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Dr. Julia Chinyere Oparah changes communities through birth justice research

Dr. Oparah is working to change the way women are treated during pregnancy. (Annie Clark)
Dr. Oparah is working to change the way women are treated during pregnancy. (Annie Clark)

In person, Dr. Julia Chinyere-Oparah is extraordinarily poised and self-assured, with a relaxed demeanor and a calming presence — undoubtedly the type of person you would want by your side in a crisis. She seems to have been wired to do the kind of work that has been changing cross-continental communities for decades.

Oparah has dedicated much of her career to changing the lives of marginalized communities by combining her interests in academic research and social justice activism. Her experience at Mills includes serving as the head of the ethnic studies department and recently as associate provost.

She seems to have found that optimal combination of working in a field she not only loves, but can genuinely say has a lasting positive impact on her community.

Originally from the United Kingdom, Oparah completed her bachelor’s degree in modern and medieval languages at the University of Cambridge and later took a job as a community developer, where she helped mobilize marginalized communities to become involved in local policy decisions affecting their lives.

“If there was going to be a new rec center built in their community, I would work with young people and young people of color to figure out how they could influence the decision makers [who] were building that rec center to make sure that it met their needs,” Oparah said.

Oparah later became the director of the Osaba Women’s Center, working with low-income Black women in job training and educational programs, as well as organizing child care for mothers. Soon, she realized that she was doing too much of what she calls “firefighting” — solving crises as they occurred moment-to-moment, rather than changing systemic problems that led to the suppression of marginalized voices in public discourse. Viewing academia as a tool to affect more lasting change, Oparah returned to school to receive a master’s degree in race and ethnic studies and a doctorate in sociology from the University of Warwick.

Since coming to Mills in 1997, Oparah has consistently worked to uphold the College’s mission of providing an equitable and welcoming environment for students of diverse backgrounds. She helped develop the queer studies minor, in partnership with her colleague Dr. David Donahue of the education department, primarily in response to student demand.

Oparah and Donahue conducted research to assuage some doubts among the Board of Trustees about the legitimacy of the queer studies discipline.

“We thought it was important to do the research … and we wrote a proposal that went to the Board of Trustees so that they could learn about it, and I think that was a really good process,” Oparah said.

Recently, Oparah has been particularly invested in a grassroots research project called Black Women Birthing Justice, which aims to investigate trends of medicalization and mistreatment of Black women during the child-birthing process.

“Birth justice” refers to the efforts to ensure that those who experience pregnancy, whether cisgender or transgender, receive ethical care, focusing in particular on the ways in which women of color and trans people are often silenced and ignored in decisions affecting their own pregnancies.

Oparah first became aware of these difficulties during her own pregnancy.

“The vast majority of pregnant individuals … are able to go through [the process] with support systems — emotional and social — as well as having regular checks, but it’s not a medical emergency. I felt as if I were going into a medical system to solve a medical problem,” she said.

She says that her desire to remain with her child for the night after giving birth, as well as her preference for a natural childbirth, were immediately dismissed by her doctor. After speaking with a friend, also a Black woman who felt that she was inappropriately medicalized during her pregnancy, Oparah realized the problem may be more widespread.

“We were talking to each other and said ‘There’s something wrong with this picture.’ We’re both very empowered typically, but in those critical moments we were disempowered,” Oparah said.

Oparah is quick to emphasize that she views herself as a catalyst rather than a solitary actor — that lasting social change happens with groups of committed people. The principal model of the Black Women’s Birthing Justice project is a form of community activism called research justice.

“The idea is that community members who have been directly impacted by an issue are the best equipped to be researchers on that issue,” Oparah said.

During the research process, Oparah and her colleagues (including youth activists, reproductive rights activists and Doulas, or midwives) collected over one hundred stories from Black women who experienced trauma and injustice during childbirth. These stories are documented in the new book Birth Justice: Black Women, Pregnancy, and Childbirth, edited by Oparah and her colleague Alicia D. Bonaparte.

A few of Oparah’s students also became involved. Sophia Perez, a 2015 graduate of the ethnic studies department at Mills, even became a certified Doula while working on the project.

“I feel very privileged to have done work with such a revolutionary activist researcher,” Perez said in an email.

Perez went on to describe Oparah’s greatest contribution to Mills as “her ability to hold space for tender and difficult moments.” Perez continued, “to me, Dr. Oparah is Mills.”

Professor since 1997, Dr. Oparah helped found the queer studies program with David Donahue here at Mills. (Campanil Archives)
Professor since 1997, Dr. Oparah helped found the queer studies program with David Donahue here at Mills. (Campanil Archives)