Can a Reality Show Find the Elusive “Common Ground” on Abortion?

Anat Shenker-Osorio

The producers of the webshow Bump+ hide a lot about themselves which creates a highly suspect atmosphere for the foundation of a civil and meaningful conversation about abortion.

Eventually, we will all be on a reality show. There will be a military-style draft instituted, as there are simply too many shows that need bodies. Currently, “real” people starve themselves, get cut open, parent octuplets, seek a spouse, turn car parts into couture and show us a slice of life from prison. So ubiquitous has it become you might wonder, is any topic off limits? The answer is yes. Abortion has necessitated a new genre — the based-on-a-reality-show show.

This show is Bump+ — “an attempt to see if one story can succeed where nearly four decades of rhetoric and political posturing have failed.” Actors playing characters on a reality show, complete with fake producer, visible camera crew and confessional interviews, decide whether to carry their pregnancies to term.

Bump+ is the first offering from Yellow Line Studio, which “exists to develop, produce, and distribute quality entertainment that engages and influences the culture in positive ways.” And if I had any idea what that meant, I might agree it was good.

But obfuscation turns out to be integral to the show and the studio that spawned it. The obvious example of this is the conflation between creator and viewer. The audience is encouraged to “participate” — giving commentary on the episodes, offering advice to the characters and telling their stories to help shape the outcome.

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In response to Fox News labeling Bump+ an “abortion game show,” producer Lauri Deason was quick to refute the idea that viewers are voting. The line between yea or nay and influencing what happens, however, is pretty blurry. Each episode ends with the words “their choices are up to you.” So, to be fair, it’s not a game show; it’s an abortion-themed choose your own adventure.

When I asked Executive Producer Chris Riley why viewers’ comments would influence the narratives, he responded: “because that’s the nature of our web culture…. People are more apt to tell their story if they feel it has a chance to influence. I understand that can raise concern that this choice is being taken out of the hands of these women, our characters. Each of these women will make their own decisions — [the viewers’ comments represent] a wider circle of friends who offer advice.”

This explanation seems to contrast one of Deason’s objectives:

I hope we’re functioning in some small way as a cultural mirror reflecting the dark side of the reality show phenomenon…I’m relieved and hopeful for our culture when I read in the press that people are outraged and offended by the concept of a show like the fictional one we’ve created. Part of what drew me to this project was my own sense of horror at the idea that anyone (the women or the TV crew) would even think to exploit such a personal and private decision; and yet, three of the first ten comments we got on the trailer were inquiries about casting for the show. (We immediately removed those comments.)…A few people have raised some good points about the consequences of allowing what should be an intimate decision to be shared by millions of strangers – and how the current atmosphere that seems to characterize some of the actual abortion debate looks suspiciously like a real world parallel to that at times. If nothing else, the outrage over Bump+ proves that there are people from both perspectives who actually agree on one point that suggests they share a fundamental respect for women.

If you are seeking to criticize the genre, it hardly seems effective to profit off of one of its key elements — audience participation. As Audre Lorde wisely counseled “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

But most troubling is the lack of clarity in the motivation behind the show itself. Despite multiple attempts to get at what constitutes success in this endeavor, I remain unsure of what Deason means when she says she wants to “influence the culture in positive ways.” Deason’s written response on this is hard to dislike: “I’ll feel successful in terms of the company’s mission if viewers walk away with new or renewed confidence that they don’t have to compromise or abandon their own convictions to listen and respond with compassion to someone else.”

And Riley wrote similarly encouraging things, saying “I think in particular that we’ve already seen evidence in the conversations unfolding on the Bump+ website that the audience…is gaining compassion. They’re listening to people with whom they disagree. They’re trying to understand. And anytime people can have meaningful conversations around a topic that has been as polarizing and even taboo as abortion, a subject we’ve proven ourselves virtually incapable of talking about, I think that’s a plus for our culture.”

If this “experiment” is one of finding common ground — an endeavor Riley commended as represented on this very website — it seems the question of its success should revolve around whether this is possible and how it ought to be attempted. Riley maintains that “if we can tell the stories honestly and fairly, [if] you can conclude that this was paid for by the Pope or Planned Parenthood” than they’ve accomplished what they set out to do.

But is intentional ambiguity about your own beliefs the necessary starting point for civil debate?

