Interview: Bringing a Decolonized Approach to Menstrual Health
An interview between Minhtam Tran and Madeleine Shaw about honest intentions, open conversations and making space for perspectives worth sharing.
Following the increased global engagement with the #BlackLivesMatter movement in summer 2020 in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, we at the Madami / MH Hub began to think about how we could use our platform as an international non-profit focused on the global menstrual health community, to address racial inequity and colonization within the mainstream menstrual health movement. This led us to seek out conversations with women* of colour and BIPOC-identifying individuals in the menstrual health space, with the aim of centering their voices and experiences on our platform. These conversations led to a partnership with Aisle, who helped to grow the project by interviewing indigenous individuals, primarily in a Canadian context.
This is based on a conversation between Madeleine Shaw, co-founder of Aisle and author of The Greater Good: Social Entrepreneurship for Everyday People Who Want to Change the World, and Minhtam Tran, the former Project Lead for Decolonizing Menstrual Health, about their experiences and learnings from designing and leading interviews as part of the project interview series, given the two distinct threads of the project: Decolonization through a racial justice lens, and re-indigenization through a traditional and Indigneous wisdom lens.
Madeleine: What do you think the differences were in our experiences of interviewing?
Minhtam: I think one of the major differences between our experiences was the timing, and our perspectives going into the interviews. For me, I started earlier in the process and was learning as I went, whereas I think you had slightly more clarity going into the interviews.
Danielle Keiser (Managing Partner, Impact of Madami) and I come from an American perspective and we were thinking about it in terms of BLM, and what racial justice means within menstrual health. We were approaching it through the lens of what does it mean to have this platform and space, and what does it mean for us as an organization? And I think one of the major sticking points for both myself and Danielle was that we wanted to be intentional to not be exploitative, especially because I was mainly speaking and working with black women, which is not an identity either of us hold.
Something that came out of that experience was to just be upfront, like what do you think we should be doing? How do we do this work and not come across as exploitative, or just generally avoid being exploitative?
Many of the individuals we interviewed said ‘just be honest about what your intentions are’ and why you’re asking us and then, making space for us to continue to do this work outside of this project. The major point is to keep having these conversations and building relationships openly and honestly.
Generally, I feel like I learned so much and I walked away from every interview feeling really energized and really excited by the work they were doing, just to continue supporting them and listening to badass women! But in general I think a big difference between our experience was the timing in when we interviewed.
Madeleine: Within the Canadian context, the discovery of the graves of over 200 children at a former residential school site near Kamloops BC in May 2021 — as I was reaching out looking for interviewees — was a re-traumatizing event for Indigenous people across the country. Most Indigenous people in Canada have had some form of intergenerational trauma, not just of colonialism, but with the residential school system in particular. I felt that I needed to be really mindful of this as I approached prospective interviewees and said in my emails, if you are not up for anything right now, please don’t even feel the need to reply.
As I formulated the interview questions, I tried to be really self reflective about the extent to which I still operate in a colonized mindset. I was asking people to delve into thousands of years of ceremony and tradition, and yet there was this assumed need in the project to make the interviews short. This struck me as an example of a colonized mindset that isn’t consistent with an Indigenous way of communicating or looking at things, and furthermore not respectful of the tradition and the history that Indigenous people carry. Thousands of years in 30 minutes? I don’t think so.
It also showed up in the assumption that we were looking for “leaders” to interview, rather than just individuals with stories, who carry their ancestral knowledge and don’t necessarily lead nonprofits in the menstrual equity space. The individuals I spoke with are educators, artists, midwives and students.
We don’t need to assume that someone has a title of authority within the specific context of menstrual health to have a perspective worth hearing.
Minhtam: In terms of the leadership piece, it felt like a lot of the time the individuals I spoke to were surprised that we wanted to speak to them, and that they weren’t sure if they had the expertise to talk about decolonizing menstrual health, or about intersectionality in general.
But to me, even holding that identity provides a perspective and a level of wisdom that can be brought into the space. And that’s super valuable and important - to have more voices. It isn’t meant to try to encapsulate an entire culture or group’s identity. You’re not meant to represent the entirety of it, but just to provide more insight and expand on what we think of within the space, because they have a voice that matters and we should be allowing them the space to think about it.
