To read about the rest of the Culture Shifters, including TV writer Cord Jefferson and activist Mariah Moore, return to the full list here.
For Erica Chidi, knowledge is power. Or, to be more precise, understanding is power.
In the course of a career largely devoted to women’s sexual and reproductive health care, Chidi has been a health educator, a doula, an advocate for reproductive justice for Black and incarcerated women and a startup founder.
One thing has been consistent, through a litany of roles: She wants women — especially Black women — to understand their bodies, and to be understood.
“Sexual reproductive health is the great equalizer,” Chidi told HuffPost in a Zoom conversation. She recalled her time as a doula in San Francisco, where she worked with well-off women and couples in the tech field in private practice and also provided those services to incarcerated women as a founding member of the Birth Justice Project. “Everyone, regardless of whether you are super wealthy, or you are not wealthy and in a super challenging situation, everybody wants the same information. Everyone wants to know how to protect themselves and take care of their bodies.”
In 2016, Chidi and co-founder Quinn Lundberg launched the wellness company Loom with a cozy, hip brick-and-mortar space in Los Angeles that offered workshops on sex and reproductive health. For the past year, she has been working on a new digital expansion for Loom. The platform, which launches this spring, aims to make the same kind of classes and community found at the LA storefront accessible to a whole new swath of people.
“I knew firsthand through my one-on-one health coaching and doula work over the years that giving someone the education about what they’re going through and what they’re about to experience can change outcomes for sure,” Chidi said. “But even if the outcome remains exactly the same, their experience is better because they have this awareness.”
The child of a doctor and a nurse, both from Nigeria, Chidi was born in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, and moved frequently as a child. When she was 10, after her parents divorced, she joined her father in South Africa, where she spent her adolescence.
“Moving around just gave me a lot of insights on the human condition, and it gave me a lot of empathy for people in different environments, especially going from the States to South Africa, maybe four years or so after apartheid ended,” she said. “I’ve always had a very deep curiosity about other people, and being a woman, I always had a deep curiosity about the other women in my life.”
Chidi was an early and voracious reader, and often joined her father, an endocrinologist and infectious disease specialist, on his hospital rounds. “I like to deeply understand things,” she said. “Coming from two parents in health care, I’ve always been really interested in what’s going on in my body.” Immersed in the health care world from a young age, she wasn’t only drinking in what she saw on those hospital visits, but filling her spare time reading medical encyclopedias.
Teaching women about their bodies is a form of caregiving that brings together her passions for connection and for deep learning. “It’s such an innate thing,” she explained. “It’s an innate desire to support people in a way that will help them support themselves, like, you know, giving them a fishing pole to go catch their own fish.”
Chidi believes that having a healthy and empowered sexual and reproductive life requires having all the information you need, but it also relies on being listened to, supported, and cared for as a whole person.
“In the biomedical model, there isn’t a lot of time for access between a patient and their provider,” she pointed out. As she found in her work as a doula, in the context of pregnancy and childbirth, “that continuous support creates safety, and it helps a pregnant person feel like they are not alone.”
Not everyone has access to that support under the current health care system. Loom looks to ameliorate that gap by helping women learn about and advocate for the care they need. “For me the purpose of Loom is to really be that partner for women through their sexual and reproductive health experiences and to deliver education in a compassionate, human-centered and strategic way,” she explained. “When someone takes our class, I’d want them to be able to ask more clearly for what they need and feel like they are a full person because they now have maybe some missing information that was making it hard for them to feel completely present in their own lives or in their own experience.”
This is a complicated but urgent proposition in a broken American health care system — particularly for Black women, who are three times as likely to die of pregnancy-related causes as white women. Everyone wants the same knowledge and understanding around their sexual and reproductive health care needs — but not everyone lives with the weight of medical and environmental racism, or faces the same barriers to quality care.
In addition to expanding Loom’s resources to a more widely accessible, online platform, Chidi has been exploring more targeted ways to make pregnancy and childbirth safer for Black women. Along with Stanford professor Dr. Erica Cahill, she published a guide to Black maternal care in The New York Times, meant to be used by both patients and caregivers to mitigate unconscious bias and focus on the complications Black pregnant people face at higher rates (like pre-eclampsia). Now, she said, they’re working on research to improve the guide before, eventually, trying to test it in clinical settings.
“It’s never really left my mind that I can’t build a business or a company or shift culture without bringing my people along and also trying to protect them at the same time,” Chidi said. “I’ve always been here for Black women and I will always be here.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.