Common ground is not a clearly demarcated space. Do we reach this mythical country by wearing our views on our sleeves and fighting it out till we find — Venn-diagram style — the intersections? Or do we, instead, hold back on our existing beliefs and biases?

The latter approach is the one Yellow Line is taking. Riley refuses to disclose his views on abortion. Other key people do the same. However, he maintains — as have others on the show’s website — that the folks involved come from a variety of backgrounds. They would have us understand this to mean they hold a variety of viewpoints.

But “variety” itself seems ill defined. As Mary Elizabeth Williams reported, all of Bump’s top folks teach at John Paul the Great Catholic University. However, you wouldn’t know this from their bios, which read “[Iocco] serves as a university administrator and faculty member” and “[Riley] teaches screenwriting and other media classes at the university level.” Deason doesn’t mention a university connection at all but is an adjunct professor at JP Catholic.

Why all the secrecy about their day jobs? Possibly because this university boasts the motto “Impacting Culture for Christ” and declares “the Catholic influence on the media is near rock bottom, but is enjoying a small but passionate resurgence in Hollywood. New media, which is evolving and maturing daily, is poised to radically change the landscape of the media industry.”

While it’s possible to interpret this as the ‘loving-kindness, accept-people-as-they-are’ version of Catholicism — it’s difficult to credit the school with such a view. In fact, they have proudly taken up Pope John Paul’s directives for Catholic universities, including “offering a convincing witness, within a pluralistic society, to the Church’s teaching, particularly on respect for human life, marriage and family, and the right ordering of public life. As most of us know, “respect for human life” in a dogmatic Catholic view means prohibiting abortion.

While Riley side-stepped potential conflict between the school’s directives and Bump’s+ objectives, JP Catholic states quite clearly: “All teaching faculty commit to harmony with Catholic Church teachings (the pope and bishops) in speech and action. Faculty, staff, students or volunteers who knowingly in public speech or actions take positions against the Catholic Church compromise their relationship with JP Catholic.” (Emphasis theirs) And “public speech” clearly extends beyond the classroom.

This connection to JP Catholic is the norm among Bump’s+ cast and crew. Sixteen out of the 27 people in the show’s credits work for, attend, or have graduated from JP Catholic. All of the show’s writers have studied there including Matthew Salisbury who came up with the idea for the show in a course at — you guessed it — JP Catholic. Two cast members not affiliated with the school clearly identify with the anti-choice movement.

While the top level folks, as their aforementioned bios attest, are circumspect in revealing their personal views — the younger members of this endeavor could learn a bit about Facebook privacy settings. For example, Emily Von Sydow, the associate producer who writes the show’s blog is a Facebook fan of The Not So Silent Majority among other anti-choice organizations. Regarding the charges of secrecy, she asks: “Should artists be required to label their art with their religious and political affiliations? Does a writer, director, or producer (or even a doctor, pilot, or journalist) have a responsibility to explain exactly what they believe to everyone?”

One viewer responds: “if the producers had done a web series (sic) on football or dog-sledding or making a cheesecake, I would argue that their political and religious affiliations are completely irrelevant. However, abortion is *the* polarizing religious, moral, and political issue of our age. When considering a web series (sic) dealing with abortion, knowledge of the point-of-view of the producers is not only of interest to the viewer, I would argue that it is *critical*, particularly if you hope to engage your viewer in honest dialogue.” Perhaps there is something to be said for encouraging viewer responses.

Riley offered, unasked, that he isn’t Catholic. Not surprising, given he’s a graduate of Oral Roberts University where “a Christian worldview is central to everything we do.” Similarly, Lauri Deason graduated from an evangelical center of higher education — William Tyndale College. It’s safe to assume she isn’t Catholic either.

I spoke with the only member of this production who is neither silent about nor right wing in her personal politics. Lauren Holiday, who plays a nurse at the clinic where most of the story takes place, is a lesbian activist who is married to her partner despite California’s schizophrenic attitude toward equality.

Holiday was quite clear that she felt absolutely no bias among Bump’s+ creators, nor hostility from her fellow cast members. In fact, because auditions were held at JP Catholic (surely a dubious practice for a show that professes to have no institutional relationship to the university) she insisted she was on alert for any bias — “I just wouldn’t have been involved in it if I thought they were trying to preach a certain message.”

In contrast to her colleagues, she offered up her views on abortion, stating “I’m pro-choice to me it’s really an issue of privacy…So I’m surprised that people feel like they can weigh in on somebody’s personal decisions, it’s almost a throw back to the old days when women were property.”

