WFCO Grantees Working to Improve Black Maternal Health Outcomes
Allyson Felix: A Black Maternal Health Story
When she was 32 weeks into her first pregnancy, at a routine doctor’s appointment, Allyson Felix was diagnosed with severe eclampsia and was immediately admitted to hospital with the life-threatening condition. As the owner of 13 global titles, 11 Olympic medals, 10 U.S. Championships, and a world record in track & field, she remembers being shocked.
“I think I knew the statistics about women of color and complications, but being an athlete I never imagined I would be in that scenario,” said Allyson, WFCO’s 2022 Annual Luncheon special guest, on a podcast by People. “Talking to my brother after the fact he explained that he didn’t know if he was coming to see his niece be born or see his sister pass away.”
What Allyson learned since then is that childbirth is deadlier for Black families – even when they’re rich. In fact, the richest Black mothers and their babies are twice as likely to die as the richest white mothers and their babies.
A study published in 2023 by the National Bureau of Economic Research demonstrates that outcomes are not explained by income, age, marital status or country of birth. Without those being factors, it’s safe to assume Black mothers and babies have a disproportionately higher risk of death because of structural racism.
Because of bias that Black women and birthing people experience in the medical system, they often seek the help of doulas or birth workers to advocate for them in the labor and delivery process.
Black Maternal Health Week is April 11-17, 2023
The Black Mamas Matter Alliance (BMMA) is a Black women-led cross-sectoral alliance that centers Black mamas and birthing people to advocate, drive research, build power, and shift culture for Black maternal health, rights, and justice. The organization founded Black Maternal Health Week (#BMHW23) to build awareness of the disparities experienced by Black mothers and birthing people.
While BMMA is working on advocacy and activism at the national level, several nonprofit organizations in Colorado who received grants from WFCO’s Women & Girls of Color Fund, are changing outcomes in Colorado.
Soul 2 Soul Sisters
Soul 2 Soul Sisters engages in advocacy at the State Capitol and hosts Sacred Seeds, a collective space to support birth workers and affirm them as professionals who bring a valuable presence to support people through transitions. They host workshops, professional development opportunities, and events that highlight the intersections of Black maternal health and reproductive justice.
Reproductive justice, as defined by the group SisterSong, is the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.
“It’s interesting to see how many issues intersect with Black maternal health,” said Briana Simmons, Black health and reproductive justice coordinator at Soul 2 Soul Sisters. “What happened at East High School is a Black maternal health and reproductive justice issue. Mothers shouldn’t feel unsafe sending their children out into the world.”
During the 2022 legislative session, Soul 2 Soul Sisters worked closely with Elephant Circle to help pass the Reproductive Health Equity Act, also advocated for by WFCO.
“This year we are trying to push the bar even more,” said Briana. “The Reproductive Health Equity Act is great, but particularly after the fall of Roe v Wade, we want to ensure there are protections for those providing, assisting, and receiving abortion care.”
Read more about Senate Bill 23-188.
Mama Bird provides education and self-care for doulas of color, nurturing them so they can provide for the families they support. “That’s step one because birth work is really heavy and doulas burn out,” said Birdie Johnson, the founder of Mama Bird. “After working with doulas, we work with families, so they can create their ripples into society.”
Mama Bird often works with Black families on Medicaid, but there is no income requirement to receive services. “We know socioeconomic doesn’t matter (in Black maternal health outcomes),” said Birdie.
For families, Mama Bird offers lactation education, newborn care, self-care services, a Black mom support group, and even a safe space for non-birthing partners.
Birdie’s interest in improving Black maternal health outcomes is personal. As a mother of three, she was never offered lactation support or child education. While giving birth, she lost her child and she almost died. She also experienced severe post-partum depression.
“After, I learned about all the birth trauma I had,” said Birdie. “People of color have a different experience with health care. I’m being the support system I wish that I had.”
Mama Bird celebrated its one-year anniversary in February 2023. Over the first year, it hired four doulas that work on call and the organization supported more than 20 families.
Okionu Birth Foundation
The first birth that Jacquelyn Clemmons attended when she was 19 was one of the most traumatic births she has ever attended, even to this day.
“No one cared to listen to her or view her as a person having this experience,” said Jacquelyn of the mother. “I was in the post-partum room with her and she couldn’t even hold her baby because they had given her so many medications without consent.”
Jacquelyn had to hold the baby so the new mom could breastfeed. “That was the one part of her birth experience she had a say in.”
Several years and many births later, Jacquelyn launched the birth-based business Okionu Birth Foundation – with Okionu meaning wise, intuitive, thoughtful – to allow Black and Indigenous women and people to have their voices heard. It focuses on the mental health of parents through post-partum wisdom circles, connecting families to marriage and family therapists, and meal support.
“Families are very fragile in the first year because there is such a strain on the mental health of both parents and household roles shifting.”
In 2020 alone, she estimates Okionu worked with 20 families, most recently leaning into food partnerships to help families who are living in food deserts. After a recent true wisdom support circle for new mothers, one woman was given coconut curry soup with chick peas and told Jacquelyn she hadn’t felt “this nourished or seen in a long time.”
“We find solace and sisterhood here,” said Jacquelyn. “Without her being prompted, she used the word ‘nourished,’ which is our goal. That was everything for me.”
Women & Girls of Color Fund
Mama Bird Doula Services, Okionu Birth Foundation, and Soul 2 Soul are Front Range grantees of our Women & Girls of Color Fund.