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This is what neocolonial disrespect looks like. Natalie Gerbeda-Wilson about La Leche League

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Фото Наталии Гербеды-Вилсон
Фото Наталии Гербеды-Вилсон

Natalie Gerbeda-Wilson, the woman who translated the Womanly Art of Breastfeeding into Russian and broke ground for La Leche League in Ukraine and Russia, talks with Victoria Lebed about current problems in La Leche League, the organization that was founded 60 years ago to support breastfeeding women.  

— Natalie, when did you join La Leche League?

— I joined LLL close to 20 years ago. At first, I received a membership as a gift from a dear friend, then when I visited the US on a holiday I was very lucky to attend not one, but three meetings. They were all very different. I loved them! So when I moved to the US I decided to become an LLL Leader which I swiftly accomplished in four months.  This year I celebrated my 15th year with LLL as a leader.

— You have become very famous in Russian breastfeeding world championing not only the cause of LLLI but also mother-to-mother support. What are some of your accomplishments?

— Thank you! It is hard to recall everything. My biggest accomplishment is raising awareness of the importance of mother-to-mother support that is free and accessible to every woman. Both Ukraine and Russia still lag behind in having strong network of peer as opposed to professional support so LLL would fill that void. Translation of the Womanly Art of Breastfeeding into Russian was a huge breakthrough for us. It took ten years of trying to attract attention from LLLI to the existence of Russian mothers. I launched two Russian LLL websites, Ukrainian pages at LLLI website, started a mailing list that gave rise to AKEV (a local association of breastfeeding consultants), mailed books, translated and edited articles, scouted out peer counselors on two continents, trained new leaders, did one-on-one help, co-founded Lyalechka, an online peer support breastfeeding community of 12k members,  with Marina Kopylova, who is also an LLL Leader.  

— An impressive list of accomplishments… Did you get paid for your work or was it a volunteer position?

— One hundred percent volunteer work. If anybody paid for anything it was me paying for it. LLL Leaders pay yearly dues. Recently the cost rose from 40 to 60 dollars a year, which is quite expensive for the United States. This does not include paying for continuing education, books, website maintenance, and other incidental expenses that go together with running an organization.

— Clearly you devoted many years, sweat, and tears to LLLI. Now your accreditation to represent the organization was revoked.

— Indeed, in the evening of December 14th I opened a letter dated December 8th. Starting from that date I no longer represent La Leche League.

— What was the reason behind this decision?

— The official reason stated in the letter referred to my behavior causing conflict and discrediting the organization. These generalities referred to my public stance in support of a Ukrainian Leader, Tetyana Yaremko, after LLLI ignored and remained passive after Russian LLL Leaders attacked her for writing an email in Ukrainian and continuously forced her to switch to Russian over the course of several days.  LLLI’s inaction, indifference, and support of LLL Russia, led to the resignation of all Ukrainian leaders during the course of 2015 and LLL Ukraine ceased to exist. Most of Ukrainian leader applicants left as well. Russia also lost leader applicants who were disheartened by LLL that was condoning discrimination. About 30 women seeking to become leaders during the course of this year did not receive any response as well.  During the last ten years LLL implemented a policy that prohibits leaders to speak about LLL publicly or to say anything critical or negative about the organization. When LLLI failed to act upon the report of discrimination of Ukrainians, I went public. I was “fired” for going public and refusing to accept LLLI lack of action when an incident of discrimination was reported to them.

— Did you expect this or was the letter unexpected?

— I was expecting this. This was not an unexpected move. I started receiving threats for LLLI in the middle of this year. In the fall I received what I called “a friendly threat”. LLL representative was forcing me resign. I refused because I did not think I acted unethically. Reporting discrimination is not only ethical but encouraged in the society where I live. If an organization not only discriminates against a minority, but also suppresses reports of it, any member of the organization can and should report this to the public. There are laws in the United States that protect whistleblowers from retaliation for reporting internal violations in good faith. Essentially, LLLI retaliated against me and punished me when I refused to go along with quite suppression of the discrimination of a Ukrainian leader for speaking her mother tongue.

— How did La Leche League handle the case of discrimination of Ukrainians?

— The initial attack took place on January 26, 2015 and lasted several days. This was not an incidental gaffe. When the incident took place, a leader from Russian completely supported the instigators of the attacks. More so, she herself stated she would ignore posts in Ukrainian. Marina Kopylova  and I did state LLLI policies regarding training applicants in their native languages as well as explaining that we could not ignore people just because we did not understand them. Our role as LLL leaders is either try to understand or find those who will. When all of our attempts to educate leaders and applicants from Russia about LLL policies failed, we contacted LLL Europe. We immediately reached out for support to LLL Europe during the first week of February of 2015. Not only did we report an incident of discrimination but also let them know the names of the perpetrators of ethnic hatred. Unfortunately, we did not receive any response. In about one month one of the suspicious applicants got accredited to represent LLLI, which violated LLL policies.  Another half a month passed and one of the more aggressive attackers got accredited to become a leader — another violation of LLL policies. If leaders involved in training new LLL leaders voice concerns about accreditation, it cannot proceed until issues are addressed.

