“You Know How Us Catholic Girls Can Be…”: The Case for Comprehensive Sexual Education In Catholic High School Settings

22 Mar

Chastity Belt

This piece is dedicated to all the women who went to Catholic high schools. The women who became pregnant and seemed to have scarlet letters on them, in a Catholic institution that did little to give its students proper sexual education.  I write this for the young teenagers who suddenly disappear from the hallways of their schools and take their lessons in the guidance office, as though they were being hidden from the rest of the student body (that’s what it seemed like). This is for the silence hidden behind white blouses and uniform skirts that seemed to get shorter the more teenage girls blossomed into women. This is for the Catholic school girls who had an endless amount of questions about sex that never got answered, only through experience.


Last year, I was on a layover in Denver sitting next to a woman sipping a milkshake. We began to strike up a conversation and she discovered that I am a midwife. She began to share her belief that Planned Parenthood should be eradicated and abortion should be stopped in all its totality.  She argued that everyone should wait until marriage because a person’s sexual history can interfere with their present and/or future relationships.  I chose my words carefully and did my best to address this “pro-life” mindset respectfully.

I went to Catholic schools for 12 years of my education.  I can safely say I learned nothing about healthy sexuality. Sure, the overview on the female and male reproductive systems were explained, but never in a way that penetrated us in a meaningful way. It was awkward and surrounded by immaturity, on the part of the classroom and teachers themselves.  The most detrimental lack of education and shaming I experienced was in high school. Puberty hit us like popcorn, each young woman exploding with confusing emotions and a cascade of overwhelming hormonal surges at different times. We were taught to be pro-life.   We were taught to wait until marriage. It is also noteworthy to speak on the homophobia that is embedded in this type of Catholic mentality. Imagine the burden to carry for some of us whose sexualities were just beginning to bud stuck in an all-girls’ school. Some of us experimented, some of us trapped by the fear of homosexuality.  This too was never given any attention in our education outside of condemning it.

I took a short survey of women who had been through the Catholic school system to compare my experiences with them.  Some had not been as clueless as I felt, having had access to education from their parents and/or other sources about sex. Still, more women shared with me the insistence of their teachers for us to be chaste, sometimes acting shocked at their questions, sometimes declining to answer them because they would risk losing their jobs as Catholic school teachers.  I remember seeing disgusting photographs of sexually transmitted diseases and an insultingly vague video about sex, all in an effort to both scare us from engaging in premarital sex and not telling us anything.  I remember us asking our teacher to tell us about condoms and she refused, implying her job would be at stake if she told us anything more than what she taught. My sexual education was supplemented with pornography, my peers, and the media.  I had to learn a lot of things the hard way.


Source: victorahkiin-fandomborn.tumblr.com

Source: victorahkiin-fandomborn.tumblr.com


When we were dismissed for the day, we all had the proverbial Catholic school girl skirts still on. Some of us hiked it up the few inches that otherwise would get us reprimanded in school. Some buttons of our blouses were popped open to reveal blossoming bosoms. The world outside the immaculate walls of our school building was temptation after temptation waiting with baited breath.  Imagine how appealing we must have seemed to the men on the street and the Catholic school boys who were also freed from their respective cages.  We were young and in a world without much guidance practically thrown to the wolves.

I remember having pregnant classmates at the age of 15 years old.  They would often disappear to the school office or guidance counselor’s office when they got further along in their pregnancies. I always suspected it was to hide them from the general student body, to keep up an appearance: a straight-laced, pure and chaste facade of Catholic wholesomeness. Perhaps it was for their safety and comfort; I’m not actually sure. Still, I wonder if my classmates felt ashamed, kept apart from us and even worse, feeling the judgmental eyes of their peers for not keeping the chastity vows we made in religion class.

The woman at the airport looked bewildered when I finished telling her all this. She began to say something but I continued. Some of my peers got abortions.  It was a choice they needed to make for their own reasons, and also felt ashamed because of the Catholic indoctrination that loomed over their heads.  We were miseducated, never taught about our bodies in a holistic or realistic way that took into account our lives in low-income communities as majority women of color.  I know it would have been helpful to know what to do when I had yeast infections or agonized over my irregular cycle.  What other choice do you leave a young woman with no comprehensive information on contraception, sexuality, general wellness or pregnancy?  What can we expect living in a society that has no conversation around healthy relationships and cycles of abuse?  I am of the belief that it is incredibly irresponsible to send young women into this world with no true knowledge of these topics. It is obvious that the world can be a dangerous place for women, given the astounding rates of gender violence globally. We must be more realistic and make sure our women can at the very least take care of themselves throughout their reproductive lives, learn to speak up when a healthcare provider is being disrespectful and have guidance from a young age about how to see red flags in relationships and beyond.