What to make, then, of this professed attempt at dialogue? Is it in earnest or the best-ever propaganda?

Turning to the show itself, the answer is still not obvious. There are hints of anti-choice tactics like forcing the women to not only have but stare at the screen during their ultrasounds — as part of their contractual obligation to the reality show. And while the doctor is willing to waive this requirement, in defiance of the producers if necessary, there’s also this exchange between him and Katie, one of the pregnant women:

Katie: Does it hurt?

Doctor: It can be complicated, but I’m not sure I can honestly answer that question.

Katie: Haven’t you…performed…

Katie: Why not?

Doctor: I’m a coward.

Why was this physician selected if he has no real knowledge of this procedure? And then there’s his answer — is it a question of courage to provide a medical service your patient requests? I guess it can be argued that in today’s political climate, bravery is essential.

Complicating any assessment of whether this show comes with an agenda and, if so, what that agenda entails is the intense criticism it has received from the anti-choice crowd. Besides the Fox News beating, conservative commentator Kathleen Parker charges “there are so many unappealing facets wrapped into this one package, it’s difficult to identify the core offense.” On her radio show Dr. Laura tore into Yellow Line CEO and Bump+ Executive Producer Iocco.

The vast majority of the comments on this show — I would estimate 75 percent but haven’t actually counted — are anti-choice. The standard story offered is of abortion regretted; the most frequent refrains are about the unborn. But this is precisely because the show has received much more — almost entirely negative — attention in the “Right to Life” camp. The over-riding sentiment from these folks is: how dare they make a show with decision-making in the foreground — the unborn baby always deserves top-billing. They’re contending, in a sense, that the show cannot foster dialogue and bring down the temperature because its very premise goes against their side’s worldview.

And so I find myself in the uncomfortable position of agreeing with people whose political objectives I abhor. I too believe the basic premise of the show is at odds with its purported intentions. For me this means, for an issue that — according to the legal logic in Roe v. Wade — is about privacy, the very notion of encouraging input from strangers is antithetical to legalized abortion. On the other side of this debate, I would guess this irreconcilable conflict would sound thus: for an issue involving life, which begins at conception, the circumstances surrounding termination of pregnancy may be meaningful but are never worthy of consideration above life.

The length the producers have gone to hide their affiliations indicates it might not be possible to present stories about abortion without an agenda. They obviously feel it’s necessary to avoid mention of the school where the idea was born and all of the executive and writing staff work or study. This indicates one of two things (1) they are hiding a secret agenda or (2) they fear people will suspect they are hiding a secret agenda.

Either way, highly suspect as the foundation for a civil and meaningful conversation. It is, at the outset, an attempt rooted in obscuring personal truths, and perhaps even outright fabrication.

Treading the middle ground is not just the intent of Bump+ but also the metaphor behind Yellow Line Studio’s name. In this, Riley remarked rather off-handedly that “driving down the middle” you are very likely to get hit by traffic from both sides. Especially, I would add, if you try and conceal yourself from view.

Culture & Conversation Maternity and Birthing

On ‘Commonsense Childbirth’: A Q&A With Midwife Jennie Joseph

Elizabeth Dawes Gay

Joseph founded a nonprofit, Commonsense Childbirth, in 1998 to inspire change in maternity care to better serve people of color. As a licensed midwife, Joseph seeks to transform how care is provided in a clinical setting.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

Jennie Joseph’s philosophy is simple: Treat patients like the people they are. The British native has found this goes a long way when it comes to her midwifery practice and the health of Black mothers and babies.

In the United States, Black women are disproportionately affected by poor maternal and infant health outcomes. Black women are more likely to experience maternal and infant death, pregnancy-related illness, premature birth, low birth weight, and stillbirth. Beyond the data, personal accounts of Black women’s birthing experiences detail discrimination, mistreatment, and violation of basic human rights. Media like the new film, The American Dream, share the maternity experiences of Black women in their own voices.

A new generation of activists, advocates, and concerned medical professionals have mobilized across the country to improve Black maternal and infant health, including through the birth justice and reproductive justice movements.

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Joseph founded a nonprofit, Commonsense Childbirth, in 1998 to inspire change in maternity care to better serve people of color. As a licensed midwife, Joseph seeks to transform how care is provided in a clinical setting.

