Written By: Nichole Moore, Shantiera Taylor, Shubhecchha Dhaurali
On April 9th, Dr. Ndidiamaka Amutah-Onukagha, Dr. Bathsheba Wariso and their colleagues virtually welcomed nearly 1,400 attendees to the Fourth Annual Black Maternal Health Conference, hosted by the Maternal Outcomes for Translational Health Equity Research (MOTHER) Lab. Throughout the afternoon, professionals in the Black maternal health field spoke on the topic of doulas and their ever-growing importance to the Black community. The speakers, which included renowned midwife and public health professional Shafia Monroe – better known as Mama Shafia – and Dr. Monica McLemore, drew attention to the Black maternal health crisis and highlighted the significant role that doulas can play in combating maternal morbidity, maternal mortality, and systemic racism Black women face during childbirth.
Embracing the Doula Tradition
To kick off the afternoon, Mama Shafia brought “self-determination” into the discussion of doula care, empowering the Black community to take back, re-define, and reclaim the role of the doula as a practice rooted in Black tradition, instead of in slavery and racism. Mama Shafia promoted the way of the Grannie Midwife and the African Midwife — the individuals in the community who practice holistic, full-scope birth traditions by going above and beyond for birthing mothers by offering not only birthing assistance but postnatal care and supportive childcare. These are the Black traditions that she called upon doulas to embrace to “empower the Black community”. Mama Shafia is the founder of the International Center for Traditional Childbearing (ICTC), and founding member of the Oregon Doula Association.
Dr. Audra Meadows, an obstetrician-gynecologist who holds a leadership role with Massachusetts Perinatal Quality Collaborative, also emphasized the importance of centering on doulas to combat the tragic maternal mortality rate in the United States, which is three times as high for Black patients than their white counterparts. Dr. Meadows highlighted that many of these deaths are preventable and that race should not be used in medicine as a proxy for health outcome differences. There is no predisposition which exists to make Black birthing experiences so lethal. Societies must begin to value the lives of our mothers by instituting systemic change to provide the accessible, safe, and holistic treatment they deserve.
Listening to Mothers
Both Fatima Diankeh, the Learning and Development Manager at She+ Geeks Out, and Dr. Nakeitra Burse, owner at Six Dimensions, embrace the power of narratives and understand that change happens by giving a voice to those most affected by reproductive inequity. Similar to Mama Shafia, who empowers women to take control of their birth experience, Fatima empowers birthing women to speak out. Fatima’s film, Stories of Black Motherhood depicts mothers speaking about pregnancy and healthcare experiences, the joys of being a mom, and their hopes for their childrens’ futures. Dr. Burse’s film, The Power in Labor: There is Hope, highlights the inequities in care between Black and white birthing experiences through her family’s recounting of the loss of their aunt, Kim, after her delivery.
Jennie Joseph, a British-trained midwife, women’s health advocate, and the founder and executive director of Commonsense Childbirth Inc, has used her experiences to advocate for Black mothers by creating The JJ Way®, an evidence based maternity care model. The JJ Way is a midwifery-based, culturally relevant care model aimed to improve both birth outcomes and access to care for women of color. Midwife Joseph discussed the impact of doulas through one of her patient’s birthing experiences where her patient received a lack of support and protection at a hospital. Joseph also demonstrated the effectiveness of community-based models where the birthing outcomes of pregnancies and deliveries involving doulas and midwives had fewer preterm and low birth weight outcomes.
Building the Doula Village
Quatia “Q” Osorio, a doula trainer-activist, shared a powerful and energetic framework for fellow doulas looking to build their practice and their network. She highlighted the importance of creating a long-term plan, envisioning impact, and staying true to one’s own foundational values. She dropped valuable gems for fellow doulas and filled a void that several attendees seemed to have been feeling regarding mentorship and coaching. Q’s energy was felt by attendees, with comments firing away in the Zoom chat such as: “You are hitting every point I need in this stage of my life! Your energy is so appreciated [right now]!” To connect with Q, follow her on Twitter: @journ3i
Dr. Monica McLemore, a public health nurse and researcher of inequities in maternal health, shared another actionable framework to tackle perinatal health disparities and a broken healthcare system: The Three R’s, Retrofit, Reform, or Reimagine. Identifying one of the conceptual pillars, and engaging in authentic conversation with stakeholders strides toward positive and sustainable changes. Chanel Porchia-Albert, Founder and CEO of Ancient Song Doula Services, also addressed tackling disparities on a systemic level. Porchia-Albert discussed the importance of justice and equitable policy involving doulas. She asserted that they are central to the US healthcare system and should be treated as such, especially in Black communities. As doulas become more prominent and accepted members of the healthcare support system in traditional settings, it is important to take heed of Porchia-Albert’s message that doulas will help mend a broken system, but there will need to be equitable policies set in place that ensures they will do so without limitations.
Overall, the MOTHER Lab gathered over 1,400 attendees from a diverse array of disciplines and provided a space for learning, discussion, and action. Both presenters and attendees shed light on the importance of centering on doulas to re-establish traditions and rituals for Black birthing bodies in order to promote safer birthing experiences. The opportunity to use this platform to spread awareness and educate attendees on topics is central to the MOTHER Lab’s mission. The lab will continue to empower Black mothers through research, advocacy and mentorship utilizing skills, connections, and knowledge gathered through the conference. Stay connected for more information and news on the 5th Annual Black Maternal Health Conference happening in April 2022. Please consider donating to MOTHER Lab.
The Black Maternal Health Conference was an event hosted by the Maternal Outcomes for Translational Health Equity Research (MOTHER) Lab by Founder and Principal Investigator Dr. Amutah-Onukagha. Several MOTHER Lab members were integral in the organization of the conference. To learn more about MOTHER Lab, visit motherlab.org.
Thank you to all of our speakers and sponsors for supporting and participating in our wonderful and highly successful Black Maternal Health Conference. Sponsors include Tufts University School of Medicine, Pathfinder International, the Massachusetts League of Planned Parenthood, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Howard University Hospital. So much gratitude to our conference keynote speakers Shafia Monroe and Dr. Monica McLemore, our featured speakers, as well as Chanel Porchia Albert, Dr. Audra Meadows, Fatima Dainkeh, Dr. Nakeitra Burse, Tariana Little, DrPH, Quatia Osorio, Jennie Joseph, and Marlene Boyette. Finally, a huge thank you to our conference organizers for the dedication and hard work; and to our nearly 1400 attendees, thank you for your time, attention, and dedication to the future of Black maternal health.
If you have any comments, suggestions, or questions, please feel free to leave them below.