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Black midwives and doulas in Michigan work to improve maternal and infant health


Across the country, data shows Black infants die far more frequently than white babies. In Michigan, Black midwives and doulas are on the front lines, working to save those lives. And as Michelle Jokisch Polo of member station WKAR in East Lansing reports, their efforts are dramatically improving outcomes.

MICHELLE JOKISCH POLO, BYLINE: It's been a little over a week since Ahmir Williams-Laster was born. Today, he's with his mom and dad, Nova and Deontre, for their first checkup with their midwife since giving birth at home.


JOKISCH POLO: Though Ahmir is Nova's second child, he was her first to be delivered at home.

NOVA WILLIAMS-LASTER: I just really wanted to experience that. Like, thinking about our ancestors and, like, how they didn't have all this medicine, so they were able to just do it where they were - it's like, I know I can do it.

JOKISCH POLO: Williams-Laster says Black infant mortality rates were top of mind.

WILLIAMS-LASTER: I feel like having a woman of color assist me - it's more comforting knowing 'cause she understands where we're coming from. Like, she can connect with me. I can connect with her.

JOKISCH POLO: In Michigan, Black babies are three times more likely to die within the first year of life, compared to white babies, and Black women are nearly two times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. Dawn Shanafelt is in charge of coming up with strategies to improve maternal infant health for the state's health department.

DAWN SHANAFELT: That ray of hope that we see is that the majority of these deaths - and more than 60% have been determined to be preventable.

JOKISCH POLO: Shanafelt says the root causes are systemic inequities and racism. It's these disparities that are driving many Black families like the Williams-Lasters to increasingly seek services of doulas and midwives who look like them. During their pregnancy, Nova and Deontre chose to drive an hour each way to see Nova's certified professional midwife, Tiffany Townsend, instead of the five-minute drive to the hospital in Nova's hometown. In the last five years she's been a birth worker, Townsend says she's seen better outcomes among her Black clients than what the state's health system is seeing.

TIFFANY TOWNSEND: And a big part of that is simply having the ability to slow down and see the whole person. Like, I don't have 15-minute prenatal visits. In my visits, we schedule an hour, and during that time, we're talking about nutrition, stress, movement.

JOKISCH POLO: Dr. Michelle Ogunwole is a health disparity researcher at Johns Hopkins University. She's been studying the impact community-based doulas and midwives can have on the birth and health outcomes of Black people. She says part of the reasons providers like Townsend are seeing better outcomes is because they tend to have a practice that's rooted in undoing the intergenerational trauma of hundreds of years of racism.

MICHELLE OGUNWOLE: And believing the experiences of people who are historically marginalized.

JOKISCH POLO: In Michigan, the care these birth workers provide isn't covered by Medicaid, which makes it harder for some working-class Black people to opt to receive this kind of care. Because Black midwives make up nearly 7% of midwives across the country, Townsend is partnering with other Black birth workers to create a pipeline.

TOWNSEND: So we offer this free training to them, train them up to be doulas.

JOKISCH POLO: In recent years, programs like Townsend's have popped up all over the country, including in New Orleans, New York City and Philadelphia. Dr. Sharon Herring is leading a $5 million project at Temple University, studying the outcomes Black doulas can have.

SHARON HERRING: And we're hypothesizing that these additional supports will lead to lower blood pressure, treat social isolation and depression.

JOKISCH POLO: Townsend says she's planning to continue to offer birth care as a way of empowering people, and Nova is looking forward to more positive home birth experiences.

For NPR News, I'm Michelle Jokisch Polo.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUCAVIETSKI'S "WE ARE LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As WKAR's Bilingual Latinx Stories Reporter, Michelle reports in both English and Spanish on stories affecting Michigan's Latinx community. Michelle is also the voice of WKAR's weekend news programs.