At her clinics, which are located in central Florida, a welcoming smile and a conversation mark the start of each patient visit. Having a dialogue with patients about their unique needs, desires, and circumstances is a practice Joseph said has contributed to her patients having “chunky,” healthy, full-term babies. Dialogue and care that centers the patient costs nothing, Joseph told Rewire in an interview earlier this summer.

Joseph also offers training to midwives, doulas, community health workers, and other professionals in culturally competent, patient-centered care through her Commonsense Childbirth School of Midwifery, which launched in 2009. And in 2015, Joseph launched the National Perinatal Task Force, a network of perinatal health-care and service providers who are committed to working in underserved communities in order to transform maternal health outcomes in the United States.

Rewire spoke with Joseph about her tireless work to improve maternal and perinatal health in the Black community.

Rewire: What motivates and drives you each day?

Jennie Joseph: I moved to the United States in 1989 [from the United Kingdom], and each year it becomes more and more apparent that to address the issues I care deeply about, I have to put action behind all the talk.

I’m particularly concerned about maternal and infant morbidity and mortality that plague communities of color and specifically African Americans. Most people don’t know that three to four times as many Black women die during pregnancy and childbirth in the United States than their white counterparts.

When I arrived in the United States, I had to start a home birth practice to be able to practice at all, and it was during that time that I realized very few people of color were accessing care that way. I learned about the disparities in maternal health around the same time, and I felt compelled to do something about it.

My motivation is based on the fact that what we do [at my clinic] works so well it’s almost unconscionable not to continue doing it. I feel driven and personally responsible because I’ve figured out that there are some very simple things that anyone can do to make an impact. It’s such a win-win. Everybody wins: patients, staff, communities, health-care agencies.

There are only a few of us attacking this aggressively, with few resources and without support. I’ve experienced so much frustration, anger, and resignation about the situation because I feel like this is not something that people in the field don’t know about. I know there have been some efforts, but with little results. There are simple and cost-effective things that can be done. Even small interventions can make such a tremendous a difference, and I don’t understand why we can’t have more support and more interest in moving the needle in a more effective way.

I give up sometimes. I get so frustrated. Emotions vie for time and energy, but those very same emotions force me to keep going. I feel a constant drive to be in action and to be practical in achieving and getting results.

Rewire: In your opinion, what are some barriers to progress on maternal health and how can they be overcome?

JJ: The solutions that have been generated are the same, year in and year out, but are not really solutions. [Health-care professionals and the industry] keep pushing money into a broken system, without recognizing where there are gaps and barriers, and we keep doing the same thing.

One solution that has not worked is the approach of hiring practitioners without a thought to whether the practitioner is really a match for the community that they are looking to serve. Additionally, there is the fact that the practitioner alone is not going to be able make much difference. There has to be a concerted effort to have the entire health-care team be willing to support the work. If the front desk and access points are not in tune with why we need to address this issue in a specific way, what happens typically is that people do not necessarily feel welcomed or supported or respected.

The world’s best practitioner could be sitting down the hall, but never actually see the patient because the patient leaves before they get assistance or before they even get to make an appointment. People get tired of being looked down upon, shamed, ignored, or perhaps not treated well. And people know which hospitals and practitioners provide competent care and which practices are culturally safe.

I would like to convince people to try something different, for real. One of those things is an open-door triage at all OB-GYN facilities, similar to an emergency room, so that all patients seeking maternity care are seen for a first visit no matter what.

Another thing would be for practitioners to provide patient-centered care for all patients regardless of their ability to pay.  You don’t have to have cultural competency training, you just have to listen and believe what the patients are telling you—period.

Practitioners also have a role in dismantling the institutionalized racism that is causing such harm. You don’t have to speak a specific language to be kind. You just have to think a little bit and put yourself in that person’s shoes. You have to understand she might be in fear for her baby’s health or her own health. You can smile. You can touch respectfully. You can make eye contact. You can find a real translator. You can do things if you choose to. Or you can stay in place in a system you know is broken, doing business as usual, and continue to feel bad doing the work you once loved.

Rewire: You emphasize patient-centered care. Why aren’t other providers doing the same, and how can they be convinced to provide this type of care?

