harper's bazaar women of hope
Mario Sorrenti

From left clockwise: Christy Turlington Burns, Allyson Felix, Ashley Graham, Melissa DeRosa, Dr. Leana Wen, and Rep. Lauren Underwood.

As a maternal health advocate, Christy Turlington Burns has spent the past decade traveling the world with her organization, Every Mother Counts, to ensure that women everywhere have access to proper care through pregnancy and childbirth. Turlington Burns made that her mission after suffering a life-threatening hemorrhage following the birth of her daughter, Grace, in 2003. Her work since then has afforded her visibility into a range of women’s health issues, as well as a vast maze of health-care systems both in the United States and abroad. It has also given her a stark perspective on many of the inequities that have been exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to her involvement with a task force created by New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to explore how to make childbirth safe for women during the coronavirus crisis.

Throughout her life and even her career in fashion, Turlington Burns has embodied a kind of hopefulness, not just as an image but as an ideal: that you don’t have to accept the world or your place in it as it is handed to you, that you can change it, and even make it better by staying true to who you are and what you believe. We’re living through a period, though, when reasons to have hope often seem harder and harder to find. So we asked Turlington Burns for a list of women who give her hope. She responded with five: secretary to Governor Cuomo and chair of the state’s COVID-19 Maternity Task Force, Melissa DeRosa; six-time Olympic gold medal–winning runner Allyson Felix; model, activist, and new mother Ashley Graham; U.S. Rep. and cofounder and co-chair of the House Black Maternal Health Caucus Lauren Underwood; and physician, public health expert, and former Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen.

To ensure everyone’s safety in the midst of the pandemic, we tapped into a variety of means and methods to create this story. The subjects were, for the most part, shot remotely, with the photographer, Mario Sorrenti, using a mix of Zoom and iPhone cameras to capture their images; the stylist, George Cortina, often called in or offered direction via FaceTime. Only Turlington Burns was photographed in person, outside, near her home on Long Island, New York, with no crew on set and at a physical distance. See the full cover shoot here.

women of hope harper's bazaar
From left clockwise: Joyann King, Melissa DeRosa, Lauren Underwood, Ashley Graham, Dr. Leana Wen, Allyson Felix, Christy Turlington.
Mario Sorrenti

In late May, the women convened for a Zoom call, moderated by Harper’s Bazaar co–Acting Editor Joyann King, to discuss the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, the inequalities in our health-care system, and the signs of hope they’ve been able to find in the tragedy of the pandemic. The call itself was an apt reflection of life in this complicated moment: During the conversation, Turlington Burns revealed that her mother-in-law had passed away the day before, but no one was able to visit because of restrictions related to the virus; DeRosa, who was in Albany, joined late because she had to attend a briefing; Representative Underwood, who was in Washington, D.C., was called away midway through to vote on a House Covid-19 relief bill; and as Dr. Wen, who was at home in Baltimore, vividly illustrated the virtues and challenges of the American public health system, she fed her newborn daughter a bottle.

Something else was happening too: As the women spoke, harrowing video was surfacing of George Floyd’s last moments, with the knee of a Minneapolis police officer pressed defiantly on his neck while three other officers looked on. The pain, anger, and outrage over Floyd’s killing—and the systemic racism, hate, and violence that has claimed the lives of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many others in the Black community—erupted in protests, demonstrations, and calls for justice across the country and around the world. In the days that followed, we went back to all of the women to give them a chance to respond. The exchange that follows contains both those responses and excerpts from the Zoom call. Beyond what you see here, this conversation will of course need to expand and continue. That is our hope.

HARPER’S BAZAAR: Things are changing around us every day, and it’s hard to maintain hope all the time. Many Americans are rightfully feeling very sad and angry over the injustices that continue to be suffered by those in the Black community and other communities of color. How have you been processing these events? What has been running through your mind? And how are you sustaining hope today?

