Black Birthing People Must Feel Empowered to Choose Providers Who Support Them—This New Resource Can Help

The Black Doula Directory can help parents-to-be find culturally competent support, something pertinatal health advocate Shawnee Benton Gibson says makes all the difference.

Photo: Courtesy of Onyx Collective

Despite being one of the richest and most developed countries in the world, the United States is the only developed country in the world where the perinatal mortality rate increased since 1990. Blood clots, hypertension, and blood loss are the three leading causes of this phenomenon, but a panel of experts is still unsure of why this is happening.

For Black birthing people, the urge for more research and solutions is crucial, as they are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes and five times more likely to die from cardiomyopathy and blood pressure disorders than their white counterparts. Factors such as discriminatory practices in healthcare, health insurance coverage gaps, racism, and systemic barriers add to the disproportionate rate at which Black people are affected.

Aftershock, a Hulu documentary and previous winner of the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award at Sundance Film Festival, follows the journey of two families after the preventable deaths of their relatives from childbirth complications.

In October of 2019, after expressing symptoms like discomfort and difficulty breathing to healthcare professionals, only to be ignored, Shamony Gibson passed 13 days postpartum from a pulmonary embolism. She left behind her partner and two children. Her mother, Shawnee Benton-Gibson, a licensed practitioner, has since then continued to seek justice through actions aimed at legislation for her daughter and others like her, speaking out about perinatal health, birth equity, and reproductive justice.

"The film is about hope. Even though my daughter's story, Shamony's story, and Amber's story, is about their death and the loss of life that will never be restored, it's about the opportunity to choose," Benton-Gibson said in an interview with Kindred by Parents. "Knowing that you have a choice, you can birth at home, you can birth at the hospital-because hospitals serve a purpose- you can birth at a birthing center, and everything in between is a powerful offering for the folks to see."

Benton-Gibson believes educating those around us on both pregnancy and the postpartum process is a critical factor that can improve the chances of a healthier term and postpartum experience for all involved. "The education will help you be hypervigilant," she says, "which is required these days so that you don't end up succumbing to that. And the people around you are also educated and say, 'I see that you're out of breath,' or 'I experienced you as not being yourself,' or 'You're sleeping for extended periods of time.'"

The Critical Role of Doulas

Data shows facilities and programs like birthing centers and doulas have improved the outcomes of Black birthing people and their babies. According to one study, birthing people are two times less likely to experience birth complications with the support of a doula. They are also four times less likely to have a baby with a low birth weight, and they are more likely to have positive health outcomes.

Doulas can serve as advocates for pregnant people, ensuring that their voices are heard and their needs are met. They can also encourage expectant parents to facilitate their own birthing plans tailored specifically to how the parents would like their birthing experience to go. Doulas can also assist during postpartum, a stage in which birthing people can still encounter complications.

Benton-Gibson emphasizes this fact, saying, "What's also important to know is that we're not out of the woods after we give birth. That up to 12 months after we give birth, no matter how we identify, our socioeconomic backgrounds, our family covering, all of that, you can still die from cardiomyopathy. You can have post-eclampsia. You can end up with postpartum depression and psychosis and take your own life. You can have a pulmonary embolism like my daughter—all of those things can happen to you."

Chanel Portia-Albert

We really have to work towards centering ourselves and affirming that we're experts in our care and that how you feel is valid. If one person isn't listening to you, then find someone else who will.

— Chanel Portia-Albert

Support for Black Birthing People

Large organizations, like Baby Dove, are dedicated to improving the overall well-being and birthing experiences of Black people. They have a history of initiatives with this goal in mind.

In April 2023, Baby Dove launched the Black Doula Directory in conjunction with Sista Midwife Productions, a birth advocacy, training, and consulting agency. The Black Doula Directory can help birthing people find Black doulas across the country and in select countries around the world. So far there are more than a thousand Black doulas on the site and the group has a goal of doubling that number within a year.

“Providing an easier way for Black families to identify and connect with Black doulas who look like them and have similar lived experiences is a critical part of improving Black maternal health outcomes and experiences,” says Nicole Deggins, CNM, MSN, MPH, the founder of Sista Midwife Productions in a news release. “Having access to qualified Black doulas can allow for Black moms and birthing families to be even more  empowered to make decisions about their birthing experience and care.”

Baby Dove's past initiatives include #DearDoula, a content series that provides doula-centered information and advice to birthing people. It was created in collaboration with Chanel Portia-Albert, a doula and birth, and reproductive justice advocate.

Portia-Albert is also the founder of Ancient Song, an organization that emphasizes evidence-based doula care, training, and advocacy to citizens of New York and northern New Jersey, and cofounder of JustBirth Space, a website that furnishes free support on navigating pregnancy and postpartum.

"Dear Doula is an informative series that's geared to give more educational resources and easier access and information to Black moms and birthing parents. It's an opportunity for the community to have a broader scope and greater reach for information to be put out," Portia-Albert says. "As advocates, our hope is that our voice is being heard and that people are getting the necessary information that they need to make an informed decision about their care. Having Baby Dove as a partner definitely amplifies that even more. It gives us a broader reach to speak to the community in meaningful ways."

Baby Dove also invested in the Black Birth Equity fund in partnership with Black Mamas Matter Alliance. The Equity fund distributes grants of up to $1,300 to expecting Black mothers for access to doula services. The Black Birth Equity Fund has awarded grants to over 500 moms since its creation in August 2021.

Both Benton-Gibson and Portia-Albert highlight the importance of advocacy as a significant factor in supporting expecting and postpartum birthing people. "The thing that I want mothers, those who identify as women, and birthing people, people with wombs that don't identify as women, to be able to see is that we have a choice," Benton-Gibson stated.

Understanding your body, noticing changes during pregnancy or after birth, and having the confidence to speak about those changes can accelerate the process of getting help. Portia-Albert feels that "We really have to work towards centering ourselves and affirming that we're experts in our care and that how you feel is valid. If one person isn't listening to you, then find someone else who will."

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  1. Gruber KJ, Cupito SH, Dobson CF. Impact of doulas on healthy birth outcomes. J Perinat Educ. 2013

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