to the mamas who are more often demonized by our political climate and our media than celebrated. These means mamas of color, immigrant mamas, queer mamas, young mamas, incarcerated mamas and more.

This is the second year we’ve tried to do this by creating an ecard tool, with fabulous art by activist artists, that people can use to send cards to the caregivers in their lives, but also to create strong messages to share anywhere online.

The cards are absolutely beautiful, and there is also a powerful blog series from all sorts of folks reflecting on motherhood and parenting. There are a few cards that look like doula cards, and that I’ve seen folks using to send love between doulas and parents. The above one is my shout out to all of you and the incredible work you do.

Go here to make your own card.


What’s the goal of the doula movement?

April 11, 2013

In my latest column for RH Reality Check I muse about the question of the goal of the doula movement.

I felt a bit nervous putting this one out there because it touches on issues of money, sustainability, access to our services for those who need it most, and how institutional affiliation impacts the ability to make change.

When I talk about these issues I’m very conscious of the fact that I don’t make a living as a doula. While a few of the things I do that relate to doula work–publishing the Radical Doula Guide, writing my column for RH Reality Check, the occasional speaking gig–brings in some modest income (we’re talking under a few thousand dollars per year), the bulk of my pay-the-rent money comes from non-doula related work (primarily my work with non-profit orgs as communications consultant). So, I know that all of my commentary on these issues comes from the position of someone outside the doula work is my living community.

And I want to make clear that I find nothing wrong with doula work as a profession, it’s just not the path I’ve chosen for myself or my work, for many mostly personal and logistical reasons.

So, the column:

There is no easy answer to the question of where the doula movement is headed. It’s clear to me that doulas provide an important and potentially transformative intervention for our maternal health system. But it’s also clear to me that institutionalization and professionalization threaten the very model we’ve developed, a model that, because it is outside the medical system, allows us to shift the dynamic and improve outcomes.

An alternative that I think may be more feasible is working to bring the doula model of care to existing participants in the health-care system. How could the doula model transform the way current providers, like doctors and nurses, care for their patients? Rather than creating a vast doula profession, could we transform maternity care by turning everyone into doulas? Could family members, for example, be trained or shown how to provide the kind of support that doulas provide?

I think doula work is valuable and important, and I also don’t believe the essence of doula work—non-judgmental and unconditional support for pregnant and parenting people—needs to be locked away in a system that says only a certain amount of training, certificates, or other paperwork bestows upon someone the right to provide this support. We run the risk of replicating the model we’re trying to revolutionize. And I don’t think that is where real social change happens.

Read the full thing for my whole analysis, including one example of a midwife bringing doula-like training to existing members of the broader health care network.

I would love to hear from you, fellow doulas, what do you think is the goal of our movement? How do you think we’ll get there?


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