Leave it all on the floor. This book is deeply personal and revealing. I am also hoping to prove to the women who entrusted me with their stories that they made the right choice. At this moment, if things don’t go the way I hope, it is not just about this moment, it’s not just that I have not been an effective storyteller. For someone like me who overachieves to mitigate imposter syndrome, it is also about my identity as a Black woman and not wanting to disappoint my family, my friends, my mentors, my boss, colleagues, team, or others who look like me. However, even if people don’t like the book, I know I have left it all on the floor and so, it won’t be for lack of trying. And so because of that, I feel good.
As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing S. Mayumi “Umi” Grigsby, an attorney with a long history of advocating for policies that empower marginalized communities. She currently works in policy in the city of Chicago and sits on the boards of Between Friends and GirlForward. After she experienced dismissive treatment while seeking answers for a mysterious and ongoing health issue, Ms. Grigsby decided to expand her advocacy by addressing disparities in the US health care system in her first book EmpowHERed Health: Reforming a Dismissive Health Care System. Born in Monrovia, Liberia, and raised in Houston, Texas by way of Paris, France, author, Ms. Grigsby intersperses her personal story and that of other Black women when interacting with an often dismissive health care system to both highlight the need for immediate action and to propose community-led solutions. Bilingual, in French and English, Ms. Grigsby is a graduate of Georgetown University and Northeastern University School of Law. She describes herself as an author, advocate, attorney and joyful warrior.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
My drive to find solutions to problems facing women and children was inspired by my own mother. Prior to the onset of the 13-year civil war that decimated Liberia’s infrastructure and killed so many, she walked out of the country with my father and whatever money she could carry in her “lappa,” a piece of cloth Liberian women wear around their waist. My sister and I immigrated to Europe on the last KLM flight out of Liberia before the civil war and we reunited with our parents in the United States years later. My mother was the one who managed to navigate the impossible chaos of that period and keep our family together. Her ability to keep our family strong in the midst of external turbulence has allowed my sister, my father, and me to thrive despite the negative effects of war. In my adult life, I have tried to honor my mother’s strength by seeking innovative solutions that create systemic change for women and youth. My work is driven by my commitment to empowering marginalized communities to be the drivers for their own sustainable social change. To me, that has meant working at the intersection of law, public policy, and social change.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?
There were two books — Le Petit Prince by Antoine de St. Exupery and Harriet The Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I am so jealous of children who have access to a plethora of children’s books with diverse representation these days but unfortunately I wasn’t exposed, even while growing up on the continent of Africa. I read both Le Petit Prince and Harriet the Spy when I was in 4th grade in France. And, as the new kid who spent a lot of time alone, I appreciated that they both made me think about the world and my place in the world. Le Petit Prince reminded me that all grown ups were children once even though only a few remembered. And, Harriet the Spy made me want to be a writer, retreating into my thoughts and the world I created with my writing when people around me were not as welcoming.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
I decided to research memorable opening statements for a moot court trial once. I was very proud of myself when I found one that seemed perfect and everyone appeared to be very impressed by my rendition. That was until the judge for the day told me he had heard that opening before — many, times. The lesson there was to always, always make something my own.
Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?
My vision of good public policy and sustainable, positive change involves empowering marginalized communities with the tools required to be their own advocates. When society turns their back on marginalized communities through historic disinvestment or systemic racism, these communities often find ways to survive. Their means of survival sometimes includes paths outside of established economic or social avenues. However, those means are usually suited to the unique challenges of the community and are therefore best articulated by members of these communities. For any solution to work, these solutions should originate with these community stakeholders.
2020 was a consequential year for all of us but I finally realized that I can achieve this vision through using storytelling to build a community of changemakers, providing those who are most impacted with the data and resources required to be the engineers of their own change. That is why my book, EmpowHERed Health: Reforming A Dismissive Health Care System is a mix of personal stories, data, research and proposed solutions. I hope that people see themselves in those stories, realize they are not alone, and consider my solutions as potential paths to reform.
Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
All of the stories were interesting and I appreciate everyone who shared their story with me. I believe the one that resonated the most with me is about a woman I called “Sheila” in a chapter entitled “Make Sure They Know You’re a Lawyer.’ Sheila is a lawyer like me and also someone who will always do her research. She picked a doctor with experience working with women like her who had suffered from miscarriages, hoping that she would receive compassionate care when pregnant with her son. Instead, as she asked more questions, her doctor became colder towards her and Sheila was left questioning whether she was being paranoid. Ultimately Sheila realized that she was not being paranoid and that something was wrong. Sheila was right. What followed was 50 hours of tortuous labor. Sheila drives home why education or income or quality of insurance does not matter in the face of implicit bias.