REP. LAUREN UNDERWOOD: The recent events have been extremely difficult for me. I’ve had all the feelings—anger, deeply rooted sadness, and, at times, hopelessness. It feels like death and destruction has just been all around my community, between Covid-19 and the recent acts of violence. I know that so many of my constituents [in Illinois] are feeling hopeless, whether it’s because of discrimination, injustice, inequality, or destruction of businesses that they sacrificed for so long to build. What’s giving me hope is that each of us is finding that pathway forward within ourselves. I’m hopeful that we have a renewed commitment to solve these problems together, to tackle them head-on. I’m very encouraged that we are having a direct conversation about race and racism in our country right now. That hasn’t happened in this way in a very long time, so I’m optimistic. This is a painful moment, but I hope that it’s a moment of growth and a moment of productivity.

I’m very encouraged that we are having a direct conversation about race and racism in our country right now. That hasn’t happened in this way in a very long time, so I’m optimistic.
— Rep. Lauren Underwood —

ALLYSON FELIX: My heart has been very heavy with the events that have taken place recently, and it’s been very hard to hold on to hope. I think about what happened to George Floyd and how a grown man was calling out for his mother. ... And it’s heartbreaking. For almost nine minutes. It just is very, very heavy on my heart when I think about everything that is taking place in this world. I think about my own father and my husband, my brother. It’s very personal to me because I know it could have been them, that it can be them, that it might be them. And that’s terrifying to me. Even my own experiences of being pulled over in the passenger seat with my brother and my husband, and that fear that grips me because I know what could come of this encounter. And so in these moments, it is hard. I am sad. I’m outraged. I’m frustrated. I’m angry. And it feels like a cycle that is never ending. But what I am encouraged by is looking at the nation and the protests that are taking place and the diversity among those individuals. And I feel like, even though the world is so divided right now, in those moments I feel that we have allies, that people are listening and educating themselves, and that they will go out and vote. And so I’m encouraged by that in the midst of this outrage. I know that this is a problem for everyone, that will only be solved by everyone. And that is the hope that I have: that we can unify, that we can come together, that we can figure out the next steps, and not just be outraged but moved to real action and see things change.

christy turlington harper's bazaar
Christy Turlington Burns wears a Bottega Veneta top and pants. See Christy’s full cover shoot here.
Mario Sorrenti

DR. LEANA WEN: I was the health commissioner in Baltimore during the unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray, an African-American man, while in police custody back in 2015. And I experienced this in multiple ways. I saw the health effects of the protest directly because there were more than a dozen pharmacies that were burned down, looted, or closed, and we had to figure out how to get people medications. People had to get to their chemotherapy and dialysis appointments but lost their ways of transportation. Corner stores were burned down and people couldn’t get access to food. And, of course, one in three African-Americans in Baltimore already lived in a food desert compared to one in 12 whites. So these health disparities that were already there were exacerbated by the protests. But the reason these protests were occurring in the first place is because people’s lives are valued differently. That where a person is born and what color their skin happens to be, unfortunately, in our world determine if they live. And this is happening all over again, all over the country. And I’m so glad that we are raising awareness of the fact that racism has to be considered a public health crisis, that it is an emergency, that there is now the intersection of racism and structural racism being acknowledged. COVID-19 is unmasking these inequities and problems that have long been there. I’m glad that we’re now calling it out for what it is, that there is national attention to this issue. At the same time, I mourn the death of George Floyd. I mourn the death of all the others who have died because of police brutality and because of structural racism in our system that’s caused so many minorities and people of color to die disproportionately from COVID-19 and many other causes. And I think it just shows that when pandemics like this hit, that those who are affected the most are those who already bear the greatest brunt of disparities, and who bear the greatest brunt of inequities. And there is a lot more work that lies ahead of us. To both, in the short term, provide services for people who need them the most, and long term, to address these inequities, because we just cannot accept this type of world that we live in.

