AUP. Ep. 38 Aftershock


Transcribed: Cameron Blackwell

Completed: 2/7/22

Cortney Wills: [00:00:03] Hello and welcome to Acting Up the podcast, the dives deep into the world of TV and film that highlights our people, our culture and our stories. I’m your host, Cortney Wills, entertainment director at theGrio. And this week we’re speaking to Tonya Lewis Lee and Paula Eisele, co-directors of the must see documentary Aftershock. Following the deaths of their partners due to preventable childbirth complications and medical negligence two bereaved fathers, galvanized activists, birth workers and physicians to reckon with one of the most pressing yet unspoken American crises of our time: the U.S. maternal health crisis. Their work introduces us to a myriad of people, including a growing brotherhood of surviving Black fathers, along with the work of midwives and physicians on the ground fighting for institutional reform. Through their collective journeys, we find ourselves on the front lines of the growing birth justice movement that is demanding systemic change within our medical system and government. Aftershock premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and I had the honor of moderating a conversation with Tonya Lewis Lee and Paula Eisele for the Macro Lodge’s slate of programing. We had a great conversation there and I wanted to keep it going, and I’m so honored that they are my next guests on Acting Up. Hello, ladies. [00:01:23][80.0]

Tonya Lewis Lee: [00:01:24] Hi Cortney, thanks for having us. It’s our pleasure to be here. [00:01:27][2.8]

Paula Eiselt: [00:01:27] Thank you for having us. [00:01:28][0.8]

Cortney Wills: [00:01:29] Absolutely. So Aftershock is not for the faint of heart, but it’s certainly for every heart because it affects every single person, no matter your gender, no matter your personal experience with childbirth. This is a story that really sheds light on the crisis that we’re in in the United States, and that is that our maternal mortality rate is through the roof even compared to underdeveloped countries. Paula, talk to me about why this was the subject that you wanted to tackle right now. [00:02:04][35.2]

Paula Eiselt: [00:02:04] Yeah, thank you, Cortney. I, you know, I was really drawn to the subject matter first because of my own experiences within the maternal health system. I’m a mom of four and with each of those pregnancy and births and also a fifth pregnancy that I that I lost due to medical negligence, I’m familiar with the system and how women are not seen and not heard. And then when I started doing my own research at the end of 2017, I started seeing articles exposes coming out from ProPublica and other publications about this U.S. maternal health crisis that we were in. And I was like, Oh my God, we’re in crisis. What I went through is not uncommon, and actually it profoundly affects Black women with much, much higher stakes. So if I wanted to embark on telling the story, which I really, really did in my bones, I knew that Black women had to be centered first and foremost to tell this story authentically and that I wanted a partner grounded in the community to help me do that and shed light on the work that has been happening for decades and decades, way before those articles were written. [00:03:20][75.8]

Cortney Wills: [00:03:21] And so, Tonya, how did you come to this project? [00:03:23][2.0]

Tonya Lewis Lee: [00:03:24] So back in 2007, a long, long time ago, now the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had asked me to be a spokesperson for their infant mortality awareness raising program here in the US. And at the time, I did not know who that infant mortality was an issue in the United States, but I had the opportunity to travel the country and learn a lot about the issue and different kinds of communities. Specifically focusing, though, of course, on the disparity between the higher rates of Black kids dying and white babies dying. And I found myself immersed in a world of women’s health and often had the opportunity to speak to women about how we take care of ourselves for the sake of our children. And I love doing it. I love talking to groups of women groups of Black women about how we are managing and handling our health. Unfortunately, though, most of the time someone would raise their hand and talk about a woman, a sister, a friend, a cousin, somebody they knew who had passed away from childbirth complications. That it wasn’t just the infants that were dying, but women were dying. And so the more I heard that I did a film called Crisis in the Crib for the Department of Health and Human Services about infant mortality and was really thinking about how can I tell a story about Black women dying in childbirth? And like Paula, you know, I knew this issue was so big and profound that I wanted a partner to figure out how to wrap my arms around it and tell it really, really well. And so I was happy to find a creative partner and follow that to really make this film. [00:04:58][94.4]

Cortney Wills: [00:04:59] So who found who like, who made the phone call like, do you want to do this thing? [00:05:02][3.2]

Tonya Lewis Lee: [00:05:03] I love that question. [00:05:03][0.5]

Paula Eiselt: [00:05:04] It’s almost like we bumped into each other, like almost actually literally. [00:05:08][3.6]

