A Conversation With The Fifth Vital Sign



Emily Varnam, a doula, who is speaking over a Facebook call, is currently in London visiting family. Despite being jet-lagged, she is still able to hold a conversation about the systemic oppression that is present in the daily lives of women, especially women of color, regarding their bodies and health care. She tells me about the organization she co-founded, The Fifth Vital Sign (or 5VS), which identifies the menstrual cycle as a vital sign.

She founded 5VS with Kelsey Knight who is currently based in New York City. The two teach classes on menstruation, contraception, consent in a medical and sexual setting, breast and chest health, hormonal health, anatomy and body literacy.

The Fifth Vital Sign was created following several after-work conversations with Varnam about the lack of informed choice Knight saw while working in labor and delivery. Knight said that many women were “meeting their cervix for the first time during labor,” meaning these women were not aware of what their cervix did, especially during labor.

Lack of available access to body literacy is “disempowering” to these women, said Knight. They both decided that conversation concerning body literacy, among many other concepts, needed to be made accessible to as many people as possible.

According to Varnam, while working with birth, she noticed there wasn’t adequate preparation in the way education and healthcare systems were set up to give people opportunities to make informed decisions about their bodies and their health.

“I just saw how differently people were spoken to, how much their pain wasn’t taken seriously and how much they were coerced,” Varnam said.

It’s an issue where we need to start listening and believing people. This motivated them to focus their organization on people understanding their bodies, rather than a “one size fits all” kind of curriculum.

Varnam said that a really good way to oppress people is by not making access to body literacy easily available.

“Separating somebody from other people is one thing, separating people from themselves is a whole other thing,” Varnam said.

The Fifth Vital Sign is heavily focused on conversation.

“Our work is not to come in and save anybody, it’s really just having conversations about what our bodies do and what choices we can make,” Varnam explains, “then it’s up to the individual to makes those choices.”

The duo is currently  broadening what they do in response to what people and the community have said they needed.

“The health of our bodies really relies on the health of the community and vice versa,” Varnam said.




The Detroit Music Scene is Looking A Little More Inclusive

downloadThe Detroit music scene has quite a few hidden gems, Seraphine Collective is one of them. The members of Seraphine Collective aim to be accessible to those who may feel excluded from the male-dominated music scene, something we are still seeing here in Detroit.

Through multiple music workshops, events and discussions, these women are powering through a patriarchal area of society so their music can be heard, respected and danced to by all.

In 2013, former member Lauren Rossi began Seraphine Collective as a blog project. The blog featured interviews and individual profiles of women musicians in Detroit. She said her hope was to “highlight, inspire, and encourage current and aspiring musicians in the area.” The conversations that came from those interviews generated a rich exchange of ideas, including, but not limited to, the need for a woman-owned and operated venue, record label, recording studio, workshops and space where women could share their skills.

They started to create zines (most commonly known as magazines, or “fanzines”) and mix tapes. Then, their monthly meetings were being made open to the public. Once they received a grant from Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the Knight Foundation, the collective was able to put on BFF Fests and their DJ Workshop: Beat Match Brunch with Mother Cyborg.

“What started out as a predominantly rock music collective has grown drastically and now includes more hip-hop and electronic performances,” as said by a Seraphine Collective member. Because the Seraphine Collective is heavily rooted in inclusivity and the concept of being a collective, they chose to keep members anonymous.

BFF Fest (Best Fest Forever), one of the first events that really showed the community what the Seraphine Collective was, is an all-ages and inclusive summer music festival in Detroit. It was created to highlight, celebrate and promote the talents of Michigan’s diverse community of musicians and artists. BFF Fest prioritizes the participation of women, gender non-conforming, queer, transgender and people of color performers “to create visibility in a music scene dominated by patriarchal and institutionally racist cultural norms,” a seraphine collective member said.

Seraphine Collective is also putting on more events to create visibility in the Detroit music scene, such as their Open Tables monthly, where DJ’s from the Beat Match Brunch workshop get to practice beat matching vinyl records in a public space.

“Beat Match Brunch 102 is coming up this April focusing on the digital side of DJ-ing, taught by Mother Cyborg and Stacey Hottwaxx Hale (Godmother of House music!),” a Seraphine Collective member said.

The collective hopes to host another dialogue series in the spring, along with booking more shows they are passionate about, but their main focus, as of right now, is getting their own space.

Intersectional feminism plays a huge role in their movement. In their words, “Our feminism has to be intersectional or it is complete bullshit.” Seraphine collective said that they encourage open and honest expression of both feminist unity and differences. They believe that when people gather to create, perform and appreciate music, it has an unparalleled way of creating the authentic human relationships needed to collaboratively tackle all of the more “heavy” issues at hand in Detroit.

They also have hosted a series of community dialogues on rape culture in the Detroit music scene last spring.

As far as the future looks for Seraphine Collective, they aim to “keep exploring how music intersects with identity, community consciousness and various activism efforts in Detroit.” They want to continue supporting, building with, and learning from the people in Detroit who have been making music and art for generations.

Seraphine Collective hopes to keep growing and learning, especially from feminist organizations that have come before them. They are in the early planning stages of opening their own venue in partnership with Girls Rock Detroit and We Found Hip Hop.

FIERCE Empowerment: Hospitality Training Photo Story

My photo story is on the hospitality training session put on by FIERCE Staffing through the organization FIERCE Empowerment. Arielle Johnson, the founder of FIERCE, leads a group of women in a training session on hospitality to help them get a boost in the career field of hospitality.