JJ: I think that is the crux of the matter: the convincing part. One, it’s a shame that I have to go around convincing anyone about the benefits of patient-centered care. And two, the typical response from medical staff is “Yeah, but the cost. It’s expensive. The bureaucracy, the system …” There is no disagreement that this should be the gold standard of care but providers say their setup doesn’t allow for it or that it really wouldn’t work. Keep in mind that patient-centered care also means equitable care—the kind of care we all want for ourselves and our families.

One of the things we do at my practice (and that providers have the most resistance to) is that we see everyone for that initial visit. We’ve created a triage entry point to medical care but also to social support, financial triage, actual emotional support, and recognition and understanding for the patient that yes, you have a problem, but we are here to work with you to solve it.

All of those things get to happen because we offer the first visit, regardless of their ability to pay. In the absence of that opportunity, the barrier to quality care itself is so detrimental: It’s literally a matter of life and death.

Rewire: How do you cover the cost of the first visit if someone cannot pay?

JJ: If we have a grant, we use those funds to help us pay our overhead. If we don’t, we wait until we have the women on Medicaid and try to do back-billing on those visits. If the patient doesn’t have Medicaid, we use the funds we earn from delivering babies of mothers who do have insurance and can pay the full price.

Rewire: You’ve talked about ensuring that expecting mothers have accessible, patient-centered maternity care. How exactly are you working to achieve that?

JJ: I want to empower community-based perinatal health workers (such as nurse practitioners) who are interested in providing care to communities in need, and encourage them to become entrepreneurial. As long as people have the credentials or license to provide prenatal, post-partum, and women’s health care and are interested in independent practice, then my vision is that they build a private practice for themselves. Based on the concept that to get real change in maternal health outcomes in the United States, women need access to specific kinds of health care—not just any old health care, but the kind that is humane, patient-centered, woman-centered, family-centered, and culturally-safe, and where providers believe that the patients matter. That kind of care will transform outcomes instantly.

I coined the phrase “Easy Access Clinics” to describe retail women’s health clinics like a CVS MinuteClinic that serve as a first entry point to care in a community, rather than in a big health-care system. At the Orlando Easy Access Clinic, women receive their first appointment regardless of their ability to pay. People find out about us via word of mouth; they know what we do before they get here.

We are at the point where even the local government agencies send patients to us. They know that even while someone’s Medicaid application is in pending status, we will still see them and start their care, as well as help them access their Medicaid benefits as part of our commitment to their overall well-being.

Others are already replicating this model across the country and we are doing research as we go along. We have created a system that becomes sustainable because of the trust and loyalty of the patients and their willingness to support us in supporting them.

Photo Credit: Filmmaker Paolo Patruno

Joseph speaking with a family at her central Florida clinic. (Credit: Filmmaker Paolo Patruno)

RewireWhat are your thoughts on the decision in Florida not to expand Medicaid at this time?

JJ: I consider health care a human right. That’s what I know. That’s how I was trained. That’s what I lived all the years I was in Europe. And to be here and see this wanton disregard for health and humanity breaks my heart.

Not expanding Medicaid has such deep repercussions on patients and providers. We hold on by a very thin thread. We can’t get our claims paid. We have all kinds of hoops and confusion. There is a lack of interest and accountability from insurance payers, and we are struggling so badly. I also have a petition right now to ask for Medicaid coverage for pregnant women.

Health care is a human right: It can’t be anything else.

Rewire: You launched the National Perinatal Task Force in 2015. What do you hope to accomplish through that effort?

JJ: The main goal of the National Perinatal Task Force is to connect perinatal service providers, lift each other up, and establish community recognition of sites committed to a certain standard of care.

The facilities of task force members are identified as Perinatal Safe Spots. A Perinatal Safe Spot could be an educational or social site, a moms’ group, a breastfeeding circle, a local doula practice, or a community center. It could be anywhere, but it has got to be in a community with what I call a “materno-toxic” area—an area where you know without any doubt that mothers are in jeopardy. It is an area where social determinants of health are affecting mom’s and baby’s chances of being strong and whole and hearty. Therein, we need to put a safe spot right in the heart of that materno-toxic area so she has a better chance for survival.

The task force is a group of maternity service providers and concerned community members willing to be a safe spot for that area. Members also recognize each other across the nation; we support each other and learn from each others’ best practices.

People who are working in their communities to improve maternal and infant health come forward all the time as they are feeling alone, quietly doing the best they can for their community, with little or nothing. Don’t be discouraged. You can get a lot done with pure willpower and determination.

