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. 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 Sapphire Garcia-Lies, the Founder and Executive Director of Kansas Birth Justice Society. Responses were provided during a one-on-one call, and this transcription was reviewed and approved by the interviewee prior to publication.
First, can you discuss how you came into your work as a doula?
Like a lot of doulas, my personal story is what brought me to doula work. In 2013, I was a college student expecting my second baby. At the very end of my pregnancy the doctor didn’t listen to me when I told him she wasn’t moving as much, and because he didn’t listen, there was no follow-up done. By the time I finally worked up the courage to get a second opinion, there was no heartbeat. So, at 38 and a half weeks pregnant, I had to give birth to my baby who had passed away, and that experience of being unheard really galvanized me and made me want to fight for other mothers. After that, I worked within the system for a couple years and discovered that the work I wanted and needed to do was very much outside of the system.
How did this experience help you build your philosophy and practices?
It defined my philosophy and practices, because I knew first-hand what it felt like to not be heard, what it felt like to be victimized by a system that I had trusted. All of what I do is rooted in that experience. In my other experience, in 2016, after I had been a childbirth educator for a couple years, with the birth of my last child, I almost died during labor. I had a life-threatening condition, and again, it was something that should have been detected but because of medical negligence, because of me being undervalued as a person, it was not, and I could have lost my life. I feel like everything about this journey has shaped my perspective and made me want to bring dignity back to birth care, and respect, and a higher standard in quality of birth care.
Do you feel like your identities better positioned you to evaluate what was happening to you?
I do. I believe that was the start of realizing what this issue meant to our community. I come from a huge Black and brown family, and after my daughter passed away, all of my people came out of the woodwork, and they said, “Sapphire, me too.” Maybe their baby didn’t die, maybe their baby almost died, maybe they almost died, and it opened my eyes to this issue. I never knew about the racial disparities before. I never really thought about reproductive justice as a thing that our community should be concerned about.
What is Kansas Birth Justice Society’s mission and vision?
We have a big vision and big goals. Our vision, we want multi-generational change. We want birth equity for our communities, for mothers and babies. Not just right now – we don’t want to just be the Band-Aid – we want to change the game. We want more birth workers of color. We want a return to community-centered care like our communities had 100 years ago before the Sheppard-Towner Act was passed. We want services that are just for us.
One of the first things that we rolled out was our public programs. We have our own lactation clinics, specifically Black and brown parents. We have our own meditation room that is just for us. Our entire organization, top to bottom, is “by us, for us.” We are a Black and brown-led organization, and one thing that I really love is that it’s multi-generational through our leadership. The folks in our community who have been doing this work for years, who would like to see this change, are passing the baton to us younger folks. We’re all working in tandem to make this happen, so that’s our vision.
Our mission is not to reduce the disparities, but to eliminate them, because we know that we can do that. We know that we can do better. We’re so tired of lip service and we’re not going to stand for it. This is our community. We are the ones who are the most invested in it. These are our babies and our sisters, our folks in our community that we’re talking about. We’re really passionate about eliminating disparities and creating an environment where we can actually have true reproductive justice. That’s something we need to claim for our communities. We can eliminate these disparities. I don’t think it’s ever possible to eliminate fetal death completely. Biology is not fair. Biology is cruel. Things happen. But there’s no reason we should be dying at higher rates than our white neighbors.
What does the Kansas Birth Justice Society do and what is your role there?
I was the founder of the organization, and right now I’m the Executive Director. What we do on our 501(c)(3) side is have all of our public facing services. We’re a one-stop shop for Black and brown families in this community. Right now, we have a birth justice center in Wichita, which is the most populated city in the state. We have a meditation room, lactation room, a parent circle room where we do gatherings, we do all sorts of workshops, and we even do mutual aid. So, things like food, baby items, and maternity items that any Black or brown parent or caretaker of any Black or brown child can come and get what they need, no questions asked. We don’t believe in making people jump through hoops. This is a systemic issue. This is not an issue of personal irresponsibility that other organizations would have us believe. We know that racism is a systemic issue, so we don’t believe in punishing people for not having the resources they need. We don’t believe in making people prove that they need it. We just want to be able to help them get the things they need. To us, being able to take care of our community is the change we need.
