How does a reproductive justice approach to healthcare change the way we understand childbirth and pregnancy? How can we draw on our holistic, embodied selves to build community in a time of heightened anxiety and precarity?
The guest for today’s episode, Miriam Zoila Pérez, has a diverse body of work that shows why intersectionality is the answer to both of these questions.
In episode 108 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach chats with writer, podcaster, and reproductive justice activist Miriam Zoila Pérez about the racially gendered politics of reproductive health, the intimacy of podcasting in the context of community formation, and why building a world where everyone can create the family of their choosing is how Pérez imagines otherwise.
Guest: Miriam Zoila Pérez
Miriam Zoila Pérez is an award-winning queer Cuban-American writer and activist. Their work on the intersections of race, health and gender is motivated by a desire to understand how the world shapes our bodies and to explore the many solutions that already exist for some of our biggest problems but simply don’t get the attention they deserve.
Pérez is a freelance writer and the founder of Radical Doula, a blog that covers the intersections of birth activism and social justice from a doula’s perspective. They are also the author of the Radical Doula Guide: A Political Primer for Full-Spectrum Pregnancy and Childbirth Support, which is currently in its third printing.
Their writing has appeared in the New York Times, Colorlines, Splinter, the Nation, the American Prospect, MORE Magazine, Rewire.News, and Talking Points Memo.
Pérez’s TED talk, “How Racism is Harming Pregnant Women–and What Can Help,” has been viewed close to a million times.
They are the co-host of Radio Menea with Verónica Bayetti Flores. Called “the woke Latinx music podcast you should be listening to” by Remezcla and “the soundtrack to a queer mami’s sancocho” by Latina Magazine, Radio Menea is an entertaining bilingual journey through Latinx life and music.
Pérez lives in Washington, DC and is cultivating a new obsession with houseplants.
We chatted about
► Pérez’s journey into doula work (2:39)
► An intersectional approach to reproductive care (6:59)
► Applying reproductive justice to healthcare (7:57)
► The Radical Doula Guide (9:48)
► Cohosting a Latinx music podcast (13:59)
► Building community through podcasting (16:47)
► Imagining otherwise (19:36)
Reproductive justice’s importance
When I learned about the reproductive justice framework, which was created by Black women and other women of color to explain the lived reality of life, not as some something that felt like innovative or cool, but, “Oh no, this is actually just, this is what life is, this represents how we live our lives.” That really made it make sense to me politically. There’s an approach to doing activist work and organizing work that is founded on this idea that most people, many people, particularly people without as much power and privilege, have intersecting identities and that we have to have a way to understand that and to organize around that.
A radical approach to doula work
Being a radical doula is about bringing a political perspective to your work, seeing your work as social justice, and seeing your work as being focused on supporting those who are the most marginalized, who are facing life and death situations when it comes to making it through pregnancy safely—not just people who are trying to have a better experience or are already kind of doing okay in our current system. It’s a political approach to being a doula that acknowledges the reality of most of the people in our world who are facing lots of different types of marginalization and benefit from additional support.
Starting Radio Menea
Four years ago actually this month, Verónica Bayetti Flores and I decided to start Radio Menea. It was more of like, “We love talking about music, what can we do with that?” She and I are both Latinx. She’s from Venezuela. My people are from Cuba so we have some Caribbean cultural connection, but we have really different tastes in music….It actually started as a joke where I was like, “Hey, how can we get an invite to the Latin Grammy’s?” One night when I was watching the Latin Grammys I was like, “We should start a podcast.”
Where the podcasting industry is going
There’s some comparisons to what it felt like to be a blogger in like the early 2000s to what it feels like to be a podcaster in the last few years. They’re both new mediums that people don’t really know where it’s going to go and there’s a lot of excitement and also a lot of learning as you go. But podcasting feels really different because there’s so much intimacy between Vero and I through the podcast. A lot of people say it feels like they’re just hanging out with us and I think that is what it feels like often .