Tonya Lewis Lee: [00:05:08] And I got to tell you about a little piece, a little. Another kernel in here is Dawn Porter, our executive producer. [00:05:13][4.8]

Cortney Wills: [00:05:14] We love Dawn Porter here. [00:05:15][1.3]

Tonya Lewis Lee: [00:05:16] And so Paula was as a fellow at Concordia Studios. And Dawn had been brought in working with her a little bit. Not as a co-director, Dawn, is someone I’ve known for many years, and she was like, You should do that film, so you should do it, then we get a chance to work together. So everything kind of lined up, you know, for us all to work together. [00:05:34][17.9]

Cortney Wills: [00:05:35] Oh, fantastic. So before we get into the doc, I do want to ask you guys about working with each other and working with each other on a project that where race is a critical component. I want to know from Paula. What, if anything, may have been daunting or challenging about tackling a subject that is about Black women as a white woman? And then, Tonya, similar question. I mean, where if anywhere did the edges rub or did you find yourself maybe having to dig a little deeper or think a little harder about tackling issues that concern women and race? So Paula, you first. [00:06:16][41.4]

Paula Eiselt: [00:06:17] Yeah, it’s a great question. And I think as I mentioned before, I came into the issue from my own experience, but quickly and and you know, know that that that is only a part of what Black women go through. I am missing a key lived experience that that no matter how much I read, I will, I can never truly understand. So in working with Tonya, I you know, the pandemic with all of its horrificness and debilitatingness, gave us a lot of time to talk because we were stuck at home so we would spend hours on Zoom or on the phone and really had this space to talk and I had space to listen. And I think in a crazy way without the pandemic, I know we would have found a way. But but for me, the benefit of just really being able to listen in that way over that period of time, what was tremendously helpful to me as a white person to really understand that perspective that only Tonya can bring to the project. [00:07:32][74.9]

Tonya Lewis Lee: [00:07:33] Well, you know, for me, I talk about race a lot and I am not afraid to talk about race with white people to tell them what I really think. And if you are going to tango with me, you better be ready for it because it’s not going to be soft stepping. I’m going to tell you straight to your face what I think. The other thing that we had going for us is that Shawnee Benton Gibson, one of our subject collaborators, is very straightforward. She’ll tell you what you think. Brace for it. You know, in a loving way, though, like she like she’ll say, like, I’m talking to you, like I talked to your family. You know, I’m going to tell you, like I tell family. And so I do think that certainly there were times when you know, you do have hard conversations, right? I mean, you have to, but that’s how we get better. I don’t run from the hard conversation. I run right into the hard conversation. And I think part of what we did was have that struggle with that hard conversation at times, which gets down to the real truth and gets down to what it really is. And then we can really make a change and and and make things better. So, you know, I think really being able to talk honestly with one another is the key. [00:08:42][69.2]

Cortney Wills: [00:08:43] I just find it kind of interesting that you were having these kinds of conversation and and collaborating in this way at a time where that work that even you were doing to pull off this documentary was being discussed, you know, in in larger society. And so I wonder if this kind of collaboration in those kinds of honest conversations that you were just highlighting for us is that new in this space? Like do you is there a tangible shift in, you know, we’re going there more often and more frequently, and it’s not so uncomfortable anymore or it’s not so much of an anomaly anymore? Or is it still just very new? [00:09:23][40.3]

Tonya Lewis Lee: [00:09:24] No, for me, it’s not. I mean, I’m forced into this, right? I’m a Black woman who was a lawyer working at a law firm who has worked with corporations and had to deal with white people all the time. And so what happens for me is when I’m an independent person and I’m not in within a system I have freedom, you know, I am not worried about my boss coming down, telling me what you said is, you know, and look, I’ve been at this a while, so I know how to also temper myself a little bit. But having these difficult conversations for me is not new. But I think for some people, I often actually forget that most people don’t talk about race the way I do. I actually forget that. And I’m often like, Oh, right now we’re in this and I’ve got it back up if I don’t have a person like Paula who’s open to having the conversation, right? But I think as a society, we’re in a place where people are having more honest and real conversations. But then and you’re also seeing the pushback from that, because people don’t like the truth. So then you start talking about the truth and people like, No, I like the lie. Can we just go back to that? But we’re going to have to deal, in my opinion, Paula. What do you say about that? Do you feel it’s new? [00:10:37][72.7]