I feel like, even though the world is so divided right now, in those moments I feel that we have allies, that people are listening and educating themselves, and that they will go out and vote.
— Allyson Felix —

MELISSA DEROSA: Our country is facing a historic crossroads: two crises converging at the same time. The pain and fear that we’re confronting at this moment threaten to overtake us, but they can also unify us and make us stronger. As a nation—and certainly as New Yorkers—we will clear a path forward, even though at times it may feel impossible. In New York State, we beat back COVID-19 by coming together, united in resolve and in purpose. We put the good of the collective over the individual, and we made change happen. We flattened the curve, and we saved lives. We now must use that same energy and unity and resolve to confront and beat back 400 years of systemic racism and discrimination, which have prevailed in this country for far too long. I have hope, but even more than hope, I have faith—that in this moment of national pain, there is opportunity for constructive change. By uniting around a concrete agenda of justice and reform, by voting and electing leaders committed to seeing it through, by participating in the census and making sure you’re counted. By recognizing the will of the people and the fact that this time needs to be different, that we can—and we must—make inroads for racial justice.

allyson felix poses in a black bodysuit and heels
Allyson Felix wears a Maison Margiela bodysuit, Manolo Blahnik shoes, and her own jewelry.
Mario Sorrenti

ASHLEY GRAHAM: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Botham Jean, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and their families deserve better. Everyone in the African-American community who has experienced injustice and whose voices have been ignored for as long as America has existed deserve better. This is not a time to be silent. And I know that as a public figure, it is my duty to be an advocate for change and reform, and to use my platform to elevate voices that need to be heard. This moment is incredibly long overdue, and there is hope in seeing people from all walks of life come together in solidarity. But we must remember that this work cannot stop anytime soon if we want to see justice and confront systematic racism. I also believe that as aspiring allies, we must turn our attention to Black leadership and how we can support what they are doing and the vision they have for a tomorrow that sees them as agents of change for a better future. Also, we must ask those public voices as well as people we have personal relationships with how we can best align ourselves with the vision they have for the future that we all so desperately want.

This moment is incredibly long overdue, and there is hope in seeing people from all walks of life come together in solidarity.
— Ashley Graham —

CHRISTY TURLINGTON BURNS: This has been a really, really hard time to stay hopeful. Since the murder of George Floyd, I have really struggled to know what exactly to do in this moment. I was able to attend a peaceful protest on the week anniversary of his murder. This act—this small act—really ended up being exactly what I needed to help push me forward. I think being with so many others united in a sincere effort to show up, listen, and join in a conversation that requires all of us to improve the situation for African-American people in this country. ... It was a powerful experience, and I know that’s just the beginning. We have to ask ourselves the hard questions right now. I’ve asked myself, “Am I doing enough? No. Could I be doing more? Absolutely.” As a leader of an organization that’s focused on ensuring equitable access to maternity care for all, the most marginalized populations are those we need to listen to most. I’m committed to doing that. I’m committed to doing the work that is required to stay on course, to continue to learn and educate myself, and educate the people around me to make this world the place that we want to live in—a place that is welcoming of everyone, where people are safe to live their lives, to be healthy, and to have policies that protect them. This is the world that I want to see. I am hopeful that, step by step and day by day, we can get there.

ashley graham poses in front of a white wall while wearing a cream dress featuring abdominal cut outs, and a thick gold necklace
Ashley Graham wear a Proenza Schouler dress and necklace.
Mario Sorrenti

JOYANN KING: Christy, you brought these women together. In your personal life and your work, how have you been able to find signs of hope?

CHRISTY TURLINGTON BURNS: I have been a maternal health advocate since the day I became a mom, which was 16 and a half years ago now. In that period of time, I have met countless inspiring women—women leaders, women activists, women providers. And I’m always hopeful because of those relationships that I’ve built over time and the new relationships that I’ve been able to establish, so I don’t have to look far to find inspiration and hope.