Madeleine: I felt really moved by the Indigenous wisdom that was shared with me by four individuals (which I do not take as representative of Indigenous people in general).
I did notice a profound common reverence for the connection with natural cycles and ritual and ceremony and intergenerational learning that I think is something that we can learn a lot from in the broader menstrual health space.
The interviews showed me that in mainstream culture we’ve lost sight of the magic and the mystery of our cycles and the spiritual component in honoring that. In our ‘hustle’ culture, we’re often like “just pop in a menstrual cup and just keep going with your life”, which is obviously necessary sometimes, however we don’t realize that this reflects a colonized mindset and it comes at an energetic cost. The Indigenous wisdom that was shared with me is that menstruation is a time for rest, self-reflection and self-care. I thought that was really valuable.
The reverence that Indigenous people have for menstruation and the menstrual cycle also really landed for me: it’s perceived as a time when they’re powerful and revered. I think that in Western culture menstruation is still perceived as a problem to be solved and a mess to be cleaned up — it’s essentially pathologized. The perspective that the interviewees shared with me was very different — that it’s powerful to the point where you even need to be mindful about your personal energy and the focus should really be inward and on self care. It was great.
Minhtam: Your interviews made me reflect about the linear nature of colonized thinking. We think about the New Year as a reset: we keep moving forward into a new year, we push to a new goal. We don’t really acknowledge the other things that are happening in our lives. The colonized mindset never considers the 13 moon cycles and the 28 days, or how seasons correspond to periods of rest and productivity.
And it’s funny, because if we did acknowledge the cyclical nature of the world, we would probably end up being more productive! Not that I want to focus on centering our focus on productivity, but just interesting to think about…
Madeleine: Yes, that really resonates with me too. Even just the notion of productivity, that’s kind of a colonized concept in itself.
Why do we need to be productive? Why is that kind of the gold standard of how we use our time? Why don’t we try to be sustainable, or kind, or just be?
I think we’re collectively so stressed out, which has a lot to do with not making space for rest and reflection and letting go. That’s the gift for those of us who have cycles, assuming that we have the privilege of being able to take that time for ourselves.
Several decades ago I came to understand my cycle as having a miniature seasonal quality. I’m not the first; it’s an Indigenous teaching. I started seeing my bleeding time as my Winter, a time for rest and that time for kind of hibernation and going inward. Then the follicular Spring with all of its energy and then ovulatory in the Summer, a time that is lush, rich, sensual and pleasurable, and then falling into the luteal, Autumnal phase where there’s this time of change and letting go.
That was always helpful to me to contextualize how I might be feeling at any time during my cycle, and it was wonderful to be reminded that this wisdom is Indigenous and has been practiced for thousands of years.
Madeleine: How did you come up with the set of questions?
Minhtam: In comparison to you, I think the questions I came up with were based on the preliminary conversations I had with different individuals; afterwards, I followed up and asked if they could answer the specific questions. Like we talked about before, the project had just taken shape and we wanted to have conversations first and then see what we could do as an organization. I think the questions came organically and tried to paint somewhat of a broad brush and encompass a lot of identities. But they also failed to address the Indigenous perspective, which is at the root of decolonization and is integral to the idea of deconstructing the white settler colonial mindset and paradigm.
I wanted to see if you had thoughts about specifically the questions you came up with and how that went in your interviews. I think some of your interviewers had very specific answers and some of them kind of winded, which was also beautiful and that I think the stories are great and I still think they answered it, but just in a very different way.
Madeleine: When I first looked at the set of questions you had for the American group, I recognized that they were appropriate for folks who had a specific interest in the MH space. I knew that I was going to be talking to people whose consciousness came more from ritual and personal practice and experience, possibly as parents or as birth workers. The questions felt academic to me in a way that I didn’t think would necessarily resonate as strongly with Indigenous people in Canada who do not necessarily feel as connected to or engaged with the global MH movement. In other words, the Indigenous people that I interviewed do not identify specifically as MH leaders, however have a great deal of interest and experience with it, thanks to their heritage. I really wanted to validate that.