Paula Eiselt: [00:10:38] I mean, so there’s, as you said, the the personal and the in the industry part of it. And for me personally, Tonya, as you know, I love hard conversations, transparency, honesty. That’s that’s how I was raised. Social justice is something that I talk about. I acknowledge I. These are conversations everyone should be having. I found it for, for me, you know, working with you, Tonya, like during this time of like what I hope will continue to be a reckoning on race in America. I felt like it was a privilege that I get to be working with someone like Tonya during this time and and listening to her because as you said, Cortney, like, that’s that’s not your job to to educate me and I just happen to be working on this topic during this time. So I felt and it sounds weird, like I just felt lucky or privileged to be in that space and be able to learn from that during this time. And I’m still processing that and continuing, continuing to learn. But you know, I love these conversations like this is what it is to be human. Like, I like this like we should. We should talk about this all the time. If if people want to, of course. And I, you know, talk about it with my community and I try to take that upon myself to pass this forth, then, you know, in making this film, it’s a way I can share that. So I just I hope I’m doing the best I can and will continue to to listen and learn. [00:12:19][101.4]

Cortney Wills: [00:12:20] Absolutely. Thank you for that. And yes, this film that you both have delivered to us tackles another very tough subject. I mean, it’s painful. It’s confusing. It’s infuriating for sure to realize that, you know, the United States with all of its developments and all of its technology and all of these methods for people to communicate and share their stories. Women as a whole are being astronomically let down when it comes to health care, when it comes to being able to do the most basic thing, you know, bring life into the world. We are dying and they are preventable deaths. You guys tackle a ton of elements that contribute to this horrific crisis in your documentary, and I feel like all you know, all of them could have been their own project. You talk about midwifery. You talk about the origins of even like, how did we get to OB-GYNs and nurses versus midwives? And how did we, you know, how did this industry of, I guess, what prenatal health care like become dominated by men and predominantly white men? We talk about access to birthing centers and alternative methods. We talk about C-sections and how prevalent they are, which a lot of people tend to forget is a major major surgery. You talk about doctors, an implicit bias and different standards of care for Black women and white women. You went down so many lanes and there were so many lanes to go down, and I wanted to know, first and foremost, why did you decide to focus on the two men who had lost their partners in childbirth? Like why this story about women, at least at first through the eyes of these two men? [00:14:08][108.1]

Tonya Lewis Lee: [00:14:09] Well, honestly, it’s because they’re the ones that are left behind. They’re the ones who have to raise their children and move forward. And we really wanted to sort of capture and document what’s it like. I mean, we met both of these men very early in their grieving process. What’s it like for a man who’s lost his partner to suddenly have to raise a child on his own? How does he get support? Where does he go? How does the community support him? How does his family support him? And then what does he do? And which is so we’re so fortunate to meet such extraordinary men who are raising their children and amazing ways and contributing to their communities so that this doesn’t happen to other women. So we really wanted to tell it and humanize and really humanize these women. I think these men, because we’re telling it through them. We do get a sense of who these women are and the women that do become humanized as well. (Yes.) [00:15:05][56.4]

Paula Eiselt: [00:15:06] I’ll just add to that in the early days of making this film, you know, we were raising money. You know, we would get questions like, so like, why the men? And it was always such a surprising question because it was like, who do you think is left behind like? Course, we’re going to focus on the fathers. Unless you’re assuming that there aren’t fathers. So it said a lot about that question that that we got from a lot of people and made us realize, you know, how important it really is to show these fathers that people are just so surprised that they’re there. So as as Tonya said, we want to really humanize and lift up these men. [00:15:45][39.0]

Tonya Lewis Lee: [00:15:47] But also people often think of Black men as being absentee fathers. They’re not around. They don’t any like– I mean, obviously, we know the image of Black men in our society, and it’s so refreshing to be able to show who we Black men really are. They are wonderful men. Are they exceptional? I don’t know because I know a lot of really great Black men, so it’s just really wonderful to be able to showcase who we really are. [00:16:08][21.8]

Cortney Wills: [00:16:09] I thought it was interesting too, you know, you. You often hear things like, you know, if if birth control was up to the men, then it would be a totally different story in that regard. Even this issue, I think that for a long time, this was a women’s issue. This was considered a women’s issue. Get a good doctor. Speak up for yourself, know your body. But like this had very little to do with the men. And I actually think that focusing on the men and their vantage point instantly also makes this a man’s problem. If you keep killing all of the moms, guess who’s going to become the primary caregivers and in a way that might snap certain industries and people into realizing, again, this applies to them. This doesn’t. This is not just a women’s issue. So I thought that that was really important, and the other thing I felt was so powerful was the fact that regardless of race, regardless of location, I think that motherhood does immediately connect women like there’s a certain something that you just connect to when you meet another woman who’s a mother and seeing Shawnee’s mother, gosh, just instantly connecting to her. Just thinking about what if this happened to my daughter? (I know) my grown daughter, but my God, that humanized everything for me in a moment and her passion for her daughter and and this fight that she has continued to fight in her memory and in her honor, I thought was so moving. And I wondered, what about her, you know, really stood out for you. [00:17:45][95.6]

