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Black midwives and doulas in Michigan work to improve maternal and infant health

Novia Williams-Later is sitting on a yellow couch next to her husband Deontre. She is holding her newborn baby Ahmir. Ahmir is bundled up in a white blanket. Nova is wearing a black dress and a mask. Deontre is holding the couple's daughter Aria. He is wearing a mask and a jean jacket. Aria is four years old and is wearing a pink jacket and a pink ribbon on the top of her head. Her hair is braided. The Williams-Lasters are African Americans with medium brown skin.
Michelle Jokisch Polo
Nova Williams-Laster (left) holds her son, Ahmir, during her first check up since he was born. Her husband, Deontre Williams-Laster holds their daughter, Aria.

Black birth workers in Michigan are on the frontlines against the inequities experienced by members of their community. They're also dramatically improving how babies are being welcomed into the world.

It's been a little over a week since Ahmir Williams-Laster was born. His parents, Nova and Deontre Williams-Laster, have arrived for their first check-up with their midwife since giving birth at home.

Though Ahmir is Nova’s second child, he was her first to be delivered at home.

“I just really wanted to experience that, like, thinking about our ancestors, like how they didn't have all this medicine. So, they were able to just do it where they were, like I know I can do it,” Nova Williams-Laster said.

When reflecting on why she chose a Black midwife, she says Black infant mortality rates were top of mind.

“So, I feel like having a woman of color assist me is more comforting knowing because she understands where we're coming from, like she can connect with me, and I can connect with her,” she added.

In Michigan, Black babies are three times more likely to die within the first year of life compared to white babies. Black women are nearly two times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women, according to 2019 data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

But Dawn Shannafelt, the Director of the Division of Maternal and Infant Health at the MDHHS, says the root causes of these statistics are systemic inequities and racism.

“That ray of hope that we see is that the majority of these deaths, and more than 60% have been determined to be preventable,” she added.

These disparities are what's driving many Black families like the Williams-Lasters to increasingly seek services of doulas and midwives who look like them. Doulas provide emotional and physical support to birthing parents.

Tiffany Townsend is a dark skin Black Latina woman. She is wearing a wine colored lipstick and a white short sleeved shirt. Her hair is down.
Tiffany Townsend
Tiffany Townsend is a certified professional midwife.

During their pregnancy, Nova and Deontre chose to
drive an hour each way to see certified professional midwife, Tiffany Townsend, instead of the five-minute drive to the hospital in Nova’s hometown.

“I feel like my care with her definitely is unmatched,” she said. “If I'm just being honest, compared to my, you know, first birth with my doctor.”

While Townsend has attended over 600 births in her career, she says Ahmir’s birth was one of her favorites.

“So, the grandparents were in the kitchen, like cooking and just like celebrating the life that was coming and like once they heard his cry, just like the gasping and the cheering was so beautiful,” she explained.

Tiffany Townsend's midwifery consult room features an doctor's exam room black bed. The walls in the room are painted light blue. On a section of the wall is featured a painting of a pregnant, naked Black person.
Michelle Jokisch-Polo
Tiffany Townsend's midwifery consult room in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Townsend founded De La Flor Midwifery in Grand
Rapids to try and make her services more accessible to Black people.

In the five years she has been a birth worker, Townsend says she’s seen better outcomes among her Black clients than what the state’s health system is seeing.

“A big part of that is simply having the ability to slow down and see the whole person, like I don't have 15-minute prenatal visits.” Townsend said. “In my visits, we schedule an hour and during that time, we're talking about nutrition, stress, movement.”

Dr. Michelle Ogunwole, a health disparity researcher at Johns Hopkins University, has been studying the impact community-based doulas and midwives can have on the birth and health outcomes of Black pregnant people.

She says part of the reason providers like Townsend are seeing better outcomes is because they tend to have a practice that's rooted in undoing the intergenerational trauma of hundreds of years of racism.

“And believing the experiences of people who are historically marginalized,” she said.

In Michigan, the care these birth workers provide isn’t covered by Medicaid, which makes it harder for working class Black people to opt to receive this kind of care.

Because Black midwives only make up nearly 7% percent of midwives across the country, Townsend is partnering with other Black birth workers to create a pipeline.

“So, we offer this free training to them, train them up to be doulas, help them with creating models for entrepreneurship and put them in the community, so that people, regardless of socioeconomic class or anything, just Black and brown people, period, were able to have access to that,” Townsend said.

A wall featuring a painting of a pregnant person. Around the painting there are cards painted with baby foot prints in blue, purple, and blue. Some photos of children are also featured around the painting. This wall is found in Tiffany Townsend's midwifery consult room in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Michelle Jokisch Polo
Footprints of some of the babies Tiffany Townsend has delivered throughout the years.

In recent years, programs like Townsend's have popped up all over the country, including in New Orleans, New York City and Philadelphia.

Dr. Sharon Herring is leading a $5 million dollar project at Temple University studying the outcomes Black doulas can have on Black women during and after pregnancy.

“We're hypothesizing that these additional supports will lead to lower blood pressure, treat social isolation and depression,” she said.

Townsend says she’s planning to continue offering birth care as a way of empowering Black pregnant people in their journeys, and Nova is looking forward to more positive home birth experiences.

As WKAR's Bilingual Latinx Stories Reporter, Michelle reports in both English and Spanish on stories affecting Michigan's Latinx community.
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