Furthermore, the shame that comes embedded in Catholicism as it pertains to sexuality is psychologically scarring.  Many of us recovering from our Catholic upbringings experience abnormal amounts of guilt & shame for our lifestyles. It’s a cognitive dissonance between what was taught for years and what one discovers in adulthood about themselves and their bodies. It took me years to stop feeling impure for my sexual traumas and experiences.  Though I enjoyed some of my sexual experiences, there was this feeling of being a whore for having multiple partners. Somewhere inside me were unresolved feelings of failure for not waiting until marriage while my conscious mind became more aware that there was no reason to be ashamed.

It is not true that telling a young person to abstain from sex or to wait until marriage is the solution. That is a failure to live in objective reality. The reality is that people have sex all the time. I would almost bet every second of every day.  The reality is that many of these sexual acts are not consensual or healthy. So given the fact that as a society we must heal from sexual trauma and lifting the taboo on the subject, the best course of action is to let our young women (and men) make informed choices based on healthy conversations around contraception, sexual expression and self-esteem. We cannot control our children (nor should we try to); at the very least we can tell them the truth.


Happy International Women’s Day!!!

8 Mar


Photo by Vixon John


Happy International Women’s Day! Show off your strength and power my womenfolk…we are powerful beings of light. Portals of life and more important than the current narrative would have you believe. Even when they try to break us, we rise like the goddesses we are.

I’m a woman. That means I break hard. And mend like a motherfucker; all sexy and full of heartbreakingly beautiful scars. – Stacyann Chin

Rethinking Black History Month: Black Women’s Lives Matter Every Day

19 Feb

*originally published on Black Women Birthing Justice – http://www.blackwomenbirthingjustice.org/#!Rethinking-Black-History-Month-by-Ynanna-Djehuty/c1cqn/B705A00B-4129-4D2E-AF34-347D7EFB41BF

This year, I stopped celebrating Black History Month. The celebration was established by trailblazing African American historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson in order to bring attention to the contributions of African Americans to U.S. society, but in my opinion, it has become just another tool of white supremacy to placate progressive whites and people of color by acting as if Blackness matters to this country. This feigning of interest and concern has always been present in the collective consciousness, but as I sit and write this, it is visible in catastrophic ways. We are dying. We are being disenfranchised, diseased and murdered on so many levels. The violence is only silent as far as mainstream media is concern, but the screams do not escape my ears. My work with birthing women makes it impossible to ignore.

Remembering how to be a midwife has opened my eyes.  I am unable to turn a blind eye to how women of color are disrespected and abused in the medical system because of the color of their skin. As an Afro-Latina woman, I know that this also includes lack of informed consent not just because of racism but also due to language barriers. The situation makes me want to put my fist through a wall. But I need my hands to do something more productive, like provide support to a laboring woman who needs counter-pressure on her lower back during a contraction. The fact that women of color nationally and globally suffer throughout the trajectory of their reproductive health care keeps me focused on the hoops I have to jump through. These hoops are the same ones that nearly wiped out the knowledge of granny midwives in the South. This is what they don’t mention during February’s supposed celebration of our history.

Black midwives are one of the last battalions we have for women of color. Our work is an echo of granny midwives here in the United States, and parteras and traditional midwives in the Caribbean. It is the legacy of the traditional motherwit carried from Africa by enslaved midwives and healers. The ancestral midwives were the ones who cared for their “mistresses,” and fellow enslaved women. When plantation slavery was abolished, they focused their care on impoverished Black women who were excluded from the hospitals that white women increasingly flocked to. This tradition was wiped out because white male doctors aspired to conquer and control the field of obstetrics and gynecology. The same hoops I have to jump through in terms of certification and licensure are the ones that were created to drive granny midwives out of their profession. The medical establishment began to systematically remove granny midwives from their communities around the 1920s. Demanding that lay midwives be licensed, and then failing to process or approve their applications, was one method used by doctors to reduce the numbers of midwives. Even today, being able to get a license to practice midwifery is a challenge and to have it respected is a whole other story.

