A Single Question

by Najla Nubyanluv

About 8 or 9 years ago, Yvette* arrived at a hospital to support Miranda*, a doula client who had given birth earlier that day. When Yvette knocked on Miranda’s hospital room door, Miranda called for Yvette to enter. A nurse was in the room questioning Miranda about the absence of their partner throughout the birth and postpartum. What the nurse did not know, was that Miranda was a newcomer refugee, who had fled to Canada from her partner due to domestic violence. She had arrived pregnant during the winter. It was her first time outside of a tropical climate and she did not have friends or family in the country. The conversation was triggering and Miranda was in shock. In that moment, Yvette was glad that she had arrived in time to support Miranda in advocating for her own care and respect. What in the world was going on?

Illustration above: Guiding by Mia Ohki

 

I wanted it to be the first and last experience of that sort that I had heard of but it was not. I had supported many single people and partnered people choosing to birth without their partners, who had faced some form of dismissive or disrespectful behaviour from institutions that were supposed to offer quality prenatal services to ALL people and family structures.

I wanted it to be the first and last experience of that sort that I had heard of but it was not. I had supported many single people and partnered people choosing to birth without their partners, who had faced some form of dismissive or disrespectful behaviour from institutions that were supposed to offer quality prenatal services to ALL people and family structures.

Fast forward to 2018. In some ways, many things have changed. In other ways, we are still dropping the ball on supports for single parents. Are we going to play this game of hetero-2.5 kids-with-a-dog-and-a-picket-fence forever? Unfortunately, at the rate that Toronto is going, many millennials will only be able to afford 2.5% of a picket fence from the money they save from their second job as a nanny to someone’s dog, so let us get right into this brief discussion on some of the experiences of single parents in Toronto.

Single parents are not new to our communities. Many of us grew up with friends or in families where parents were remarried, single or separated. There are many, many family structures and somehow our society is not as inclusive as it could, and should be. With people having children later in life, and opting more and more for fertility options that do not require a partner, there will be many more single biological and adoptive parents to come. Yesterday, I filled out an intake form at a medical appointment that asked if my mother and father lived together while I was growing up. Who promised them that I had two parents? How were they sure that having two parents meant that one of them identified as a mother, while the other identified as a father? This is basic. Regardless of the reason for lone parenthood, these parents are real and should not be treated as an afterthought and family services should consistently be provided to address their family needs.

Many families choose to hire a doula to support their family through a pregnancy transition. A doula is a birth companion who is skilled in offering support to birthing parents before (prenatal), during and/or after birth (perinatal). Doulas are amazing resources and support systems. They can soothe concerns and support in birth preparation, and provide a care after baby arrive. Families of all structures choose to use doula services. Doulas have been proven to reduce infant and maternal mortality rates, while also reducing the rates of emergency cesareans. While many single parents hire doulas and there has been an increase in programs that offer free or affordable doulas, cost is still a barrier. The Ontario Health Insurance Plan does not cover doulas and prices can range from hundreds of dollars to thousands, depending on the nature of the individual services. Increased access to doulas provide a more companion style support with phone calls and appointments leading up to birth but what about more intimate companion supports?

My initial searches for single parent services brought up a lot of dating sites. I rejigged my search and I could not quite find what I was looking for. I was searching for professional prenatal intimacy or cuddle support. Doulas are reliable companions but cuddlers are a completely different service. I am a snuggler. Not professionally yet. I am snuggler because it makes me feel warm and comfortable. I love tucking my feet under thighs for warmth when I sit next to someone on a couch (beware!) and my favorite time of day is snuggle o’clock. Are you seeing the pattern here? Research has proven that cuddling releases oxytocin, resulting in a lower risk of postpartum depression. People who live with depression before pregnancy may experience ongoing calming support that can intervene in their elevated risk of postpartum depression. Cuddling can significantly decrease stress levels and it can help to abate anxiety around birthing and rearing a child alone. Where the cuddle supports for expectant parents?

I have been researching professional cuddlers for a couple of years now, diversity in body types and races is lacking, and the ones that exist do not focus specifically on prenatal care. Many single parents would benefit from intermittent non-sexual intimacy options. These services can provide those soothing intimate moments like an arm over a belly, or someone to lay next to when discomfort wards off sleep. That relaxation can be helpful with preparing the body for birth. Hiring a cuddler is an opportunity a professional intimate relationship that completely respects the client’s boundaries. There is a lot of stigma around single pregnant people dating, but pregnant people are still people with desires, so why not? Some expectant people would prefer not to engage in negotiating romantic relationships or are the risk of recovering from a potential breakup while they are pregnant. Either way, lone pregnancy does not result in an immediate loss of romantic or sexual desire. For those who are looking for more than a non-sexual intimate option,  People can/should still educate themselves about sex workers’ services and other sex positive services. Sex during pregnancy may provide a number of health benefits such as stress reduction, release of oxytocin and pleasure. Therefore, I will still mention sexual intimate options even though it is not the focus of this article.

Toronto Public Health offers a wide range of prenatal and parenting services but many of them can definitely more inclusive program. Check their resources. The information provided can be useful, but they continue to refer to a partner or a support person. Ask for referrals and resources from community health centres, midwifery practices, doulas, friends and family members. Advocacy is such a key part of supporting single parent families. Offer feedback about programs and services that are needed at your local community health centre. Services are continuing to try to be inclusive but single parents already exist now. The experiences of single parenthood are vast and diverse and the programs to support them should be too.

*Names changed for privacy


Najla Nubyanluv
Najla Nubyanluv is a queer black playwright, actor, author and doula who loves belly laughter. She is the author & illustrator of “I Love Being Black”, a clay illustrated children’s book published by Sorplusi Press. Most recently, her afrofuturistic shero drama about black women’s magic and mental health entitled I Cannot Lose My Mind saw its World Premiere at Crow’s Theatre in Toronto, On, Canada.

Mia Ohki
Mia Ohki is a Metis Japanese-Canadian artist, born in Connecticut, USA, and raised in Alberta, Canada. She presently lives and works between Edmonton and Calgary, AB. Mia primarily illustrates with black pen on white paper to convey ideas surrounding the social, feminine and cultural influences in her life, however, her art is mostly influenced by her background, with Japanese and Metis culture frequently appearing in the subject matter.

Missing Links

The Injustices Surrounding Prenatal Care in Canada

by Ciana Hamilton

Reproductive Justice isn’t a term that many people understand. And maybe that’s the first part of the problem. In contrast, abortion rights seem to be interpreted more easily; does a woman in Canada have the right to terminate her pregnancy? Yes. Does this mean Canada gets an A on reproductive justice? Not really.

Canada is one of the countries where abortion is legal; a woman who decides to abort her pregnancy in Canada has no legal restrictions. However, accessibility to abortion clinics can vary from province to province. If a woman chooses to abort her pregnancy but is unable to access an abortion clinic where does that leave her? Reproductive justice is the framework that gives an individual choice over their reproductive health, but puts the responsibility on governments to provide accessible care to accommodate those choices.

In 1994 a group of black women from Chicago recognized that there were other important reproductive issues, besides abortion, that were affecting women in their community. This group of women created the term Reproductive Justice. They called themselves the Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice and their goal was to give black women a voice and a platform outside of the mainly white, middle class, women’s rights movement. Almost twenty-five years later the term is known worldwide and represents Indigenous Women, Women of Colour and Trans People.

Today many people of marginalized communities face reproductive injustice and oppression. Access to safe, compassionate prenatal care where both medical and cultural needs are met, doesn’t always happen. Women and families are not being given access to resources and information in order to make informed choices; community services are not accessible and their voices are not being heard. In Canada, Aboriginal women face the most significant inequality around maternal care, especially those in remote communities. Women of colour, women living at or below the poverty line, teen mothers, LGBTQ families and HIV positive women also face the reality of reproductive inequality when seeking care. There appears to be two crucial factors when discussing reproductive justice: inaccessible midwives and a lack of representation in the healthcare system.

