Tatyana Ali Says Her Young Sons 'Understand' When She Plays a Character on TV: 'It's Just My Job' (Exclusive)

The actress talks about raising boys and raising awareness for Black maternal health through her quilt line, Baby Yams, and her partnerships

<p>Trokon</p> Tatyana Ali with Baby Yams quilts


Tatyana Ali with Baby Yams quilts
  • Tatyana Ali is helping make doulas and midwives more accessible to Black women around the country

  • The actress, 45, is releasing a new line of quilts through her brand, Baby Yams —which donates 100% of their proceeds to Black and Indigenous midwives and doulas — in partnership with Birth Future Foundation

  • Tatyana tells PEOPLE she's built a beautiful community in her time as a mom to sons Alejandro, 4, and Edward, 7

Tatyana Ali is loving life as a boy mom.

Speaking with PEOPLE about the latest release for Baby Yams — a limited-edition series of handmade, heirloom-quality baby quilts designed by Ali that donates 100% of proceeds to Black and Indigenous midwives and doulas — the mom of two talks about how important it is for her to empower Black women and families to take control of their health and wellness.

As a mom to two boys — sons Alejandro Vaughn, 4, and Edward "Aszi", 7, — the actress, 45, loves that both are enthusiastic about learning.

"My boys, they're in school. My little one is about to start kindergarten. They're kids who are into learning — learning to read, learning to play the piano. They're really happy boys. I have so much fun with them as a family."

Laughing, she adds, "I'll tell you where we're at though — I think I have more senior-itus than the kids.l I'm ready for summer break. I want to just wake up in my pajamas with my babies and play all day and make pancakes for dinner. I'm ready for summer to start."

The boys are familiar with their mom's talents, seeing her perform as both an actress and a singer.

"We actually watched the Abbott Elementary episodes together," she shares, referencing her recent guest appearances as Crystal, opposite Janelle James' Ava, as her frenemy.

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Related: Tatyana Ali Recalls 'Traumatic' First Birth, Explains Why Her Second Labor Was 'Amazing Experience'

"They understand. I also do auditions from home, and I do self-takes and stuff like that. So it's there and I put out an independent music album this last Christmas and was rehearsing all through the house. So they definitely know Mommy's a performer," she shares.

"But to them, it's not much different than my husband being a professor. It's just my job. It fun and interesting. When they watch me on screen, on camera, they know they are watching a character. They'll comment on, 'Oh, that was funny,' or they'll they'll ask me about it, but they know it's not me. They know I'm playing a character. That's cool. I don't know how they know that. They're only 7 and 4, but they get it."

For Ali, bringing Baby Yams' quilts to life is the same as delivering any performance — it's all about putting it out there.

"It's such a dream come true, seeing the quilts out in the world and not just in my head," Ali tells PEOPLE.

"I've been working as an advocate for Black maternal health for almost five years now. I started doing that work around the time I had my youngest baby. Before that, I always showed support and worked with organizations empowering Black girls. When I had the experience I did with the birth of my first son, I knew I wanted to help."

With the birth of son Edward, Ali had "a very healthy pregnancy," followed by a traumatizing birth experience that resulted in a four-day NICU stay for her newborn.

"Honestly, my husband and I were shell-shocked completely from that experience. At first, we were really focused on raising our beautiful baby boy. Once I got home and really thought about it for a while — because I was quiet about it at first and didn't share it with anyone — I processed what happened and started to dig in."

"When we found out that we were pregnant again, my first thought was, 'I can't go back there.' I knew I needed to find something new. In doing that work, I was invited by the Black Mamas Matter Alliance to speak at their annual conference. When I went, I was early in my pregnancy and not sharing it yet, but I still felt like my prayers had been answered," she shares.

"I was in the room with all of these midwives and doulas and an entire reproductive justice community. I did a lot of research and started working on a documentary to share what I was learning in my advocacy work. It takes a long time to heal from what I experienced with my first baby — physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally."

<p>Trokon</p> Tatyana Ali with Baby Yams quilts


Tatyana Ali with Baby Yams quilts

Ali has taken her advocacy to Washington D.C., having testified in front of Congress about her experience and the need to put an end to the Black maternal health crisis. Now, she's working on providing the capital needed to fund some of the most impactful initiatives with the help of Baby Yams.