I also wanted to make sure that the interviews were more open-ended and less formulaic. For example, several of them had personal interpretations of terms like reconciliation and decolonization and re-Indigenization that I felt were important to define.
The notion of re-Indigenization is a term that was relatively new to me and that I knew as soon as I heard it, I wanted to hear from the interviewees what it meant to them. It’s one thing to strip away a colonial mindset or practice; but then when we ask ourselves, in the case of Indigenous people who have had practices and knowledge and wisdom and ritual for millennia if they can shine a light on that, there’s an opportunity to bring a whole new understanding and body of practice and wisdom into the MH space — this is what I would call re-Indigenization.
This progression from decolonization to re-Indigenization feels really appropriate because it acknowledges that Indigenous wisdom was already there before colonization happened. It already existed, but was beaten down and hidden and shamed and destroyed in so many ways. That to me felt like a really powerful shift mentally going from one to the other and it was really interesting to hear how each interviewee interpreted those terms.
By taking away an expectation for a formulaic answer, like with the structure and also the length, I think the interviews are somewhat more organic and allowed for more open-ended sharing. In the past I ran an event series for girls for many years and worked with several Indigenous people as part of it. I learned from that experience that you listen to people when they speak and that it takes however long it takes to do things in a good way, so I was expecting that going into the interviews.
Minhtam: I also think maybe decolonizing vs. re-Indigenizing can also address who’s being centered in the conversation?
Like taking away the colonized mindset (decolonizing) versus recentering traditional wisdoms and teachings (re-indigenization).
Madeleine: Exactly. And with the idea of reconciliation, according to at least one interviewee, that notion isn’t possible because ‘conciliation’ never existed in the first place — the prefix ‘re’ implies a positive settler/first nation relationship that we can supposedly hearken back to. So it’s kind of similar, right? We didn’t have those teachings and those learnings, but we can decolonize and take away our own mindset and our colonial contexts that we’ve been taught growing up.
Madeleine: How did you feel your identity played into the way you approached the project?
Minhtam: In terms of identity, I think it definitely played a part for me in how I approached the project and also the conversations. Sometimes individuals, myself included, can feel afraid to delve into these topics. I guess for my personal approach I try to be as honest as I can that I don’t know anything, so if interviewees want to tell me to shut up, or want to tell me that I shouldn’t be asking those questions, that’s totally fine.
Madeleine: I try to be humble and curious and respectful, and to do things in a good way. When I say ‘in a good way’, it might sound sort of casual, but it’s actually a really common phrase that a lot of Indigenous people who I know use. They’ll say ‘in a good, kind and respectful way’ as a benchmark for appropriate actions. Imagine if we all did everything in “a good, kind and respectful way” — it would change everything. Having heard that so often, and having seen it modeled to me by Indigenous Elders, you can see how the teaching has passed on to me.
I tried to be as self-aware as possible as a white settler. At one point where I wanted to ask one of the interviewees about particular ceremonies, I wondered whether she would be able to tell me. She said “I can’t tell you that”, and I was like, that’s totally cool, hands off, no problem. I suspected that there would be a boundary and wanted to be respectful. I just felt really humbled by those people, putting their trust in me and in us. It feels like an immense gift.
Minhtam: I felt really deeply honored to be able to spend the time learning from these individuals and being able to listen to them, and their willingness to invest the emotional labor that it takes to speak about these things. Especially because I have an ability to step away from that space and not live it day to day. So acknowledging my privilege in that was really important to me, especially moving forward and continuing this work as well. Because a lot of times we are so committed and dedicated to the things that we do, we don’t realize that a lot of people are stewed in this pain and trauma, and they carry that with them.
And I felt really lucky to work on this project with you. I think everyone just had such beautiful ways of expressing their stories and defining these terms for us. Thinking on Ecko’s interview, the analogy with the bricks, it was such a vivid picture for me. And even thinking back to social media activism, this reduction of definitions and one page Instagram slides that tell you what these things are… it takes away the ability to sit and digest and think for yourself, and interact with the material. You tend to just take it as fact and move on.