Midwives

For many women, the first time their reproductive health is spotlighted is when they become pregnant. This was true for me, being pregnant for the first time at 23. I did not even know that I had reproductive rights. As a young, black, woman from a low-income home, I felt the system was stacked against me from the beginning. I did not have a family doctor and was nearing my second trimester without receiving any regular prenatal check-ups. I remember initially wanting a midwife but was unable to access one in the city I was in. I remember going to a walk-in clinic and practically begging the doctor to refer me to anyone who could provide prenatal care for my baby and me. She did not. Eventually, with some family help, I got in with a team of obstetricians. I was initially relieved, but quickly realized the type of care I would receive was nothing like I imagined. I got basic treatment; none of the doctors cared to know my name. None of the doctors asked if I had a birth plan. I was not given options or choices. I was handed requisitions for tests and sent on my way. I didn’t know who would deliver my baby until the day of delivery. Reflecting on my experience with my first child, what sticks out for me was my desire to have a midwife and being unable to access one. I didn’t know much about midwifery but I felt like a midwife would be the obvious choice for compassionate, trustworthy and respectful care.

Midwifery has gained traction over the years, going from a misunderstood hippie alternative to the more natural, inclusive option. In fact, more parents are continuing to seek out care from midwives. According to the Better Outcome Registry Network or BORN, in Ontario between 2014-2015, midwives cared for 15% of all births in the province. It also helps that midwifery services are covered by OHIP. And, although there has been an increase in the amount of midwives providing care, there still seems to be a lack of midwifery services in the communities that need it the most. If given the choice, I strongly believe most women, specifically marginalized women, would choose to be cared for by a midwife. However, if midwifery services are inaccessible in their community, then there is no choice.

In early December I sat down with Martha Aitkin, a registered midwife in Guelph who has been practicing for 21 years. She believes there are some key differences between care from a doctor and care from a midwife. “The way we organize and the way we give care gives us a lot more time. Time with women and their families to get to know who they are and what is important to them. Time to answer their questions and share information to allow them to make their own decisions about their care.” Aitkin adds, “if a person has a midwife then they have a known care provider, someone they have had a chance to develop a relationship with – someone that they trust. That enhances the safety of their care.”

Pictured above from top to bottom: Martha Aitkin and Nicole Barrette

The midwifery model of care is beautifully simple. Give women choice. Give women a safe space to ask questions, review options and be vulnerable. Give people who identify as LGBTQ+ an inclusive space that is accepting and easily adaptable to non-binary lifestyles. Provide access to materials that can educate and inform families about choices around parenting.

Midwives also provide in home, postpartum care up to six weeks following the birth. For women in the far north, such as Nunavut, extended postpartum care within their own community could be extremely supportive. These women could potentially receive extra support around breastfeeding, diagnosis and treatment of postpartum depression, as well as incorporating traditional medicines for physical healing. Martha spoke about her experience providing care for Inuit women in Nunavut, one of the places that still suffers the most reproductive injustice in Canada. “Most women in Nunavut have to go far away, separate from their families to other cities – Edmonton, Winnipeg, Yellowknife to have their babies. They could be gone for a month to six weeks separated from their other children and the rest of their community. That’s an injustice as far as I’m concerned and the solution as far as I can see is the growth of midwifery services provided by Inuit people for Inuit people.” Martha is right; one possible solution for many Indigenous women living in remote communities across Canada is the growth of midwives in their communities. Imagine the possibilities, women would have access to a midwife close to their home, receive regular prenatal care and be able to deliver their babies in an environment where they feel safe.

When I became pregnant with my second child, I knew I wanted my experience to be different. I wanted to exercise my reproductive rights to the fullest. I wanted to be cared for by a midwife. I wanted an un-medicated homebirth. I wanted to breastfeed. Luckily, I was able to access and get what I had hoped for. I was cared for by two midwives in Guelph, I had a completely non-medicated home birth and I have proudly breastfed my daughter for more than a year. My second experience completely changed my views on reproductive care and reproductive choice. My voice was heard and my choices were respected. Instead of being told to take certain tests, I was asked. I felt empowered and valued as a parent. A part of this empowerment came from the quality of care I received by other women. My midwives were women who respected the autonomy of pregnancy and parenthood. We worked as a team to strategize the safest maternal care and delivery for me. They ensured that I always felt comfortable with any procedure or test that needed to take place. Ultimately, the connection between my midwives and I grew much deeper than I could have anticipated. And as a result, I felt safe.

Representation

If we are looking at ending reproductive injustice than we need to look at equal representation amongst care providers. Midwives provide a piece of that representation; they represent the power and beauty that is a woman birthing a child. They represent the diversity in methods of care. They represent open spaces for different family dynamics. However, midwives are in high demand and in short supply. Not having equal representation in the healthcare system for a marginalized person creates an automatic distrust and assumption that those providing care – the doctors, the nurses – don’t understand the issues that a vulnerable person might face. Representation doesn’t begin and end with healthcare professionals; doulas, childbirth educators, lactation consultants and patient advocates also need to be included to represent the diversity of the people receiving care.

Two years ago I began volunteering for Women Everywhere Breastfeed (WEB), a volunteer run program out of the Guelph Community Health Centre. The cafe offered by WEB is held weekly and is aimed at anyone in the community who may be facing challenges around breastfeeding and who is looking for accessible support from their peers. The program is coordinated by Nicole Barrette, an advocate for reproductive justice, who is deeply invested in ensuring that her work remains inclusive of all people who are needing support during their parenting journey. Nicole is also a birth and postpartum doula and has been for 11 years. She has first-hand experience with the layers of stigma that marginalized women and families face from health care providers when receiving reproductive care. One group we talked about were parents who identify as LGBTQ+, specifically Trans people. “There’s a lack of gender diversity acknowledgment – not everybody who has a baby is identifying as a woman. We talk about breastfeeding/chestfeeding at the WE Breastfeed program.

Chestfeeding, the term Nicole mentioned, is an example of how interchangeable language can be used to make a program more representative of all parents who may choose to attend. Chestfeeding is a term that could be used by a Trans masculine or gender-non-conforming parent. It simply takes out the word breast for a parent who is using the milk from their body   to feed their child, but because they do not identify as a woman, the term breast [may?] conflict with their gender identity. Most hospitals and doctors’ offices have information promoting breastfeeding, and the term breastfeeding is almost always used. WEB is one of the only places I’ve seen that includes terminology that would be representative of Trans parents.

If we are looking for ways to end reproductive injustice, then we must allow communities to represent themselves in the healthcare system. Reproductive justice starts at the grassroots level- people with diverse backgrounds and experiences need to be at hospitals, clinics or community centres offering advocacy services and providing basic resources to educate people.

Collective efforts need to be put forth to educate, empower and equip those who are victimized by Canada’s accessible, but oppressive health care system. The Women of African Descent created the term and set the stage for an open and honest discussion around reproductive injustices faced by marginalized women. It is up to us to demand a change from a system that needs to be held accountable.


Ciana Hamilton
Ciana Hamilton is a freelance writer based out of Guelph,Ontario. She respectfully honours Turtle Island as sacred Indigenous lands. Her work leans towards creative non-fiction and she enjoys writing about issues surrounding advocacy, justice, feminism and cultural ancestry.

Rites of Passage

by kahsenniyo williams

She came running in the room frantic and doubtful. She said, “Mom I think I got my period.” Despite me giving her teachings on this day, this moment since she was little, I could hear the insecurities in her voice. Her words echoed in ancestral tones. “Mom, I think I got my period,” she repeated. These words began a continental movement in my life. It was like the earth cracked and shifted for us to reveal the new road, the new path and journey for us. Womanhood. It is important for me to acknowledge that her muttering these words meant a change not just for my daughter and I, but for our community, the aunties, her sisters, the grandmothers and all of the women in our lives. I certainly did not raise this child alone. Numerous wonderful, powerful and loving women worked together with me and my husband to create this little girl that was standing in front of me. This meant change for all of us.

