An illustration of 3 pregnant couples stand together

Portrait

‘This is what we need’

Cheyenne Varner, '13, designed childbirth education materials with more inclusive representation. Now her art is everywhere.

It all kicked off during a blizzard. The city of Richmond slowed. Cheyenne Varner, ’13, and many others stayed home, their workplaces closed until the snow could be cleared. Varner settled in, turned on Netflix, and stumbled across a documentary called The Business of Being Born.

“It talked about maternal health and the maternal mortality crisis,” Varner says. The documentary led Varner down a research rabbit hole. “I soon found out how, as the U.S. developed as a nation, we had poor outcomes for women and birthing folks. Black women had poorer outcomes and complications that were three to four times higher than their white counterparts. That struck a chord for me.”

Within a month of watching The Business of Being Born, Varner completed a doula training program.

At once, Varner noticed a lack of conversation around race. “There were no educational materials that showed Black women in any meaningful way. So I started making my own.” Varner put her graphic design skills to work and developed a range of birthing literature she could share with her clients. “I wanted them to see themselves represented. I wanted them to feel confident and [informed].”

Headshot of Cheyenne Varner

It worked. Varner posted a sample in a Facebook group for doulas of color. “The comments exploded,” she says. “People from all over the country were saying, ‘This is what we need. I want to use this.’ And that’s how it started.”

The Educated Birth is Varner’s response to the historic lack of diversity in childbirth education literature. It produces inclusive teaching tools for parents and industry professionals. These include info sheets, illustrations, and planners, as well as a biannual publication, Everyday Birth Magazine. The illustration above is one of Varner’s creations. Since 2016, she has developed hundreds of graphics that depict people of many races, sexual orientations, body shapes, hairstyles, and abilities.

“[The Educated Birth] became a learning process for me, especially in the gender inclusivity area,” Varner says. “Our early materials did not employ gender-inclusive language. And folks reached out and communicated the significance of that.” Childbirth is an experience shared by people of multiple genders, such as trans men and nonbinary individuals, making gender-inclusive language another avenue for Varner to help her clients see themselves in her education materials. “Representation isn’t just nice,” Varner says. “It’s a necessary part of a safe and equitable health system.”

The blizzard brought this focus to Varner’s design talents, but she’d had an eye for artistic activism as early as college. “I created my degree at UR,” Varner says. “It was called educational activism in the arts. And that’s exactly what I do. Everyone stands to benefit from a care system that is more in tune with approaching people as they are. [Our content] is exhibiting [an inclusive] mindset and approach to how we engage with people in their reproductive health journey.”