“We are one of just 13 industrialized countries with a rising maternal mortality rate” – Christy Turlington Burns on Fighting for Healthy Mothers

I’d open this post by saying “Christy Turlington Burns works tirelessly to improve maternal health” except Christy doesn’t seem even recognize the concept of ‘tired.’ Attribute this energy to her yoga and running dedication, or maybe the very personal experiences in Christy’s own pregnancy which caused her to start Every Mother Counts, but either way her internal combustion engine breaks the rules of physics. And it grabs everyone she meets, including me when I first learned about EMC and have been an enthusiastic supporter since, helping them connect with theSkimm and other startups which can spread their message. So it thrills me to share a bit more about Christy, EMC and being a public personality here in Five Questions.

Citizens of Humanity 2013

Christy doing work in Haiti

Hunter Walk: Every Mother Counts is a nonprofit focused on supporting maternal health. It’s difficult to imagine that mission would be controversial but we seem to be in an era where everything becomes politicized—including women’s bodies. How has this reality impacted the type of community building you do—does it make you more careful? More fearless?

Christy Turlington Burns: Our focus from the start has been to educate the public with the facts. Hundreds of thousands of girls and women die every year from largely preventable complications related to pregnancy and childbirth. Every Mother Counts raises awareness of the issue and highlights the challenges and the solutions, of which there are many. Our goal is to ensure that every woman has the same chance to survive pregnancy and childbirth and thrive in motherhood.

The best way to achieve this is to have access to evidence-based information, good nutrition and quality health care well before pregnancy and throughout one’s reproductive years. There will always be those who want to hijack the conversation and put the value of individual lives at odds with one another when in fact, you cannot have one without the other. It can be frustrating and disheartening to see the constant efforts to lessen what we know to be essential and a human right, but that makes the work we support all the more urgent. We have to stick with the facts and work together to create change.

HW: When I first learned of EMC my assumption was that your work was outside the US, erroneously believing maternal health is a “solved problem” here in the US. In reality, there are still many challenges for women in our country too. As you built EMC did the scale of the challenges domestically surprise you? Has the situation in the US gotten better?

CTB: I became aware of the global problem after giving birth in the US and experiencing a childbirth complication personally in 2003. I soon learned that women around the world with the same complication die because they don’t have access to care. The majority of these deaths occur in the developing world but the US is ranked 46th in the world. That was almost more shocking to discover. Every day 2-3 American women die bringing life into the world and every 10 minutes a woman in the US suffers a near miss, a near-death experience from a complication during pregnancy or delivery. That’s what happened to me and to more women than people realize. We are also one of just 13 industrialized countries with a rising maternal mortality rate, which has been steadily climbing for the past two decades. This is unacceptable and should shock people. And it is only going to get worse with the decreases in funding for women’s health and cuts to Medicaid that have been proposed.

The future of Georgia's Obstetric workforce

The United States is going backwards and we must do something about it. Perhaps most troubling is the outrageous health disparities that exist for women of color in this country. Black women are as much as 4 times more likely to suffer or die from a pregnancy or childbirth related complication as white women. In some states such as Georgia, the number of counties without a single obstetric provider is staggering (“In much of rural Georgia, maternal healthcare is disappearing”). We created a film series in late 2015 to examine the contributing factors impacting American women called Giving Birth In America and to inform people about the maternal crisis here at home heading into an election year. The first three short films highlighted three states (New York, Florida, and Montana) and we will be releasing our 4th installment profiling Louisiana on CNN.com in November.

HW: EMC has been pretty tech-forward, such as your 2015 participation in Apple’s Watch launch and use of social media. Any of this attributable to your upbringing in the Bay Area? Did you feel connected to Silicon Valley back then?

CTB: Being a part of the Apple Watch launch was really exciting. We have a very active community of supporters and running distance races such as a marathon or half marathon has become one of the ways we communicate how far some women have to walk when in need of healthcare. There are many common metaphors between childbirth and marathons that have proven effective in helping to convey what women go through to bring life into the world, and what is needed to get her to the finish line in good health.

Apple helped us to amplify our message by sharing their vast platform with Every Mother Counts. I grew up in the East Bay but left for NYC in 1987 and Silicon Valley was just starting to percolate. I still feel like a California girl at heart and come back as often as I can. My mother and one of my sisters are there and a few of our board members and many partners are based in the Bay Area. As a result, we have been cultivating a community on the West Coast through events and races and we are grateful to the Silicon Valley community for being so supportive and active on our behalf.

HW: You’ve been a recognizable, public figure since your teens. There’s always an opportunity to trade off your privacy, and that of your family, to promote the causes you care about, such as EMC. How have you decided where to draw the line on a public life versus a private one? And did that change over time?

CTB: I was barely a teenager when I started working as a model. I did not think that it would take me half of the places I have been since those early years when I would take the bus to Bart and commute into the city after school to work for Emporium Capwell or Macy’s. Modeling was hardly a childhood dream or destination in my mind, but it did offer me opportunity and life experiences beyond my wildest imagination. But I always saw myself doing more, making an impact of some kind. I have never sought the trappings that come with living a public life and I feel blessed to have had the option of leading a very private one.

My public persona has been useful for getting Every Mother Counts’ mission out in a broader way, but I am conscious of taking the focus off of me and my story and putting it on the challenges and solutions of a tractable problem. I also want my children to have the freedom to choose for themselves what lives they want to lead so their privacy is important for me to protect as their mother. I talk about them often in the work that I do, why it is so important and how it could impact their futures. Because my daughter’s birth is what put me on this path, our birth story is shared a lot, but I am careful not to exploit her and hope that she learns a bit of self-control as a result. We are living in a very strange time where we all know too much about everyone and it is hard to turn that around. I value discretion and anonymity immensely.  

HW: You’re a dedicated practitioner of yoga. Also a runner who has done multiple marathons. Do you listen to music or podcasts when you run (if so, what) or are you more the type who enjoys the silence and nature?

CTB: I am lucky to have discovered the benefits of yoga early in life and have had a practice since I was 18. I studied comparative religion and eastern philosophy at NYU’s Gallatin School and that deepened my practice substantially. I wrote a book called Living Yoga: Creating a life Practice (Hyperion 2002) and continue to thrive on all that the philosophy of yoga has to offer at every stage of my life. Before yoga, I was an active child and teenager and played soccer and softball, ran, skied and rode horses. Growing up in the Bay Area was great for all that.

I returned to running in 2011 when I trained for my first NYC marathon with Team EMC. Since then, I have run six full marathons and 10 half marathons and am training now for my 7th, the Berlin Marathon this fall. I have found yoga and meditation in running and so really enjoy the solitude and peace of no music. There is a lot of stimulation in the races themselves and live music along most marathon courses. It is a fun change from my day-to-day runs, but I prefer to go inward. Our running community is inspiring and we have had almost 80,000 people run on behalf of our organization. We still have a few spots left for the iconic New York Marathon on November 5th so email teamemc@everymothercounts.org to join us!   

Thanks Christy! You can follow Christy and Every Mother Counts on Twitter, and donate to their work here