Illustration above: Quiet girls are seeds 2 by Mia Ohki 

I had been preparing for this beautiful moment for a long time. I stayed up nights wondering to myself and the ancestors “how do I as an Indigenous mother in 2017 bring my daughter into womanhood given everything my people have lost”? I knew that we as Haudenosaunee had to have some sort of ceremony or way of doing this, prior to contact. Unfortunately, it had, for the most part been lost in the dust and avalanche of colonization. Stripped from our way of life during the residential school era. If you take a child from their home to colonize them, you remove child rearing practices. Fundamental to those practices is the ways in which we transition our young people into adulthood. The ceremony, the process. At some point the sacredness of this time was gone. The residential school era forced shame and humiliation on us as a whole. It turned this once beautiful time in development into an secretive embarrassing time. This presented huge challenges for me as a mother. It felt as if my daughter was in front of me, her arms extended with a basket in her hands, waiting for me to fill it. And I was standing in front of her empty handed, with nothing to offer her. Not only was it necessary for me to do the work of overcoming the colonial shame of my womanhood and body, but I also had to overcome the shame of not having the cultural knowledge. The reality of being a mother with no tools or knowledge given to me of how to do this thing was often at times overwhelming. I often reflected on how young people are transitioned into adulthood today and was bothered. Today the first drink, the first time having sex, the first-time smoking weed. I didn’t know much other than I didn’t want any of these as the marker for my daughter’s transition into womanhood.

I spent time exploring and seeking answers on how to do this, in a way that felt good for me, my daughter, our family and our community. I spoke to knowledge holders, grandmothers, men and women. I talked to kids and I had countless conversations with the women in my life. I even went to Akwesasne (a Mohawk territory) to learn from them.

Here are some key points I learned.

This time in a person’s life is crucial to their development. It is a time that we as caretakers of these beings (not just parents) should hold our young people the closest. Today our youth hit a certain age and we often let them go. Off to explore and develop on their own, with very little supervision or guidance. This colonial mentality goes against all logic. We must intentionally and lovingly bring our sons and daughters into adulthood. We must put intentional lessons in front of them to shape them, to give them guiding principles and values. We must give them challenges and healthy obstacles to overcome.

Just because I did not receive these teachings does not make me an inadequate mother. The shame I felt around this was not mine to carry. It is far more beneficial to do somethings instead of nothing. We need to be brave and we need to make space for our own knowledge and intuition in transitioning our young people. We need to call upon the knowledge in our circles. To hold up mothers, fathers and community. We need to collectively put these young people at the centre of community during this time in their lives.

Culture that is alive grows and changes to meet the needs of the people. This concept is necessary for the revitalization of Indigenous child rearing. It requires the openness to make mistakes and create somethings new out of the old. It requires being bold and prioritizing the children here today over our own trauma and egos. If we continue to function from a place of fear and secrecy we will lose the little that we have and ultimately our children will miss out.

Her birth into this world was my birth into motherhood. A process that is never ending. With winding roads up mountains, through valleys and flat lands.

My daughter was the first woman in my family in generations to get some sort of intentional community-based transition into womanhood. Being that this was the first time in generations and that my daughter has struggled with self-esteem we had a big celebration. There were women from all corners of the world who attended. We had a full moon ceremony in her honour. This was an inter-generational affair. We ate, sang songs, shared stories of womanhood, gave words of encouragement and wrapped her in our love. This was true healing, for all of us. All of these women who in their own ways had been robbed of a similar experience. Although we were there for her, we healed parts of ourselves. On this night she would start her berry fast. A yearlong ritual fasting. To teach her about commitment. So that she would experience the satisfaction of following through. To teach her about self-regulation and temptation. So that she could have the experience of dealing with wanting something but knowing that it’s not the best decision for her. How to say NO. To teach her to listen to her body and what she is craving. For her to know that her body belongs to her. To teach her about sacrifice. To give her the security of knowing that a community is surrounding her and keeping her accountable. To give her a sense that her decisions should be purposeful. So that she knows the moon and berries are there for her.

It is yet to be seen the long terms effects this will have on her. But I know as the person who is teaching and guiding her that I have reference points of times she learned all of these different teachings. I keep bringing her back to those moments and have a feeling that I will throughout the next several years. This journey is just beginning. She has more process and challenges that will intentionally be put in her path before we can fully welcome her into the circle of women. But it is comforting to know that we are on our way.


Kahsenniyo Williams
Kahsenniyo Williams is a mother, poet, spoken word artist, and community organizer. She is from the mohawk nation and the wolf clan based in Six Nations.

Mia Ohki
Mia Ohki is a Metis Japanese-Canadian artist, born in Connecticut, USA, and raised in Alberta, Canada. She presently lives and works between Edmonton and Calgary, AB. Mia primarily illustrates with black pen on white paper to convey ideas surrounding the social, feminine and cultural influences in her life, however her art is mostly influenced by her background, with Japanese and Metis culture frequently appearing in the subject matter.

In Our Own Words

Re-writing the Dialogue on FGM

By Galme Mumed

Let me start off by saying a few things about myself. My name is Galme Mumed and I am 24 years old. I was born in what is known as Ethiopia. I came to Canada when I was 8 years old after my mom sponsored me. While I was in Ethiopia I was raised mostly by my grandmother in a small village called Karamile. Once I moved to Canada I grew up in Toronto, specifically Scarborough and moved to Guelph to study International Development at the University of Guelph. I recently graduated and am now living back in Toronto.

Even though I was born in Ethiopia, I am specific about identifying as an Oromo woman instead of identifying as Ethiopian. Ethiopia is a colonial state that exists on the oppression and genocide of Oromo people, who are the indigenous people of Ethiopia, and so it is important for me to make this distinction.

Getting into my experience with FGM (female genital mutilation), I actually got the procedure done right before I came to Canada. I think my grandmother strategically did it because she knew that I would be coming to Canada. I think she kind of panicked and made me go through the procedure because she didn’t want me to leave without me getting cut. A lot of women in my culture believe that if a woman is uncut she is unclean and no one will marry her. I think she wanted to protect me and for me to carry my culture going into this new place that would be so different than where I came from. I have always remembered everything from the procedure but it was never explained to me why it was happening or the reasons why it was done. There was never a conversation about it.

When I came to Canada I kind of just lived my life and forgot about it. It wasn’t even a thing. I just figured it was something that happened that one time. I didn’t think it was something that was going to follow me or something that made me different than other women. It wasn’t really until high school that I thought about it for the first time. In grade 10 I started having an intimate relationship with a girl. We started off as friends and we were together all of the time and eventually we were a thing. When we first started getting intimate, I realized that things were different. Obviously I know that every vagina looks different but hers had extra parts that mine just didn’t have. In terms of the clitoris I was looking at hers and was like woah what is this. That was really the first time I made the connection.

You know in the movies when someone sits there and their whole life is rewinding and replaying? That’s what it felt like. In that moment I rewound back to that day that I was cut and was like, okay, that’s what that was. When they held me down and did that all those years ago it was because they were removing this thing.

Before this moment I used to watch shows that had survivors of FGM who would talk about their experience and I always use to feel bad for them. I never made the connection that it had also happened to me. Once I realized what had been done to me, I told the person who I was with at the time but she didn’t really know how to respond because it was something that she had never really heard of it. No one else knew. It was overwhelming because all of these thoughts started coming in. Being in high school you are very limited to the information you have about this stuff and it is mostly just from what people tell you. So I was thinking that I’d probably never feel pleasure sexually or be able to have a good intimate relationship with anyone. Later on I found out that this wasn’t actually true but at that time I believed all of those things because that was the information that I had access to.

So I started to do research. I was googling everything. At that point I didn’t even know that there were different stages or levels of FGM. Like sometimes the lips get sewn together, sometimes there is complete removal of all of your parts. It was so much information. Googling it was helpful in some ways but the problem was that most of the information was coming from white people who were going into these communities and creating a specific narrative. I mean I did find out that it was banned in countries all over the world including Ethiopia and that it was condemned by the UN but I was like if it is illegal than why is it still happening. A lot of things didn’t make sense. Finding out almost felt unfair because I was like well if it is illegal then why did it happen to me. It hit me that even though so much research was going into this issue; the policies were being passed and statements were being made by the UN, none of these things were actually reaching the communities that were doing FGM.