In these real crisis moments like after the  election and after the Pulse massacre, what I’ve noticed is that my community gets really connected and focused on loving and supporting each other. That is really inspiring. I want a world where that feels true even when we’re not in crisis, where we’re interconnected and we’re acting on the reality that our wellbeing is dependent on the wellbeing of our neighbors, of the people around us, and moving away from this individualistic mindset toward a mindset of we’re all in this together. My hope is that we build a society that is structured around that principle.
More from Miriam Zoila Pérez
► Pérez’s website
► Pérez’s blog Radical Doula
► Pérez’s TED talk “How Racism Is Harming Pregnant Women—and What Can Help“
People and projects discussed
► Doula work
► Abortion doula work
► Born in the USA (film)
► Reproductive justice framework
About Imagine Otherwise
Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds.
Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.
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Cathy Hannabach (00:03):
Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.
Cathy Hannabach (00:23):
How does a reproductive justice approach to healthcare change the way we understand childbirth and pregnancy? How can we draw on our holistic, embodied selves to build community in a time of heightened anxiety and precarity? My guest today, Miriam Zoila Pérez, has a diverse body of work that shows why intersectionality is the answer to both of those questions. Pérez is an award-winning, queer, Cuban American writer and activist whose work on the intersections of race, health, and gender is motivated by a desire to understand how the world shapes our bodies. Pérez is the founder of Radical Doula, a blog that covers the intersections of birth, activism, and social justice from a doula’s perspective. They are also the author of The Radical Doula Guide, a political primer for full-spectrum pregnancy and childbirth support. Their writing has appeared in the New York Times, Colorlines, the Nation, the American Prospect, MORE magazine, and Rewire.News. They are also the cohost of the podcast Radio Menea, which Remezcla calls “the woke Latinx music podcast you should be listening to.”
Cathy Hannabach (01:19):
In our interview, Pérez and I chat about the racially gendered politics of reproductive health, the intimacy of podcasting in the context of community formation, and why building a world where everyone can create the family of their choosing is how Pérez imagines otherwise, even in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic that we’re all now living in. As you’ll notice from our discussion towards the end of this episode, I recorded this interview during the first full week of US nationwide social distancing due to COVID-19. So what I had originally planned to discuss on this week’s episode when I sketched it out months ago suddenly took on a new significance and frankly Pérez and I were a bit unsure about how to proceed since we were both still processing the daily changes.
Cathy Hannabach (02:13):
It’s also the why the sound gets a little bit wonky at times since like everyone else now, we’re also juggling new work setups that aren’t always ideal for audio recording. So I thank you for your patience in this challenging time, and I hope that our conversation about the importance of holistic approaches to health and social justice can provide some comfort as we all navigate this strange new world.
Cathy Hannabach (02:36):
Thanks so much for being with us today.
Miriam Zoila Pérez (02:38):
Thank you for having me.
Cathy Hannabach (02:39):
As a longtime health and reproductive justice activist and advocate, themes of racialized health disparities and feminist and queer approaches to bodies have run across all of your varied projects. So to start us off today, I would love to hear what got you originally interested in the fields of health and reproductive justice.
Miriam Zoila Pérez (02:59):
I mean, I’ve always been interested in health and bodies, even as a young kid. I often will tell the story that I remember being at middle school sleepovers and pouring over my friends’ whatever books they had, health books or books about their bodies. I’ve always just been really curious about that. I don’t know exactly what the origins of that is, but it’s just something I’ve always known about myself. I always had a lot of curiosity about health and medicine and wanted to be a doctor. I went to college being like, “I’m going to be pre-med and I’m going to be a biology major.” I got kind of knocked off that path by organic chemistry, which is I feel really common—a common experience and also kind of a purposeful one. They consider it a weed-out course, which is such a mess in so many ways if you think about the kind of people we want to be healthcare providers and what organic chemistry has to do with that.
Miriam Zoila Pérez (03:44):
So that kind of knocked me off that path. But I was still really interested in and curious about health and ended up learning about doula work through a course on the anthropology of reproduction that I took at a nearby college. I saw a documentary called Born in the USA. It’s a little bit antiquated at this point, but it really kind of outlined what’s wrong with the way that we do obstetrics in the United States. That really radicalized me. I left that class and I remember being like, “Whoa, that just changed my life.” It really just caught, it just lit up a lot of fires in me around what was wrong with with the way in which we handle pregnancy and birth in United States.
