by Lauryn Bray
Content Warning: This article discusses medical racism and traumatic birth and postpartum experiences.
Research shows that Black women across the United States are dying from childbirth at a disproportionate rate due to medical negligence in what has been referred to as the Black maternal health crisis. BLKBRY, a collective of reproductive and birth workers, doulas, lactation and feeding specialists, and womb healers founded by Jazmin Williams, is currently working to raise $4 million to purchase, renovate, and launch a Black-owned wellness and birth center to specifically serve Black women in and around King County. Williams, who has been training and practicing as a doula for years, says she was called to her work after a traumatic birth and postpartum experience with both of her children left her outraged at the incompetent care Black women receive during and after childbirth.
“What we’re building at BLKBRY is a center no one has seen before. The fact that we are centering the descendants of enslaved Africans of the U.S., the fact that this is for the African diaspora and that when you come here, you see representation of us both in this space. This is a safe space for us,” explained Williams.
According to its website, the missing letters in BLKBRY’s name are intended to represent what is missing within Black reproductive, perinatal, and Black infant health care. BLKBRY, pronounced “blackberry,” founded by Black birthing people for Black birthing people, is an organization dedicated to filling the gaps in health care — created by systemic racism — that many Black women fall through, which subsequently lead to their deaths and the deaths of their infants.
According to an October 2022 report to Congress from the United States Government Accountability Office, the maternal death rate for Black women was 44.0 per 100,000 live births in 2019. In 2020, the maternal death rate for Black women increased to 55.3. By the next year, the rate had increased to 68.9. On the other hand, white women had death rates of 17.9, 19.1, and 26.1.
Additionally, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that non-Hispanic Black Americans have 2.4 times the infant mortality rate as non-Hispanic whites.
One Mother’s Story
“I had my first child in 2009 in California and [gave birth in] an area where none of the providers looked like me,” said Williams. “I had no idea what to expect from it so I just fully trusted in them.”
Williams, like many women experiencing pregnancy for the first time, assumed her doctor knew best. After switching her first doctor due to feelings of mistrust, Williams was able to receive adequate prenatal care with another doctor. Her positive birthing experience led Williams to assume that her postpartum experience would be great as well.
“My birth experience was great, but it was the postpartum [experience] that was really traumatic. I had uterine prolapse and then I also had retained placenta. When I had talked to them about my prolapse, I could feel something coming out of me. I didn’t know how to describe it, I was just like, ‘I feel like my insides are outside.’ And I had told a nurse — a non-Black Woman of Color — I pointed to my genitalia and said ‘Something doesn’t feel right,’ and she smacked my hand and told me not to touch,” recounted Williams.
In California at that time, nurses had to accompany new mothers for their first postpartum shower to instruct how to maintain hygiene without disrupting healing. “She actually started scrubbing that area, and when I told the doctor, [the nurse] said that I was exaggerating and that nothing was wrong with me,” said Williams.
At this time, Williams had just left a domestic violence situation. After giving birth, clinicians informed her that she would not be discharged with her baby until she met with a social worker.
“They brought in the social worker — [a] white woman. She talked to me and asked me if I could see my partner at the time with my child. I said, ‘No, I don’t see my partner, I don’t see myself. I see this little individual with their own possibilities and potential.’ She sat there and was like, ‘I honestly don’t know why they made me come in here. I’m going to sign off and you can take your baby home,’” explained Williams.
After discharge, within an hour of being home, Williams couldn’t stand on her own anymore. She went to her mother and sister with her pants down and asked them to examine her. What they saw compelled them to immediately rush Williams to the emergency room.
When she was seen, Williams says a white cisgender male doctor scolded her for allowing herself to be discharged with all of her complications. The doctor did not bring Williams to an operating room after noticing she had retained placenta; instead, he performed a dilation and curettage without anesthesia in the middle of the emergency room.
It would be 10 years before Williams would have another child. “I had to take that 10-year time to process and heal and learn how to trust providers again,” said Williams.
She gave birth to her second child in Seattle in 2019. Williams, who understood Seattle to be a more progressive city, was working at a fertility clinic and took recommendations for her OB care from the nurses she was working with.
She went to Swedish First Hill to give birth after going into labor. The on-call doctor, who Williams had never seen or met with before, confirmed that Williams was indeed in active labor. However, due to Williams’ contractions not being strong enough and there not being enough rooms available, Williams was told to go home.
“As I’m leaving out the door, a white woman comes in who is in active labor. No problem to room her, no problem to get her a nurse or a bed. But, the audacity was that the doctor looked at me and pointed to the white woman and said, ‘Now when you look like her, come back,’” recalled Williams.
Two hours later, Williams went back to inform them once again that she was in labor. “I had to fake tears so they could room me,” said Williams.