Also there were so many articles that just talked about the negative results of FGM. The fact that you’d never feel anything again after the procedure. I knew that they were doing it because they wanted to make sure people understood why it shouldn’t be legal but only having one narrative sucked for me as someone who had already had the procedure done. I’m sure it sucked for others too because it paints the picture that this is the only result you’ll have which is actually false information. A lot of it depends on the type of procedure you’ve had done.

Illustration below: Quiet girls are seeds by Mia Ohki 

Initially I did all of this research but after I graduated and got into university I kind of just stopped and continued to live my life. At some point I became intimate with someone again and felt like it was something I had to share. It felt like such a big thing and I was ashamed of it. I felt like I was missing something important and it just weighed on me. I also felt like any intimate experience I would go into I’d have to have this conversation which I didn’t really want to have. I didn’t want to keep having to be vulnerable with people. On any other day nobody would know but all of a sudden I am intimate with someone and am having to reveal this thing. I tried to forget about it but it was always something that was in the back of my mind.

One day I couldn’t sleep and was thinking about it all night. I got up and was like you know what, I am   going to start researching again and focus more on if something can be done to fix this. In highschool that had was actually my first thought but when I was researching, everything I found said that reconstructive surgery was impossible. That it was impossible to get your clitoris back.

So I just started over with researching. Eventually I found a website that talked about this doctor named Dr. Marci Bowers who is based in California. She is a trans woman who is a doctor who did a procedure to change her own sex. After that process she came up with this whole concept that there hasn’t been enough research done about the clitoris and re-constructive surgery to say that it is impossible. Basically she says that the clitoris is not just this small piece that once it is cut it is gone. It goes deeper into the sexual organs than the parts that you can see. Once you remove the scar tissue the clitoris would still be there.

She was basically proving all the people who said it was impossible wrong. I ended up watching a Vice documentary about this Somali girl who underwent the reconstructive surgery through Dr. Marci Bowers and it showed that the whole process was a success. After watching the documentary, I initially was like woah this works but then got a little bit hesitant and wondered if it was fake. You just never know with the internet. I ended up talking with a bunch of my friends to see what they thought and we realized that it was legit. My friend Shabina and I sent the organization an email and they explained to us that the surgery was free but that we had to pay to rent the room for the surgery and pay for accommodation, travel and a $500 deposit to book the appointment. Also one of the requirements was that I had to go and see a gynecologist to confirm that I had actually undergone FGM.   They had this requirement because girls were showing up to get the procedure but actually still had their clitoris intact. Because it is something that is never talked in our communities, they had thought they had been cut when they hadn’t. So to tackle that they now had this requirement.

Going through the process of getting a note from the gynecologist was a rough experience for me. I went to the university campus clinic to get a referral for a gynecologist and even just trying to explain to them why I needed the referral was awful. They didn’t know how to respond to what I was telling them or what to do and here I am already feeling awkward because it’s the first time I am saying this thing out loud to anyone outside of my close friends. So the whole thing made me feel more uncomfortable because I had to repeatedly explain what I needed. There was a lot of back and forth and finally they gave me the referral.

Going to the gynecologist was even worse. I went with two of my friends Mina and Savannah who came into the room with me to support me. The gynecologist was really just supposed to examine my vagina and give an assessment of whether I had or hadn’t been cut. At first I was excited because he was Muslim but then I remembered that a lot of this stuff has to do with men in our culture not thinking we are clean if we don’t have the procedure. Even though he is a doctor and has gotten an education here, he still thinks like that. Basically it turned into him saying I didn’t really need the surgery. He was insinuating that it was purely for the purpose of having pleasure which wasn’t really necessary in his eyes and that I could still pee without issues and give birth with what I had so I was fine. My friends and I started to argue with him in his office that it wasn’t up to him to decide, his job was just to give an assessment and in the end he just refused to write out the referral.

I ended up emailing the organization and explaining what had happened and how the gynecologist had treated me. They responded saying that if I could just take a picture of my vagina and send it to them that that would be okay. I was approved right after they received the picture.

The next thing was raising the money for the surgery. Shabina suggested I start a GoFundMe. So she made the page and at that point my name was not mentioned because I wasn’t really ready for that so it was anonymous.

Through the GoFundme, this reporter named Jayme Poisson contacted Shabina. She said that she was trying to do a story on FGM in Canada. At first I was like, hell no. I didn’t want my name out there and everyone in my community to know all of these aspects of my life. Plus generally I am so against the media and how they move. It’s just such a complex and touchy subject so its like if it’s going to be done it has to be done properly and with a lot of care. I didn’t know if I was ready to do that.

Shabina did some researching on the reporter and realized she had done some reporting on police brutality in Toronto, carding and BLMTO and had done a good job. So that kind of changed my mind and I decided I would give it a chance.

When I was thinking about it something hit me. I was thinking back to high school and remembering that when I was researching, I never saw women who looked like me. There were never any black, Muslim, East African women who grew up in this culture here in Canada and were publically talking about it. So I felt like I needed to do this and that this was a part of my journey. I was like, this isn’t a coincidence that this opportunity is happening when I am a lot older and understand my sexuality and body a lot more. I wanted to do it in case there was another girl just like me waiting for someone just like her to shed light on this. I was worried I would get some backlash but I dunno at the same time I trusted that my community would really see my story and understand.   I felt like it was about time that we controlled the narrative and that it would happen with us talking to each other and that this would be the only way that people would want to start talking about it.

I talked to the reporter and she let me know that I would have a lot of power in creating the narrative, that she wasn’t looking to demonize my culture and people and that nothing would get released without my approval. So I started to think about it and how I would present this issue in a way that was complex and created a real conversation around FGM.

I feel like I was able to achieve that and once the article did come out this girl from Ottawa who wants to stay anonymous reached out to me. She had grown up here and is in her second year of university. When she was 13 she went back home to Somalia to visit her family and they cut her. I ended up going to Ottawa to meet her and she’s actually now done her own story anonymously and has a GoFundme for her surgery. It was cool because for the story I was just supposed to be there to support but then I actually got to interview her for the story and the reporters just listened. It was very beautiful. Now I am helping her with her GoFundme and we text each other. Her GoFundme hasn’t been moving as quickly as mine, she is not part of the community that I am so she hasn’t reached her goal but hopefully she can still reach her goal.

One time I was at a restaurant eating with some friends and as we were walking out these older Oromo men came up to me and were like we are so proud of you, we are so happy you are one of our own. It was a few weeks after the article had come out and he had the article in his bag and said he had been walking around with it. So many older immigrant East African women were not only happy I was shedding light on it but also the way I was talking about FGM while showing respect for my community and my people. One of my friends’ mom told me this was the first story that she really connected with.

Before all of this, me and my mom weren’t talking (we have a complicated relationship), but after the article she reached out to me and left me a message saying that it takes a lot of courage to come out and talk about this. She said she was really proud of me and said she didn’t know that it impacted me the way that it did and let me know that she would stand beside me in anything I needed. She was just so supportive about this thing coming out. She also felt like we need to stop walking on eggshells about FGM, that the practice should be stopped but for that to happen it means we need to be actively talking about it.

None of this would have happened if I didn’t do the article and work to be honest and complicate the narrative. It feels so good because my people are always the ones being demonized and it’s like just because people don’t circumcise women in Canada doesn’t mean that men here treat women any better. Patriarchy is everywhere, it has affected every part of the world. It’s not just a Muslim and African problem. If anything we learnt gender inequality from the colonizers…

I hope that the dialogue continues in this way. I want to hear more of us taking control of the narrative. I want to hear more of us talking about our experiences about ourselves instead of being studied. Right now most of the research and conversation is being led by people who don’t even know anything about our culture. It makes a huge difference when you hear the experience of someone who has actually gone through it. Why is it always people who study it have the most to say about it? It’s also so crucial to mention that all of these NGOs like UNICEF are so big on making it illegal and eradicating FGM but they have their own agendas. A lot of the reasons why they create this narrative is to justify Islamophobia and anti-blackness. I feel like the more that you tell people look how Muslims are, they are so barbaric we need to save these women. It justifies them going in and invading and doing what they’ve always been doing. It’s the same narrative as when they went to go colonize black people in the first place. It allows them to justify going in and taking all of our resources with the guise of helping but like I said their policies are not doing anything on the ground to begin with.