RewireDo you have funding to run the National Perinatal Task Force?

JJ: Not yet. We have got the task force up and running as best we can under my nonprofit Commonsense Childbirth. I have not asked for funding or donations because I wanted to see if I could get the task force off the ground first.

There are 30 Perinatal Safe Spots across the United States that are listed on the website currently. The current goal is to house and support the supporters, recognize those people working on the ground, and share information with the public. The next step will be to strengthen the task force and bring funding for stability and growth.

RewireYou’re featured in the new film The American Dream. How did that happen and what are you planning to do next?

JJ: The Italian filmmaker Paolo Patruno got on a plane on his own dime and brought his cameras to Florida. We were planning to talk about Black midwifery. Once we started filming, women were sharing so authentically that we said this is about women’s voices being heard. I would love to tease that dialogue forward and I am planning to go to four or five cities where I can show the film and host a town hall, gathering to capture what the community has to say about maternal health. I want to hear their voices. So far, the film has been screened publicly in Oakland and Kansas City, and the full documentary is already available on YouTube.

RewireThe Black Mamas Matter Toolkit was published this past June by the Center for Reproductive Rights to support human-rights based policy advocacy on maternal health. What about the toolkit or other resources do you find helpful for thinking about solutions to poor maternal health in the Black community?

JJ: The toolkit is the most succinct and comprehensive thing I’ve seen since I’ve been doing this work. It felt like, “At last!”

One of the most exciting things for me is that the toolkit seems to have covered every angle of this problem. It tells the truth about what’s happening for Black women and actually all women everywhere as far as maternity care is concerned.

There is a need for us to recognize how the system has taken agency and power away from women and placed it in the hands of large health systems where institutionalized racism is causing much harm. The toolkit, for the first time in my opinion, really addresses all of these ills and posits some very clear thoughts and solutions around them. I think it is going to go a long way to begin the change we need to see in maternal and child health in the United States.

RewireWhat do you count as one of your success stories?

JJ: One of my earlier patients was a single mom who had a lot going on and became pregnant by accident. She was very connected to us when she came to clinic. She became so empowered and wanted a home birth. But she was anemic at the end of her pregnancy and we recommended a hospital birth. She was empowered through the birth, breastfed her baby, and started a journey toward nursing. She is now about to get her master’s degree in nursing, and she wants to come back to work with me. She’s determined to come back and serve and give back. She’s not the only one. It happens over and over again.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Culture & Conversation Media

A Q&A With ‘Never Too Real’ Author Carmen Rita Wong on Why #WeNeedDiverseBooks

Ilana Masad

Rewire had a chance to chat with Wong about her experience finding a place for the work she wanted to create, and what the media often gets wrong when portraying Latina women and other women of color.

Carmen Rita Wong says the characters in her new novel, Never Too Real, are largely invisible in media, which is why she chose to tell their stories. The fictional work is about Latina women who are both struggling and successful in their various fields. Wong says she’s treating this writing project as a mission, a way to tell the story of women like her: Latina women and other women of color who exist in ways other than the stereotypes so often portrayed on television and in films.

Wong herself is a master of media: She’s written for countless outlets, been the host of her own TV show, written books on finance, and now, she’s turned to fiction.

Rewire had a chance to chat with Wong about her experience finding a place for the work she wanted to create, and what the media often gets wrong when portraying Latina women and other women of color.

Rewire: How did this novel come about?

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Carmen Rita Wong: My a-ha! moment came with my daughter; we were walking together and passed a bus stop with [a poster for] a show and she said, “Mom, that poster, all those women look like you. But why are they maids?”

My daughter’s frame of reference is very different from mine: She’s growing up more privileged and with a Black president, surrounded by family where she happens to be a blonde Latina while her cousins are Black Latinas. I waited tables alongside my mom to put myself through college, so I have a deep respect for every form of work. But it was definitely one of those things where you only see yourself reflected in one way—and that’s how I grew up, seeing Latinas being shown in one way; but this is not how I live, and not how my daughter lives, now.

That same month I was having a party, celebrating my wonderful, successful girlfriends. We all came up together, we’ve all supported each other, and we’re all women of color, mostly Latina. I looked around and wondered, how come nobody knows we exist?

So I thought, all right, you know what? Now’s the time. This has just got to get done. I’m in a position to do this, I need to do it. It was very much a mission; I didn’t approach it as a side project.

