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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This article in The Modesto Bee, authored by Corey G. Johnson of the Center for Investigative Reporting, shows what many of us have assumed: coercive sterilization is not a historical practice—it’s a present reality. While fights rage on across the nation to maintain our access to safe and legal abortion procedures, for some folks, the fight to maintain the ability to become pregnant, and parent those kids, continues.
These fights, primarily because they impact low-income folks of color, don’t get the kind of attention and resources that other battles do. There is racism and classism in this divide, and we have to do all we can to raise hell and attention for the ways population control efforts continue today in this country.
Doctors under contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation sterilized nearly 150 female inmates from 2006 to 2010 without required state approvals, the Center for Investigative Reporting has found.
Former inmates and prisoner advocates maintain that prison medical staff coerced the women, targeting those deemed likely to return to prison in the future.
The article explains that the reason these procedures required state approval is precisely because of the history of coercive sterilization for incarcerated women. Court cases in the 1970s based on the discovery that Latina women in California public hospitals were being sterilized without proper consent led to a set of rules regarding how and when you can properly consent to a sterilization procedure (like a tubal ligation).
In order to obtain consent, you have to provide consent information and documents in the patient’s native language (Latina women were found to have signed papers in English consenting to the procedure, despite not speaking English) and you also can’t obtain consent during labor or delivery.
In addition, this article explains that federal funds could not be used to provide sterilization procedures to incarcerated folks because of fear of coercion.
From this reporting, which relied on the work of Justice Now, an organization working with folks on the inside to eradicate prisons, coercion is exactly what took place in many of these sterilizations.
One interesting thread throughout the article, which is distinct from the historical incidences of coercive sterilization, is the use of repeat c-sections as a medical rationale by the doctors quoted for these procedures. With repeat c-sections, they say, there is a risk of uterine rupture upon subsequent pregnancies.
The question there, of course, is why so many c-sections to begin with? I don’t buy it, and assume it’s just a medical attempt to cover up what is really a procedure pushed because of judgement about who should parent, and how many children someone should have, particularly someone who is incarcerated.
I increasingly get more and more infuriated about how little attention in the reproductive rights arena goes to the struggles of low-income, people of color trying to maintain their right to pregnancy, parenting and bodily autonomy. If you are truly doing reproductive justice work, than this issue should get as much attention as any abortion rights fight.
The International Center for Traditional Childbearing published this slideshow about the history of Black midwives in the US. It’s important for all us to understand the role Black midwives have played in the midwifery movement. While this is unlikely to be comprehensive, it’s an important resource in elevating this history.
ICTC also has a doula training program that centers communities of color. Read this guest post for one perspective on their training. They have a training coming up in March in Portland, OR. More info here.