Black Birth Workers are trusted members of an expectant mother’s healthcare team. They serve women of child-bearing age and their families, providing women with pregnancy and labor support, guidance and knowledge.

Changes in hospital polices and maternity practices during the COVID-19 pandemic have required Black Birth Workers to adapt their practice in order to remain safe, serve their clients and ensure their clients’ safety as well.

To accomplish this, the African American Breastfeeding Network is using a COVID-19 Response Grant from the Wisconsin Partnership Program at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. The goal of its project, WeRISE: Black Birth Workers Response to COVID-19, is to build supportive measures for Black Birth Workers, or doulas, and the clients they serve in order to promote healthy birth outcomes and  prevent the spread of COVID-19 among Black families living in Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha.

The project is specifically targeted to Black Birth Workers and families living in neighborhoods that experience high rates of infant and maternal mortality. The chronic stress, stemming from discrimination and bias, that many Black women experience over their lifetime, including during their health care encounters, is a significant driver in poor birth outcomes among Black mothers and babies. Socioeconomic conditions, such as access to jobs or to safe and affordable housing, can further exacerbate chronic disease and health conditions, also influencing healthy birth outcomes. Added to these challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the health disparities and systemic racism experienced by many Black families, and  the virus has disproportionately impacted Black people in transmission and death rates, as well as through economic impacts, including job loss and food and housing access.

This makes the work ­– and the trusted partnership – between doulas and Black families more important than ever. Kay’La Mumford, a certified doula and the project’s program director, said, “Trust plays a major role in a Black woman’s health care experience. Having someone that looks like you, understands you, and is from your community, is incredibly significant.”

Birth workers
WeRISE doulas serve Milwaukee, Kenosha and Racine counties, which currently have the highest maternal infant mortality rates in the state.

Mumford understands first-hand the unique challenges doulas and families are facing during the current pandemic. When her own client went into pre-term labor, Mumford could not go to the hospital to support her. “I felt powerless,” she said. “I knew we as doulas needed to be better equipped ourselves in order to support the families we serve.”

Through the grant, the project is recruiting and training more doulas and equipping them with the resources they need. They are modifying existing programming for pregnant mothers to digital platforms and have updated their materials to include safety precautions against COVID-19, including a COVID-19 emergency kit for new mothers. Now a birth plan might include more information about how a mother can advocate for herself or a strategy to give the doula a virtual presence during delivery via FaceTime or other technology.

Mumford said the project has been very-well received, with high interest among prospective Black Birth Workers, as well as interest from potential clients and service providers.

Dalvery Blackwell, executive director and co-founder of the African American Breastfeeding Network said, “This project is important to our community because right now labor support for birthing women is paramount and is a community strategy necessary to improve maternal and infant health. Supporting the community of Black birth workers so that they are prepared during the pandemic will build community capacity to care for Black families as well as improve awareness and reduce the spread of COVID-19.”

The grant to the African American Breastfeeding Network is one of 22 COVID-19 Response Grants awarded by the Wisconsin Partnership Program at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. The grants, totaling $2.7 million, were awarded to researchers and community organizations across Wisconsin to support efforts to lessen the impact of COVID-19.