The climb

The climb
Climbing together

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka, BBW, Kellymom, Breastfeeding USA and me being a Fangirl



It's Black Breastfeeding Week this week. Trying to process the range of responses to this week is like drinking hot tea after sucking on ice. I have observed a range of responses, from unfettered support to the micro-aggression of asking "why do we need a black breastfeeding week?" to the very disappointing response of one of the well-known pump manufacturers on their facebook page who actively deleted the single post (posted by a follower) that made any mention of Black Breastfeeding Week because someone reported it as...abusive? Not sure how that logic follows, if you understand in any way the complex sociocultural context that Black Americans must exist in today.

I am multiracial, and was raised with a hodgepodge of various cultural influences. I never really identified with one in particular, and if you could somehow track the racial/ethnic identifications that I have listed on the various forms I've filled out throughout my life, you would see no consistent representation. Lots of "other" bubbled in, sometimes multiple bubbles if that option was available. But I have had the privilege of passing as white in most contexts. Or at the very least, knew that if I dressed and did my makeup a certain way, it would be ambiguous enough that if I just laid low no one would ask me directly.

I happen to work on a research team made up of all Black academics. Coding interview data collected by my mentor and fellow team members, I was offered a perspective that few people in my situation are, and it sparked an interest within me to make some attempts to genuinely understand the experience of Black Americans in a way that I had previously just paid lip service to. Growing up in the South, where defacto segregation is still a reality despite all efforts and intentions to the contrary, attending Catholic school, and the generally antisocial disposition of both my parents functionally limited my social circle. So I did what most academically inclined people do - I read books and research studies on the topic of the African American and Black experience, especially related to health disparities, breastfeeding, and birth. And somehow, by luck or by fate, or perhaps by concerted effort, I have also been offered opportunities to expand my experience beyond the pages of books and the digital displays of research studies. Each experience has nudged me a little more outside of my comfort zone, and those nudges = growth.

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March of 2015 I was driving up with my family to North Carolina to attend the 10th Breastfeeding and Feminism Conference. I was reading a copy of Free to Breastfeed: Voices from Black Mothers in the car, in between stops to nurse my 2 year old and refereeing the jousting between my older and younger children in the backseat of the car. Imagine my excitement and joy when the first speaker of the opening address was Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka, Program Associate for MomsRising, graduate Nurse-Midwifery/Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner student at Yale University School of Nursing, co-founder of Black Breastfeeding Week (BBW), and co-author of Free to Breastfeed: Voices of Black Mothers – the book that I had at that very moment nestled in my giant purse.


I made my way to her during the networking/exhibit break with my copy of her book clutched in my hands. Like an overly excited fan girl, I interrupted her conversation with my fellow Breastfeeding USA colleague Agustina Vidal and stumbled over my own tongue asking her to sign my copy of her book. She was very gracious, a grace that is likely essential to her passion and mission to advocate for breastfeeding, bridge the support gaps in health equity that act as obstacles for many black breastfeeding mothers, and advocate for family economic security, which is intimately intertwined with early breastfeeding cessation.

Anayah is behind the digital presence of Black Breastfeeding Week. In addition to her work with BBW, she also co-created the 2010 Brown Mamas Breastfeed Project with the goal of generating more images of black women breastfeeding and allowing black women to share their stories as breastfeeding mothers. This important work has been carried forward by the social media powerhouse Black Women Do Breastfeed.

In the preface of Free to Breastfeed, Anayah shares an intimate story familiar to many breastfeeding mothers – relating the prenatal anxiety and worry about making the “right” parenting decisions, she goes on to share, “About 45 minutes after being born…I lay in bed with him latched to my breast and those anxieties were changed…Even through our most challenging moments, that moment of pause has been the catalyst for me embracing motherhood as an empowered woman.”

As an ally, my duty is to create the space that facilitates black mothers reaching their own breastfeeding goals. Listening, supporting, asking, “What can I do?” and meeting parents where they are. We can’t effectively support the breastfeeding dyad without acknowledging the unique circumstances in which each breastfeeding parent and child exist at that moment. I continue to be in awe of Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka’s dynamic activism and her savvy ability to harness effective social media strategies.

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I wrote this piece for the Kellymom.com Facebook page.

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