The disparities in reproductive health care that women of color face need to be highlighted every single day of the year. When African American women are four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women, we have a dire necessity for more health care providers who genuinely love their clients. When Latina and Black women are at a higher risk for every complication during pregnancy, childbirth and the entirety of their lives, we must challenge racism in the healthcare system with ferocity. While our Black/Latino male counterparts are active in the fight to defend black and brown lives against police violence, they seldom acknowledge the attacks on our reproductive capacities experienced by women of color. What is more important for humanity than the ability to bring and sustain life on the planet? Who can deny that the most valuable resource in making that happen is women?  Therefore, calls to reinstate our homegrown midwives and healers, improve the conditions our women experience in the hospitals and create spaces for comprehensive reproductive healthcare are imperative to the survival and thriving of people of color in this

History as we know it–dominated by white supremacy, capitalism and patriarchy–will continue to repeat itself if we accept these watered down celebrations of Blackness that do nothing to dismantle the horrific realities we face daily. I implore all African- descendant people to make our historic struggle for wellness, liberation and self-determination more than just a month-long. Our future generations depend on us relearning how to support our women in birth and reproductive health, and taking steps to reclaim our bodies and our reproductive lives.


Adult Child of Divorce: A Contemplation in the Aftermath

26 Jan

I have my mother’s mouth and my father’s eyes; on my face they are still together. ― Warsan Shire.

I’ve struggled for a while to write about this, trying to find a way to write about the biggest heartbreak of my life. When your parents are together since you could remember, divorce is something unfathomable. I used to be proud and grateful that my parents were married growing up. I saw the hardship that my peers went through with single parent homes. Although my father was largely absent from my life in every sense of the word, he was my hero only second to my mother. As I had my fair share of heartbreaks as a woman, my father was the hope that good men existed in the world. My mother was always home with us and he provided a lot of the income but wasn’t around much because of the bodega life. She cooked and maintained the house, while looking after us. It was the quintessential Quisqueyano household. It was a bit of a fantasy in some ways, now that I reflect on my childhood and try to make sense of it.

My parents’ relationship started to deteriorate visibly towards the end of my college career and subsequently my immediate family started falling apart. I’ve been advocating for them to separate for the last 7 years so that the madness would end. It did, during the 1st quarter of midwifery school. It triggered a trauma response in me that sent me to therapy early last year because it interfered with my ability to practice. I’ve been dealing with the aftermath of it as quietly as I could while wondering why I’ve had writer’s block in terms of producing articles that used to come so easily to me.

A lot of us are familiar with the effects of divorce on younger children, but not enough is said about adult children of the divorce. Adult children of divorce have to deal with their inner children coming up to the surface, being expected to “handle this like an adult”, cope with having to reconstruct the perception they had of their parents’ marriage and possibly be asked to be a pillar of strength while they are falling apart. I find myself wishing this had happened decades ago because now I am trying to grapple with my perceptions of my childhood. I ask myself how much of what I thought I saw was true. I wonder how much pain was hidden behind smiles and absences. I am trying to understand what to make of it and know why this affects me so, as I mend the broken heart of my inner child and adult self.

The relationship you have with your parents (or lack thereof) is the most important one you will ever have. They are your first experience with the creation and continuation of relationships. The way one relates to both women and men has everything to do with how healthy or unhealthy one related to their parents. I’ve often in my life heard that I should watch and listen how a man regards his mother as an indication of how he will treat me and other women. More often than not, this has been true. The same can be said about the relationship between a man and his father, and how he will treat women. In my case, my relationship with my mother has certainly affected my friendships. As I healed that connection, I could see the ripple effects as some friendships with women strengthen while others crumbled. The same can be said about my father. It is no coincidence that I have sought and pursued completely unavailable men in every way. It make sense why I’d get caught up in the idea of someone and not the reality of them. The divorce has made me even more aware of what I was repeating in my life. I have made steadfast boundaries because of it.

In the aftermath, I’ve learned a lot about the painful parts of my parents’ relationship. I was privy to a lot of information over the years that I,  quite frankly, had no business being told as their daughter. I feel that knowing what I do know is one reason my anxiety got increasingly worse in my twenties. I know I have a lot of anger towards my father. It is a large amount of indifference mixed with feelings of disgust and betrayal.  Though, I’m very clear on not vilifying him because I understand it takes two to tango. I guess because I am a woman who has been profoundly hurt by men in different ways, I am biased.  I am biased because of how much I love my mother and everything she’s done for my life. I can also hold her accountable for the downfall of their marriage.