We have a 501(c)(4) wing of our organization as well. It’s called Kansas Birth Justice Action, and that is our policy work. Part of the work that we do is acknowledging that just treating the symptoms – the downstream effects of the racism and what we see in our community – is not enough. We have to get to the heart of why this is happening. It’s been really important to our work from the very beginning of our organization to tackle policy issues, have a voice in our state house, and nationally, where our voices have not always been championed before. We want the powers that be to not only listen to us, not only understand that this stops now, but to give us the resources that we need to make this stop.
How has the community responded to Kansas Birth Justice Society’s work?
They have shown up and they have shown out for us. I don’t think a week has gone by, or even a full day, where someone from our community hasn’t shown up with a box of diapers, or some formula. I think it’s a special thing to see that level of support. When they are supporting this work, they are supporting their own community. The community has responded in kind, with overflowing abundance, and I think that’s very telling that this work has been needed for so long.
Activism or advocacy of any kind is taxing, so it’s common for people to look at me in awe, but I rarely feel like I’m doing enough. Is this feeling something you share? If so, how do you overcome this feeling?
That’s something I feel every single day when I wake up. It’s like this weight settles on your chest and it seems insurmountable. We have a whole system to change out here. It’s not going to happen overnight, but I have to let myself, my heart, and my passion continue to believe and know that I’m going to do everything that I can in this day. In this 24-hour time span, I’m going to do everything in my power to move the needle. Sometimes, that has to be enough. It has to just be day-by-day. If you pick the right mission, you’re always going to have that feeling, because we’re talking about societal change. We’re talking about revolutionary change. To me, that is the meaningful work. It’s that work that can’t be done overnight, but you can’t lose passion, you can’t burn out. The bigger your work, the bigger your fire has to be for the work, so that you keep focused and have enough strength to keep going. It’s a difficult balance but that’s why it’s so important that you have people speaking life around you, people moving in solidarity with you, people who are going to show up for you and with you.
Asking activists what they do for self-care has become a staple question, so I have to pose this question to you: How are you taking care of yourself?
It comes down to self-preservation sometimes and for me that’s celebrating the wins. So, every time one of our babies is born healthy, every time one of our mothers gets through the process of childbirth and that first year she’s not only healthy through childbirth but she’s thriving, we celebrate it. We celebrate it not only as a team; I celebrate it personally. Every time I get a thank-you card or letter in the mail – which is often – from a mother or a family member of somebody who came in I keep them by my desk and read them when I’m feeling discouraged. It reminds me that even though I can’t completely overturn the table overnight that I’m chipping away at these layers of oppression. Liberation work is going to be generations long. I truly believe we can get there but we have to be able to train ourselves to take breaks. Nobody, not even people who run marathons, can do it straight through without having a break. Giving ourselves permission to take breaks is what I’ve done. I get my nails done when I’m not on call and I know that’s different for everyone. I believe that rest is revolutionary and we have to be able to claim that space and time for ourselves. I want that for my team so it’s important for me to set that example with all the self-care that I do.
How can folks best support your work from wherever they may be?
Sapphire Garcia-Lies is an activist and nonprofit leader focused on fighting for reproductive rights and racial equity in perinatal health. Her work is focused on unabashed truth-telling, calling for accountability within systems, and kindling community change from the grassroots level. In 2020, she founded Kansas Birth Justice, a nonprofit focused on policy change and direct community support to catalyze reproductive justice and perinatal health equity in Kansas. Sapphire takes pride in her strong community ties and in the hundreds of thriving babies she has helped welcome into the world as a community-based birth worker. Sapphire is also a member of Reproaction’s Advisory Council.