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Diverse birth workers: Reshaping the experience for expecting Black and brown mothers

Impact Issue No 2

Photo credit: Shelby Wormley

Justice McNeil was slightly torn between staying in Lancaster or Philadelphia, but regardless of her location, she plans to advocate for Black and brown women during an incredibly sensitive time in their lives—entering motherhood.

Nestled within a Lancaster block lined with scattered piles of hardened snow from a February storm, stands a pale-yellow house, distinguishable alongside neighboring homes.

A whole vibe—that’s what you’ll find when you enter McNeil’s family home, sporting hardwood floors, potted plants, and a plethora of wall art that uplifts Blackness.

Seated underneath a framed drawing of Malcom X, McNeil reveals the dawn of her professional advocacy of choice—becoming a doula—to serve Black and brown women.

“The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”—Malcolm X

Photo Credit: Shelby Wormley

McNeil recently finished her training as a doula through a program within the Patients R Waiting initiative. The initiative is “dedicated to eliminating health disparities by increasing diversity in medicine,” according to the Patients R Waiting website.

The Diversifying Doulas Initiative is training Black and Latinx women to be doulas in order to address the lack of diversity in the doula field in Lancaster.

A doula is a trained professional that provides emotional, physical, and informational support to expecting mothers before, during, and after childbirth.

Photo Credit: Shelby Wormley

Birth work is an area McNeil always thought she would be in, but she wasn’t entirely sure what specific role she’d pursue. As a senior at Temple University in Philadelphia, McNeil is majoring in Communication and Social Influence with a concentration in Civic Engagement and a minor in Africology. Her major, she says, has the flexibility to apply to most anything she’d like to pursue professionally.

McNeil acknowledges the need for women, especially Black women, to hear I’m here for you while facing the country’s healthcare system. Interning at Women in Transition, a nonprofit that “empowers people to move forward in their lives free of domestic violence and substance abuse,” increasingly revealed to McNeil the support that Black women need in several areas, including housing, food insecurity and pregnancy.

Approximately 700 women die annually in the United States as a result of pregnancy or its complications. And, Black women are dying in childbirth 2.5 times more often than white women, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

Photo Credit: Shelby Wormley

The COVID-19 pandemic is also magnifying and contributing to health disparities.

Black birth workers are a movement, McNeil says, noting that they have a very prominent presence on social platforms. Many of the birth workers she knows use those platforms to disperse information and resources. McNeil even created her own Instagram page for her doula work—@birthing.justice.

Blk Voices Magazine sat down with McNeil and asked her a few questions about her journey thus far, navigating becoming a doula and finishing her college career.

What attracted you to the profession of a doula?

So, I want to say maybe sophomore year of college is when I started to become a little more interested in it. I kinda always had an interest in birth work. I just didn’t know specifically if I wanted to be a doula. I knew I didn’t want to be a midwife cause that’s a little bit more, umm, too clinical for me and that’s not my field.

Do you predominantly want to serve Black and brown mothers?

Yes. Right now, I have a client who is a first-time Black mother and I kind of would like to make that my main focus, my audience. I realize that there are women who may want a doula who fall outside of being a Black mother, but personally for me, I just see the need and priority for Black and brown mothers, especially within Lancaster.

How would you describe motherhood? What is motherhood to you?

To me, I don’t know if I can speak to it accurately only because I am not a mother. I will say being so young in the birth world, I’m only 21, I have learned very quickly that birth and motherhood look so different for everyone. There’s not a specific story. There’s no specific instructions you could give anyone because it’s just so specific to your experience as a birthing person as a mother.

If I could describe it, I would say that motherhood is interesting, it’s scary and it’s rewarding. I feel like for Black mothers, Black motherhood is way different. There are different struggles and different things you have to be concerned about as a Black mother, but like I said, I feel like because I’m not a mom, I don’t want to tread any territory that I’ve not lived through.

Why don’t more women utilize doula services?

I personally would say that it’s the lack of education. The reason I’d say that is just through my own personal experience of becoming a doula. There’s just a lot of miseducation around what a doula does and who a doula is.

Misperceptions Justice has heard:

  • Some people think doulas take the place of healthcare providers.

  • A doula is a midwife.

  • Doula services are expensive.

What do you have to say to women who maybe aren’t ready to have a doula, but need all of the education they can get about their pregnancy, especially if they’re doing it on their own?

There are resources for women who don’t want a doula but they kind of want childbirth education. It’s just really a matter of finding them. Part of our training is we have to compile a resource list. There has to be 30 categories with over 45 points of contact.

McNeil is very excited to get started as a certified doula, handling her first client as she finishes pursuing her degree. She cannot wait for her first birth, although COVID-19 restrictions may limit her ability to be in the room with her client during delivery.

McNeil considers herself to be a very caring person and an eager student that’s always ready to learn. And, in addition to the knowledge and cherished characteristics she brings to her new endeavor as a doula, she mentally carries a quote with her that guides her to consistently seek a healthy balance of self-efficacy.

“You are your best thing.”—Toni Morrison

Those five words remind McNeil that if she is going to thoroughly serve Black and brown womennurturing many of their needs and concerns as they enter motherhood she has to make sure she is showing up for herself wholeheartedly.

For McNeil, this means prioritizing self-care and fueling her confidence—a mindset that has allowed her to birth her best self.

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