I think about my brother and my sister a lot, wondering how they are holding up. I’ve enjoyed the luxury of not witnessing any of this in person because I left my house six years ago with short stays there, but they had to watch this whole thing happen from start to aftermath. Us three are having a shared experience and I assume we all are dealing with it as best as we can. I look forward to when this is behind us but it’s still here in our faces. It messes with our perception of reality and on my end, with relationships. It has added another layer of apprehension to my quest to remain open to meeting my life partner as I strive not to internalize this. It’s something I talk about in therapy – making sure I am aware not to let this interfere with my future relationship. The road to healing from the dismantling of my parents’ marriage and my home is a hard one.  I believe it was for the best but that doesn’t erase the fact that it’s painful and has marked me forever.

#BlackLivesMatter: A Radical Afro-Descendant Midwifery and Birthing Stance On Systemic Genocide

13 Dec

momma africa

I have been grieving since the decision was made on Mike Brown. Since I got the news that Akai Gurley was gunned down and that there would be no charges for the murder of Eric Garner. It pains me to think of Amadou Diallo, who was killed when I was in high school in my own neighborhood, walking distance from my after-school program. #BlackLivesMatter is personal to me. And the personal is political. Because not only could these men be my brothers, I could have a son of mine shot because he has dark skin. I can be one of them. I am mourning the murders of Tarika Wilson, Aiyana Jones, Miriam Carey, Shereese Francis, Shantel Davis, Sharmel Edwards, Rekia Boyd, Tyisha Miller, Yvette Smith and countless other Black women who have been killed by police officers. I am enraged that Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Ken Holtzclaw was release from jail as he faces charges for sexually assaulting 7 different African American women while he was on duty. As a midwife, I am sick of knowing that not only are Black women being shot and killed, we are also being annihilated quietly at the hands of medical professionals.

I have been in an increasingly mounting state of utter rage since I realized that Black and Latina women have terrible outcomes in maternal and reproductive health. I can still remember how the information hit me like a ton of bricks during my birth doula training in 2010. African American women are four times as likely to die in childbirth than their white counterparts. Research states that the infant mortality rate ranges from 4.8 per 1,000 live births for Central and South Americans to 7.3 per 1,000 live births for Puerto Ricans. My Quisqueyana roots’ island has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, seven times higher than the United States. We are more likely to have a C-section, and have low-weight premature babies. We also have the highest rates of infant mortality and morbidity. We have more complications. We are subject to receiving terrible care and not getting informed consent when we are getting reproductive and maternal care. Just this summer, it was brought to the attention of the United Nations that the United States is in violation of a U.N Convention on racism in healthcare. This is a serious matter. It is the number one reason I decided to become a midwife. Because it is an act of resistance and because women like me need a health care provider who understands the nuances of being Black and is interested in their health.

There are midwives who are aware of the disparities affecting women of color. It is not enough and we need more midwives to attend us. Especially because of the historic dismantling of Black granny midwives in this country, it is our responsibility to understand how this made low-income Black and Latina women subject to being sites of experimentation by obstetricians and gynecologists. I personally do not consider hospitals safe for women of color with uncomplicated pregnancies for a couple of reasons. African American and Latina women are likely to be living in poverty in this country. Low-income communities often have sub-par hospitals so the care they can get is not culturally sensitive and at times cruel and abusive. Furthermore, the trauma that can be experienced in a hospital sets the stage for the bond between mother and child, thus producing a cyclical dysfunction in our families that is not being nurtured by our current medical system. Black mothers do not often have the resources and support necessary to them to be able to have healthy pregnancies and postpartum periods.

Additionally, I am deeply insulted by the fact that I need to be licensed to practice midwifery. I am even more pissed off that I cannot legally practice in New York because I don’t have a masters degree but will be able to do so in New Jersey. Why is this infuriating? Because it was through the implementation of licensure that granny midwives were wiped out. It disrupted the tradition of apprenticeship  that our ancestral mothers brought with them from the African countries we were stolen from. I will get my license but reluctantly so, as it is a reminder that I must continually practice Sankofa and go back to fetch the knowledge that was stolen from us at the hands of the American medical system. I also cannot bring myself to get a masters degree in midwifery. I have had to jump through one hoop to get this far and stay as close as I could to apprenticeship. I am not doing it again.