"I'm at the point where I've shared my story. I've helped ring the alarm bells. I know that more midwives and doulas and access to them is what we need in this moment, right now. Now, I want to bring money to this problem and try to help end what we're experiencing."

Sewing is a longtime hobby for Ali, who started to think of the idea when making a baby blanket for younger son Alejandro.

"My husband and I put our wishes into it. We used Ankara fabric, which was actually a gift to me from one of these organizations that I worked with many years ago. I made my baby this quilt, and got so many compliments on it over the years. It became a swaddle there for a minute, then it became our stroller quilt. I just realized I want to offer it and make it available," she shares.

"Our first collection launched in April for Black Maternal Health Week and it sold out in just a few days. Now, I've partnered with Birth Future Foundation for this round; they're matching the proceeds. And the money is going to go to fund scholarships for Black and Indigenous midwifery students."

Ali is proud to have seen a lot of growth in her time as an advocate, noting that the biggest change is "People now know there's a problem. People know that the root cause of that problem is bias. It's prejudice and that's not just by providers, but a systemic bias that lives in the hospital systems. I think the alarm bells have been run and I'm excited to see all of the Black and Indigenous women who are raising their voices as advocates, as birth workers and growing that community."

Despite some progress by the government, Ali notes there's more work to be done from the top down to recognize and help solve the issues at the heart of the Black maternal health crisis.

"When I testified in Congress, what really, really hurt me was the fact that there are all of these brilliant, Black women doctors there and families and parents there, sharing their stories, sharing their expertise, and the conversation kind of devolved into whether or not racism exists," she levels.

"We have to get past that and get to a place where we're safe and where there are enough providers. There are still places in this country where people have to drive and travel 30 to 40 miles to even see someone for maternal care. That part is disheartening, but what's happening more and more is that people in our communities are taking matters into their own hands. I do believe that's true. I think we can take care of each other."

<p>Trokon</p> Tatyana Ali with Baby Yams quilts


Tatyana Ali with Baby Yams quilts

For Ali, the help of her own community has been invaluable to her.

"My family — my mom, my aunties, my sisters — and also moms I've met in the community like at the park. Part of doing this work, for me, has been searching for community. I was certainly advocating for others, but I was also searching for community for myself," she says. "So many of the people that I've worked with along this journey have empowered me to really activate my own healing process. The reproductive justice movement and the advocates who are fighting for us have really become my community."

She adds, "I guess that's why I'm doing this work because I have a sense of some of the needs, and I'm trying to help out with my creativity in the best way that I know how."

Ali has also partnered with She’s Good [For Real],  an online health space for Black women.

"Part of this journey is where we get our information. Because our health system is kind of wonky, we're getting our health information every way we can. We find our communities — at the park, like I mentioned, or on social media or through others — to find the answers that we need," the actress shares.

"What Group Black has decided to do is create a space that really speaks to our needs. I thought that was very powerful. There's also an element of it that includes giving back and and giving resources to these groups that are already on the ground doing the work. So it was a no-brainer for me. It's exactly where I live."

With an election months away, Ali hopes more moms will get engaged in the issues that matter most.

"We have to do it. To speak in political science speak, civil society is where the power is. We can't be dissuaded or dismayed by the belief that the problems are bigger than us. These are our lives and whether or not people in power understand it or believe it, they do work for us. It's our job, as the community, as citizens, to hold them accountable and to get involved," she shares.

"I also understand why it's exhausting, because it doesn't look like anyone's listening but that doesn't mean we should stop knocking. Women and families have so much power. We do so much in our communities, in our schools, managing our families, and we can do it, especially when we are under are under attack."

<p>Trokon</p> Tatyana Ali with Baby Yams quilts


Tatyana Ali with Baby Yams quilts

The mom of two is looking forward to continuing this important work and balancing it with family time as the year progresses.

"What I'm excited about this summer are our plans to visit family and for my kids to play with their cousins. I definitely had that growing up but now, everybody in different parts of the country. So we're going to do that," Ali says.

"Professionally, I'm on a high from Abbott. It was such an extraordinary experience, and I love the characters so much. I had so much fun there. And of course, Baby Yams," she continues.

"We're putting out our next new batch of blankets on Father's Day. It's the abundance blanket but the colors remind me of summer camp when I was a kid. There's these awesome summer sherbet colors and I'm excited to put that out."

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