Rewire: Kirkus Reviews, a book review site, called Never Too Real a “multicultural edition of Sex and the City.” How would you characterize the book? Would you call it that?

CRW: I think that superficially that’s a nice, easy elevator pitch because there are four of these women, they’re glamorous, and they’re in New York City. I think that’s where the similarities pretty much end. The book goes a lot deeper than that. If you had to categorize it TV-wise, it’s a “dramedy”: There’s some lightheartedness, there’s some playfulness, some glamor, but it is really about real issues in your life as you try to do well, if you try to be the first generation to do better than the previous. I think that’s one of the uniting factors of these four women—they’re all … first [in their families] to be born in the United States, and grow up and finish college. And that’s an important bonding issue that makes it very different [from] Sex in the City.

Rewire: Diversity in literature is a widely-discussed issue in the literary community these days, with hashtags like #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Was it hard for you to find a place for your book, to publish it?

CRW: I don’t know—hard for some people is not hard for others. Let’s just say—my agent’s probably going to kill me—but my favorite rejection from a major publisher, which actually confirmed to me that I was on the right track, was (and I have it memorized): “We are not looking for aspirational in this market at this time.”

Rewire: They called it aspirational?

CRW: Exactly. So it was mildly crushing, and then I realized—I’m on it, I am so on it. Because these publishers, who are they, and what have they published? Books by white men. Yes, those publishers are powerful, and yes, they’re rich, but they don’t get it. They don’t see it. They don’t know we exist. What is “this market,” and what is “aspirational?”

When I was coming up in media, in publishing and magazines, I would hear from people, “Carmen, we know you want to get ahead, but we just don’t know what to do with you.” And that’s code. What it really means is, “Carmen, you’re a brown girl, and we can promote this white guy or girl, but we can’t promote you. We just don’t know what to do with you.” But they would never say that to a white male. They would never say, “You know what, Bob? We just don’t know what to do with you.” So to me that rejection letter was just like that.

I remember back in the ’90s, there was a really great push of [books] like Waiting to Exhale or Joy Luck Club. There was just a lot more in fiction about successful, multigenerational, multicultural families. It just was normal and it was not considered crazy. I think there was a trend, and it just became a different trend. And then there was a push for powerful stories, but stories of only one note, for a long time in Latino fiction. I can’t read that stuff, because I lived it already. I want to read stories that make me escape or make me inspired or make me feel heard.

Rewire: In the book, you introduce women who come from all walks of life and economic backgrounds, but they’re all upper-middle-class at the time of the narrative. Going back to your daughter seeing the poster of Latina women portrayed as maids, do you find that economic diversity is what’s often missing in popular and literary culture?

CRW: My book wasn’t as calculated as that, because this is my life, and these are my friends and the people I surround myself with. I think what I saw missing in these cultures was that niche [of successful Latina women].

Latinos in popular culture … I’ve watched it be a very hard process. For example, when I was in magazines, they tried to push me to the Spanish-language property, and I’d say that I don’t primarily speak in Spanish. Why can’t I be used in the English-dominant space? Why? Give me a reason why! And they’d have to say, “Well, because you’re Latina.” So? Latinos speak English! We’re Americans! If you were Black or Latina you’d have to be in that particular space and you weren’t allowed to exist in the general market. And as we’ve seen, and as we see now, that has changed a lot.

Rewire: How so?

CRW: We have huge growth in numbers, but also too, if you look at, for example, ShondaLand, [the production company] on ABC—it’s an example of an openness to seeing and consuming media from all cultures, whether it’s music or TV. I definitely feel that things have changed, there’s a big shift and a huge push now toward inclusion.

I think with social media too, you see the pressure of people saying, for example, #OscarsSoWhite. I grew up in a time when media was controlled by a small group of people and I’ve watched it change, morph, and transform. Fifteen years ago, when I was co-chair of the Hispanic Affinity Group at Time Inc., I was saying we’re here, we consume stuff in English, and you need to pay attention to us. When the census came out [proving what I had been saying], I said, the census, look at the census!

And still the dollars didn’t come in; but when social media happened, that’s when the money started coming in. And finally people started saying, “Oh, they’re, they’re quite vocal, they exist.” [Laughs.] But our ethnicity or color shouldn’t be our only draw. We’re here and have been here. What they’re seeing shouldn’t come as such a shock.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.