What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?
For years I was ignored when expressing that I was in pain. My most vivid memory involved crawling on the floor to grab a remote control because I could not stand up due to unbearable pain. I went to see a doctor and she told me I was ‘fine’ and she ‘didn’t see anything wrong.’ I decided that I would no longer accept doctors’ diagnosis that I was ‘fine’ while dismissing my pain. I left the doctor’s office and spent hours ‘googling’ my symptoms. That night I knew and later, a specialist confirmed that I had been living with 30 fibroids — benign tumors that grow in the uterus and would need surgery. Saving the doctor from the inconvenience of having to go further in diagnosing me ended up inconveniencing me.
I knew I couldn’t be the only one who had been treated that way and I was right. Women in my circle, women connected to women in my circle, allies in the LGBTQ+ community all approached me with their own stories. I decided that now, when we as a society are having very real conversations about why a global pandemic can have such a devastating impact on women; and, facing long-simmering tensions around racism and bias, could be the time to change things for the better.
Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
A woman I called ‘Willow’ in the chapter ‘I Was Doped Up And I Liked It.’ I wrote about her first experience giving birth, which was not a magical nor a positive experience. She called after giving birth to her second child and told me the experience was much better than her first time giving birth. She told me that her husband was more vigilant this time and that she thought it was because of books like mine. More people were sharing their stories and health care workers seemed to be listening.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Yes. Health disparities are prevalent in the United States, particularly as it relates to Black women and especially within the context of the maternal mortality rate. While maternal mortality is declining elsewhere in the world, the rate of maternal mortality in the United States has been increasing. And Black women are up to four times more likely to die in child-birth than their White counterparts. These deaths are preventable. These deaths happen to Black women more than their White counterparts in the US. The disparity between Black and White women is consistent at all income levels. We should do what we can to empower communities to fight back and hold the health care facilities who receive funding to serve them — accountable for prioritizing and addressing disparities in the maternal mortality rate and improving women’s health overall.
So. 1) Believe women and others belonging to similarly marginalized groups when they tell you that they are on the receiving end of dismissive treatment. 2) Tie the funding health care facilities receive from the government to steps they take to address health disparities based on race 3) Empower community groups and leaders to hold them accountable to act to address health disparities.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
People will tell you I considered myself a servant leader before it became a ‘buzzy’ term. My role as an attorney and as an advocate is to use my skills to amplify voices and not to displace them. I believe a good leader is compassionate, innovative, and leads by example. An example of positive leadership for me, is when you empower the people you work with to push themselves to work harder and to think outside of the box.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Listen to your Instincts — in this book, I talk about interactions with doctors that left me feeling dismissed. While I recognize that doctors are experts in medicine, I am the expert on my body. I wish that I had stopped the first doctor who told me I was fine and told them to continue working to find out what was wrong.
- Check in with your community — I didn’t tell anyone outside of my doctors about my pain and my symptoms, and once I did, I found that I was not alone. I wish I had checked in with my community earlier and crowd-sourced answers or just asked for support.
- Give yourself grace — I put a lot of pressure on myself to excel. And, when I miss the mark, I magically forget all of the wins. I find that that happens with a lot of women I know and the women in my book, who felt they should have done more to advocate for themselves. Life is tough, especially for those of us who belong to marginalized communities — celebrate the small wins, and, give yourself grace.
- This is also from the book but, Find Doctors you trust. Find Specialists you trust. Find Mentors you trust. — It takes a level of vulnerability to ask for help and advice so make sure the people you seek out are worthy of your vulnerability. So often in the book, people felt like they were at fault — they were being demanding. Or, they were being paranoid. And all along, they were on the receiving end of dismissive treatment.
- Leave it all on the floor. This book is deeply personal and revealing. I am also hoping to prove to the women who entrusted me with their stories that they made the right choice. At this moment, if things don’t go the way I hope, it is not just about this moment, it’s not just that I have not been an effective storyteller. For someone like me who overachieves to mitigate imposter syndrome, it is also about my identity as a Black woman and not wanting to disappoint my family, my friends, my mentors, my boss, colleagues, team, or others who look like me. However, even if people don’t like the book, I know I have left it all on the floor and so, it won’t be for lack of trying. And so because of that, I feel good.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I will go back to Le Petit Prince — “Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” Translated to — It’s simple, we can only see well with the heart, what is essential is invisible for the eyes. There have been so many times in my life when the path to success was not immediately clear. I did not know how my life would turn out on that last flight out of Liberia. I did not know that I would be here, an advocate, an author, an attorney and a joyful warrior. However, I felt compelled to take the path that I did and knew that whatever life threw at me, I would meet it with everything I had.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
OPRAH! I am her biggest fan.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!