Breastfeeding and parallel advocacy

One of the first questions I typically ask Our Milky Way interviewees is, “How did you become interested in maternal child health.” It helps me get a feel for where they are coming from, and sometimes I’m surprised with a funny story or two. My recent interviewee Isaac Evans-Frantz, CLC, a Family Planning Health Educator, surprised me in a different way.

Left to right: Isaac Evans-Frantz, Adjoa S. Tetteh and Dorothy Ngoma, all CLCs, at an Oxfam Action Corps NYC event where Dorothy discussed her work as national coordinator for the presidential initiative on safe motherhood in Malawi.
Left to right: Isaac Evans-Frantz, Adjoa S. Tetteh and Dorothy Ngoma, all CLCs, at an Oxfam Action Corps NYC event where Dorothy discussed her work as national coordinator for the presidential initiative on safe motherhood in Malawi.

When I asked where his interest comes from he answered, “I first became interested when I was born, I suppose, as are most infants.”

Of course! Certainly not to denounce previous interviewees’ answers, but I can’t believe I hadn’t heard this before.

Evans-Frantz never seemed to lose touch of our mammalian connection to the breast.

In a grade school art class, he sculpted a woman with one breast, reminiscent of his childhood friend’s mother’s mastectomy.

“My homeroom teacher pulled me aside and scolded me for how inappropriate it was,” Evans-Frantz says. “She compared it to her having made a sculpture with a penis, and she said she was offended and that I should be embarrassed. I really wasn’t.”

Years later, Evans-Franz attended a Breast Fest in his town where men and women paraded down Main Street topless in a showing of gender equality.

As a teenager, Evans-Franz provided sexual health education through his high school’s gay/straight alliance. Here he advocated for Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transexual Queer (LGBTQ) youth. Later, Gov. Howard Dean, MD appointed Evans-Frantz to the Vermont State Board of Education.

“I think there are shared roots to the challenges people face breastfeeding and the challenges LGBTQ folks face,” Evans-Frantz explains. “They are different struggles…but I think shame and fear around sex limits– and in some cases ultimately ends–people’s lives. This is all to say that I think struggles are parallel, or maybe rather all bound up together.”

This interconnectedness of issues that needs fixing is not limited to breastfeeding; human rights, economic and social rights and justice organizations need to work together to make sure our society is doing everything we can to meet people’s needs, he continues.

In another venture of parallel advocacy, Evans-Frantz began organizing with Oxfam Action Corps NYC, a group working to end hunger, about six years ago.

“We have a rights-based approach, and believe that the question is one of power inequity, not insufficiency,” he says. “I am excited to see a bridge in the gap between breastfeeding advocates and anti-hunger advocates. We could all accomplish a lot if we worked closely together.”

Evans-Frantz comments that one of the biggest challenges breastfeeding moms are up against is capitalism. He reminds us that the poorer you are, the more likely you are to feed your baby artificially.

“The formula industry seems to be exacerbating inequalities that already exist,” he says.

Evans-Frantz also currently works as a bilingual health educator in Northern Manhattan. A few months ago, he became a Certified Lactation Counselor (CLC) through the Academy of Lactation Policy and Practice.

“One of the highlights [of the class] was hearing the stories of the presenters,” Evans-Frantz remembers. “They were able to make the information come to life with their stories. They have a passion for breastfeeding and supporting women.”

He says he appreciated the instructors’ emphasis on respect for mothers.

“Our purpose is not to shame people if they are not breastfeeding,” he continues.

Evans-Frantz works in a Federally Qualified Health Center where he sees mostly poor, working-class African-American, Dominican and Mexican patients.

Interested in the racial disparities in breastfeeding, Evans-Frantz makes a thought-provoking observation about white domination patterns: During his CLC training, he noticed that although white participants were a minority, they dominated the discussions and asked the most questions.

This is something we need to address when we are talking about disparities, power dynamics, and relationships with our own teams and staff, Evans-Frantz continues.

One of Evans-Frantz’s CLC instructors suggested that breastfeeding disparities are a product of slavery.

“Black women were forced to be wet nurses for the children of plantation owners,” he explains. “There are historical memories of having to have the burden rather than enjoying the connection and the good things associated with breastfeeding.”

Evans-Frantz believes that it is important to have more discussions about where the disparities come from. There is no technical solution, he says.

“Sometimes we rush into solutions before we properly address the problem.”

A few months ago, Evans-Frantz and his colleagues provided training on anti-racism for their fellow reproductive health educators.

“It is so difficult for folks to look at racism!” he recalls. “I think that taking a look at the way racism affects our lives, and the ways in which we perpetuate racism, could be key to helping remove the particularly harsh obstacles for women of color to breastfeed in New York.”

In Lactation Consultants Need to Diversify Yesterday, Kimberly Seals-Allers proposes the importance of culturally competent lactation professionals.

“Can white certified lactation consultants help bridge the racial gap in breastfeeding rates? Perhaps, with a lot of cultural training. Could more African American consultants get us there much faster? Absolutely.” she writes.

Evans-Frantz recalls a conversation he had with a colleague regarding cultural competency.

“Even the term is problematic because it assumes that if you go to enough trainings, you speak enough languages, make enough posters, you’re suddenly ‘culturally competent.’”

“Maybe I’m never going to be culturally competent,” Evans-Frantz admits. “I’m never going to know what it feels like to be a Latina woman.”

The idea of cultural competency is too often looked at on an individual level. Are you culturally competent or incompetent? But Evans-Frantz says this is just one frame we can look through. He says it’s important to look at the whole system and people’s experiences.

For instance “When you go to the hospital, are you sent to the basement staffed by interns? Or are you sent to the clinic that has faculty?” he asks these questions looking beyond an individual’s control.

In a different light, Evans-Frantz recalls breastfeeding success stories coming out of his clinic.

An African-American woman wished to breastfeed her baby, but didn’t know anyone who had done so. She was paired with an African immigrant who breastfed all of her children with no issues. The African immigrant woman became a peer counselor to the other woman and helped her to breastfeed her child successfully. She helped this mother develop her self-confidence, and the mothers developed an amazing relationship.

Another time, Evans-Frantz met an African-American expecting father who was excited and supportive of breastfeeding. His partner was less sure about how she would feed her baby.  They attended a breastfeeding class together and since then, the mother plans to and is excited about breastfeeding.

“Both of these [stories] show the importance of letting people know that they aren’t doing this alone,” Evans-Frantz comments. “Having someone for support makes such a huge difference.”

Evans-Frantz is particularly excited about a program called the Brooklyn Breastfeeding Empowerment Zone Project. The program works to increase breastfeeding rates by establishing breastfeeding-friendly business, working with religious community leaders to advocate for breastfeeding moms and babies, and working with other community members to inspire, create, and support solutions for breastfeeding families.

Currently, Evans-Frantz is working on his Masters in Public Administration at Baruch College. Last semester, he wrote a paper on the 1994 Right to Breastfeed New York State Civil Rights Law which was published on Our Milky Way last week.

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