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Black birth workers in Michigan are aiding babies, mothers start good lives

Nova and Deontre Williams-Laster, at their first check up with their midwife since giving birth at home.
Michelle Jokisch Polo/NPR
Nova and Deontre Williams-Laster, at their first check up with their midwife since giving birth at home.

Updated March 7, 2022 at 10:39 AM ET

It's been a few weeks since Ahmir Williams-Laster was born. The day I met him he was with his mom and dad, Nova and Deontre Williams-Laster, 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 doula, Williams-Laster 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.

Tiffany Townsend, a Michigan midwife, helped the Williams-Lasters deliver their baby.
/ Tiffany Townsend
Tiffany Townsend
Tiffany Townsend, a Michigan doula, helped the Williams-Lasters deliver their baby.

Seeking a better outcome for Black babies

In Michigan, Black babies are three times more likely to die within the first year of life compared to white babies and 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 Michigan's health department, says the root causes of these 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.

During their pregnancy, Nova and Deontre chose to drive an hour each way to see Nova's certified professional doula, 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."

One of her favorite births

While Townsend has attended over 600 births in her career, she says Williams-Laster's birth was one of her favorites.

Ahmir Williams-Laster
/ Michelle Jokisch Polo/NPR
Michelle Jokisch Polo/NPR
Ahmir Williams-Laster

"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.

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

In the last 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.

"And 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."

Practices are rooted in undoing intergenerational trauma

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 some working class Black people to opt to receive this kind of care.

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

Baby's footprints decorate the wall at Tiffany Townsend's office.
/ Michelle Jokisch Polo /NPR
Michelle Jokisch Polo /NPR
Baby's footprints decorate the wall at Tiffany Townsend's office.

"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 socio economic class or anything, just Black and brown people, period, were able to have access to that," Townsend said.

In recent years, programs such as 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 to offer birth care as a way of empowering people in their journeys, and Nova is looking forward to more positive home birth experiences.

Copyright 2022 WKAR Public Media

As WKAR's Bilingual Latinx Stories Reporter, Michelle reports in both English and Spanish on stories affecting Michigan's Latinx community. Michelle is also the voice of WKAR's weekend news programs.