All in all this a family issue so it should be handled that way.

In terms of resources, through my experience and the research that I have done, Canada has a long way to go. To begin with, they need a doctor here who will do this type of surgery. I shouldn’t have to travel all the way to California. There are surgeries like this in France, in Kenya, the UK why not Canada. Apparently there is a doctor in Toronto who was trying to start it here but for some reason it has been a lot harder for him to set up. For me, I was very lucky that I am very well connected in a lot of communities which helped me reach my fundraising goal but not everyone has that. I know a lot of people want this surgery but could never afford to go to the states or might not have papers to get there. If we could even have people who are trained to deal with women who are FGM survivors in the healthcare system, or more affordable resources that people can seek out that would be good too. Things like sex therapy specifically for FGM survivors so that people can have a different relationship with their bodies or just therapy in general. Ideally there could be some sort of organization that people can connect to that has a physical space. Even if you have something as simple as training gynecologists and doctors so that they know how to respond when someone comes to them that is an FGM survivor.

There is just nothing right now so anything would help

Link for Ottawa Woman’s GoFundMe 


Galme Mumed
I was born in Hararge Oromia. I came to Canada when I was 8 years old but my heart and my memories are still in Hararge Oromia. I believe I am here in Canada for a reason and have a purpose to serve both here and in my home. I am proud to call myself Oromo and Muslim and Black. I feel like my ancestors have left me with many teachings and gifts that I’m constantly trying to listen to. I am a revolutionary because that’s the legacy I was born into.

Mia Ohki
Mia Ohki is a Metis Japanese-Canadian artist, born in Connecticut, USA, and raised in Alberta, Canada. She presently lives and works between Edmonton and Calgary, AB. Mia primarily illustrates with black pen on white paper to convey ideas surrounding the social, feminine and cultural influences in her life, however her art is mostly influenced by her background, with Japanese and Metis culture frequently appearing in the subject matter.

Dreaming mothers, mothering dreams: The Birth of The MOCHA Project

By sydanie

From time of birth, black and brown women are often raised to develop the fundamental skills needed to perform feminized labour and maintain the survival of our communities. We, just as often, become mothers before we learn to love ourselves and others in ways that are healthy, gratifying and supportive to ourselves. Balancing dreams, desires and responsibilities on little rest and support, is an unfair lesson stitched into our minds, recognized and remembered from quite some time ago. As a “natural” result of migration, and the systemic dismemberment of black and brown families, many traditions and practices specific to the different stages of young black and brown womanhood and motherhood, have frayed; become changed and lost.

I ponder sometimes, on the wisdom hidden within the silent and secretive nature of my grandmother, wishing I could sit with her thoughts and tap into her wealth of knowledge that is rightfully my own. Wondering what undying traditions died with her or remain silent in the heart of the elders in my family still living.

    Growing up, I had a really unhealthy and hurtful relationship with my mom which, surprisingly enough, set the precursor for a long line of abusive relationships, both platonic and intimate, which lead up to the one that brought the birth of my daughter. I had, up to that point, been an artist slowly moving along my journey of self discovery/awareness and/or “consciousness” in my life and work, so the birth of my daughter, which immediately follow with a deep postpartum depression, made me begin to meditate on and strategize around, my mother wounds. My relationship with my mom was the center of my universe for my entire life, yet the full impact of her abuse never showed itself until I became a mother. Between my damaged relationship with my mother and her family, along with the undying friction between my co-parent and I, I was left with minimal support in my daughters infancy. Everyday was a war on slope. Everything was hard. I don’t remember having many friends back then and if I did, I didn’t have the strength or language to articulate my needs. Throughout my different stages of postpartum depression, I took careful note and made sense of my situation as it relates to my individual experience with systematic oppression. “My lack of access to resources and support is directly connected to the family and poverty, I was born into”; this was (and currently is) the bottom line and the main thought that kept circling through my mind, only tormenting me more as I lived it everyday. My daughter and I and our need for community, created obstacles in my self development that I continue to struggle to navigate.

Early in my pregnancy, while working with some women in my community, I had pitched the concept of an community art circle for mothers of colour and the thought was met with excitement. The slow development of the program plan would eventually allow young black and brown mothers to use the creative space and mediums to help them transitioning and adjusting to motherhood. For as long as women have had to balance their careers and parental duties, there has been a fundamental need for communal support for families; it takes a village to raise a child, they say, and it is not as though this concept is foreign to me. I grew up with a village, as dysfunctional as it may have been at times. Though many of those who made up my village as a child are either no longer in my life or no longer with us, their lives, love and protection is something I value and cherish yet fear I’m failing to create for my daughter in the faint rhythms of isolation that roll into my timeline and lifestyle. Some might say its selfish, but the driving force behind my goals derive from a very deeply personal space and strength, to bear light onto the trembling of my own individual needs as a mother still young, and learning. The maintenance of our mental health, the survival of our children and the hope for generational healing, depends on the purposeful and intentional restorative rebuilding of our community that I deserve to be a part of.

As I found myself grasping for straws in a community that I still continue to adjust myself around, I understood the importance of holistic community care for black mothers and families and birthed the idea of The MOCHA Project. The Mothers Organized in Community Healing Arts Project began in 2016 as a 9 week mommy and me art program for black and brown mothers, with optional child care, food and transportation. All workshops were co facilitated by other black and brown mothers and that shifted the space in a powerful and positive way every time. When the women felt in control of their space and experience, it developed its own energy that even in the smallest groups, was still flowing, moving and active. Providing this space in my community for the first session was a challenging, yet amazing and fulfilling experience. The connections I made with the participating mothers and mothers in my community who work diligently to make safer spaces like this exist, affirmed my journey into holistic community arts and healing. It is important for the folks in our communities be allowed to heal and be healed in the spaces where they are from; black mothers, queer folks, poor folks all need to have access to spaces and alternative education, where we can be equipped with the skills to heal ourselves and each other. As The MOCHA Project enters its second year, I reflect on being initiated into motherhood and black womanhood through my desire to heal and care for, myself and my community. We are so often caught in perpetual states of need and lack, because of shame we are taught to feel for being human. We are subject to constant states of crisis, trauma and government sanctioned disease and have no safes space to be the people we become as result of the system. As our communities affirm decades worth of work and research in black and intersectional feminism, more folks are creating and maintaining the spaces for themselves, by themselves as a means of resistance and generational healing.


sydanie
sydanie is rapper, mother, writer, event planner and host, art facilitator and founder of The MOCHA Project; a 6 week peer art therapy group for black and brown mothers to use the art as a means of self expression and to initiate self healing. This past summer Sydanie released her most recent EP Stillwater, and currently working on her next project titled “999”, due for a spring release. Instagram, Twitter, Soundcloud: @sydanieee

3 Poems

By: Tenille K. Campbell

Illustration by Mia Ohki 

#962

your skin
smells of smoked salmon
tasting of tradition
culture
and land
you make me
gush
like rivers wild
I want you to explore
me
I want you to taste me
ride my river
feast from me
discover how I taste
like ceremony


#969
your fingers lace in mine
as you tell me about the hunting trips
shooting a moose
the ache in your shoulders
as you carve and carry flesh
from muskeg to campfire
to home to the cardboard-laden
kitchen floors of grandma’s and mama’s
aunts and cousins
sharp knives
glistening under weather beaten hands
as they finish
what you started
you lift my hand up
kiss my open palm
I tingle
wondering if you know
what kind of hunting
I’m doing right now

Tenille K Campbell
Tenille K Campbell is a Dene/Métis poet and photographer from English River First Nation, located in Northern Saskatchewan. Author of #IndianLovePoems, she is a firm believer is positive sexuality, sipping tea with her aunties and cousins, and is currently learning naughty words in many Indigenous languages – because decolonized love, ya’ll.

Mia Ohki
Mia Ohki is a Metis Japanese-Canadian artist, born in Connecticut, USA, and raised in Alberta, Canada. She presently lives and works between Edmonton and Calgary, AB. Mia primarily illustrates with black pen on white paper to convey ideas surrounding the social, feminine and cultural influences in her life, however her art is mostly influenced by her background, with Japanese and Metis culture frequently appearing in the subject matter.

