CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Of the hundreds of doulas in Charlotte, only five to ten percent of them are Black. But as experts see a rise in the number of Black doulas across the country – could it help save more black mothers?
Kenya Williams, a Charlotte nurse now training to be a doula, believes diversifying the field with more doulas of color – specifically Black women – could help close the gap between the mortality rate for Black mothers when compared to that of White mothers.
"With it being an increase in black doulas, I do think it will help stem that tide because people will know 'hey, they brought an advocate with them. This person is here to help them. I better be on my Ps and Qs,” she said.
Williams was only 15 when she had her first child.
"When I was a teenage mom, I fell,” she recalled. I went to the hospital and they brushed me off. 'Oh you're fine, you're OK, everything's alright. Go home, you're young -- you can do this.' I went home and next day my water broke. I was in pre-term labor."
It’s an experience the mother of three has never forgotten.
“The doctors were like, ‘did you fall? Why didn’t anybody keep you?’ I don’t know, I’m a teenager,” she remembered telling them. “I had my mom with me to help act as my advocate even though I’m her child so she had to play two roles to make sure I got the care that I needed to deliver my child. Now if I didn’t have her having my back, I probably would have delivered at home - or went to the hospital and still been brushed off. I was only 32 weeks pregnant, way before my due date - and that’s where my inspiration to become a doula comes from. My personal birth story.”
Her mom, Brenda Robinson, who has been observing the births of their family members for 25 years, also recalled a time she had to step in and advocate for one of her nieces.
“I went out and talked the doctors and said look, 'she’s been in labor for a long time. She’s been hurting. I don’t think she should go home right now she needs to stay’,” she said. “It wasn’t 15, 20 minutes later the baby was coming. Now if they had sent her back home - hmph - she would have had the baby on the way home.”
Those stories are why they’re training to become doulas. Doulas are birth companions for the expectant mother and their family. It’s a non-medical role where the doula serves as an advocate for the mom as well as the partner or spouse.
“It takes out all the other emotions and distress and has the person focused on your health, not just a number,” said Williams. “You’re their person. We’re their personal advocate.”
She wants mothers to know something she says she didn’t know all those years ago.
“They may not know that they have options,” Williams said. “And, I can say that from my own personal births. I didn’t know I had certain options until I became a nurse and then realized, I could choose - nobody told me I could choose!”
Research indicates more Black women are becoming doulas. DONA International, which certifies doulas world-wide, couldn’t tell WBTV how many of its members are black but did reveal it has certified 13,000 sdoulas since its inception in 1993. And, it’s current president is a black woman - something Williams and Robinson say sends a powerful message.
"[It says] that they’re recognizing it’s an issue and they’re trying to help address that,” said Williams. Robinson agreed and added, “because having a black women president it lets us know that we can do it as well. It’s not only just for white women; we can also do it.”
Cultivating more diversity among doulas became a priority for Charlotte’s Johnson C Smith University after Dr. Antonia Mead, the chair of Health and Human Performance, says they saw a need in the community.
"We want to diversify the field,” she said. “So our aim is people of color.
When I asked her why, she was candid and explained, “honestly, there's a different flavor Or there's a different response. There's a different connection when you have someone in the room who looks like you."
Led by a DONA-certified facilitator, only WBTV’s cameras were there as JCSU held its first doula two-day training program back in February. Dr. Mead says she was shocked to receive more than 100 application even though they had to cap the enrollment to just 20. She also said participants came from all over.
“We had one young lady from Detroit,” she recalled. “We had one from Georgia, several from Raleigh area, another one from South Carolina.”
Also among them – Williams and her mom, Brenda.
"I was like look, 'it's a black lady teaching the class’,” Williams remembered saying to her mom. “You know, it's going to be at an HBCU with other black ladies like us where we can go in there and collaborate."
Robinson was instantly on board and said, “before when you think of doulas, honestly I always thought of just white women having doulas,” she said. “Not black women. So when I saw the doula class come, when she was telling me about it I was like, yes - I would love to be one of the doulas that's out there for our people."
They left the training invigorated and eager to fill the critical role of advocate for Black mothers. Especially to negate a stigma that has often plagued Black women, especially when it comes to healthcare.
“We’re perceived as angry women so speaking up may come across as being angry or upset so the person may be reserved to speak up because they don’t want to put that out there,” said Williams. “That they’re angry - when they’re actually not.”
Yet - the also recognizes the Black community’s hesitation to embrace doulas.
"I’ve ran across a few that’s like well, 'my husband says that’s his job’,” said Williams. “ It is his job however we’re here to help his job. Here to work together with the partners, not against them, not taking their place.”
As having a doula becomes a more common practice in communities of color, the duo believes Black families will embrace the idea and use doulas to help advocate for themselves during a time where it could mean the difference between life and death.
W.I.S.E Community Doulas which can be found at https://wisecommunitydoulas.wixsite.com/wisecommunitydoulas also offers free and sliding scale doula support for low income women who cannot afford doula care.
To read more stories from my Black Maternal Health series, go to http://www.wbtv.com/community/black-maternal-health/