Black birth workers draw on ancestral knowledge to support their communities

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The Esty Street Community Garden in Ithaca. (Phoebe Taylor-Vuolo/WSKG)

Juneteenth is Sunday, June 19. The holiday celebrates the liberation of African Americans enslaved in Texas. To remember it, all this week WSKG is looking at the legacies of Black Americans in the Southern Tier.

Cyepress Rite walks through beds of medicinal herbs at the Esty Street community garden in Ithaca. There’s tulsi, calendula, and motherwort.

The plot is shared by members of the Indigo Rising Collective, a group of local Black, Indigenous, queer and trans healers and earthworkers. Their plot is wild, shaped more like a labyrinth than straight, planted rows.

“We didn’t want it to be very straight rows. And also, we did not want to be like, this bed has only this plant, and this bed has only this plant,” Rite said. “They don’t grow that way. They have a cooperative relationship.”

“You called everybody auntie and uncle”

Rite has been learning about community herbalism, with a focus on ancestral knowledge. They’d like to use those skills as a doula. They’re currently taking a year-long online course with Birthing Advocacy Doula Training to get their doula certification.

Doulas are “non-clinical” birth workers who support and care for people throughout their pregnancy. The way Rite approaches birth work is similar to the garden; people existing together, in cooperative relationships.

“I would love to create a community where we all understand ourselves as doulas and parents, even when that child is not directly of your direct bodily creation,” Rite said. “Even going back to ancestral ways of being, you called everybody auntie and uncle, and that still stands in the Black community.”

Birth care can take many forms. Rite said doulas can cook clients’ meals, braid their hair, or advocate for them in the hospital room—anything that brings dignity and autonomy to pregnant people.

Rite said it’s important to help a pregnant person hold on to the things that they enjoy, reminding them that they’re allowed to be a whole person, even as a parent.

“It’s such a disservice that we say to parents you need to sacrifice everything to be a parent, as if these things don’t all create a culture—a rich soil for you to grow another being,” Rite said.

That support can come after birth, too. Rite worked with one client early in their training who had a newborn.

One night, Rite came over late in the evening and the client immediately ran to the bathroom. She had been too worried to leave the infant alone and take a bathroom break.

“Even in a basic way, even if a person had no doula training, did not know anything, but they were just there, that would have freed [her] up,” Rite said.

Cyepress Rite and their partner, Charlie, in the Esty Street Community Garden in Ithaca. (Phoebe Taylor-Vuolo/WSKG)

People are doing birth work, “they’re just not being seen”

Asteir Bey trains and mentors community-based birth workers in Syracuse. She did birth work for ten years before she and her partner founded the first community-based doula program in the city.

Community-based doula programs focus on providing birth and perinatal care that is accessible to and appropriate for underserved communities. Most community-based doulas are members of the groups they serve, and share language, background or culture. Community-based care tends to involve more home visits, and is generally low-cost or free.

The Village Birth International Community Doula Program, which Bey helped found, trains new doulas and gives people already doing the work the tools they need to navigate the medical system.

“We know that there are groups of people here who are doing birth work, they’re just not being seen or heard,” Bey said.

Bey’s work grapples with major disparities in health care provided to Black pregnant people, both in New York and nationwide. As of 2019, maternal mortality rates for Black women in the state were three to four times higher than those of white women.

Research shows the continued presence of a doula or birth worker can decrease rates of complication in pregnancy. But unless maternal health initiatives focus on supporting community-led care, Bey said, the disparities will continue.

“Funding the people who are actually in communities where the disparities are at their highest is not happening, and so you’re not going to see the life saving changes,” she explained.

The community doula program Bey runs works with pregnant people throughout their “reproductive timeline,” which extends beyond labor.

“We’re doing a lot of teaching, we’re doing childbirth education, we’re talking about breastfeeding, we’re talking to the family, we’re getting to know you,” she said. “We’re talking about what things make you happy, what things you need to feel comfort.”

“They feel like family”

When Bey first became pregnant, she didn’t have a lot of exposure to birth work, or pregnancy at all. But her husband came from a big family.

“So that really was my introduction. I mean, when I had my first child, it was really my sister-in-laws and my cousin-in-laws and my mother-in-law who actually held my hand,” Bey said.

They supported her and helped her through pregnancy, and that experience led her to birth work. Bey said she wanted to provide that kind of care to other pregnant people.

That concept of reciprocity is a core part of the work that Black and Indigenous birth workers have been doing for generations, Bey added. The community-based program she leads models that care.

“Most of your clients are, first of all, more than your clients because you probably know them. Or you probably know of them, they’re people in your community, and so they feel like family,” Bey said.

The same person providing care one day might be receiving it the next. Bey said that familiarity better sets up birth workers, and their communities, to support pregnant people.

As for people just starting out as doulas, or in training, Bey said she advises people to find others doing the work.

“I never could imagine doing birth work by myself,” she said. “And that’s also not the ways of our midwives and our answers—nobody’s doing this alone.”