Words of Wisdom from the Grandmothers in Three Movements: Past, Present and Future

watercolour of cotton flower

by Karen L. Culpepper 

(With a Lyrical Soundtrack from Jill Scott)

Content note: This Article discusses sexual violence and abortion 

Past: Once upon a time…

To the indigenous grandmothers of African descent that survived the middle passage, to the Black women and girls who endured the horrors of slavery in the US and to the grandmothers of the Jim Crow era, like Recy Taylor, who did not receive reproductive rights or justice, we welcome your presence. You endured the burden of physical cruelty, mental torture and psychic attacks, a resonance that is coded, and sometimes expressed, in the present day by way of intergenerational transmission of trauma. May you continue to share your stories from the other realm, so that we may continue to acknowledge your experience in this realm

“Tell me how you feel if I was, if I was gone.

Tell me how you feel.

What if I was gone forever?”

How It Make You Feel

– Jill Scott

“I believe if slavery would lasted much longer the negro race would have depopulated because all the negro womens they had become wise to this here cotton root. They would chew that and they would not give birth to a baby. All of their Masters sho‘ did have to watch them, but sometimes they would slip out at night and get them a lot of cotton roots and bury them under their quarters. If they could just get enough that root to get one flower that was enough to do what they wanted it to do” ~Dave Byrd of Texas, an ex-slave, recounts his experience of cotton root bark, Federal Writers‘ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA)

Baby I am not sure I can put into words the horrors of slavery. It was brutal and inhumane. The slave owners were primitive savages. What kept me in the midst of it all, you ask? Two things: the wisdom of the ancestors and love.

Don’t ever forget: you are the descendant of brilliant African people enslaved in the United States. Those white folks did not know a thing about the crops we cultivated in South Carolina. We were brought from Africa specifically for our knowledge of agriculture, but folks don’t usually claim that as fact. We created fertile ground for crops like tobacco, indigo, rice and cotton. While we worked the land, we planted seeds of hope, strength and possibility and watered those seeds with our blood, sweat and tears.

I give praises to the ancestors because ironically we were the growers of the very plant spirit medicine that allowed us to have sovereignty over our bodies. I was told stories as a young child about how Mandingo woman had established a deep relationship with cotton root bark to regulate reproductive outcomes such as preventing and terminating pregnancy.   Honestly, we would have had cotton in the United States whether they liked it or not because my Mama told me a story of how some of the women tucked all kinds of seeds in their hair before they were stolen from the Motherland. Who would have thought that the plant we worked with year ‘round would enable our bodies to be the site of resistance?

As a young enslaved woman, I found myself at the intersection of providing physical labor and the expectation to reproduce, literally create more property. My Mama tried to protect me as best she could. One day while Mama was off completing a task, the Master’s wife, Miss Betty, encouraged her son to rape me, which he did. I was so ashamed. I jumped up, fixed my clothes and went back to watching the youngers. I didn’t have the courage to tell Mama. The next morning when I went to the big house, Miss Betty forced me to drink a concoction of black haw (Viburnum prunifolium) to ensure the arrival of her grandchild because Mama knew all about plants from catching babies with Big Mama.

About a month and a half later, Mama witnessed the concoction routine as she prepared breakfast. She pulled me aside and without saying a word, I burst into tears and hung my head in shame. Mama knew my truth. Although she was devastated, she just held me close and kissed me on my forehead. Little did Miss Betty know, cotton root bark is a force to be reckoned with and I had seen it in action many nights when Mama would help other women terminate a legacy of suffering. She gave me a decoction of cotton root bark and cotton seeds that night and within a few hours, I delivered a huge formed clot. Mama laid hands on my womb space and gave me another tea to tone down the bleeding because we had to be up in a few hours. She was off to the river to perform a ritual and release my baby back to the Earth. Mama held me all night.

From that day forward, Mama taught me everything she knew about plant spirit medicine and had me chew on cotton root bark every day moving forward. We were emancipated a few years later. I stopped chewing on that root bark once I met my beloved. I never knew choosing to love someone could be such a beautiful act of resistance. He held my hand and treated me so gently. I had never had that before that moment. I never wanted to have a baby before meeting him. His love kept me here and he gave me something so sacred to love: your great, great grandmother.

Present: 45: A menace to society

“I wonder if I gave you diamonds out of my own womb, would you feel the love in that or ask why the moon? If I gave you sanity for the whole of humanity, had all the solutions for the pain and pollution. No matter where I live, despite the things I give, you’ll always be this way.”

Hate on Me – Jill Scott

“A BOLD vision for reproductive justice means trusting Black women to determine our future.”

– Monica Simpson, SisterSong

Matter is neither created, nor destroyed. Same script, different cast, new day. Has much changed in the realm of reproductive freedom and sovereignty when it comes to the bodies of Black women and girls? The same wicked frequency of white supremacy and privilege is alive and well today. The only thing that has changed about plantation life is that the “Last Plantation” is in the center of Washington, DC.   White men are STILL making critical decisions about women’s bodies through the creation of legislature and by eliminating funding to programs that directly impact their ability to make safe, critical choices about their own bodies.

Can Black folks and other folks of colour in the United States truly ever feel whole and complete under the suffocating frequencies of capitalism and corruption? To be Black in America is to exist in the presence of racial and economic injustice and emotional, mental and spiritual harm. Is it possible to show up in our unique totality on a land that never considered our ancestors equal, whole, complete human beings? These are the days of truth, you know. One lesson we’ve learned from 2016 is however folks are show up these days–believe them.

Donald Trump, also known as 45 by those in resistance, is a chief teacher of this lesson. We cannot believe his word, but we can believe his intent. He is a threat to the very fabric of the United States and he is a threat to humanity, particularly in terms of Black women’s reproductive justice. Based on an article in the Huffington Post, over the course of one year, Donald Trump has restricted $8.8 billion in US foreign aid funding for international health programs that provide or even mention abortion. For young women and girls in Kenya, this means no access to condoms, no access to safe abortions (unsafe abortions are a leading cause of death), no access to family planning, no access to cancer screening and no access to antiretroviral medication in a country with a very high HIV population. The impact is swift and evident with young women in Kenya returning to clinic sites pregnant, some even suicidal and many resorting to unsafe abortions.

Here in the US, the impact of stress on Black women’s health is the root of many health negative phenomena. According to a recent piece from National Public Radio (NPR), Black mothers in the US die at three to four times the rate of white mothers, one of the widest of all racial disparities in women’s health. And according to recent data, in some areas, like New York City, Black mothers are 12 times more likely to die than white mothers.

Unfortunately this phenomena was embodied and expressed through the loss of activist, Erica Garner. Erica lost her father, Eric Garner, who suffered from asthma, to senseless police brutality after a New York Police Department Officer used an unauthorized chokehold. Erica had give birth to her son three months prior to her death and had suffered from the effects of an enlarged heart. According to the New York Times, “an asthma episode precipitated a major heart attack.”

What was the “seed” that caused Erica’s death? Most likely a combination of racism, stress, grief, and compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is a phenomenon that I have observed consistently in activist spaces where folks align themselves with the suffering of others. It often shows up as literal fatigue and can express as apathy, depression, anxiety and contributes to the erosion of vitality in activists. As a member of the Oxalis Collective here in Washington DC, we thrive to create and curate healing spaces for activists. We have worked with a reproductive justice organization to educate and introduce healing justice as a framework. This framework provides a container of principles that encourages healthy, whole activist communities and sustainable movement spaces.

Future: Possibility (For the sake of the youngers)

“When I wake up, everything I went through will be beautiful.” When I Wake Up – Jill Scott

“I am rooted in radical organizing traditions that always call on spirit and ancestors to allow us to root our political work in a much larger frame of how are we transforming on a cellular level what oppression has done to us, individually and collectively. And how will we not just survive but heal and be well and create new ideas or renew?” – Cara Page

Wise grandmothers, our elevated ancestors. We give thanks for your presence. We give thanks for the container you have created for us all. Thank you for keeping your torch lit in dark times. Thank you for showing us the way and passing along your wise teachings.

I am dreaming of a world that affirms all lives.