As she progressed through labor she experienced more complications. “I’m in the transitional labor phase and my baby’s heart rate is starting to drop,” Williams explained, describing how her daughter’s heart rate decelerated to 30 bpm, “… which, even going [to] 70 or lower … they would be calling it in to have somebody taken to the ER. The nurse and the doctor were blocking the monitor. Although they kept checking it, my family and I weren’t able to see it. It wasn’t until the nurse moved out the way that my mom actually saw the monitor and told me, ‘Her heart is at 30. You need to push her out,’” explained Williams.
At that moment, the nurse asked Williams what she thought about a medical intervention, but for Williams, it was too late. Williams was able to deliver her baby girl pelvically and without intervention, but not without cost to her mental health. Years later while interning with a prominent lactation specialist, Williams heard a similar story with a key difference: One of the clients, a white woman, disclosed that her baby’s heart rate had dropped to 70 and the staff at the hospital she was in had already started getting her to an operating room.
‘So We Can Live’
After disclosing her traumatic experiences to a friend, Williams was offered doula services for the very first time. “I was like, ‘What is a doula? That’s what we do in the Black community in general — they way we show up for each other. This is a profession? I could be working within community and working within my passion of supporting others, uplifting others, making sure we have the education and resources that we need that are also culturally congruent. And also [be] that advocate to be there to call out the bullshit that these hospitals and providers [are] trying to do and aren’t held accountable for,’” said Williams.
A doula is someone employed to provide support and guidance to a person in labor. Doulas, unlike midwives, do not typically have formal obstetrics training. Their job is to advocate for the needs of the birthing person by acting as a liaison between the patient and clinical staff. There are also postpartum doulas who provide support after a baby has been born.
“If you look at certain countries, they don’t have a term for ‘doula.’ They don’t have doulas in general because that’s what community does. It’s somebody’s grandmother, somebody’s aunt, uncle, the partner, the whole family — they just know how to show up and support the pregnant person,” explained Williams.
Following her first postpartum visit with her friend, Williams was sold. She immediately began committing herself to pursuing a career as a doula. “I signed up for scholarships, I pulled out money from my 401K. I had switched my current business, which was a blog connecting folks to resources and information, to my doula practice. I changed the name and from there I was a go,” Williams said.
Due to her personal experiences and the need for more Black people within health care as an approach to addressing medical racism, Williams prioritizes working with clients within the Black community.
“When I first came in, I was very much like ‘I’m going to support everybody,’ because that’s the notion that the white organizations and the white trainings put out there. They think if you only serve the Black community, you’re not going to be sustainable,” said Williams. “Even in my first training, I told a white woman, ‘I specifically want to serve only Black folks.’ She was like, ‘Oh well I don’t serve your community. There’s no money in it.’”
Williams, who was brought to this work to minimize the number of women and birthing people who may fall victim to medical negligence during the birth/postpartum experience, says she’s not in it for the money. “I’m in it so we can live.”
A Black-Women-Led Doula Collective Is Born
Williams launched BLKBRY in February 2022, and it is the first freestanding doula center founded and led by a Black woman in Washington State. Co-led by Williams and fellow-doula Damarria Davis, BLKBRY provides full spectrum doula and lactation and feeding support while also acting as a resource hub in the community for information, personal items, and baby-related products.
Davis says she was called to her work after a miscarriage and rift in her profession left her wondering what was next for her.
“Becoming a birth worker was something I was compelled to do. I was called — it felt like I was fulfilling my purpose,” she explained.
BLKBRY is working to raise $4 million to open the first Black-owned holistic wellness and birth center in Washington State. According to their website, the birth center will provide a home-birth experience with birth center amenities as well as training and community spaces for independent Black birth workers.
“What I would like to provide for the birth center is childbirth education, as well as support for these new parents in whatever capacity they need,” Davis said.
Davis is currently in school to become an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and is also exploring more opportunities to expand on childbirth education. A mother of five, she’s been training as a doula since 2021.
“Having a doula is a necessity — it’s not a luxury for us,” said Davis. “I’m not gon let nobody go into that hospital when I know that it is a race for them. I [have to] go into the hospital with the full armor of God at this point because I never know what the outcome is going to be.”
If you want to donate to support BLKBRY, visit their GoFundMe.
Lauryn Bray is a writer and reporter for the South Seattle Emerald. She has a degree in English with a concentration in creative writing from CUNY Hunter College. She is from Sacramento, California, and has been living in King County since June 2022.
📸 Featured Image: The missing letters in BLKBRY’s name are intended to represent what is missing within Black reproductive, perinatal, and Black infant health care. BLKBRY, pronounced “blackberry,” founded by Black birthing people for Black birthing people, is an organization dedicated to filling the gaps in health care — created by systemic racism — that many Black women fall through, which subsequently lead to their deaths and the deaths of their infants.
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