Being able to do this was really beneficial for me in thinking about how I engage with information. Have I been able to really process what I’ve been learning and doing, and where am I spending the time to do that?
Madeleine: It was also good to work with you; I really enjoyed it and I thought we were a good team! To address the notion of allyship — I think using privilege, like when you say dipping in and out, and acknowledging that privilege of being able to do that — I could not agree more.
We’re using the privilege we have to center voices and experiences of equity-seeking people, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because their knowledge has value for all of us.
To me, that’s a profound act of allyship and reconciliation: building bridges with Indigenous people and centering their experience. It felt really good to do that because a lot of this stuff is talked about, there are lots of performative and perfunctory statements about inclusion and land acknowledgements, but actually doing the work and sitting and listening and then sharing it on a global platform is more tangible.
Minhtam: A lot of what we did was very raw and it didn’t feel polished. I think the conversations were really steeped in love and relationship building and a lot of gratitude; and both of us were grateful to each other and the work we were doing and also the people that we interviewed and just sharing their time.
I think even the conversations we had with them, everyone was just really grateful to be there, really grateful to learn and experience this world and what we’re doing together. I feel like that’s really beautiful and it is really important that we do that. To build that up on a larger scale, because like you said, it’s kind, respectful and in a good way, if that is the thing that we’re sharing, I feel like that was happening the entire time too. I feel like that’s a great thing to share with the world. To do it in that way is really important. I leave this project with a lot of love and a lot of gratitude for being able to do the work and continue thinking about this stuff from my own time and as I continue life.
Minhtam: Where do you think your experience with this project will take you in the future?
Madeleine: I was deeply honored to be able not just to ‘interview’ the people I connected with, but to just share space and time, to listen and take in everything that they shared. In one interview, I think that I only asked two questions and the rest of the time I just listened as deeply as I could. I feel like I could reach out to any of them in the future to learn more or collaborate on projects — basically it’s the gift of relationship.
I am a huge believer in the value of basic human connection and trust. Once it’s there, you can do anything with it, and it kind of has its own energy.
On a more material level, often when I was speaking with the interviewees, they talked about ritual and ceremony and how important it was to them culturally. I’m deeply interested in that. I ran a rite of passage event series for adolescent girls for seven years, sometimes in partnership with Indigenous nations. These sharings reminded me that rites of passage are something that I want to do again in the future.
I’ve been in the product space as you know, and in the activist space. Now I’ve written a book about social entrepreneurship and I’m really proud of that, but there’s something about ceremony and ritual and especially in the post COVID era where we’ve been separate from one another and using it as a tool. I love working with rites of passage to educate to bolster emotional resilience in youth. When I do revisit that area of interest, I want to do it in partnership with Indigenous people because they hold such great knowledge about it. How about you?
Minhtam: I’m hopefully going into the medical field, which I think we can all agree has a very colonized mindset. But thinking of the notion of healing and what that looks like, especially with the dismissal of traditional practices. I want to take this idea that we can learn from one another and that health and wellness can operate outside this colonized mindset, and focus on relationship building. And I want to work primarily in pediatrics or with adolescents, and to encourage this acknowledgement of this transformational period in their life.
And in my own personal life, I love routines! But just in talking about this with you, I think maybe reframing routines as personal rituals I have for myself. Like being able to sit with myself and think and reflect, and to see these things as something that I can have gratitude for and encourage within my life.
The last thing is to continue my role in advocating for other individuals, and to see myself as capable of pushing forward and building solidarity movements. I definitely think this was really important for me to not feel like I was being a performative activist. It was a big shift for me to acknowledge that I don’t need to post on social media to feel like I’m contributing or I don’t need to do things a certain way to feel like that’s the one answer.
There are a lot of ways to contribute to the world and contribute to solidarity building movements and acknowledging others, and it doesn’t need to be this one mindset that we take away a lot of the time. I think that was something I was really intentional about when I was trying to pursue the project and then as I was continuing the project.
Madeleine: That’s beautiful. I think that’s it. I think the interviews speak for themselves and I’m really grateful to have had this chance to have a postpartum conversation with you.