Christy Turlington Burns – A Conversation

Christy Turlington Burns

Founder, Every Mother Counts

After decades working as a model and activist and after surviving her own childbirth complication, Christy directed and produced the documentary, No Woman, No Cry to raise awareness about dire maternal health conditions that impact millions of women around the world. At each screening, audiences asked how they could help and Christy created EMC as a response. Prior to her work as a global maternal health advocate, Christy collaborated on public health service campaigns and launched an award-winning website, SmokingIsUgly.com. Christy is also the author of Living Yoga: Creating A Life Practice (Hyperion 2002) as well as countless articles, essays and op-eds for magazines and newspapers on the subjects of global maternal health, feminism, poverty eradication and human rights.

Christy has a BA from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Studies and is pursuing a MPH at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York City, where she lives with her husband, filmmaker Edward Burns, and their two children. She’s one of the founding members of EMC’s marathon team.



Ann Paisley Chandler: What inspired you to start Every Mother Counts?

Christy Turlington Burns:  I was compelled to start Every Mother Counts after I completed my first documentary, "No Woman, No Cry," about the global state of maternity care. But it was the birth of my daughter, Grace, ten years ago, and the childbirth complication I endured that was the impetus for it all.  After delivering my daughter, I  hemorrhaged and if not for the expertise of my birth team, the outcome could have been very different. In the weeks that followed I learned that hundreds of thousands of girls and women die each year from pregnancy and childbirth related complications. In fact, hemorrhage is the leading cause of maternal deaths. I felt so grateful for the access to quality care I had and my immediate motivation was to make sure more women knew about this.  

A couple years later, I was traveling with the humanitarian organization Care, on a trip with my mother to her home country, El Salvador.  I was pregnant with my son Finn and we were touring a village where women received prenatal care in a makeshift clinic set up at their water source.  That’s when it occurred to me that if I’d had my birth complication in that village, I probably would have died.  I came home from that trip thinking about how I could make a difference for mothers in countries where lack of access to healthcare and other issues prevent them from getting the essential life-saving care they need.  I decided to make the film to share what I had learned with wider audiences.  After "No Woman, No Cry" debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2010 and later screened on OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, and at various other locations around the country, people invariably asked how they could help. Every Mother Counts was established as a campaign dedicated to ending preventable maternal deaths and as a resource for the film’s audiences to learn more about how they could become further engaged on this issue. 

APC:  Tell us about Every Mother Counts – its goals and mission.

CTB: Our goal is to make pregnancy and childbirth safe for every mother. We do that by informing, engaging, and mobilizing new audiences to take action and raise funds that support maternal health programs around the world. Our mission and organization have evolved in the few years we’ve been working on this issue.  While the film is no longer our only asset, storytelling remains an integral part of our work.  We also fund programs that link women to essential maternity care in Haiti, Uganda, Malawi, Indonesia and the United States.  We measure our impact not only by how many actions our community takes to help improve maternal health but also how many mothers' lives we are able to touch through these grants. To date, we have counted more than 5.3 million actions and more than 36,000 lives have been touched.

APC: What are the fundraising goals, and how are they set?

CTB: Our primary role is to educate the public about the issue and to engage audiences who want to help in meaningful ways. Then, with our audiences and community’s support and through our product partnerships, we invest in some of the key solutions proven to reduce maternal deaths. We know that 90% of maternal deaths are preventable with treatments and medications that are readily available right now. We’re committed to making quality maternity care more accessible to mothers everywhere. To date, we have raised two million dollars. Our goal is to raise 10 million by the end of 2015. We know that the funds necessary to truly address this problem are on a scale that requires government investment and foreign assistance as well as private philanthropy.  We also know that this is an issue that everyone relates to and the contributions of engaged individuals are just as meaningful. 

APC: What have been your greatest challenges and lessons learned?

CTB:  It’s all been a learning process and maybe the biggest challenge is in refining our mission and not putting our fingers in too many pies. We don’t want to recreate the wheel here.  There are incredible efforts being made every day around the world to improve the health of moms and their families.  We want every day people to know about them and we want to offer a way to participate.  While many of the solutions are simple and low cost, there are other factors that make it more challenging to insure that everyone who needs care receives it.  This is a human rights issue that involves gender equity, changing cultural norms and education.  In development circles it’s often stated that maternal health is the key indicator of when a health system is functioning. That means that where there are preventable deaths, it comes down to the undeniable fact that in many parts of the world, women, and specifically mothers, are still undervalued. It’s hard not to try to tackle all the contributing issues at once, but we have learned that taking a more precise and focused approach to improving the quality of and access to maternal healthcare, as well as addressing the lack of supplies many care providers and mothers face, will serve our goals and mission more effectively.  It’s more of a slow-growth tactic, even while we have grown immensely in just a few years as an organization. 

APC: What excites you most about your organization and the impact of your goals? 

CTB: I get excited about things like watching the first class of midwifery students, whose tuition we funded, graduate and go out into their communities to deliver babies.  Or, talking with women and drivers in Uganda about how something as simple as knowing they’ll have a ride when they’re in labor to the birth clinic provides them security.  I get excited when I hear about how healthcare workers are happier doing their jobs now that they don’t have to deliver babies by candlelight.  Or how much more competent they feel knowing they can assess and treat for hemorrhage and other complications immediately when a patient delivers in the middle of the night instead of having to wait for daylight to see that she’s losing too much blood.  I am really excited that what we are doing is resonating with others and that our community is growing.  I feel optimistic that we can someday live in a world where pregnancy and childbirth are safe for every mother. 

APC: What do you find the most rewarding aspect of working in philanthropy on a global level?

CTB:   It’s very satisfying to know that I am part of a global effort and that my birth experience is what has taught me about my connection to so many other women.  The connection to motherhood is there for every person once it’s been pointed out and we have created a way to help others make that connection too. It makes the world feel smaller and more manageable.  

APC: What do you want your mark to be?

CTB:  I am committed to making a sustainable difference in the lives of moms and moms-to-be by inspiring many others to join in our effort. 


For more information, please visit everymothercounts.org




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