Navajo midwives work to establish first Native birth center in the US

September 30, 2015
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Nicolle Gonzales in a video for The Changing Woman Initiative Fundraiser

Over at Colorlines, I wrote about an exciting new initiative led by two Native midwives, Nicolle Gonzales and Brittany Simplicio, to open a Native-run birth center for Native women in the New Mexico region.

Nicolle Gonzales is a 35-year-old certified nurse midwife (CNM) with three kids ages 9 to 14. She’s Navajo (or Diné, as Navajo people refer to themselves), from Waterflow, New Mexico, and has embarked on a journey to create the nation’s first Native American birth center. “I’d like to see a nice building with pictures of our grandmothers, cedar welcoming you into the door, and moccasins for babies instead of blankets,” says Gonzales. “I want a place where women and families feel welcome.”

Gonzales is among only 14 other Native American CNMs in the United States. She and Brittany Simplicio, another midwife who is Navajo/Zuni, began raising money for a nonprofit that will run the center, Changing Woman Initiative (CWI), last year.

Indigenous women face incredible health disparities and barriers to supportive and humanizing care during pregnancy and birth. I was really surprised to learn that 70% of births at Indian Health Services (the agency run by the federal government that provides most care to Native people in the US) are attended by CNMs. But very few of those midwives are Native themselves. Gonzales says she’s one of 14 Native American CNMs in the entire US.

It’s one major issue with the midwifery and birth center movement–just bringing the midwifery model of care isn’t enough. You also need to bring culturally appropriate care along with it, and sometimes the best way to do that is with midwives who are from the community they are serving.

Gonzales’ project is being supported by the National Association of Birth Centers of Color, and I hope we see more initiatives like this in the future.

You can support their work by donating to their online fundraiser!

And read the full article here.

Remembering the work of Black Midwives of the South

March 19, 2015

A screen shot of the film: All My Babies, with Mary Coley pictured


A screen shot from the film All My Babies

Over at Colorlines I wrote about the Black midwives of the South who birthed generations of babies until the medical establishment pushed them out of business by the 1970s:

By the 1970s, births in hospitals attended by doctors and nurses (and later, nurse midwives) became the norm and these community midwives were phased out. This was done both by passing new laws and policies regulating the practice of medicine and who could provide services like attending childbirth, and through messaging campaigns that implied midwives were uneducated, dirty or even practicing witchcraft. By 1975, only 0.3 percent of all births were attended by a midwife outside a hospital.

In Alicia Bonaparte’s dissertation, “The Persecution and Prosecution of Granny Midwives in South Carolina, 1900-1940” she describes how these campaigns also used sexist and racist undertones to discredit the practicing midwives. “Some physicians even labeled grannies as ‘a cross between a superstitious hag and a meddlesome old biddy,’” she writes. “[This] evaluation served as an attack against the very bodies and ages of black women who were well respected in their communities.”

“All My Babies” is a respectful approach to Coley’s work as a midwife, and she’s portrayed as an accomplished woman in her community. But it also reveals her deference to the white doctor and nurse at the county clinic, and it even shows her questioning her own hygiene practices after a lecture by the doctor.

You can watch a full-length film about Coley online, which is a fascinating peak into the era and the practices of midwives like her.

After I posted the article online, Claudia Booker, a Washington, DC based midwife and doula, responded with this:

“Interesting footnote. The Elder African American Midwives, who had been referred to as “Granny Midwives” had a meeting about 20 years ago which was attended by many of our own current Elder midwives and proclaimed that they no longer wanted to be called “Granny”. They requested that they be referred to as “Grand Midwives’. This discussion was also transmitted to the white midwifery organization at a MANA Conference attended by Makeda Kamara and other Elder Grand Midwives. However the white midwifery organizations still struggle with the title the Grand Midwives have proclaimed for themselves. Let’s honor their request and referred to our Elder Midwives as “Grand Midwives”. They are grand!!”

Important to understand the history, but also respect how these midwives prefer to be referred to.

A moment for White doulas to put allyship into practice and support doulas of color

January 7, 2015

Ever since I joined the doula movement there has been a strong anecdotal sense that the doula community is very white. While I haven’t seen any official data on this (I could imagine it’d be difficult to access a community that is pretty small, but also not congregated in any one organization), it’s the sense I’ve gotten from all of my time and work in this field.

In recent years there has been more attention to race and racism in the doula community, and way more doulas (and midwives, other birth activists) of color speaking up about race and representation.

