The titles and roles of activists may differ, but a good activist can be spotted by their passion and dedication to their work. Most of us choose our paths of activism based on the impact we want to have or life sort of decides for us by placing us in social locations where the only path that makes sense is one of resistance. Either way, high levels of recognition are typically reserved for a few select folks. This blog series is not a remedy to this situation, but rather designed to highlight activists and their justice work through brief interviews.
This installment is an interview with Kierra Otis, a doula, PhD Candidate, and co-founder of the Rooted Doula Collective. Responses were provided during a one-on-one call, and this transcription was reviewed and approved by the interviewee prior to publication.
How would you describe yourself and your role in movement spaces?
I am a co-founder of the Rooted Doula Collective. I’m a full spectrum doula and I’m also a gender studies PhD Candidate at Arizona State University, so I’m a bit of a scholar-activist. I’m a care worker. I’m a really sensitive person. I lead with empathy and compassion. More than anything, I feel like I’m in the movement to take care of people, take care of things. Then there’s also the part of me that likes to shake things up and make people uncomfortable. I’m the kind of person who has a hard time not saying the things that need to be said, but I’m definitely there to work through the aftermath of saying whatever needed to be said. For example, in the birth work world, we get a lot of people who are hesitant about inclusive language, or they simply don’t know. It comes up in various spaces but I’m willing to talk about it and sit with it. I’ll put myself out there as the trans or gender queer doula and explain why this is important to me.
Can you describe your trajectory of becoming a doula?
I grew up in a Mormon household. My dad is Black and he’s from Las Vegas. My mom is a white woman from Bountiful, Utah. My dad converted when he was a teenager and ended up meeting my mom at Brigham Young University. I was their second baby, but the first they were able to raise. When I look back at my scrapbooks and my mom’s journals from when I was growing up, one of the first things I ever wanted to be was a mom. I had this caretaking kind of spirit and I spent a lot of time trying to understand if that’s who I am inherently or if that’s who I was raised to be as someone who was raised as a girl. I had friends who would have mental health issues in high school and I was always that companion, that person who would listen. My mother is also a counselor so I think I learned a lot from her about being a listener. When I was at Mizzou I originally wanted to be an investigative journalist. I wanted to be this watchdog journalist who would then break a big story. Then there was this housing collapse at a graduate student complex. I was covering the story as a journalist and I couldn’t sign the petition that was going around because I was covering this story. I realized that the (supposed) objectivity that was required for journalism was not something I was capable of. That’s when I switched over to political science and found my way to women and gender studies through the different activist friends I had. Then I had these different activist experiences with student activist groups at Mizzou. I was always dealing with burnout and being really exhausted, and so I realized I needed to find a new way of doing activism.
Then I had an aunt who was pregnant and she ended up hiring a midwife. She had a home birth; so, I called her and talked to her about her birthing experience for a couple hours. I was so intrigued by home birth and I think I had just seen The Business of Being Born in my intro to women’s and gender studies class with Dr. Julie Elman, so I was making all these connections. Then I talked to some folks for my political science capstone and I was hearing from people like Cora Faith Walker and Pamela Merritt [Reproaction’s co-founder] about the Black maternal and infant health crises. I started to expand my idea of activism to not only include responding to the spectacular state violence but also the everyday state violences. I saw the Black reproductive health crisis as something that particularly affects cis women and other marginalized genders, so it felt like where I needed to be, and I knew that I had talent that would be helpful.
What, if any goals, did you have starting out? Have you achieved those goals or are you hopeful that you will?
When I was graduating from Mizzou, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a doula or a midwife so that was when I had to learn what the difference was. I distinctly remember googling how to become a midwife and finding out that I was going to have to go back and do another bachelor’s in nursing, or that was my understanding at the time, and then make my way to a master’s in nursing midwifery. I never imagined myself as someone who could do well in science. It’s always been a struggle for me, so I counted myself out. I learned about doulas and that doulas have a less medical role than midwives and they’re not clinically responsible for anything going on. A doula won’t be checking the heart rate or checking the cervix. They are there for emotional, physical, and informational support and advocacy. My goal was just to be there for Black families in the birth space and just listen to people. Of course, a major goal was being a buffer against the negative experiences that people would have in the hospital. My goal was to be in the space and provide whatever little comforts that I could. Knowing what I know now, because obviously I had no idea 5 or 6 years ago what all this would entail, my goal has remained the same: to be sure that Black people have support in their reproductive experiences, though my role has changed a bit.
How did the Rooted Doula Collective come about?