To promote birth outside of a hospital birth is one of the most radical things I can do for my women. They have been bamboozled by modern medicine to hand over their bodies without receiving the respect they deserve. The racism that they are likely to face in their routine gynecological and maternal care is alarming and quite frankly, I am sick of hearing the stories. I would be remiss not to mention forced sterilization on women of color, such as the infamous “La Operacion” that deceitfully sterilized Boricua women in Borinquien; women of color have also been sterilized while incarcerated and probably without consent. African American and Latina women can benefit greatly from the midwifery model of care that would give them a much more sympathetic ear and care centered around them. To have more midwives of color in our communities would further provide health care professionals that understand their reality and can help advise them on their health. We can promote the uncovering of knowledge that is still being held in our grandmothers and mothers by supporting community health plans and meeting spaces. Our future generations depend on us being radical about our bodies.

Radical comes from the Latin word “radix” meaning “root”. The root of many human dis-eases begins at birth. Racism is a stressful condition to live in. When a person is in a state of chronic stress, they are susceptible to illness because their bodies are out of balance. Stress causes hypertension, which is one of the dis-eases African American and Latino people suffer from. It is not a coincidence that living under the conditions we do and having this be our state of being for generations is continuing to keep us sick. For people of color, we must not only address other systematic ills such as the gunning down of our women and men but also understanding how this genocide begins in the womb.

I stand for justice and for respecting Black lives. I think so much of the mothers that must bury their children when they are murdered. Black and Latina mothers must carry the burden of fearing their child might be killed. Our hearts are broken in a way that most won’t understand. What justice is this that we must explain to our children at some undetermined point that they might lose their lives to a reckless cop? Often, when women of color around me see the violence threatening to snuff us out, they are reluctant to have children. While that is an understandable sentiment and I don’t judge the choice, a conversation I had made me aware that we need to do the opposite. Remember the infanticide that would occur on the Transatlantic Slave Trade when our ancestral mothers wanted to save their children from our current fate; remember the other infanticides when we got to this side of the globe. Remember the forceful sterilization that has happened and is happening to women of color around the world. Remember we have the highest rate of infant and maternal mortality in this country. This is a full-on genocide. The reason I have no tolerance for neutrality is because this has been going on for 522 years now. I’m sick of this shit. To get us to psychologically subscribe is part of that. They are not only murdering us on sight but also before we even get here, and choosing to birth is an act of resistance. I encourage us to love our children shamelessly and deeply. Fight to preserve our lives. Demand and seek better healthcare and birthing options. Resist. Revolt. Rebel. I will do my part to expose the inequities and create new possibilities for my people.

The Postpartum: Reflections After Midwifery School

10 Dec

Sometimes, after a woman gives birth, they need to tell their story over and over again because they are trying to put the pieces together to an otherwise indescribable event: birth. The magnitude and impact of delivering a child is so deep and so beyond our conscious mind that they have a hard time getting a grip. Everyone around them mills around them, continuing with their lives while the postpartum mother experiences a vast amount of mental, emotional, physical and spiritual changes. They are often neglected, in the sense that all the attention was on them when they were pregnant and few understand that they need support more than ever with a new child and a new reality to come to terms with. This is the most accurate way to describe how I’ve been feeling in the last 2 months postpartum from midwifery school.

I began my formal midwifery training last September 2013. It was conception. It was the beginning of gestating a brand new life and identity that I could never foresee how it would turn out. My year away from all that was familiar was hard. It had its stresses, worries, sleepless nights, and sudden growth spurts that only those going through this with me understood. I felt supported by my community from afar yet also isolated, unable to be honest and raw in the way I could be with a select few friends who got me through school with long hours on the phone. A major worry was finances, a common theme in my life. I am grateful to everyone who supported me to be able to pay for school and all my expenses (I owe some perks and am working on those). School itself was a challenge. One that I have yet to feel complete liberty to be frank about.

For starters, it was direct entry. I chose to learn this way because it does not sit right with my spirit to be trained in a hospital. I had to learn on the spot and that included emergency situations. I’ve seen hemorrhages and babies that needed help breathing. I’m glad I have not seen anything fatal but I didn’t have time to process what I saw – I had to keep going. The birth center I trained at is an incredibly high volume, so I saw nearly 100 humans come into the world plus the clinical hours of prenatal care I gave to the women of Juarez. It was a lot. There were so many long hours, as much as being awake for 36 hours straight and catching up to 2 babies in a 24 hour period. No time to recover, just keep going. It is a lot even now, as I struggle to tactfully write about this experience. The range of emotions felt varied from joy to rage for many reasons.