What I learned from this project was that plans fall through and they fall through fast. I learned to always keep your options open and to plan for the unexpected. Putting together various pictures to build a story is truly a beautiful experience. Bringing this organization – and what they do – to life was my main goal. I plan to keep on finding more experiences to document through photography so I can create something just as special as this, again.


Make Your Empowerment FIERCE

After becoming pregnant in her sophomore year of college, Arielle Johnson decided that the support she received from family and friends should be available to all women.

In 2012, her senior year, Johnson created FIERCE Empowerment, an organization based in Detroit. The acronym for FIERCE explains the mission: Female Icons Encouraging Real Concepts of Empowerment. This is what Johnson intends to do with every program she offers through her organization.

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Photos courtesy of rollingout.com

FIERCE Empowerment is comprised of four pillars: FIERCE Mentors, FIERCE Professionals, FIERCE Communities and FIERCE Families.

FIERCE Mentors partners a young woman with a mentor. Activities and workshops are involved so the mentor and mentee have a guaranteed time and place to spend time together.

“Our mentors must be trained and make a commitment to having this consistent relationship for at least a year,” Johnson said.

FIERCE Professionals partners with Johnson’s for-profit sister company FIERCE Staffing or other organizations, to provide professional development opportunities to the women and girls they serve, without a charge.

FIERCE Staffing, a recently launched company, gives training and working opportunities in hospitality, for charge, to women who haven’t been to college.

“We have a group of ladies right now going through 12 weeks of hospitality training,” Johnson says, explaining that her background in hospitality inspired FIERCE Staffing.

FIERCE Communities sponsors diaper drives, community baby showers, Christmas events, food giveaways and clothing collections for women.

“It’s FIERCE giving back to the community,” Johnson said.

FIERCE Families provides parenting classes and themed playgroups where moms from different backgrounds come together and learn from each other. One recent playgroup focused on science and math.

“We made a prosthetic hand with straws and paper and talked about engineering,” Johnson said.

“I thought I was just going to a play date,” said Tiffany Rhymes, a woman who has been involved with FIERCE for three years, “but I also got education on how to make healthy meals and how to spread [out] money.”

Rhymes says FIERCE helped her socially and financially, while also helping her build a relationship with her daughter and to connect with other parents who have been through what she has.

“It helped my whole lifestyle,” Rhymes said.

Allyson Jones, the board chair of the organization, says the first time she saw FIERCE making a difference in someone’s life was at one of their Christmas events, where they provided gifts to many families in need.

“A mother broke down in tears, saying ‘Thank you, I’m glad that I not only can provide my sons with gifts, but with skills that can help my family,’” Jones said.

FIERCE is funded by individual donations through social media and by direct help from Arielle and her family.

“Its really great to say that we’ve been doing things for girls since 2012 and we’ve never had a large grant,” Johnson says, “just imagine what we can do when we finally have real funding.”

Detroit City FC Tryouts

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Sports photography is the most difficult project I have worked on so far. From indoor arenas with horrible lighting to players moving too fast for me to capture that special shot, I prefer to maybe shoot more stationary people. But all in all, I would do it again. I found it challenging to take in the timing of it all. Players will make that special shot when you never expect it and I was always waiting for it, only to miss it and be disappointed. As the game went on I got better about sooting multiple photos at once during a climatic play. I enjoyed being out there in the middle of it all and feeling like I captured moments that others did not.

Take a look at my 10 best photos

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During the camera controls unit in my photojournalism class I not only learned about aperture, ISO, shutter speed and white balance, but that my (boyfriend’s) camera is a monster from a nightmare that I’m finally not scared of anymore…or so I think.

Working a camera manually is one of the most rewarding challenges I could have taken on.

While working more and more with my camera I noticed that it really comes down to just four controls: white balance, shutter speed, f-stop (aperture) and ISO.

ISO is the absolute first thing you should set on your camera before shooting. It measures your camera’s sensitivity to light. The lower the number the less sensitive your camera will be to light and the higher the number the more sensitive your camera will be. For example, when I’m shooting outside on a sunny day, I usually will set my ISO to 200-400, but if I’m inside in a dim setting I’ll set it much higher.

Shutter speed is the next factor you can set. It controls how long your shutter opens and closes. So, the larger the number you set it to, then your camera can take a photo of an object in action without blur. If it’s at a lower number, like 1/60 (of a second) then you might want to use a tripod because your photo will turn out very blurry since your hands might start shaking at such a slow speed. Also, since shutter speed helps take action shots, here are the three main shots: panned, stopped and blurred. Panned action is when an object in motion is clear and the background is blurry. Stopped action is when the object in motion and the background are both clear. Lastly, blurred action is when the object in motion is blurred and the background is clear.

The next control you set is the f-stop, also known as aperture. It’s how much light is let into your camera. For example, if you set your aperture to 2.8, there is going to be a big opening so the most light can get in, which also creates a shallow depth of field, where the object closest to the lens is in focus and the rest is blurred out. But, if you set your aperture to 16, that will make the opening much smaller so less light can be let in, creating a wide depth of field, which means everything is in focus.

The last control you will set is white balance. To do this, first evaluate the light where you are planning on shooting, then set the ISO accordingly. After that, find something grey (since a camera meters the world in 18% grey) and meter that color in your white balance control tool on your camera. Then you’re all set to take that great photo!

Learning about these four controls was a lot to take in, but after practicing them, I now have a full understanding of what they do and how they can make your photo horrible, or a success!