We launched in the summer of 2020, so we were seeing specific restrictions in the hospitals, and I get that they were trying to keep people safe by restricting visitors but they made it to where a lot of people were giving birth by themselves. It was terrifying and distressing. I met Phyllis Assan in Arizona’s Birth Workers of Color Collective. We were both kind of shy, the quieter folks but we got along well, so we met at a conference and built our relationship. Then in 2020 when I had kind of had it with this other birth workers organization that I was a part of, and knew in my heart that I wanted to be serving Black people and their families, I wanted to create an organization that served Black people and their families specifically. The only organizations that I knew of at the time that were birth workers of color were Indigenous or Native American. Now I realize there were other organizations but I wasn’t aware of them at the time. We spoke with Lakisa Muhammad, who was a doula for 10 years and then became a midwife, and asked for her blessing and advice for this organization we wanted to start. Her and Michelle Ivette Ponce – who did admin for Birth Workers of Color – advised us to start taking clients but also to hold listening sessions with other Black doulas in Arizona so we could figure out what folks were hoping to get out of a collective. We had these different listening sessions and kind of presented the bare bones and ideas of what we were thinking.
From Rooted’s inception, we have been a full spectrum doula collective. With doulas you’ll see that the work is kind of siloed. The Doula Project in New York came up with this thing called a full spectrum doula and they were specifically referencing the reproductive justice framework and the fact that people will have different reproductive experiences across their lifetime. People will make distinctions between people who have abortions and people who have children, but there are people who have had children and have also had abortions. We’re all going to have different experiences and all of those experiences should be supported. That resonated with me and I saw the importance of bringing abortion into the conversation, so that’s always been at the heart of the collective. We don’t all have mastery with every [pregnancy] outcome but the idea is that we’ll be able to serve everyone as a collective. We were trying to recruit people who were okay with this idea. I have come to learn that most Arizonan’s actually do support abortion care but I wasn’t clear on that at the time. I thought that there would be a lot of stigma and that people wouldn’t be receptive to this idea. A Black pro-abortion doula collective certainly makes some people uncomfortable, but we’ve also received a lot of encouragement and support. We’re coming upon our 3rd year anniversary and we have 8 doulas: 3 are in Tucson and 5 are in Phoenix. Some of us are very active, doing birth work full-time. Others are a little burnt out on birth work, so they’ve been doing other stuff. For us, one of the biggest things is making sure people are compensated for their labor. All of us have done a lot of volunteer work over the course of our lives, and we don’t want Black folks to work for free, and that’s kind of our philosophy.
How do you continue to stay engaged in your work and not give into feelings of despair?
That’s the question of my lifetime. Despair is something I’m always battling. Here’s the thing, I don’t run from despair anymore. I try to let myself feel it. I think it’s a valid feeling to have. I think despair is information, so I try to sit with it and listen to what it’s telling me. In the last couple weeks, I’ve had this breakthrough. I can only control what I’m doing each individual day, so I’ve just had to focus on what’s within my control. That’s looked like practicing digital minimalism, staying off social media, and doing a ton of self-care. This might be a Virgo thing, but I track my time pretty consciously. I spend 50% of my time taking care of myself. I like eating, cleaning up my apartment or spending time with my puppy dog. I also have become a lot clearer on if I don’t want to do something and try to shift and find the thing that feels good to do. I know that activism isn’t always going to feel good but it doesn’t have to be harmful. It can be pleasurable, and so I try to find pleasure in the thing, which is usually relationship building. I find hope in my relationships.
What’s the one thing, a trait, a characteristic, a way to process information that you think every doula should have about them? Where should their hearts be?
Any doula has to be operating in the heart space, from a place of love. I’m talking bell hooks kind of love, Martin Luther King (Jr.) radical justice love. What that looks like to me is humility, the willingness to listen. If you cannot listen, if you cannot be still, if you cannot let something be about another person and what they’re feeling or experiencing then you’re not going to be equipped to be a doula. You have to be able to hold space. You have to be humble.
How can people support you and your work?
Honestly, help The Rooted Doula Collective call-in funding. We need money to pay our doulas so that they can love on Black families. Many of them are already doing this work but they’re at poverty wages dealing with housing and food insecurity and we don’t want our clients to have to pay for that out of their pockets all the way. If that’s sending us funding opportunities to apply for, if that’s connecting us. You can find me on LinkedIn and we can connect. That’s really what I’m calling in for us right now. We have a link on our website for donations. People might have connections to philanthropic organizations that might be helpful.
Raised in the Mojave Desert, Kierra Otis is the oldest of five siblings, lifelong student, and full-spectrum doula. She is passionate about lovin’ on Black communities through doula work, teaching, writing, and more. Kierra has been a doula for over five years and co-created the Rooted Doula Collective in 2020. Her formal doula training is with Sumi Franklin and her informal training came from her mother, aunties, and grandmother. Kierra, a doctoral candidate in Gender Studies at Arizona State University’s School of Social Transformation, is currently completing their dissertation concerning the resurgence of Black birth workers working in the spirit of Granny Midwives. They also serve as a Birth Equity Research Scholar with The Collaborative. Before moving to Arizona, Kierra attended the University of Missouri-Columbia and received their bachelor’s in political science and Women and Gender Studies in 2017. When Kierra isn’t working, you can catch them napping with their dog, eating something sweet, watching movies, or reading fantasy and science fiction.