Reproductive Healthcare in Communities of Color Is a Mess. Here’s How Women Are Cleaning It Up

In celebration of the second annual Black Breastfeeding Week, The Riveter recently partnered with the Seattle Women’s Commission to host a panel of local leaders of color from reproductive health and birth worker communities to discuss the current state of maternal health.

The featured speakers and artists included Memorie Gladstone, a member of the Black Feet tribe and community-based outreach doula serving the Alaskan Native community; Faisa Farole, a midwife for Rainier Valley Midwives and founder and Executive Director for Somali Doulas NW; Srilata Remala, the founder of the Maternal Coalition; Rokea Jones, certified doula, birth educator, and lactation consultant and the health and community wellness liaison for the Seattle Women’s Commission, and Milvia Pacheco, a local performer, artist, and community organizer who shared an artistic work focused on violence against women.

The panel discussed at length the myriad threats facing pregnant and birthing women of color, including immigrants and refugees. But the enduring resilience of these communities was a resounding theme. Here are some of the key takeaways.

On the legacy of racism in birth work and maternal care

Srilata Remala: In our communities, trust is a big thing. We, communities of color, actually have a really dark and twisted and unfortunate relationship with the medical system, which is why people aren’t utilizing it as much as they should.

Memorie Gladstone: We [women] are the ones that host all of the ceremonies and the gatherings and the men are our helpers. And so to have that changed through colonization has made a huge impact on our community. And so we’re trying to transition that back to our old ways and our old teachings.

Rokea Jones: The black community is a thriving community that’s really grown and also gets swallowed up under the umbrella of America, and we are slowly erased. And so by the time it gets out to the rest of the world, it becomes America, and we are erased for our innovations. And that erasure, that dismissal, the ignoring of a particular culture and our needs plays out in every area, in particular health care.

If we go back and look at the history of gynecology, which I’ve sat in this room and talked about, we talked about Dr. J. Marion Sims, and him practicing on black slaves without anesthesia or any kind of medication or pain relief. And there’s no known history of Dr. Sims working on anyone other than black slaves. And so, everything we know about gynecology today is because of my ancestors.

On improving birthing and postpartum experiences for women of color

Faisa Farole: The medical system has advanced significantly, right? But yet women that look like us are still having issues. And what that issue boils down to is racism, right? So, that’s what we’re seeing in the doula aspect of the people that I serve and also definitely the type of women that seek my care. Right now at Rainier Valley Community Clinic, they’re seeking care from a person of color because they want their partners to be welcomed, to be part of their care as well, because they want to be respected.

Memorie Gladstone: Not only am I a pre-lactation counselor and a trained doula, but also I wear many different hats in the community. I’m a restorative justice facilitator for our school district, to help our children of color have a voice and a foundation, when they are suspended or expelled. Because people of color are less likely to be tolerated. And so they’re automatically, “Oh, you’re expelled, you’re suspended.” And then they’re pushed down the path to prison or jail.  Education goes a long way and just having somebody to be able to talk to that’s the same color as you to trust is a huge, huge thing in my community.

Rokea Jones: We’re often in the room supporting the family equally as isolated in that environment as the family is, if that makes sense. And so to be in a space where I get to meet with their midwife and their doctor, and whoever other doulas may be — their postpartum doula — we’re all going to meet, we’re all going to exchange information about how to support this family better, is mind-blowing.”

On the importance of community

Srilata Remala: It’s not just about getting access to contraceptives, it’s not just about getting access to abortions, but it’s our health and it’s us, and we need to survive in order for communities to continue to be healthy.

Memorie Gladstone: There is an indigenous-based breastfeeding peer counselor training coming up and we’re trying to train as many individuals in the community that have the same passion, and the same desire to make differences and changes that impact our families, and our next seven generations to come.

Rokea Jones: A doula is not a new thing. A lactation consultant is not a new thing. As long as there has been a person birthing, there have been people there to support that person.

Alli Auldridge writes, parents and dances in Seattle.

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