It was hard to be one of the only women of color training at this school. A lot of the rage came in here; again I don’t feel at liberty to flesh out exact details about why this was at times infuriating. I guess you can say that there was a lot of cognitive dissonance to deal with. For me, there has not been an opportunity to be solely trained by Black and Latina midwives for a variety of reasons. There is a sadness that comes from having had to learn from white midwives. This is not to say that I am devaluing how much I was taught. Most of my preceptors were great teachers and I connected with a few who I am still close to. Still, it speaks to the fact that the numbers of Black and Latina midwives leave much to be desired, as well as the fact that many women of color cannot afford to be trained for a variety of reasons related to the historical disenfranchisement of Afro-descendant people. It speaks to the removal of granny midwives and our own ancestral knowledge of birth; it is painful to know that this was stolen from us from the medical system.

Then there was dealing with my personal life outside of my education. So many things were happening for me, in terms of growing up, becoming an adult child of divorce, and as always, matters of the heart. I felt pregnant with this new person I would be at the end of this journey. I got to spend a whole year being known solely as Ynanna. I can count on one hand how many times someone called me by my birth name. I realize as I sit in the South Bronx where I was born Carmen that this is a huge shift in my reality. Midwifery made me come face to face with my own birth several times. It made me question who I am and how I came to be who I am. It also opened up this well of emotions and feelings about the world. I could feel myself feel increasingly enraged about the world I have to send these new creations into. Especially because they were Mexican-American children, the reality of their struggle was real to me. Because I was with women, the violence against women in this world made me want to break something. Becoming a midwife has made me even more passionate about human rights and less tolerant for pettiness. Perhaps borderline impatient but definitely more headstrong than I’ve ever been.

It has been hard being back. I know I am happy to be home and have been received rather warmly by those who waited for me to come back. But it’s like coming home with a new baby. What am I supposed to do with this new creation? Who is going to help me figure this out? Just like a postpartum mother has to answer these questions alone, so must I. What do I do with these emotions, particularly rage? How do I adjust to life outside of birth? Currently, I am waiting for my diploma from school and am figuring out how to study for my licensing exam so I can practice legally in New Jersey. I am looking for steady employment in maternal and reproductive health because I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’ve worked too hard to do anything but my career.  I hope to serve women of color because we don’t always have access to the best and most compassionate care. I can’t bear the thought of not being in service to my community. Mostly these days, I’ve been alone, like a mother nursing her new child, trying to make sense of this new person she’s become and birthed.

Gravida -

9 Dec

Meaning pregnant.
Full. Abundant.
Gravida implying gravity.
The weight of being with child.
My mind always hears ‘grave’
In Spanish
Serious. Important. Momentous.

Pendulous bellies swollen
With lives that we cannot predict;
Heavy with a new life
An entire universe of a person
Weighing on these hips.

Though I am nulligravida –
Never pregnant, never this copious –
I have held laboring women
Their weight on me as I make myself
To support
To hold
To guide them
As they prepare to release
This load
This body
This life
This Royalty
This burden
Of mothering while Black.

It is a grave situation that
Breaks backs and
Breaks hearts
Knowing we must give our lives
Holding our breaths
That these children might be

It is too real
Painful to feel your heart
Hold so much water
Leap into your throat
Nearly suffocating you
With the probable tears
That may be shed at birth
At a funeral.

This act of resistance
To still create in the ghastly face of
Death, destruction, execution -
Genocide -
In fear of this precious cargo
This gift of hope and promise
Being taken too soon from momma’s arms
Too soon from dreams coming true
Too soon
Too intentional
Too much history
Replicating itself
By a system
By overseers turned officers.

La situación esta grave.
The situation is serious.
If we didn’t love these children so much
We might commit infanticide just so
They can leave this planet on our terms.
We pray to our ancestral mothers for strength
To endure our children’s probable fates
To resist this darkness.

Gravida. This gravity.
Who will hold this weight but us?
The mothers
The ones sacrificing our bodies
Our wombs
Our hearts at risk of being annihilated -
Our arms nearly broken
For the way a child will fall heavy
Con esto
Tan grave.