Miriam Zoila Pérez (04:30):
That led me down a path of considering midwifery and a midwife saying, “Hey, you should be a doula first to see if this is really something you want to do.” So then I trained as a doula while I was in college and started volunteering as a doula in a hospital. I spent a summer doing that as a volunteer doula and then that kind of led me to other work. So I don’t know, I think I’ve always had a lot of curiosity about health and bodies and interest in learning more about it and figuring out how to support people in those arenas.
Cathy Hannabach (05:01):
Nice. I want to talk about your guide, The Radical Doula Guide, in a minute, but maybe for our listeners who aren’t super familiar with doula work, could you just give a brief overview of what does it mean to be a doula?
Miriam Zoila Pérez (05:12):
Yeah. So a doula is a person who provides support to people during pregnancy and childbirth. They like to say it’s informational, emotional and physical support—those are the three buckets people use. So you’re not a medical provider, you’re not a midwife or a doctor, you’re really a support person. You focus on supporting people emotionally, helping them navigate the pregnancy and birth and the decisions they’re going to make, giving them resources, helping them advocate for themselves and what they want from their providers.
Miriam Zoila Pérez (05:42):
Literally it’s being the person there who is only really focused on the emotional support for them, not worried about the health and wellbeing of the baby. That’s the focus of providers. But really just focusing on supporting that person emotionally. It can look a lot of different ways depending on the context of the person that you’re supporting and where they’re giving birth and what resources they need. So there’s a wide range to what that role can look like. Then there are also people who provide doula support to people during miscarriage and abortion. That was something that I did for a number of years.
Cathy Hannabach (06:13):
One of the things that I’ve noticed about your approach to doula work and really your approach to reproductive justice issues more broadly is thinking intersectionally and not just in a kind of surface way. You’re thinking about how systems of power, systems of identity, systems of oppression, systems of resistance even intertwine in really complex ways in people’s lives that have very real bodily and health effects. I’m curious, number one, what got you interested in taking that kind of approach? Why do you think that’s an interesting way to approach issues of health or reproduction? And also, where do you hope that healthcare or reproductive care goes in the future from that perspective?
Miriam Zoila Pérez (06:59):
Yeah, I mean, I wouldn’t say it’s interesting, I would say it’s my lived reality, you know? So it’s just the fact of my life that I am a queer person, I’m a genderqueer person, I’m Latinx, my parents are immigrants from Cuba. So my life and my identity has always been intersectional. I haven’t had, I guess, the privilege of seeing it any other way. So for me, what made that all make sense politically was when I learned about the reproductive justice framework as a young person and finally was like, “Oh, here’s a political ideology that makes my life make sense and my experiences make sense.” Because when I started doing doula work, there was this feeling of, it’s kind of strange that you’re a doula and you’re a queer person or it’s kind of strange that you’re a doula and you’re Latinx because so many doulas at the time were white or married or upper middle class or all these different things that weren’t part of my identities.
Miriam Zoila Pérez (07:57):
It’s [inaudible] that you’re a doula and you’re pro-choice and you support access to abortion. Those things were seen as strange contradictions. That was part of what motivated me to start my blog Radical Doula 13 or 14 years ago now. When I learned about the reproductive justice framework, which was created by Black women and other women of color to explain the lived reality of life, not as some something that felt like innovative or cool, but, “Oh no, this is actually just, this is what life is, this represents how we live our lives.” And so that really made it make sense to me politically. There’s an approach to doing activist work and organizing work that is founded on this idea that most people, many people, particularly people without as much power and privilege, have intersecting identities and that we have to have a way to understand that and to organize around that.
Miriam Zoila Pérez (08:48):
I have a lot of marginalization and a lot of privilege. So I think it’s complicated. There’s not, it’s not like there’s a dynamic there….I think most people have some level of privilege and some level of marginalization and there’s different layers to that. But for me, it’s my lived reality. So it was about finding a political framework that made that make sense and make what felt intuitive to me around the values that I held and the parts of my identity that existed and made that, it validated that and helped me find a community of people who also experienced that and understood that.