When we protested, we were sent on a truly Kafkaesque quest for some administrators who would handle the issue. Finally, about half a year after the attack took place we received an answer. The first original response was along the lines of “We were told that the Ukrainian leader knows Russian”. This response in itself is a gross violation of LLL policies. We do not question what languages women know vs. what languages they use for speaking or writing. Everybody should use any language they are most comfortable with. We are not in a position to be arbiters of language preferences. Then LLL Leaders from Europe said they could not do anything about the incident, that they were not responsible for the actions of leaders, and washed their hand of the matter. They refused to acknowledge that the continuous attack on a Ukrainian leader was discrimination based on ethnic hatred of Ukrainians. LLL Europe and LLLI administrators were not remotely keen on seeing the evidence or studying it. In their minds they were not doing anything about it and that was it. They neither explained nor apologized for ignoring February reports of discrimination went unanswered. Initially they were not even particularly concerned about the incident until half a year worth of my emails when they finally became “appalled”.

— Do you think LLL Europe, in fact, could not do anything? Or was there anything they could do?

— I am convinced many things could have been done from the very beginning. While the incident itself was truly horrible, it was not unusual or very complicated in itself. LLL Leaders encounter situations like this all the time.  When anybody says anything without an intent to harm or hurt but out of ignorance, LLL Leaders respond with empathy and attempt to understand the underlying feelings behind the words. This gives us unique opportunity to understand the driving forces behind our thoughts, words, and actions. Then we educate and provide information on the subject at hand. While most frequently they have to do with misconceptions about breastfeeding, Ukrainian language incident was not any different.

The first person to attend to the matter should have been Katya Lokshin, a Moscow LLL leader. It was her applicant that caused concern, she should have addressed the issue. In fact, we allowed to about 24 hours for her to respond so we do not appear overbearing to her applicant whom we did not know. Not only did Katya failed to address the issue with her applicant publicly or privately, she openly supported her in numerous emails, further fueling the issue.

Marina Kopylova, a Russian leader from Baltimore, MD, USA, followed LLLI policies and empathized with the attacker then provided education why it is important to support breastfeeding women in their own native languages. I was the first and only person to apologize to Tetyana Yaremko, the only native Ukrainian speaking LLL Leader in the world, and continued offering information about basic principles of LLLI work. Normally, the issues get resolved at this point. Not in this case. Our efforts failed miserably for several reasons. As much as we tried to avoid bringing politics into the equation, today, in retrospect, we cannot deny that Russian war against Ukraine and massive anti-Ukrainian propaganda played a part in it.  As continued proof it was not an incidental faux pas, but a deep-rooted hatred of Ukrainians, any attempts to assert the rights of Ukrainians to speak their language backfired on us. Attacks on Tetyana and Ukrainian language got diverted into attacks of Marina, then myself. It is of interest that German or English did not cause any distress for Russians. It was Ukrainian that was offensive, disrespectful, and unacceptable.  

When we  realized that we failed to achieve any meaningful result with Russian leaders and applicants, we promptly reached out for support to LLL Europe. During the first week of February 2015 I was in constant communication with Nicoleta Mosincat who failed to respond to my email that there was lack of understanding about the attack on the Russian side. Much could be done in February to the satisfaction of LLL Ukraine. First of all, the training of leader applicants in question could have been extended to ensure they understand that we provide help and training only in the mother tongue of the mothers and that we cannot demand switching to majority languages to accommodate the majority. Then LLL Europe could educate current leaders in Russia that in the time of conflict it was not appropriate to push their leader applicants to become leaders but focus attention on continued education. This was the question of priorities and understanding how LLLI used to work and why it was important. It is sad that LLL no longer follows the respectful policies that had been in place for decades. Today LLLI fosters and nurtures neocolonial attitude towards smaller nations.

The tragedy of this incident was not that it happened. We all make mistakes and say wrong things. The true tragedy was that 99% of Russian leaders said nothing and 100% of LLL Europe and LLLI administrators concluded that nothing happened. Yet the longer the conflict lasted, the more difficult it was to resolve it. If additional education and sincere not merely perfunctory apologies that show understanding of what actions caused hurt would suffice, now LLLI needs to do much more to remedy this truly shameful situation with LLL Russia. Understanding of what caused the issue is of utmost importance. It is proof it will not happen again. Perfunctory apology further confirms that the offending party has no understanding of what was wrong, therefore will most likely repeat the offence.