I Sell The Shadow: Supporting The Substance to Change The World

3 Nov

ists 2

The end of a spectacular night

A rainy evening at Madiba Harlem at MIST was the scene for the introduction of a new dream being manifested. In her black dress and red accessories, Lisa Russell’s red and blue feather earrings reminded me her vision is taking flight. The need to create is a natural impulse humans have. In these precarious times in our global community, that impulse is the key to much needed solutions. What attracted me to Lisa’s work then is her dynamic use of creativity to address international issues. With over 10 years of experience producing films and creative projects for various UN/NGO agencies, she has kicked off an innovative artist initiative named “I Sell The Shadow”, aimed at developing meaningful relationships between creative professionals and UN/NGO agencies.

“I sell the shadow to support the substance” is the inspiration for the initiative’s name. It is a quote by Sojourner Truth, the famous African American abolitionist and woman’s rights activist who sold portraits of herself to fund her work. Lisa has worked with young and adult artists who use their talents to further change on a global and local level. On October 22nd, the launch weaved together both stunning performances by artists, videos and highlighted examples of issues that are being worked on by both the respective artists in their community work and global organizations. In Madiba’s theater space after an hour of networking, the audience was captivated by Chesney Snow, beatboxer and actor. Without warning, he began to beatbox some of the sickest beats that had the whole crowd engaged. It was incredible to hear a melody of different sounds coming from this one voice.


Lisa Russell stood behind her camera, wearing her filmmaker hat in tandem with hostess, and alternated between shooting and facilitating the flow of the event. She introduced the show and expressed the importance of creating opportunities for creative artists and NGOs to work in partnership. “The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible,” Lisa stated, quoting Toni Cade Bambara, driving the point home. She shared the work she has done producing films on pressing global health and development topics in the world’s most remote places, citing how often she questioned herself about whether she should be the one telling the stories. Lisa understands well the thin line between raising awareness on issues and exploiting people’s suffering for media. Her sensitivity, work with various artist activists, and connections to the United Nations has confirmed her notion that the professional and artistic worlds must intersect to give advocacy work an authentic voice. In collaboration, the narratives are flipped and are empowered by those who are actively working on the ground.

Soré Agbaje and Ramya Ramana’s collaborative spoken word piece echoed the reasons MDG2, one of the U.N millennium developmental goals tackling lack of education, is being worked on tirelessly. These two young women wrote and performed this piece at a rally for A World At School, an international campaign aimed at making education accessible to all children. They specifically gave voice to the 31 million girls worldwide who are disproportionally affected. Timothy DuWhite took the stage and delivered a riveting poem about HIV/AIDS, highlighting the global epidemic from a personal perspective. Melissa Garcia Velez told the story of her undocumented youth status with her body, performing a powerful dance solo piece. The push and pull of her body movements made the struggle many undocumented people face so visceral. I felt her story in my own bones.

Tahani Salah, Soré Agbaje, Ramya Ramana and Timothy DuWhite.

One part of the presentation that moved me to tears was the International Youth Day Video on Mental Health and Youth. Edited by Lisa Russell with music by Ray Angry, the images by folks around the world describing their struggle with mental health touched me personally. Sahr + Ricardo, consisting of Fela’s Sahr Ngaujah and guitarist Ricardo Quiñones, did a musical piece about liberation and freedom, setting the stage for Liberated People. Special guest, actor and activist Gbenga Akinnagbe (The Wire, 24) spoke and introduced his company, Liberated People, a lifestyle brand designed to inspire people to act. The night closed with two poetry performances from Shane Romero sharing an exquisite love letter to the Sudan, Savon Bartley bringing Mother Earth to life in a piece for climate change and Jaime Philbert’s solo dance piece.

crowd 2

A captive audience

I left the auditorium in a bit of a stunned silence as the gravity of our world’s most pressing issues hit me. The theater full of people came out buzzing, a mixture of high level U.N professionals and artists. The music for the networking after was provided by Africology, one of the sponsors of I Sell The Shadow. Additionally, this event was also sponsored by Trendy Tripping, Urban Word NYC, Women Deliver, Jacaranda Health, World Beatbox Association and Liberated People. Once again, the revolution was made irresistible. Through witnessing this powerful kick-off, I was inspired to continue my own work. As for “I Sell The Shadow”, it has certainly begun to make waves. The momentum keeps building with the upcoming screening of Lisa Russell’s award-winning short film PODER! followed by live performances and networking on November 21st. Check out the link and get involved:

RSVP for November 21st’s PODER! screening and event

I Sell The Shadow – Official Website

Coming Home Soon!