Tonya Lewis Lee: [00:17:47] Shawnee, Gosh, how do you say, how do you talk about Shawnee? She’s an amazing woman, like you say, with so much heart, so much spirit, so smart. So passionate. And I often say like I learned from her. I’m getting emotional thinking about it (me too.) A line in the film when she says when she says, like, now, I wish my daughter would call me 30 times a day like I. I get that, you know, and and yet, you know, she she’s so strong, but yet she keeps moving in her daughter’s name, you know, and she’s like, We will never forget you. We will continue to say your name. And I just I look at Shawnee, and what I take away from her is her strength, her grace. Watching her with when Amari’s here, and raising her grandchildren and she the way she navigates that is just beautiful. And I learned a lot. I think about how I’ll do with my children’s partners, you know, with grace. She’s just a beautiful, passionate woman, and I think we will see a lot of Shawnee in the future. [00:18:48][61.5]

Cortney Wills: [00:18:49] I think so, too. Paula, how about you? [00:18:51][1.7]

Paula Eiselt: [00:18:53] Shawnee is our guiding light. Like, she’s the north star of the film. Like every this, the. There was the topic of maternal mortality, but that wasn’t a film. Shawnee, meeting Shawnee, is what made this a film a story and everything came from her. I mean, the first time I spoke with Shawnee on the phone. I mean, when Shawnee speaks, her words are poetry. She’s a poet and her writing in her speech and in regular conversation, like she’ll send a text and it’s like the text is its own poem. Like, like the way she she just lives. Such a spiritual, artful, empowering life and just being in her presence and her family’s presence in her community presence. I mean, the first thing I was privileged to be at was that Aftershock event that’s at the beginning of the film, and I remember standing there surrounded in this glow of warmth of community, and it was transcended. I went home. I told my husband, I just filmed the best thing I’ve ever filmed. I’ve never felt like that at a shoot, the community there and the warmth. I just wanted to stay there and I just felt like such a privilege that I was able to be in that space. And so I think of Shawnee, I think, a warmth and light. [00:20:14][80.8]

Cortney Wills: [00:20:14] Wow. The other thing that this film really illuminated so beautifully was the alternative. Like, there are other ways to bring a baby into this world, and a lot of people have access to those ways, and a lot of people don’t. Gosh, like I remember when I was pregnant. The feeling that I would get when I would ask my doctor about any sort of even alternative, something that I had read about was almost like. Oh, please don’t– don’t even think about that like like it would like, it’s so irresponsible of you as a mother to not do what has been laid out as the status quo. Like, who do you think you are thinking outside of the box about, you know, you’re not an OB-GYN, you’re not an expert. And realizing just how not crazy it is to consider having a baby at home or having a baby outside of a hospital at a birthing center, like, that’s not crazy. And I remember that my OB-GYN said, You know, I had taken some class and they were talking about the pitocin and like the other drugs that you can get the epidural. All of these things, and I was saying, you know, like, what would it really be like to have a child without an epidural? You know, people did it all the time. People did it throughout history. And he said, Well, you can get your leg amputated and bite on a leather belt. But would you why would you do that? I mean, like made me feel so stupid. Like, what a dumb. [00:21:39][84.8]

Tonya Lewis Lee: [00:21:40] That’s such a crazy analogy, because you’re a perfectly healthy person. Your body is doing what it’s supposed to do. If have to get your leg amputated it’s because there’s something wrong with your leg. There’s nothing wrong with a pregnant woman. She is in often very good health. And yet you want to give me medication. Yeah, you want to come in and do something to me like that, that that’s one of the things that I certainly have learned doing this film. It’s like if you allow a woman to let her body do what it needs to do with the right kind of support, you don’t necessarily need all that other stuff. You know, give me a second so that my body do what it needs to do, you know? And it’s not crazy for me. [00:22:23][42.8]

Cortney Wills: [00:22:23] Yeah, it’s not crazy, but just that framing. I mean, that was the start that was very early, but that’s almost like set the tone for how this was going to go and stop Googling stuff, stop reading things, just lay down and drink your water and come in here in nine months and let me cut this thing out of you. [00:22:43][19.2]

