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Local Health Districts Launch Community Doula Program

Stephanie Spencer executive director of Urban Baby Beginnings
Stephanie Spencer from Urban Baby Beginnings. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM)

About 700 women die from pregnancy-related complications each year according to the Centers for Disease Control. In Virginia, Black women are three times more likely to die during pregnancy than white women. Health experts and lawmakers are working to address the persistent racial disparities regarding maternal health. 

As part of those efforts, the Richmond and Henrico Health Districts established a maternal health task force, seeking the help of health specialists from Urban Baby Beginnings and Birth in Color RVA to find solutions.

Recently, the task force launched a program that offers free prenatal and postnatal care to the commonwealth’s most vulnerable by connecting people with community doulas. 

Doulas are trained professionals who help people navigate the healthcare system and birthing process. For over 27 years, Urban Baby Beginnings has been doing just that.

Executive Director Stephanie Spencer says the program also aims to empower individuals to make the right decisions for themselves during pregnancy.

“We're really trying to reduce infant and maternal mortality rates and morbidity rates that are related to bias and racism in health systems,” Spencer said. “You can only do that when your mission really focuses on the health and well being of communities, and traditionally [it’s] marginalized communities who are often overlooked in this area.”

Black maternal health has been a long standing issue in the U.S. In 1915, Black women were nearly twice as likely to die from pregnancy-related complications. Following the end of World War II, that disparity widened before stabilizing in the 1970s at between 3 and 4 times. 

Healthcare organizations have long sought to address these inequities by training healthcare professionals to combat unconscious biases and improving prenatal care. On April 13, the Biden Administration issued a proclamation marking Black Maternal Health Week and solidifying their commitment to addressing the glaring inequities in the healthcare system.

Whitney Tidwell is a maternal child health nurse coordinator at RCHD and serves on the local task force charged with addressing infant mortality rates in the state. She says the health district believes partnering with community organizations allows for more personalized care. 

“Recognizing the value that each of those individuals and those organizations bring expands our understanding of what the problem is,” Tidwell said. “Not just what the problem is, but what are some very creative and collaborative ways that we can, you know, better serve our community.”

Spencer says Black and brown communities should have access to clinicians who better understand their lived experience, a common hurdle in the healthcare community. 

“Some of the barriers that we experience is really trying to show people that there has to be an intentional focus on what we're doing to support Black and brown people in these communities, regardless of income, regardless of presentation,” Spencer said.

Kenda Sutton-El, a doula trainer and executive director at Birth in Color RVA,  says 30 people have already enrolled to receive doula care. She says having culturally appropriate birthing care makes all the difference. 

“As a Black woman, I don't want other Black women to be afraid to even have a child because of the maternal mortality rate,” Sutton-El said. “So we're like, constantly educating and saying,  ‘Hey let's dispel the fear, but let's just have you well prepared:’”

National organizations like the Black Mamas Matter Alliance have long studied how community based doula programs can improve maternal mortality rates

“We empower them. We advocate for them when they can't advocate for themselves,” Sutton-El said.

Both Sutton-El and Spencer say the program has seen positive results and engagement since its launch. Anyone interested in learning more about the doula program and the taskforce can visit the website or email [email protected].


Lyndon German covers Henrico and Hanover counties for VPM News.