Anya Tanyavutti speaks on antiracist birthwork in Chicago Volunteer Doulas event


Daily file photo by Madison Smith

Evanston Public Library. Evanston resident and Executive Director of Chicago Volunteer Doulas Anya Tanyavutti hosted an “Antiracist Birthwork and Antiracist Outcomes” workshop Thursday.

Avani Kalra, Assistant City Editor

African Americans experience double the number of life-threatening pregnancy-related complications compared to non-Hispanic white Americans. Chicago Volunteer Doulas is working to change that.

“When we commit to doing antiracist birth work, we can produce antiracist outcomes,” Evanston resident and Executive Director of Chicago Volunteer Doulas Anya Tanyavutti said. “Our clients have defied the odds for instances of low birth weight, and low breast and chest feeding rates. This is not something that we need to accept any longer as normal.” 

Tanyavutti presented “Antiracist Birthwork and Antiracist Outcomes,” a training on birth justice, Thursday night with the Evanston Public Library. 

According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, more than 11% of babies in the state were born at low birth weight in 2019. On the other hand, Chicago Volunteer Doulas reported a 6% low birth weight rate among their clients, Tanyavutti said.

A doula is a professional labor assistant who provides support to parents during pregnancy, birth, and postpartum. Tanyavutti said the antiracist component of a doula’s work is necessary because of a long history of racism in the medical field. She noted American physician J. Marion Sims’ gynecological research on enslaved Black women without anesthesia in 1845. 

Last year, Tanyavutti said the Chicago Volunteer Doulas served 200 clients. They all were people of color, LGBTQ+, disabled, survivors of violence, experienced pregnancy loss, birth trauma or postpartum depression, had refugee status, practiced a marginalized religion or had an annual income below $50,0000.

“We are recognizing that we are surviving an unjust world together and we are in a loving, caring relationship with our clients and we respect their dignity and their autonomy,” she said. “We want to provide the education and care that we have access to as a way of empowering and uplifting what the beauty and the gifts that we already know exist within our community.”

She added the organization is effective in its work in part because of its makeup. Chicago Volunteer Doulas’ leadership team is 100% Black-identifying and 50% lesbian, bisexual or queer-identifying. Their clients are over 70% Black and brown and 82% identify as living with a low income. 

“What we see in this representation is that we have really powerful antiracist outcomes that disrupt and defy the statistics that many folks have said have been normal for years,” she said. “We can make dutiful, committed change.”

Still, she said representation isn’t enough. In order to achieve birth equity, Tanyavutti said she prioritizes radical values for her organization. 

In addition, she said the group emphasizes a message of support over a model of charity. 

“Representation alone is not radical,” she said. “It is important for our values to be radical. Our values as an organization are rooted in abolition, a queer black feminist framework focused on solidarity, not charity. There’s a focus on being in community with and providing services and care.”

Amanda Bakken, a midwife and labor and delivery nurse, said she attended the event to help in her own professional path.

“I’m always looking to become a better provider,” said Bakken, who is white. “I’ve been working towards becoming more antiracist in my practice … providing better care for all of my patients.” 

Tanyavutti asked that those experiencing trauma remain at the center of the conversation about birth equity, and asked learners to offer a listening ear on the sidelines. She shared she experienced an intracranial brain bleed that led to a stroke after giving birth to her third child. 

She said that experience wasn’t predicted by her income or education level, but by racism alone. As a survivor, she finds it important to continue conversations about birth equity. 

High school teacher Angela Orr said she attended the session to share her learning with young people.

“I have benefited from (this) medical system,” she said. “I am going to be engaging in this antiracism work with my students.” 

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Twitter: @avanidkalra

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