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Miriam Perez, Radical Doula

Miriam Zoila Perez has worked in the reproductive justice movement for more than seven years, She is the founder of Radical Doula, a blog that covers the intersections of birth activism and social justice from a doula’s perspective. You might also know her from her work at Feministing.com, where she is an editor. Her writing has also appeared in The Nation, RH Reality Check, Alternet, The American Prospect and she is a frequent contributor to Colorlines.com. She was chosen as a 2010 Lambda Literary Foundation Emerging LGBT Voice in Non-Fiction. She received a 2009 Young Woman of Achievement Award from the Women’s Information Network and a 2010 Barbara Seaman Award for Activism in Women’s Health from the National Women’s Health Network.

Chanel Dubofsky: For the folks who don’t know, what’s a “radical doula?”

Miriam Perez: There is no official definition of a radical doula. To start, a doula is a person who provides emotional support to people during childbirth. Different than a midwife or an obstetrician, a doula is kind of like a birth coach. They work with the person in labor, and their partners or support people, to make the experience as good as possible. Things like massage, position suggestions, as well as other physical support techniques and emotional support. It’s a role that has been popularized in recent decades to deal with the realities of hospital birth.

Calling myself a radical doula is about my politics and how that shapes my work as a doula. Being pro-choice was a big reason I started Radical Doula, as well as being queer, Latina and seeing my doula work as activism. For the last few years I’ve run a series of Radical Doula Profiles, for others who identify with the term. I ask them why they see themselves as Radical Doulas, and the answers vary widely.

What inspired you to become an abortion doula? What do you see as your role in the process? I was pro-choice before I ever became a birth doula. Once I got involved in the world of abortion rights activism, specifically reproductive justice, I learned that some doulas were starting to apply their skills to working with folks during abortions. It just made so much sense to me, that the skills would apply. For me, being a doula is about providing non-judgmental support to folks during pregnancy. Why limit that to just childbirth? It’s the same women having abortions as having babies. Now, about six years later, there is a growing movement of “full spectrum doulas” who work with folks across the spectrum of pregnancy, from abortion to birth to miscarriage and even adoption. It’s really incredible to see how much interest in this work has grown.

How does your Jewish identity relate to your doula work? To your feminism? Because my mom is Jewish and my dad Catholic, and they split when I was young, I had an interesting upbringing when it came to religion. As a kid growing up in the Bible Belt, I used to say that one half of me believed in Jesus and the other half didn’t. I celebrated both sets of holidays with the two sides of my family. Because of my parent’s divorce, I wasn’t allowed to have a traditional Jewish education. My Cuban Catholic grandmother supposedly baptized me and my brother in a bathtub. So it’s complicated, to say the least.

Once I got to high school, I decided I wanted to participate in Judaism more, and was able to have a b’nai mitzvah with my brother. It became a big part of my world then, but once I graduated, it was complicated again. Few people know that there are Jews who are also Latino — both my parents were born in Cuba, and my mother’s family fled to Cuba to escape the Holocaust. I started to get more involved in Latino activism, and being Jewish kind of fell to the back burner. I also felt less compelled to be religious in my life, and so it hasn’t had a big role so far in my life as an adult. I’m sure it shaped me in all sorts of subconscious ways in my upbringing, but not in ways I can necessarily point out.

What do you think is (an) answer to the issue of people being afraid of the word radical, especially when it’s used in a feminist context?

My choosing the term “radical doula” was actually not so well thought out. I was at a convening of birth workers (midwives and doulas) and abortion advocates. There was an entire day of introductions, and I was literally the last person to introduce myself. I stood up and said “My name is Miriam Perez, and I’m a radical doula” and sat down. That was the beginning. The word obviously has so much history, and connotation. I know “radfem” is a whole other connotation, particularly in regards to positions about things like sex work. I don’t feel that using the word aligns me with that history, but it’s also possible that I just don’t worry too much about how the word radical will sit with people.

I care more about the meaning behind it, and the way I was trying to build community with other like-minded doulas around it. It means so many different things, but for me it was mostly about saying this work is political for me. Words are a starting point, not the end game. If you’re afraid of it, don’t use it. I don’t care what you call yourself, I care what work you’re doing to change things. This is also my answer to questions about using the word feminist as well.

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