Paula Eiselt: [00:22:44] Yeah. And when you question them, so same thing with the epidural is like, Oh, don’t be a hero. No one’s asking you to be a hero. It’s like so weaponising. And when you do start to question, like with my last pregnancy, I got a call from the doctor’s office that they met about me in their weekly meeting, and they feel like I have a profound mistrust of the system. And how can we move forward if you if you don’t trust us like that, the way they flip that around is just so manipulative and mind boggling, and it makes you feel crazy and it makes you feel like you’re doing something that’s not good for you or your baby. So they constantly use that against you, and it’s it’s how they’re taught. [00:23:29][45.3]

Tonya Lewis Lee: [00:23:30] And what Helena Grant in our film says, though, is that women have to take that back. I gave all my power away to my doctors because I didn’t know. I assume they knew best. But we have to now we know we do have resources to learn and we have to take the power back and not just give it over to doctors. You know, we have to find the right situation for ourselves to do the work and find what is the best place for me to birth. Who is my best doctor? This doctor makes me feel kind of not right, even though they’re supposed to be the best doctor out here. Maybe I should go and look and find another doctor. Like, that’s that’s what I learned from making this film like as a consumer out there looking where to birth. I need it. I wish I could go back and do it again, but I can’t wait for my daughter, you know, maybe I can help her really find the best birthing situation for her to be empowered. [00:24:23][53.5]

Cortney Wills: [00:24:24] So I have to let you ladies go. I could talk to you about this forever. You know how much I love this project, but for my final question, I want to ask each of you, well, Paula, what was the most shocking fact, most shocking element that you uncovered in making this project? Like what just smacked you in the face? [00:24:43][19.0]

Paula Eiselt: [00:24:44] Yeah, there’s there’s there’s three I know you asked for one, I’ll zip through it. One is this VAT calculator that is a computerized algorithm where you put in someone’s BMI, their age, other things. And there’s also a menu for race. And just by virtue of choosing African-American, the number, the rate of their success will go down, which just on virtue of nothing. There’s there’s there’s just nothing like nothingness. So that that prevents a lot of physicians for wanting to give Black women a chance to have a vaginal birth after a C-section. I thought that was crazy. I think the fact that the term deliver comes from deliver us from evil because it because if you think of it, it doesn’t make any sense like we don’t deliver ourselves. That’s not even English. Like, I don’t even know what that means at birth. You don’t deliver that, that I’m like, haunted by. And then just like the fact that we have so few midwives when I. We saw the graph of how many midwives practiced in other Western countries. And then our little teeny little bar of nothing in this country. I just didn’t realize it was that prominent, so that really shocked me. [00:25:55][70.5]

Cortney Wills: [00:25:55] Now those were all really shocking things. Tonya, what was the either most shocking thing you uncovered or the thing that was shocking to everyone else that you already knew? [00:26:06][11.3]

Tonya Lewis Lee: [00:26:08] I would say it probably has to do with the midwives. First of all, I was really surprised that George Washington paid his midwife. I didn’t. I didn’t know that that was news to me, and I would say just, I mean, and it’s disheartening and painful. But the fact that midwives have been vilified, that Black midwives have been vilified this campaign against them, that continues to this day. You say midwife people like, Oh, those dirty, nasty midwives, you wouldn’t want a midwife like that. Still, today, that was a that was a strategic campaign launched against Black women to get everybody to go to hospitals, and it still persists today in this country. Devastating. [00:26:48][40.1]

Cortney Wills: [00:26:50] Salute, Lee. Ladies, thank you so much for your candor, your time, and really thank you for this truly important work. I’m so grateful to be able to amplify it, and I hope that people receive it because it is urgent and it is important. It is beautifully done. [00:27:04][14.5]

Paula Eiselt: [00:27:04] Thank you so much Cortney. [00:27:04][0.0]

Tonya Lewis Lee: [00:27:05] It’s always great talking to you. Great conversation. [00:27:08][2.6]

Cortney Wills: [00:27:09] Thank you so much. You all take care. Thank you for listening to Acting Up. If you like what you heard, please give us a five star review and subscribe to the show wherever you listen to your podcast and share it with everyone you know. Please email all questions, comments and suggestions to podcast@theGrio.com. Acting Up is brought to you by theGrio and executive produced by Cortney Wills and produced by Cameron Blackwell. For more with me and Acting Up, check us out on Instagram @Acting Up.Pod. [00:27:09][0.0]


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