13 Aug

I will be coming home in mid-October and am looking for work involving prenatal, labor support, postpartum and reproductive health. I would like to work alongside another midwife as an entry-level midwife (I will be sitting for my licensing exam next year). I am also available as a birth and postpartum doula, open to various positions that involve educating young women and women in general. I would be open to providing childcare as well. I will be most likely coming back to the South Bronx area for a while for this chapter of my life. Any suggestions or leads are welcome :)

Becoming Ynanna

10 Aug


This month makes 2 years that I’ve been Ynanna. The change from going by my birth name to my chosen name started late in 2011 and manifested itself right before my nervous breakdown in September 2012. I knew when I walked home two summers ago from my therapist’s office that I needed to change my name. “Carmen” didn’t feel like who I am. Or at least not who I am completely. I needed to have a balance of light and darkness. Like Inanna and Ereshkigal.

Ynanna is my spelling of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love, fertility, sensuality, lust, and warfare. Inanna is the Queen of Heaven and Earth. She is the embodiment of all the phases and parts of feminine energy. Her most famous myth is a metaphor for the ultimate spiritual initiation into wisdom, expanded consciousness, and adulthood, in which one willingly faces their shadows and their demons, to embrace both sides of them and be complete and stand in their power. The story goes that Inanna went to the the Underworld dressed in her finest attire. Ereshkigal, Inanna’s older sister and the Queen of the Dead, is not happy about this. She instructs her gatekeeper to strip Inanna of everything, symbolic of having to give up everything in the descent into the unknown and darkness. Inanna is then killed, and rises from the dead after three days.

I believe my healing journey brought me to the point of such profound transformation. I became very conscious of my wounds when I was graduating from high school, so this change of vibration had been 9 years in the making. That’s what taking on a new name is – a complete change of the wavelength I vibrate on. It is connected to why curse words strike chords in conversations – they carry a certain energy and history to them. Names in particular carry our life force. They carry our history and destiny. I hadn’t considered this until I pledged for my sorority and was establishing the chapter at New Paltz. We as a group of women were setting the tone for the women who would become our chapter sisters by choosing to call ourselves the Orisha Chapter. As I studied in the Black Studies Department, I understood how countries that had been colonized underwent name changes that caused a separation from their primordial identities. Examples include how Quisqueya became Dominican Republic and Boriken became Puerto Rico. Though they are the same land, the names they now go by define them as colonized and so goes the history of these countries. The change of name was a change in the course of their self-determination.

Before Afro-descendant and indigenous people were killed and robbed of our lands, mental, emotional, physical and spiritual faculties, we were very conscious of how we named our children. It was understood that a name carried a person’s destiny and their livelihood. That still goes on today but not as purposely at times. I believe that when I was named Carmen, it was very intentional. I carry the story very close to my heart because I know it means a lot to my grandmother, my mother and family. I will not ever stop having a part of Carmen in me. However, when I am called by that name, I feel like a ghost is being called. As though my own Underworld is being summoned. I experienced a very profound sense of death when I was violated in 2010 and kept saying that to myself. I felt like I was dying. Around this time, I also began to lose my home, relationships, jobs…being stripped of everything to be more of who I really am. My mental health was deteriorating quickly and it was scary to reach and be so intimate with my demons and shadows. I found it harder and harder to explain to people that I was changing quickly.

It was a godsend to be away from people who have previously known me as Carmen for this year of my midwifery training. I’ve had the opportunity to be Ynanna fully. I really enjoy being Ynanna. It feels more like who I am and what my destiny is meant for. It encompasses my large spirit. I felt that changing my name was my rebirth, my rising from the death that truly threatened to snuff out my light. Ynanna is stronger, courageous, healed, more complete. I feel that becoming Ynanna was my initiation into my spiritual adulthood. I just hope that more folks who have known me as Carmen can transition to calling me Ynanna. It makes me happy to be called by who I feel I am now. Though, I have to admit that there are sometime when being called Carmen feels comforting, and only by certain people. It is certainly an interesting dynamic to live in. I liken it to Inanna and Ereshkigal. I must have both entities inside me to be whole and complete. It hasn’t been easy for myself to transition. I had moments where I’d ask myself if it was a good idea to shift. If I was or sounded crazy. If I was okay. Realizing that I had people around me who also made this type of change gave me the courage to become Ynanna.

Becoming Ynanna has given me the ability to embrace both my darkness and my light. Having taken the descent to my underworld many times, my name is a reminder of that strength that I have gained on this journey to being in balance with every aspect of who I am – both Carmen and Ynanna.