A world where folks can all love who we choose.

A world where we acknowledge our wretched past history and through community ritual, atone for our destructive past aggressions.

A world where folks acknowledge their privilege and leverage that knowingness to work towards justice, conscious allyship and the radical distribution of resources.

A world where the bodies of people of colour are not a canvas for harm and trauma.

A world in which access to information and economic power is not granted to the few.

A world where we cultivate a connection with all living beings, plants and creatures.

A world that encourages community and economic empowerment through entrepreneurship that is rooted in models that are sustainable.

A world where we our foods sources are fully disclosed and consist of healthy, ethically grown sources and accessible food markets.

A world that weaves in healing justice as a foundational tool to bring light and healing to our experiences, triggers and traumas in this realm and generations forward and back.

A world where we are safe in a space of our design called home.

Grandmothers, we need your guidance and protection now more than ever. May we channel your firmness and unwavering will to live. We know in our hearts that you did not survive for us not to live our best lives. May our dreams be big enough to hold us all.


Karen Culpepper
Karen L. Culpepper is a clinical herbalist in the Washington DC area. Karen’s unique herbalist contribution centers on the ways in which plant medicine can support deep healing. Her particular focus areas are intergenerational trauma and its impact on physiology and vitality. She can be reached at embracingrhythm27@gmail.com.

Supporting pregnancy within Queer BIPOC Communites

Portrait of Kyisha in a headwrap holding her pregnant belly

By Kyisha Williams

The task of creating a just world involves many moving parts including us deciding when and how we bring life into this world. For queer people this is often a process that involves a lot of planning and support because the possibility of it happening ‘by accident’ is far less than in heterosexual communities. In racialized communities, specifically Black and Indigenous communities childbearing holds unique challenges because the way we parent and bring life into this world is heavily scrutinized and due to racism our processes are often interrupted, intervened in, etc. This limits the ability of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) to seek professional and medical supports during their pregnancies, such as mental health supports for fear that the state may get involved/come into conflict with their lives.

In this context it becomes extremely important to be able to support individuals and families, (especially Black and/or Indigenous Queer people) who take on the hard work (full of physical, emotional and spiritual labour) of bearing children. Children themselves are important teachers in our movements that can push us forward with new ideas and methods to achieve the just world we dream of. We need them to survive! I’ve compiled a short list of things I have found helpful in my pregnancy and that others have shared was helpful in theirs in hopes that we can build strong communities of support for parents in our movements.

Although pregnancy is a common process in our world and not an illness or disability, as a chronically ill person I have noticed that many disability justice principles apply. Much of the support I have needed throughout my life when I’m ill and ‘lower functioning’ is quite similar to the kinds of support I’ve needed within pregnancy so keep this in mind – chances are if you’ve supported someone with disabilities, you’re familiar with these points.


  1. Offer support – don’t wait to be asked to support if you know that you have particular kinds of support you can provide.
  2. Be specific – Don’t worry that you’ll offend someone by assuming what people need. Instead offer support with a couple of specific examples of the kind of support you can provide
  3.  Try not to ask big blanket questions, like “what kind of support do you need” – brains of pregnant people at this time are pretty single focused and it can be hard to ask for support. It really helps if suggestions are made so that the person doesn’t have to think too much/deeply.
  4. Don’t make decisions for people – Often times we have a tendency to make subtle decisions for pregnant people such as “Oh, that person is probably too tired to go out to this event with us” and thus decide not to invite them. Pregnancy can be an isolating time where lots of fear come up about the radical changes coming up in the pregnant person’s life (especially if they are a new parent). These kinds of scenarios can heighten anxiety and triggers (such as abandonment) which can affect pregnant people’s emotional states so try to avoid this. Invite them to things you would otherwise invite them to and let them make the call on whether or not they’d like to go. They are the best judge of what they can and can’t do at this time. Also be flexible if they are late or need to cancel.
  5. Don’t assume support is already present. It’s easy to assume that people have support especially if they have an online presence and are sharing their story – don’t assume they don’t need anymore help because of this – if you can support it doesn’t hurt to check in.
  6.  Ask for consent before sharing stories – the pregnant person in your life might not want to hear your mom’s horrific pregnancy or labour story in which she almost died or if they are having a lot of nausea it might not feel great to hear about how your friend had none for 3 pregnancies straight. Everyone has different experiences (even the same person can have multiple radically different pregnancies) and unless they are asking they might not want to think about others experiences that are radically different from the experience they are having or they may not be ready to speak about certain things (for example: labour, c-section, etc.).
  7. When someone asks for something acknowledge the vulnerability it takes to ask (at the very least) especially if you can’t provide the support they are asking for. If this is the case; offer an alternative person or alternative task that might be able to meet a similar or different identified need. Many kinds of support are needed including Practical, Emotional and Spiritual (see below for specific examples). You should also ask if you can suggest other ways you might be able to support instead of just volunteering the other things.
  8. Don’t question or interrogate people’s experiences when they share them. For example “Why do you feel isolated?” – believe them, take a moment to think about how or why that may be true for them and then ask questions (preferably to other people) if you still have questions or are unclear.
  9.  Visit, check in, be present – This helps with or prevents potential isolation, loneliness, anxiety etc. that may be present.
  10. Don’t take things personally – If someone doesn’t want you to come by that day or to be in the delivery or birth room don’t take it personal – it’s their process to navigate and they deserve to be able to do that without having to navigate other people’s emotions

Don’t know what kind of support might be needed? Support can include (but is by no means limited to): Practical- Physical and Financial such as cooking, driving or getting something off the baby registry, babysitting, gifting a grocery gift card, household tasks, organization (meal delivery, care team, furniture, etc.) Emotional- talking, visiting, listening. Spiritual- lighting a candle for safe pregnancy and birth, sharing a ritual or meditation practice.

I hope you’ve found this helpful! Happy supporting!


Kyisha Williams
Kyisha Williams is a magical, Black, Queer, high femme, sex positive, artist and health promoter. working mainly in filmmaking and performing. They work around health within Black/queer/trans/racialized/criminalized/HIV positive/HCV positive communities. She is also a soon to be mom. For more information on Kyisha’s work visit kyishawilliams.com

Bringing Back the Flower Dance: An interview with Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy

by Shabina Lafleur-Gangji

Recently I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy, a Hupa, Yurok and Karuk woman currently working as an Assistant Professor of Native American Studies at Humboldt State University. I got the chance to ask her some questions about her upcoming book We Are Dancing For You: Native Feminisms and the Revitalization of Women’s Coming-of-age Ceremonies (which is set to be released this spring), and learn more about her work supporting the revitalization of Native American arts and culture.

Illustration above: Teach her by Mia Ohki 

S: First off I wanted to thank you for taking your time to do this interview. I recently came across an advertisement for the book and have been exploring your writing ever since. Do you want to tell our readers a little bit about your work both through academia and in your community?

B: My work focuses on Native people and communities to help tell the stories of our strength and resilience. I try not to separate the work I do in academia from the work I do in the community, although it is sometimes hard because of the way that academia expects certain kinds of discourse. I’m always thinking about how my work can show the important ways that Native people have always been foregrounding land and environmental based knowledge and how they have built a very long tradition of education and intellectualism that most people do not learn about in schools. My academic work is focused on elevating Indigenous voices and the work being done by Indigenous peoples on the ground. Some of the most important things that we can learn about how to build a future that is liberated from patriarchy, heteronormativity, and white supremacy should come from Indigenous teachings. Since the beginning of time we have been theorizing our worlds – so I know we have a lot to offer when it comes to addressing major issues that are part of this contemporary culture.

The work I do on the blog is trying to use humor to break down people’s ideas about Native peoples and issues. A little while ago a friend asked me what I thought were my most powerful tools that I have to continue the work we do to liberate and elevate our communities and I said “humor.” I’m always telling students that Native people are probably the funniest people I know, usually inappropriately funny, but people don’t learn that about us, or even see that in movies or on television. We laugh all the time. My grandma was always saying to me “everything is a funny story…later” and “if you can laugh at something it doesn’t have power over you anymore.” That’s how I feel about colonialism. Colonialism is counter-intuitive, doesn’t make a lot of sense and it is just dying to be the punchline in a joke. I’d like to think at some point I’ll find a way to bring a lot of humor into my academic work, but I haven’t done it nearly enough yet.