Cathy Hannabach (09:24):
I know a lot of our listeners know you from your work as a doula, obviously, but also your book, The Radical Doula Guide, which has influenced, I would say, a whole generation of doulas as well as pregnant people. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about that guide? What made you want to write it and what is the particularly radical approach to doula practice that you wanted to emphasize?
Miriam Zoila Pérez (09:48):
Well, thank you for that. I feel flattered by that statement. Yeah. So, I wrote The Radical Doula Guide because I wanted to create a resource. After I’d been blogging at Radical Doula for many years, I wanted to create a more tangible resource that was geared toward people who are becoming doulas, who were experiencing doula trainings that were pretty “apolitical,” which I think is a fallacy that people have in apolitical doula training. But the doula training that I experienced, and this has changed a good amount in the last few years, which I’m really happy to see, doula trainings have been, and I think some of them continue to be, sort of done in a race-blind, class-blind context where almost as if like by not acknowledging race, class, sexuality, gender, we’re just pretending everybody we’re serving as an upper-middle-class white woman who’s married to a man and has insurance and speaks English and all that stuff.
Miriam Zoila Pérez (10:41):
I wanted to create a resource that would offer people a political perspective to doula work and really kind of counter that idea and those assumptions about who we’re working with and who we are and what that means. So, it’s a political primer for doula work and really gives a very basic overview of how does race intersect with maternal health? How does class intersect? How does gender intersect? How does power intersect? What about incarceration? What about language? What about immigration status?
Miriam Zoila Pérez (11:10):
It’s really a beginning, it’s not a comprehensive education in those things, but it’s a kind of accessible short book that gives people at least some sense of how to think about their work in the context of this. And so it’s interesting. I’ve had on my blog for many years this profile series where if you identify as a radical doula, you can answer some questions and I’ll put them up on the site as a profile because I’ve always felt like I don’t own the term “radical doula.”
Miriam Zoila Pérez (11:36):
I don’t get to decide what that means, you know? So I wanted to see how other people interpret it. And for some people, particularly people with privilege, like white folks, being a doula itself is radical. The idea of just supporting people in this context is radical. But for me being a radical doula was about, and it’s still about bringing a political perspective to your work, seeing your work as social justice, seeing your work as being focused on supporting those who are the most marginalized, who are really facing life and death kind of situations when it comes to making it through pregnancy safely. Not just people who are trying to have a better experience that are already kind of doing okay in our current system. So yeah, it’s a political approach to being a doula that acknowledges the reality of most of the people in our world who are facing lots of different types of marginalization and really benefit from additional support.
Miriam Zoila Pérez (12:33):
So, yeah, that’s about it. And it’s still, I’ve sold 4,000 copies over the years, which is kind of astonishing to me that there that many people doing this work and interested in it and I’m almost sold out of all the print copies, so I’m starting to sell digital copies instead, which is maybe a little better in this era anyway. So yeah, if you’re interested, if you’re a doula or know a doula or just curious to learn, it’s a reproductive justice primer focused on pregnancy and birth, check out the book.
Cathy Hannabach (13:02):
Awesome. One of the things that I find really compelling about your various projects, your journalism, your doula work, your books, your blog, your podcast, which I want to talk about more in a minute, is the way that you insist that these things are fundamentally intertwined. So a lot of your work would maybe fall under the category of cultural production broadly, but you also point out that cultural production is inherently political and wrapped up with issues of medicine and issues of ethics and issues of politics and economics. So they’re not separate across your varied works. And that’s certainly something that this show has highlighted as well, which is one of the reasons why I was so excited to have you on this.
Miriam Zoila Pérez (13:43):
Yeah, thank you.
Cathy Hannabach (13:44):
Can we turn to your podcast now? Because I think it makes some interesting connections with how you approach issues of culture and issues of identity, but in a different way, because it’s about music.