I think there are many ways the doula community needs to engage with the reality of racism, how it impacts the maternal health of women of color, especially Black women, but increasing the number of doulas of color in our movement is one really important step.

I often get asked by white doulas–what can I do about racism and maternal health disparities? I talked a lot about this question in my speech from SQUATfest two years ago, but I didn’t explicitly answer it.

Well, now you have a major opportunity to step up. A group in the Bay Area is fundraising to bring more doulas of color (and low-income doulas, and formerly incarcerated doulas) into the work.

Infographic reads: "The training: 2 weekends of birth doula education, 1 weekend of breastfeeding and postpartum education, 5 mentored birth experiences."

Infographic that reads: "Your money goes to training 16 doulas of color, providing doulas to 80 families in the community that would not otherwise be able to receive doula support."

Infographic via East Bay Community Birth Support Project

Put your money where your mouth is. If we’re really going to change the culture of birth in the US, we’re going to need way more doulas who look like the women who are facing the most extreme challenges.

The fundraiser ends on Friday–now is your time.

Two election reflections: Latino myth-busting & the white women’s vote

November 10, 2014

I’ve been writing a weekly column at Colorlines these last five months. My areas of focus are gender and race, so I’ve written about all sorts of topics, including a tax break for Black and Latino men, how control over time impacts healthcare workers, the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, race and gender in American education, helping more people of color learn to code, fatkinis, an angry response to the NY Times erasure of women of color and the reproductive justice movement, children’s books highlighting QPOC families, and more.

If you want to follow along with those articles, you can follow Colorlines on facebook, follow my main twitter feed, or subscribe to my email list. I’m planning to revive it in the coming weeks, and send a weekly-ish email with my latest writing.

I don’t post everything I write elsewhere here, since I want to keep Radical Doula focused on birth activism and related topics, but these two election related pieces felt relevant to share.

First, I wrote about new polling from the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health that shows Latinos in Texas are widely supportive of abortion access, contrary to stereotypes about the community:

I spent Valentine’s Day 2007 at a community center in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. I was there with a colleague from the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH) where I was working as an organizer. We’d come to facilitate a reproductive justice advocacy training with a group of local women. They varied in age from early 20s to 50s, and had been gathered by a group of local promotoras—health promoters—who had been working in rural, isolated trailer park-like communities (known as colonias) with no municipal resources (running water, sewer systems, trash collection).

I no longer work for NLIRH, but their work in Texas has continued. A new poll they commissioned in late October supports what I experienced that week in South Texas—Latino attitudes on abortion are much less polemic than we’re encouraged to believe. When it comes down to it, the majority of Latino likely voters don’t think politicians should be able to interfere in a woman’s decision regarding abortion.

Read the full article here.

Finally on Thursday I published a reflection on last week’s election results, honing in on the difference between voting trends for white women and Black and Latina women:

When you look at Tuesday’s election results by gender, it seems that the Democrats and Republicans split the women’s vote pretty evenly, with a few percentage points in favor of Dems. But when you examine that data by gender and race, you’ll get a wholly different picture that highlights an Achilles’ heel for Democrats: white women.

Exit polls released by CNN show that white women’s votes went to the Republicans by a margin of 13 percent. Fifty-six percent of white women voted Republican while only 43 percent voted Democrat.

And if you look at the numbers for black and brown women, you see just how big the race gap really is. Ninety percent of black women and 67 precent of Latina women voted Democrat. (It’s worth noting that Black and Latino men also voted for Democrats more than white women did—86 and 58 percent respectively.) Even when you break it down by age, the white vote went to Republicans. These numbers mean even more when you consider that white people make up two-thirds of the electorate, with the vote evenly split between white men and women.

Considering a lot of progressive effort goes to turning out Black and Latino voters (even though the majority of organizational leadership and staff is white), I think this week’s results show a need for progressives to also figure out how to talk to, and move, white voters.

Three reasons the Hobby Lobby decision is worse for women of color

July 2, 2014

I put together some analysis yesterday for Colorlines about the Hobby Lobby decision. It’s bad news all around, but the impacts are potentially worse for women of color. An excerpt:

While much proverbial ink has been spilled speculating about the impact this will have, few have talked about how women of color might fare under this ruling. On its face there is nothing about this ruling that singles out women of color. But because of our political and economic realities, women of color often bare the brunt of the negative impacts of restrictions on women’s health anyway.

Check out the full article here.

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.

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 »


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