Birthing for Justice: Black Doulas are Leading a Movement to Make Childbirth Safe

Across the country, Doulas are closing the Black Maternal Health Gap to ensure childbirth is empowering for all.

Over the past five years, activists across the United States have called attention to one of the most tragic inequities in our healthcare system: Black maternal death rates. According to the CDC, Black women in the United States are three times more likely to die from pregnancy related causes than white women. 

This is particularly tragic because the vast majority of these deaths are preventable: the CDC notes that the primary causes of Black maternal deaths are variations in quality healthcare (ie access to healthcare based on where you live), structural racism, and implicit bias from healthcare providers. During a process that should be rooted in celebration and care, Black women are too-often faced with a healthcare system that stigmatizes their experiences and denies their pain. 

However, there is one group that has done more than simply call attention to the problem. They have rolled up their sleeves to save lives: Black doulas. Doulas provide emotional and practical support through all phases of the birthing process, from advocacy in the delivery room to helping new parents with breastfeeding. 

Across the country, doulas are combining their birthing expertise with political advocacy to close the Black maternal health gap. Here, we explore some of their strategies to create a world that ensures safe births for all — and a few ioby project leaders who have answered the call in their own neighborhoods. 

What is a Doula?

The National Black Doulas Association defines a doula as “a person experienced in childbirth who provides advice, information, emotional support, and physical comfort to a mother before, during, and immediately after childbirth.” 

Doulas provide guidance through every step of a pregnancy, including emotional support during the birthing process, infant feeding, and mother-baby bonding. Doulas can have different specialities: Some may support a woman as she gives birth through breathwork and coaching. Others might support a person’s wellbeing after they give birth through mental-health check-ins. The magic and power of a doula is that they can create a holistic plan that addresses the specific need of the birthing person. 

Why are Black Doulas important in addressing Black Maternal Mortality?

Black Doulas are an essential resource to fight Black Maternal Mortality for several reasons.  Evidence has shown that people who give birth with the support of a doula are less likely to have a cesarean section, receive pain medications, or have their pregnancy induced—all factors that can complicate a pregnancy. 

Additionally, since one of the primary causes of Black maternal mortality is implicit bias, having a doula present throughout the pregnancy process can ensure a birthing Black woman is believed, listened to, and understood as an expert on her own experiences. According to research by Blue Shield, this can decrease stress during pre- and postnatal periods, which can lead to a healthier pregnancy overall. 

In fact, Blue Shield’s study found that the presence of a culturally-congruent doula, specifically, led to a higher percentage of full-term births and lower rates of postpartum depression compared to state and national averages. 

What is the history of Black doulas?

One of the reasons doulas are so effective is their historical context: for as long as people have given birth, we have had doulas. Until quite recently, birthing was a collective process: many people might be in the room during a pregnancy, helping the pregnant person breathe or holding their hand. While increased regulations — such as private birthing rooms and sanitary requirements — significantly decreased maternal death rates,  they also made the experience more isolating, and therefore more difficult for new mothers. 

This community-oriented approach to birth is one of the reasons Syreeta Gordon started “Unshakeable Motherhood,” which she crowd-funded on ioby. While she was pregnant with her third child, at 39, Gordon was placed on bedrest. That experience, she says, “really made me think creatively about others’ pregnancy and delivery experiences too, like “How would I want to be treated? What support would I want and need?” At other doula agencies, I would come in as a doula at the point of labor. But what if I was able to build a relationship? A before, during, and after relationship?” 

Syreeta Gordon, ioby project leader and Founder of Kangaroo Birthing & Maternity Concierge

However, there was one problem: as she conducted her research, it became clear that there weren’t enough trained, Black doulas to provide that support at a community level. So Syreeta started to crowdfund on ioby, where she raised  $1,493 for Doula trainings and scholarships. She has continued her work and is currently raising funds for a Maternal Health Training & Certification Initiative.

Interested in joining the movement? Here are ways that Black doulas are transforming maternal health care: 

  • Educational Workshops: Although doulas have existed for centuries, many people are not aware of their presence in our current medical system – and their power. Through educational workshops, people are spreading the word about Doulas at schools, libraries, and health care centers across the country. 
  • Recruiting: In addition to educational workshops, organizations are looking for people with a passion for maternal healthcare to become Doulas in their communities. As Gordon discovered, there are often not enough trained Doulas to meet the needs of local community members. 
  • Storytelling: Despite their proven effectiveness, there is still a stigma around Doulas. People may not understand they are a supplement to traditional medical care, not a replacement. Through storytelling, mothers and doulas are showing the  transformative and empowering impact doulas can have. 
  • Fundraising! In addition to the above, neighborhood leaders have used ioby to crowdfund for their unique doula needs, including nearly $30,000 for a bus to transport birthing people in Ohio and a freestanding birth center in the heart of Chicago.

Additional Resources:

As a final note, it’s important to recognize that not everyone chooses to use the word “doula” to identify themselves because of the word’s history, which is rooted in slavery. To learn more about this perspective and history, we invite you to read a piece by Èské Addams.

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