Miriam Zoila Pérez (13:58):
Cathy Hannabach (13:59):
So you’re the cohost, cofounder of the podcast Radio Menea and this is a show that I know a lot of our listeners have said they’re big fans of, so I think that we have some crossover audiences here.
Miriam Zoila Pérez (14:12):
Cathy Hannabach (14:13):
What got you interested in podcasting as a medium?
Miriam Zoila Pérez (14:17):
It was interesting. It wasn’t like, “Oh I want to start a podcast, what should I start a podcast about?” It was, this was four years ago actually this month when Verónica Bayetti Flores and I decided to start Radio Menea. And it was more of like, “We love talking about music, what can we do with that?” So it started more with the interest that we had and then, and I had been listening to podcasts, I had been training for 5K or something and I had been spending a lot of time listening to podcast and I was running and it just kind of had me curious about the medium and so yeah, it was more just like, “Oh, we have this fun thing that we love to talk about.” You know, she and I are both Latinx, she’s from Venezuela.
Miriam Zoila Pérez (14:55):
My people are from Cuba, so we have some Caribbean sort of cultural connection, but we have really different tastes in music. And so we would do a lot of texting back and forth about music. And it really actually started as a joke where I was like, “Hey, how can we get an invite to the Latin Grammy’s?” One night when I was watching the Latin Grammys and I was like, “We should start a podcast.” So it kind of just came out of, I think just energy really more than anything else. It wasn’t like, “Oh, let’s start a podcast, what do we start a podcast about?”
Cathy Hannabach (15:20):
Have you gotten that invitation yet?
Miriam Zoila Pérez (15:23):
Well, we haven’t, but we also have not actually solicited it. I think if we actually tried to get an invite we could at this point. So, it’s more of a joke than anything else. But yeah, enough contact that we could probably, I mean, not that they’re looking for us to cover the Grammys, but we could probably get a press pass and sit in the back or something, you know? So I don’t think we’d be on the red carpet, but… And then now and you know more about the Latin Grammys and it’s kind of a complicated institution anyway, that’s often doesn’t really give credence to the music that we love because of racism and colorism and all sorts of things like that. But yeah, so it really was born out of Vero and my’s friendship and our love of music and our desire to find an outlet for that. I’m somebody who has a lot of hobbies and interests and then love finding ways in which to share that and expand on that.
Miriam Zoila Pérez (16:12):
And so I think that’s kind of an example of that. But yeah, now four years later it’s like, wow, here we are. Much deeper in this, I think than we imagined and much more work than we really understood it would be, but also it offers a lot of joy and also an opportunity to process and express a lot of what’s going on. And there’s been so many kind of difficult moments and tragedies in those four years that we never anticipated. And Radio Menea has given us or given me an outlet which to share about that and to connect with that and to, yeah, I use music as a medium for that.
Cathy Hannabach (16:47):
One of my favorite things about hosting a feminist and queer podcast is the community that builds up around it often without even, the host intending it or playing a huge role in it. And I know that you’ve certainly experienced that as well. Why is community building through podcasting so important for both of you? And how do you see your podcast kind of contributing to it?
Miriam Zoila Pérez (17:11):
Yeah, it’s interesting because I started blogging in the early days of blogging, so there’s some comparisons to what it felt like to be a blogger in like the early 2000s to what it feels like to be a podcaster in the last few years. Because they’re both, I think new mediums that people don’t really know where it’s going to go and there’s a lot of excitement and also a lot of learning as you go. But podcasting feels really different because there’s so much intimacy between Vero and I through the podcasts. A lot of people say it feels like they’re just hanging out with us and I think that is what it feels like often. So the community aspect of it I think is a little more detached because we only really experience it through Instagram comments or emails or we’ve done a couple of live events but not very many.
Miriam Zoila Pérez (17:55):
And then there’ll be the fun experience of somebody is like, “Oh my God, I know your show.” You meet someone like in the world and they’re like, “Oh my God, I love your show.” So I don’t know, it feels a little bit detached. Like I know and I have the numbers, I’m like okay, 3,000 people listened to that episode. But how do you actually feel that connection to that community? So I don’t know. I think it’s been a kind of a strange thing honestly. And just also grappling with when your work is very public, what does it feel like to do that and how do you maintain boundaries around what you want to share, what you don’t want to share. And I don’t know, the podcasting has felt pretty vulnerable I think because it is, the stuff we talk about is often really raw and we’re processing a lot of things in real time.