— Could you foresee such actions from LLLI administration when you joined LLLI 15 years ago?

— Absolutely not. One of the most attractive features of LLL was peaceful coexistence of people with different worldviews. I was lucky to be part of a group  that hosted meetings where formula feeding mothers felt comfortable. It was an indicator of acceptance and friendly atmosphere for me. In my home state of North Carolina I never encountered such indifference to important matters. When you had any issues, nobody rushed to you with ready answers. First of all administrators would ask what worried you, why you thought this was a problem, and only then you would get the responses that would satisfy your initial query. The responses I received from LLL Europe on behalf of LLL was not LLLI I joined and which mission I promoted in Ukraine and Russia.  When an issue of discrimination and ethnic hatred of a Ukrainian was brought to the attention of LLL administrators, their only concern was LLLI reputation. I saw no empathy or understanding of the tremendous suffering of LLL Ukraine leaders and applicants.  I did not see one instance of proof that aspirations and feelings of Ukrainian leaders mattered. I cannot say LLL Europe showed much concern about LLL Russia either If LLL was  concerned about Russian women, they would pay more attention to the issues of LLL in Russia. Yet when I was reaching out for support to my old friends in LLL, I saw that LLLI changed in recent years and not for the best. I found two resignation letters from two LLLI founders voicing concerns very similar to mine. It seems that LLL became an organization where nobody listens to anybody, even to the founders of this wonderful organization.  On the other hand, the problem of ignoring minority issues in LLL is not new. Many criticized LLL for serving the interests of an affluent white class of women while ignoring the difficulties that less fortunate women encounter on their breastfeeding path.  I think what happened in 2015 is a two-fold issue: Russian disrespect towards Ukrainians, and LLL Europe disrespect towards both Ukrainians and Russians.  It came to my attention that at the end of this year LLL Europe began communication training for Russians in… English!!! Communication is such an intimate, personal and deeply cultural phenomenon, that I struggle to image what Frankenstein will come out of it. This is what neocolonial disrespect looks like. As if a Russian LLL group with an English name or LLL Russia Instagram peppered with English slogans was not enough. Now LLLI imposes communication with a flare of foreignness.   As a Russian I deeply doubt such helpful gestures for Russian women when there is a lack of basic respect towards Russian language and culture.

— Do you think it is worth fighting LLL administration to change it from within or is this a hopeless cause?

— I am much against wars, battles, and aggression. In my breastfeeding work I created new words to avoid connotations of aggression  towards mothers or children that are very common in Russian. I do think it is important to talk and raise awareness of what happened with LLL Ukraine and LLL Russia. What LLLI will do about it is their business.  So far they supported LLL Russia’s attack on Ukraine, then ignored and shunned two Leaders who stood up for Ukrainians. LLLI’s actions speak louder than words. Policies  that are words and not actions are nothing but empty soap bubbles. LLL is what their representatives are. Today we see that LLL is an organization of callous deaf women who backstabbed people in a war torn country. Today you can be attacked in LLL for the language you speak, for the lifestyle that they do not approve of, religion, or nationality. Perhaps, new people will join LLL tomorrow and the organization will change.

— La Leche League is not very known in Russia. It is mostly known due to your work, Lyalechka community in LiveJournal, and the first Russian language edition in Russian.  Do you think we can do anything for ourselves and other breastfeeding women without LLL?

— Absolutely! I do not have much hope in help from outside. Help yourself is my motto.  Waiting for others to come and rescue you often leads to disappointment. The original plans for LLL in Ukraine and Russia were to be distinctly different from the mother organization, respecting local language and culture. They should not be the clones of the American organization. American women are ingenious because they created something that worked for them. We could learn from them and find what works for us.  Much to my regret, currently LLL in Russia has no essence of LLL and its core principles. A lot of it has to do with the training of the first Russian leader, Katya Lokshin, who became the source of not one, but three questionable applicants who were implicated in the attack on the Ukrainian leader. It was obvious from the very beginning she received subpar training without any understanding of Russian culture. Can this be remedied? Perhaps, but not with current people at the helm of LLL Russia or LLL Europe. There are other breastfeeding organizations in Russia yet they are not mother-to-mother support groups that guard the interests of mothers. All current organizations promote the interests of professional breastfeeding or lactation consultants. This is a cause for concern, especially knowing of a powerful neocolonial wave of medicalization coming from the United States. The majority of Russian breastfeeding organizations are in the spiderweb of this influence. There is no control or oversight of its influence on Ukraine or Russia.  There is still a niche to create something local, something maternal, something that preserves the experience of Russian mothers. It would be wonderful to start something of this sort. An organization that is not a passive receptacle of Western ideas, but an active and equal partner in the information exchange. Let’s hope such an organization will emerge in the future.  

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