Supermodel, entrepreneur and founder of maternal health non-profit Every Mother Counts, Christy Turlington Burns, on instigating social change, making a lasting impact and her greatest inspirations.
‘There’s solidarity in these experiences and that’s really powerful.’
Her name may be known the world over as one of the most important supermodels of the 1990s, making history on the catwalks of Versace, Calvin Klein and Jean Paul Gaultier, but Christy Turlington Burns’ (she/her) role as founder of the maternal health non-profit Every Mother Counts is arguably her most important to date.
She founded the organization in 2010 following the release of her documentary No Woman, No Cry, a study of the harrowing situations and statistics that result in maternal fatalities after her own traumatic birth experience. Twelve years on and operating in the United States, Guatemala, Haiti, Tanzania, India and Bangladesh, Every Mother Counts’ main objective is the same as it ever was: to ensure equal access to safe and respectful maternity care to everyone, everywhere.
She shares with COS her goals for the organization, her greatest inspirations and why she believes that when it comes to women being in a positive and supportive place it’s ‘work and sustainable change [that] will take us all the way.’
ON MAKING AN IMPACT
‘When I started this work and made my first documentary film, No Woman, No Cry, no one was talking about the maternal health crisis in the United States. The film was the first to put faces to the global statistics as maternal health was beginning to be added to development agendas. The focus of my advocacy work has always been to raise awareness, educate the public about safe birthing options, amplify women’s stories and invest in community-led programs around the world. I have learned that our stories matter and that sharing a birth story or parenting story with others helps to inform and prepare others. There’s solidarity in these experiences and that’s really powerful.’
ON INSTIGATING SOCIETAL CHANGE
‘In order to ensure healthy birth outcomes and positive birth experiences, we need to make sure our health systems are functioning; that providers of maternity care are equipped and continuously trained to compassionately care for patients [and that] birthing people should be at their optimum health before entering this phase of their lives. Individuals should have access to health providers before, during and after delivering. While there is still so much work to be done, there’s been progress as well. There’s more media coverage so there’s more awareness about health disparities and more legislation to address the inequities and root causes of them.’
ON THE IMPACT THE PANDEMIC HAS HAD ON MATERNAL HEALTH
‘We were as concerned as anyone could be from the early onslaught of Covid-19 [up until] now, [especially] given the populations we have always been dedicated to serving are the most marginalized. In those early days, we mobilized by leaning into the needs of our community-based partnered on the ground who are true experts and health-service providers in their communities. We also joined a Covid-19 maternity care taskforce in New York State, helped to open a free-standing birth center in Manhattan when women and families were fearful of hospitals.
As always, when emergencies or disaster strike, women and children are impacted. Especially those who have been historically marginalized. The lack of gender equity generally continues to impact women’s lives and poor maternal health outcomes are a key indicator of this. The pandemic highlighted that we are all vulnerable and that access to healthcare and safety is paramount for all. We are dedicated to making pregnancy and childbirth safe and respectful for every mother, every birthing person, everywhere.’
‘When I look back at my first career, what I am most proud of are the relationships I have built.’
ON HER GREATEST INSPIRATIONS
‘I would have to say the matriarchs in my family are my greatest inspirations in life. My mother immigrated to Los Angeles from El Salvador in the 1940s as a young girl with her mother and younger brother. My grandmother had experienced the tragic loss of her youngest child and was ready to move on and start a new life. That choice afforded me countless opportunities in my own life and still does. I am forever grateful. In work, I am inspired daily working alongside women who are passionate about equitable access to maternal health care and committed to achieving birth justice for all. I am proud to know them and to stand by them with shared values and goals.’
ON BRIDGING THE PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE
‘This year, on April 5, The Dial Press and Random House will publish Arrival Stories, a revealing collection of more than 20 original essays about motherhood, curated by Amy Schumer and myself. It includes an incredible group of women, from actors and athletes to CEOs, writers, small business owners, birth workers, physicians, and activists; all sharing to their experiences of becoming mothers.’
When I look back at my first career, what I am most proud of are the relationships I have built over many years. [At the moment] I’m working with my old friends Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista and Cindy Crawford on a documentary film project about our era in fashion with Imagine Films and Apple. [I’m] not certain of the exact timing, but it’s well underway now. I have taken that experience into every other aspect of my life and into my work leading a non-profit now. I am 100% dedicated to Every Mother Counts and see myself doing this work for as long as it takes.’
ON KEEPING A HEALTHY BODY AND MIND
‘I have been practicing yoga since I was 18. I practice as often as six times a week these days, I also have come to love distance running since running for the Every Mother Counts team back in 2011. I have completed nine full marathons and many more half marathons since, all to raise awareness and funds.’
ON HER PERSONAL STYLE EVOLUTION
‘I have always been a sort of less-is-more-person when it comes to fashion. I like well-made practical clothing that become classics. I have saved a lot [of keepsakes from my modelling career] but it’s not easily accessible. I guess I think of all that stuff as a bit of a time capsule.’
‘The matriarchs in my family are my greatest inspirations in life.’
What is the last book you read and loved – and why?
‘The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation by Anna Malaika Tubbs.’
How would you describe your own style?
What is the last thing that made you smile?
‘My dogs, who sit at my feet all day when I am working or practicing yoga.’
Words by Scarlett Conlon
Photography by Tim Elkaïm
Styling by Clare Richardson
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