Jennie Goldfarb and Lindley Mease (Blue Heart) met with Linda Jones, an organizer of Black Women Birthing Justice, to learn about her story of co-founding an organization re-imagining birth for black women in the Bay Area. You can learn more about Blue Heart here and check out Jennie’s community-sourced publication supporting Roots of Labor titled “completely and without pause: feminist notes on oppression and expansion”.
I’d love to hear more about your story and how you birthed this organization. Where would you like to start?
That’s a lot! First of all Black Women Birthing Justice (BWBJ) wasn’t MY baby. It was presented to me by Chinyere Oparah. I was her doula. Chinyere’s a queer, Black woman in her 40’s. That implies a lot. These qualities present a lot more challenges to pregnancy and birthing. After her daughter’s birth, she started speaking to black mothers about their experiences. She reached out to other black women she knew, myself included, and we met in her living room and came up with BWBJ. Chinyere is a professor and a researcher and she told us we were going to do a research project. And of course we just said, “um we’re not researchers” and she just said “oh yes you are.” She explained what Action Research was and we developed the idea of interviewing 100 black women in California, to listen to their birth stories, what they experienced, and find out if what we had imagined was true or if we were totally off base. We conducted this research over several years. We utilized “sharing circles”, where we brought five or six women together for each session, to talk in a very sacred space, with candles, food, and childcare. We recorded all their stories. This information was compiled into our research paper Battling Over Birth. Black Women and the Maternal Health Care Crisis. We also published a book Birthing Justice which is an anthology of stories from around the country about black people and birth, black midwives and doulas, and black trans people having babies — all types of experiences.
It was and is so amazing to hear all these stories because many of these women had never shared before. Mostly, people don’t want to hear your birth story. There were all types of birth stories heard, some amazing home births, unassisted births, but the majority were hospital births. It was very powerful, and often, all of our fears were pretty much proven. We’re not treated well. We’re not respected. We aren’t listened to. Dangerous things happen. I sat through almost all of them and often left the day sobbing.
Oh and me. I’ve been a doula here in the East Bay for 30 years. I’ve got lots of babies here. I came to this work by accident, I was working in jobs I hated. Then I met a woman in my own child birth class. We became friends, and when I was laid off from one of those jobs, she told me I should look into being a doula. She told me to call her friend, who was a postpartum doula in New York City, and after a two hour conversation I said to myself “wow, I can make a living just hanging out with babies and new mothers? This is for me. I had my girls twenty one years apart and when people ask me about it I say the universe was leading me to this job and the way it did that was it got me pregnant! Newborn babies are my favorite age of people. The joke is that once the baby is a year old, I’m pretty much done.
Thank you so much for sharing all of this. You started off this conversation by saying “that implies a lot” about your client who was an older, black, and queer woman. I’m wondering if you could unpack that a bit more for folks that aren’t familiar.
The statistics are that black women die in childbirth at minimum four times as often as anyone else. In some places it’s as high as 12 times as often. And this is in 2018. People keep trying to find out why. There’s a very easy answer, racism. Usually people say it’s because black women are fat, they have diabetes, high blood pressure, they don’t take care of themselves, they don’t go to prenatal appointments, yada yada yada. And if the birthing person is older and/or LGBQT, then there are a whole other level of issues that come into play. But when you look at the statistics it shows that college educated black women die more in childbirth than white women who never finished high school. Right now one of our poster children is Serena Williams because they almost killed her when she was having her baby. Here we have one of the wealthiest, strongest, most amazing black women in the world and she couldn’t push out a six pound baby without almost dying. If she was any other black women, she would have been dead.
I love the way BWBJ uses personal narrative, the practice of storytelling, to tell this greater story of injustice. Why do you think storytelling works?
Hearing people tell their birth stories touches a nerve with people, most people don’t know this is going on. It brings home the fact that it’s not just poor women living in poverty (which of course is devastating too) it’s all black birthing people who are experiencing this. Black birthing people are not respected in prenatal appointments (so maybe they don’t go back), they’re not believed when they think something is wrong (they aren’t taken seriously), these kinds of details get lost in data that can be found on hospital records, it has to come out in stories.
What have you been doing for all these years to take care of yourself while you take care of so many? What sustains you so you can keep fighting this fight?
It’s really hard. Now that more of these experiences are in the media, more women of color have been reaching out to protect themselves from these situations. They know they need help to navigate this system. But most of these women can’t pay, and that’s where BWBJ and Roots of Labor are so important. We want to provide that care, but we also can’t do so only voluntarily. I say black and brown women cannot volunteer. We must get paid, it’s not a luxury we have.
Oh right, this is suppose to be about me. I don’t know. There are times I leave births and feel terrible and like I couldn’t do anything to help. Then I think, that’s how horrible it was with me there, think about how horrible it would have been if I wasn’t. That’s what keeps me going. Knowing that without me it would have looked a lot worse. Hospitals consider the baby the patient, not the person delivering the baby.
Your work is so much more than just supporting the individual that’s birthing. It’s changing minds, it’s changing the stories we share, it’s challenging the healthcare industry…
Yeah, it’s a little more than just rubbing people’s backs.
Yes! What’s your dream for how this work could shift things in the world?
Part of my dream is already coming to fruition. When I first started doing this work, I was one of the only few black doulas in the Bay Area. A great clinic opened in Berkeley and a couple of us newer doulas, got together and asked the clinic if we could provide support on a volunteer basis for those that didn’t have means. They said yes and we put a flyer up explaining what a doula is and told folks to reach out to us about what kind of person they wanted and we would try to match them with someone. A lot of young teen black moms who were low income and uninsured reached out saying they wanted an older black woman to support them. So I did that. It was amazing, I learned more in that year that I could have ever learned going to some school. These women really appreciated me. Even though we often came from different worlds, I understand what it means to be a black woman in this country. This made all the difference. My dream was to train black women and black people to support black birthing people. That dream is now Roots of Labor Birth Collective. I cry every time we have a training where I get to see a whole room filled with women of color dedicated to this. We have to have people who look like us advocate for us in our most vulnerable moments.
What mistakes have allies and supporters made when trying to partner with BWBJ?
I spend so much of my time educating white people. It’s a very tiring job. I know they mean well. Often people will come to us for information, but they don’t feel they need to pay anyone. Occasionally they will take our ideas, and go on to do a similar thing with funding, and then we won’t get credit for it. That’s my biggest concern. Honestly the best way to support BWBJ and Roots of Labor, is to donate money to help us fund the work we are trying to do. To train black birth workers to support black birthing people, to pay doulas when clients can’t pay, and to support us with the additional research that we have planned. We need resources so we can keep doing what we do as well as we can do it. We do have some amazing allies though. Specifically one group of white women, The Birth Justice Project who do birth justice work with incarcerated women. They received a grant to train formerly incarcerated birthing people to become doulas and they partnered with BWBJ to do the training, because they understood that a training by women of color would be more effective than yet another training led by white women. They did all of the support — got the space ready, food, childcare. It was a great team effort.
Is there anything else you want to mention Linda?
Just thank you for acknowledging the work of BWBJ. In times like these, we all really need to support each other.