S: So, your book We are dancing for you, is about to be released this Spring. Can you talk to us a little about the book, about what inspired you to put these experiences into words?

B: The book came out of my personal experience with the revitalization movements for our women’s coming-of-age ceremonies in the Northern California region. When I was 12 years old I started menstruating and my mother offered to do a dance for me, but I refused. A lot of it was internalized ideas about menstruation being dirty or shameful, but it was also internalized ideas about “primitive Indians” and how they celebrate women. After I turned it down my mother continued to do work with the women in our community to bring this dance back. It was important to them to center young women so that we could teach our young women self-determination and self-worth. Part of the idea was combating our recent history of colonization that had targeted our women’s ceremonies for eradication, and part of it was also to empower the entire community by showing how we value gender equality and that young woman are an important part of our cultures and futures.

The more work I have done with Native communities and peoples the more I see how our Native feminisms were silenced by colonialism and that we are working now, not just to decolonize, but to decolonize in a way that dismantles patriarchy. When I started going to these ceremonies, and singing over these girls I wouldn’t have used these words to describe what we were doing, but the more I listened and learned and the more research I did in Native feminisms, the more I realized that our ceremonies were and continue to be an important praxis of decolonization. My original thought was “how can the women who did this work on the ground tell this story?” For too long, the story of Native people and Native cultures has been told by mostly white, male anthropologists and ethnographers. So I wanted to make sure that this story, one that is about our survivance and our resilience, was told through the voices and memories of our people. And this also becomes the theorizing and demonstration of what Native feminisms actually look like. Our cultures are about balance and equality and that’s feminism.

S: So often the ceremonies and histories of Indigenous people around the world are written about through a colonial and anthropological perspective. More often that not, these writings are deeply influenced by racist assumptions. Can you talk about the power of writing about stories from your own community?

B: You know, I grew up knowing who the anthropologists were that studied our communities. I could name some of them, including Alfred Kroeber (one of the most famous). And I knew what he said about our people – but almost in a joking way. We joked a lot about how wrong assumptions were about us. Many people think about our cultures and peoples as in the past, almost as if we stopped existing because we were not the “pure” Indians that were being described by anthropologists in their books. So I do think it’s important that now we are finding ways to tell our own stories and interpretations, using the knowledge we have to decide what the narrative of our cultures and histories are going to be.

What is interesting about revitalization movements like these, is that in our community the women actually used the anthropological research to help understand the ceremony. So while Kroeber was writing these things down because he believed that the people were dying, or that the ceremony was going “extinct,” instead, they became part of the record that would be used to revive the dance. That’s a powerful moment. We are not dying, vanishing Indians, we are revitalizing, living peoples. And these books don’t hold our dying, in the past cultures, they are part of our living cultures. I like to think (and I theorize in the book) that many of the Native people working with the anthropologists at the time envisioned that moment from the very beginning. So they didn’t buy in to the “you’re dying and should tell us stories so we can document them before you disappear,” instead they were thinking “one day our people will find these stories and these descriptions and I want them to be here for them when they do.” There are transcripts that I’ve read which are Native people saying just that, like in one case a woman offered a song and she opens it with something like “this is a Flower Dance song, it hasn’t been sung in a long time. I hope one day someone will sing it at a Flower Dance again.” And then we did. That’s not the story that Kroeber or other anthropologists were telling when they wrote and published their books, but that has always been the real story. That’s the story that we are going to tell.

S: How has the reclamation of this ceremony impacted the young people in your community?

It’s hard to summarize, because there are so many ways that the ceremony has affected young people. Some of the   young women I interviewed talked about how it showed them the amount of support they have in the community, so they felt like they could do anything and would always have people to help them. Others talk about how it gave them the confidence to do things that they might not otherwise do. People talk about how it demonstrated for them that women can be central to ceremony and that seeing women singing together showed them how much support we can give each other. At first when we did the dance many young women didn’t want to do it because it is usually done after a girl starts menstruating. They were worried about people knowing because of our western menstrual taboo. But now young women are planning for their dances their whole lives. They talk about them. They are excited for them. It has made people in the community excited for young women as they grow up. So instead of young women feeling ashamed about puberty etc. they are excited and happy. Most of the young woman I’ve seen who have gone through this ceremony are now doing amazing things, reaching for their goals in life, and making sure to pass along their own lessons to younger generations. I love that young people see women singing, because for a long time you didn’t really see women singing in our ceremonies. Now, you have young people requesting women to sing for them, or you have them complimenting women singers. These types of things change very quickly, I have found. For instance, when I was 12 and my mother offered to do this dance for me I said no because I was scared and didn’t want people to know about my period. After we did the first revitalized dance, young girls were still hesitant. Now we’ve been doing the dance for over 15 years, and guess what, this is just what we do. My daughter is 10, she’s never known a time when we didn’t dance for young women who had their first menstruation. She hasn’t known a time when we didn’t come together as a community to show young women how much support they have. She hasn’t known a time were we didn’t reach out and provide support for young woman as they move from being a child into being an adult. So in her mind, this is just who we are as Hupa people. That only took 10 years.

S: What kind of advice do you have for people wanting to revive ceremonies in their own communities?

B: I would say, start by listening. Go to as many elders and people as you can and just listen to their stories, their memories, their questions, their visions of what this could look like. Collect all the stories and memories and ideas that you can. Listen to them and then listen to the people who left their stories in the archives. It takes a lot of listening because you are helping to wake these stories up. All of the women I interviewed they kept saying all it took was to “scratch the surface.” They said “we just had to start going to people and hearing their stories and then another person came and another. We found one story in the archive and then another and another.”

The best advice for the archive is to read the books but also read the notes. Anthropologists and ethnographers usually kept detailed notes of their interviews. This is where you are going to really be able to listen to the words of those who worked to leave an archive behind. The notes are very often different (more detailed, more focused) than what is in the book. In some cases they can completely contradict what is in the book. So read the notes, read the transcripts. Listen to those stories.

And after you’ve started “scratching the surface” be open to what else comes your way. At first there were not very many songs that people had to sing, but that’s okay. We came and sang the three or four songs people knew. But then after that other people started remembering songs. Or other people started to get songs. I got a song once while I was making mashed potatoes. It just came to me. I started singing it and I couldn’t get it out of my head. Now I sing it all the time. So the women like to tell me,   you start this journey, and everything comes together, because these ceremonies have been waiting for us to search for them again. They’ve been waiting for us.

Anthropologists like to say they went “extinct” or “disappeared” but I like to think about what my mentor Ines Hernandez-Avila taught me. They never went extinct, they were just waiting for us. So we scratch the surface, and we listen for them, and they will come back to us.

The last thing the women told me was “just do it.” They said, start the listening, do the research, put some notes together and then just do it. Don’t wait for it to be the perfect time, just do it. After the first one there will be a second one and then a third one. You just have to do the first one. So, just do it.

S: How can people get a hold of your book?

B: You can pre-order it now on the University of Washington Press website or on Amazon. It will be released in May-June 2018. I know for sure it should be at the Native American Indigenous Studies Association Conference this year in Los Angeles, CA. I’ll also have a link to it on my website.


Mia Ohki
Mia Ohki is a Metis Japanese-Canadian artist, born in Connecticut, USA, and raised in Alberta, Canada. She presently lives and works between Edmonton and Calgary, AB. Mia primarily illustrates with black pen on white paper to convey ideas surrounding the social, feminine and cultural influences in her life, however her art is mostly influenced by her background, with Japanese and Metis culture frequently appearing in the subject matter.

Dr Cutcha Risling Baldy
Dr Cutcha Risling Baldy is currently an Assistant Professor of Native American Studies at Humboldt State University. Her research is focused on Indigenous feminisms, California Indians and decolonization. She received her Ph.D in Native American Studies with a designated Emphasis in Feminist Theory and Research from the University of California, Davis and her M.F.A in Creative Writing & Literary Research from San Diego State University. She also has her B.A. in Psychology from Stanford University.