Miriam Zoila Pérez (18:39):
And I don’t know, there’s something about it that feels more intimate to me than just writing has felt. And I think people feel like they know you pretty well when they listen to your podcast. And that’s kind of a strange thing because they don’t really, like when I was doing online dating, I would get, oftentimes people would tell me when we’re messaging that they knew about my podcast and that always felt so strange to me. So I was like, “I don’t know anything about you and you’ve listened to hours of me talking about myself.” So I don’t know. I’m not sure I know how to answer the question about community building.
Miriam Zoila Pérez (19:06):
I mean, I know that our podcast offers people something and we get a lot of feedback about that, that people feel really seen and heard and that they get to connect culturally through the music that we’re talking about and that they have the same experiences of being the children of immigrants or immigrants themselves. There’s a lot of that. But I think for me it’s more of an outlet to explore those connections than it is necessarily to build community. Because I don’t necessarily feel the community, there’s a separation between me and the community.
Cathy Hannabach (19:36):
So this brings me to my last and my favorite question that I get to talk with folks about, which really gets at the heart of that big why behind all of your projects, what kind of draws all of them together and that’s that version of a better world that you’re working towards. When you sit down to record an episode, when you work on journalism, when you do any of the projects that you do in the world. So, I will ask you this giant question that I think is also an important question and one we don’t get enough chances to talk about. What kind of world do you want?
Miriam Zoila Pérez (20:07):
That’s a heavy question right now because we’re recording this like what is it, March 18th, March 19 ?
Cathy Hannabach (20:15):
Yep. Right in the middle of a global pandemic.
Miriam Zoila Pérez (20:18):
Yeah, a global pandemic that we really don’t know how it’s going to evolve and it feels like a real scary time and an opportunity to really reimagine how we are in relationship with each other because it’s so clear how interconnected we all are and also so clear how vulnerable many people are and many of us are. And how much the hoarding of resources really shapes those vulnerabilities, you know? So I don’t know for many years I’ve said, and this is how I would define reproductive justice, that it’s working toward building a world where everyone can create the kind of family that they want to create and family is defined really broadly, not just about biological children.
Miriam Zoila Pérez (20:59):
So, I still believe that and I think we have to reimagine family in this kind of world that we’re in and these real crisis moments like after the election and after the Pulse massacre. What I’ve noticed is that my community gets really connected and really focused on loving and supporting each other. And that is really inspiring. And I think I want a world where that feels true even when we’re not in crisis where we’re really interconnected and we’re really acting on the reality that our wellbeing is dependent on the wellbeing of our neighbors, of the people around us and moving away from this individualistic mindset toward a mindset of we’re all in this together. So, I think that’s my hope is that we build a society that is structured around that principle.
Cathy Hannabach (21:53):
And I think that’s a pretty good approach to take as we’re all weathering the days ahead, for sure.
Miriam Zoila Pérez (21:58):
Yeah. That’s kind of the only option we have. It’s like you can’t actually, you’re just, you’re interdependent, whether you want to be or not. We’re breathing the same air, we’re touching the same surfaces, we really rely on each others wellbeing. So it’s people taking actions to protect the wellbeing of others over there necessarily their comfort or wellbeing in other ways.
Cathy Hannabach (22:24):
Miriam Zoila Pérez (22:25):
It’s a deep, deep moment.
Cathy Hannabach (22:27):
It is. It’s a heavy one. Thank you so much for being with us today and sharing all of the ways that you have been and you currently are imagining otherwise.
Miriam Zoila Pérez (22:39):
Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Cathy Hannabach (22:45):
Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud and myself, Cathy Hannabach. Audio editing was provided by the awesome folks at Pro Podcast Solutions. You can check out the show notes and transcript for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guests and find links to the people and projects we discussed on the show.