I’m committed to doing the work that is required to stay on course, to continue to learn and educate myself, and educate the people around me to make this world the place that we want to live in.

— Christy Turlington Burns —

JOYANN KING: Representative Underwood, you started your career as a nurse. Now, of course, you’re a member of Congress. Was there any sort of pinnacle moment in your life where you felt like you could achieve the things that you’d hoped you could?

REP. LAUREN UNDERWOOD: It was when I was a teenager, really. I got appointed by my mayor to a local commission in our town and had the opportunity to make recommendations on housing policy in my community. I was so inspired by that. My path was nontraditional, but I think that we need more nurses, more physicians, more people from everyday professions serving in public office. We are problem solving–oriented, and we have an opportunity to make a real difference in people’s lives.

lauren underwood, in a white top and skirt, stands in front of the lawn at capitol hill
Representative Lauren Underwood.=
Mario Sorrenti

JOYANN KING: Dr. Wen, as a physician, a public health expert, and a mother of two yourself, what lessons do you hope our country will take away from this experience?

DR. LEANA WEN: I think COVID-19 is teaching us so much. We often say, “Public health saved your life today—you just don’t know it.” So much of the work we do is invisible by definition. We prevent something from happening, and therefore you don’t see the work that goes into making that happen. But I think now we’re seeing what happens when we do not invest in prevention, when we do not invest in preparedness, and we do not invest in public health infrastructure. And I hope that we take away that lesson. This pandemic has unearthed and unmasked many of the underlying disparities, the racial disparities, socio-economic disparities, and huge inequities based on decades of neglect.

JOYANN KING: Allyson, you’re a six-time Olympic gold medalist. How have you kept that drive alive during this time? How are you staying pumped, for lack of a better word?

ALLYSON FELIX: It has definitely been a challenge to stay completely motivated and on course. My training in the last two-plus months has looked very different than it did before. I’ve been training in the street in front of my house, on trails, on empty fields, and just really adapting and getting creative. But throughout this time I’ve really just tried to stay focused on my goals. Even though they are going to be much further away now, I’m really trying to make the decision to consciously be positive. I’m just grateful to have this time at home with my family, to be present, and to get stronger and continue to grow.

dr leana wen, wearing a black dress, poses in front of a white wall
Dr. Leana Wen wears a Chanel dress and her own earrings.
Mario Sorrenti

JOYANN KING: Ashley, you just had a baby this year. How do you think the moment we’re in right now has shifted your priorities?

ASHLEY GRAHAM: Having a baby has shifted them in ways that I never thought possible. I mean, having a baby, first of all, and then being quarantined with the baby, has changed everything. Just being able to watch my son grow—literally, before my eyes—is something I never dreamed possible. We’re actually quarantined in Nebraska with my mom, in the same house I grew up in. It’s like I’ve gone back to simpler times, and it’s reminded me that I don’t need as much, that family is first.... Even though our Zoom schedule is out of control.

CHRISTY TURLINGTON BURNS: I think the family time has been really important. My kids are older. I have a 16-year-old and a 14-year-old, and we are all on Zooms all day long. But we have also had these incredible opportunities where we sit at the table more frequently than we did before. That time is like quality time together.

I’m so glad that we are raising awareness of the fact that racism has to be considered a public health crisis, that it is an emergency, that there is now the intersection of racism and structural racism being acknowledged.

— Dr. Leana Wen —

JOYANN KING: Melissa, you’re on the front lines of this pandemic. How do you think this experience will change things for the better for women?

