Birthing a conference: A celebration of Black kin

Des Moines-based holistic doula and lactation counselor Olivia Samples first published this post on Kismet Doula Services’ blog. -promoted by Laura Belin

Last year I attended two conferences centered around Black Maternal Health. After the first one I attended, I had a dance party in my room to the playlist they sent us. The discussion, resources, and connection I got from this event totally filled my cup; left me energized and ready for more.

A few weeks later, during the second conference, I felt the anger rising from my gut into my face. I cried and stepped away after hearing so many statistics of the disparities for Black birthing people in Iowa. I learned a lot from other sessions throughout the conference, but at the end of the day, I closed my laptop, journaled, and took a nap.

Something that sticks out from the entry that day:

“Is it not also racist to only perpetuate disparities? I wish we could have a Black Maternal Health Conference that centered around not only Black birthing people, but the joy in Black parenthood, in birthing Black children, and in Black communities. There are so many people and projects making a huge impact on these disparities in our own community. Why do we most often uplift the violence? What you pay attention to grows.”

I wonder if the people who share these disparities know what it’s like to be on the receiving end; to stare at a slide detailing the myriad ways your people fail in comparison to whiteness. We are so often reminded of the problems. Statistics on the disparity in maternal mortality, gestational diabetes, access to prenatal care, and preterm birth rates are shared widely. I’ve heard professionals point to individual failings, such as rising obesity rates, cultural differences, and poverty as reasons for the worsening maternal crisis. At the same time, people in power uplift the idea of Health Equity and the need to move away from mother-blaming narratives.

Black Maternal Health is not synonymous with disparity. Black lives are more than violence and struggle. Let’s move beyond the statistics to solutions. There are real people and families behind these numbers. We’re creating a space, even if it’s a small start, to tell our stories and decide for ourselves the direction we want to grow.

When it comes to Black Maternal Health, the state of Iowa has directed resources toward a variety of programs. We have reproductive health programs within Title V and Title X. We have received a Maternal Health Innovation Grant for more than two million dollars, which includes the formation of a Perinatal Quality Care Collaborative and the future implementation of AIM safety bundles. We have a Maternal Mortality Review Committee that reviews maternal deaths and shares a report annually.

These things are all progress and notably more than what some other states have done, but do these programs truly address the root causes of these issues?

I’ve seen many presentations, reports, and articles filled with numbers and data on the problems. At the same time, I’m sorting through the memories I have of supporting Black families. The excitement in choosing colors for baby rooms. Tears from Grandparents meeting the new addition to their family. The giggles in trying new yoga poses. Dance parties and pride when we reach breastfeeding milestones. So many beautiful moments of joy, of resilience, of transformation. Those moments are rarely celebrated or even mentioned, but they should be.

Even beyond uplifting Black experiences in Iowa, I have not seen a diverse representation of the many ways a family can look or be conceived within our birthing community. It’s important to me to create space specifically for folks who are marginalized. The wisdom and experiences people can share are valuable. The expertise that exists within our community should be respected and celebrated! What new ideas might arise when the usual crowd sits back and listens? By centering the voices of the most marginalized, working margin to center, we can begin to create a better quality system that serves everyone.

With this conference, I want expansion. I want to expand who we’re talking about when we talk about Black Maternal Health. People of all genders give birth. Dads and non-gestational parents deserve space in the Black Maternal Health conversation- look forward to a BBQ for Dads to connect and share resources. Calling upon community is crucial for supporting parents and children in this world. These disparities in maternal health are not the sole responsibility of people who birth children. What responsibility do we all have to the children who come into this world?

We deserve more than what currently exists. It’s my dream that we can expand our collective imagination about what a maternal health system can be. I believe that the people most affected by an issue are the people who should be active participants and leaders in cultivating solutions. There are people in our community who want to cultivate more. But what does more look like? What is it that we need and want for people who are pregnant and parenting in Iowa?

This conference includes town halls for Black people to share their experiences, needs, and dreams with the intention of beginning to work towards whatever it is that we find. How often are we asked what we need or want in our health care? Why wait for someone else to create it for us?

The idea and actualization of this conference are happening within a global pandemic, on the heels of uprisings for Black lives, at a shifting of power in our country. Contextually, these circumstances have opened a gate for us to demand more; and where there is hope that we may actually achieve it together.

Join us at A Celebration of Black Kin from April 11 to April 17, 2021. For more information connect with us on Facebook and Instagram.

Olivia Samples is a holistic doula and lactation counselor who primarily serves Black and Queer Folks in Des Moines. Olivia was called to birthwork in 2018 and has been a lifelong advocate for reproductive justice. Her practice is rooted in joy, in opposition to the medical racism and disparity experienced by these communities. Their mission is to empower families and cultivate our collective care and liberation.

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