MELISSA DEROSA: Well, it’s interesting because on the topic of women’s health, as it relates directly to giving birth, this wasn’t something I had ever been very engaged in on a micro level. And then Christy called, and we engaged the task force. I think one of the things that is going to come out of this crisis for the better is that COVID-19 exposed the weaknesses in society and allowed us an opportunity to confront them and deal with them. Why aren’t there standalone facilities for women to go give birth? It’s such an incredibly important time for families. Similarly, right now I’m heading a task force to examine domestic violence. One of the things we’re seeing from COVID-19 is that you have people who are cramped up at home and isolated, so that has been sort of a recipe for more domestic violence. But also, how do you reach people in a way that’s more effective? How do you ask for help effectively and covertly? These are issues that, frankly, we were long overdue to tackle.

melissa derosa poses in front of the steps of the albany capitol building
Melissa DeRosa wears a Prabal Gurung dress, Jimmy Choo shoes, and her own jewelry.
Mario Sorrenti

JOYANN KING: What is one concrete thing you each hope comes out on the other side of this pandemic once we have this health crisis under control?

ASHLEY GRAHAM: Melissa said it perfectly about exposing everything that was going on in the hospitals, especially around birth. I already knew what the holes were, which is why I chose to do a home birth.

ALLYSON FELIX: For me, it’s this idea of it being okay to pause and to take a minute, to be present with your family or your loved ones. I think as women we have so much on our plates. And I know for myself, I almost felt like I couldn’t take a break or miss a beat. I think this has really taught me that that’s okay.

REP. LAUREN UNDERWOOD: Well, I’m encouraged that at the end of COVID-19, we will be in a place where we have made a significant investment in our health-care system. And hopefully in doing so, we end up with a better system than when we started. When we think about the status quo that has allowed Black women to be four times more likely to die as a result of childbirth in this country, that’s allowed these types of disparities related to COVID-19 to be able to exist. ... We need to set some goals and outcomes that allow us all to have a healthier life.

I have hope, but even more than hope, I have faith—that in this moment of national pain, there is opportunity for constructive change.

— Melissa DeRosa —

CHRISTY TURLINGTON BURNS: I think this has put a lens and a microphone on so many issues, including the health-disparity piece. You would never want to wish a crisis like this to happen, but it has made the work somehow more tangible. It has allowed people to understand what it would be like to go to a hospital and not have your loved ones by your side. My mother-in-law passed yesterday, and she hadn’t had a visitor. She wasn’t able to come back to New York, where she wanted to be with her family. That’s very much about end-of-life care. And then beginning-of-life care—those two transitions in life are so important. But I feel like in this time there has been so much empathy built around how our elderly are being exposed and how they are being cared for. And then our babies coming into the world and our moms going through such an important time, such a transformative time. To do that by yourself or to do that feeling fearful or not protected, it’s just not the way that we, as a society, want things to be, so it’s an opportunity.

DR. LEANA WEN: I was just talking to a group of my emergency medicine colleagues, and we were all talking about what is so unusual about this time. People were sharing stories from the front lines, about not having personal protective equipment, all of these things that we’ve been talking about in the news. But the one thing that really stood out to me is how everyone talked about the thing that we never thought we would do over and over again, which is being with someone at the end of their life, and being the only one at their bedside, holding up a phone for them and calling their loved ones to try to do FaceTime, because that’s the last time that they can see their loved ones. I’m reminded that yesterday would have been my mother’s 66th birthday. She died 10 years ago. Of course, I think about her every day with my children—she never had a chance to meet them, obviously. And I thought about at the end of her life, she was dying of metastatic cancer. And we were in a hospital. She was very ill, and it was a very busy hospital. And there was a nurse there who saw that the end was coming who asked our family to come in. She pulled the curtain around us, and she stood in front of that curtain so that other people wouldn’t come in, to give us that time. And I will remember that act forever. I just think about how the small acts that we do show how human we are at a time where we have nothing else to offer. These are the things that matter the most.


Photo assistant: Kotaro Kawashima. Special thanks to Justin Ervin, Flor Farrell, Wesley Felix, Michael Groll, and Andrea Harris. Printing by Arc Lab Ltd.

This article originally appears in the Summer 2020 issue of Harper's BAZAAR, available on newsstands July 7.

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