By JR Valrey, Black New World Media
COVID 19 season has further validated the importance of Black doulas and midwives in the Black community, just by being an available resource for advice and medical care for Black women, specifically, that are pregnant, when hospitals can be a dangerous place due to the influx of COVID patients, and the allegedly airborne virus. With California being the national ground zero for COVID infections in the nation, and the U.S. topping the 4 million infections mark, the future could look frightening to expecting families in the so-called golden state.
Sierra Sankofa is a doula that has pivoted with her practice to working online. She has been seeing women from behind a computer screen, for a whole host of reasons surrounding being a doula and the birthing process. Facing an economic crunch and a health crisis, it is vital for the Black community to support people doing this type of work. The Black community has never been able to fully depend on hospitals prior to the pandemic, but the awareness surrounding the great risk involved is even greater in Black society that we are out here by ourselves, medically as well as in every other way. So the point is that we need to directly support doulas and midwives, and encourage our young people to study to become midwives and doulas, because we are only in the opening phase of the COVID/capitalist/whitesupermacist storm that is coming.
JR Valrey: Have you been seeing women through this pandemic? Why was it important to keep up your practice?
Sierra Sankofa: I have, yes. My practice has turned partially virtual, allowing me to continue offering doula support and birthing classes by any means necessary. I’ve actually been blessed to expand my territory during the pandemic. Going virtual has allowed me to connect with and serve an even greater population of families nationwide and globally. Birth hasn’t stopped and the systematic knee on our collective necks hasn’t let up, so my work is essential and must continue.
JR Valrey: What has seeing women virtually been like?
Sierra Sankofa: I like to be very hands-on with my clients, so there was an adjustment period. At first, I was believing the message behind my care and classes would be somehow diluted going virtual, but that had not been the case at all. I’ve been seeing doula clients, teaching birth classes, (including hypnosis during HypnoBirthing sessions) and holding my Business School for Doulas seminars, amongst other things.
JR Valrey: Can you talk about some of your clients around the world?
Sierra Sankofa: It’s been amazing to connect with mamas in the Caribbean and on the continent. The connection and commonality of motherhood does my soul well. This information and perspective on birth that I’m offering is universal. Presenting it on a virtual platform has allowed me to knock down walls and cross borders.
JR Valrey: Can you talk about the 100 Black Mama campaign? Why is it called that?
Sierra Sankofa: I was inspired by the efforts of the Black Maternal Health Week organizers to launch an initiative that tackled one of the most common barriers to connecting families with services like mine: accessibility. I set out to raise money to cover my Essentials 4 Birth Prep class for 100 Black Mamas and extend spots in class to any student without having to have them pay for it. I wanted to level the playing field and just do what it took to make sure the information in the class was delivered into the hearts and minds of my sisters. With the current Black maternal health crisis in our country, we need every advantage, supplemental therapy or support service that can improve our birth outcomes. 100 is not the final goal, but it will forever remind me of the mission and the moment my vision for this work expanded into what it is now. This leads me to Spread Karma, a Black-owned fundraising platform I’m partnering with to raise the $20,000 needed for the next phase of the campaign, in which I will educate 100 mamas monthly for 4 months in 2021. I’m also proud to be working with the Afrocentric Communiversity as my project consultant. We know all that this project will be for the community and are working in concert to present it in all its excellence to those who will partner with me financially to ensure its success and longevity. I am also working with Spread Karma to establish a fund that will cover the cost of doula services for some deserving families here in the U.S. It’s all about the tangible steps I can take along with the brilliant partners I’m meeting along the way to see results in our fight for reproductive rights, respect for and trust in Black women and changes on both the policy and systemic levels that center on Black women’s wellbeing. In the meantime, we need our mamas to live, if I can arm them with knowledge in the process, I’ll be found doing just that.
JR Valrey: Are doulas not covered in health plans and medicaid? If not, why is this a problem?
Sierra Sankofa: There are fewer than 5 states out of 50 in which doula services are either covered or their services are eligible for reimbursement through Medicaid funding. We have the research that shows the positive effect doulas have on births outcomes, yet here we are. We have the research to show how many Black women are dying due to complications from birth. We know the demographics on Medicaid and the clear difference this can make. It only makes sense, but our policy makers play too much. It’s not a top priority problem for them, so they haven’t yet gotten serious in a broad enough way about reducing Black maternal mortality. There’s much left to be desired on that front. But in the meantime, we are thankful for strides made in places like Minnesota, New York and Oregon. And salute to all the birthworkers, non-profits and other organizations that aren’t waiting and are creating funds on their own to cover doula support for mamas.
JR Valrey: What is the importance of doulas and midwives in the birthing of Black children in this country?
Sierra Sankofa: As long as we are here in a system that wasn’t situated for our prosperity, Black people need one another, period. We need community, we need acknowledgment and celebration of our culture and traditions, we need those things that are understood without being said. We have to protect and help guide each other with humility, knowing that our lives have value, even if the predominant culture says otherwise. As long as I am a Black mama, which is never going to end, I will understand on a deeply personal level why my sisters need me and I will never stop being what I know I needed when I was pregnant.
JR Valrey: What advice would you give to young people who are interested in pursuing a career as a doula or midwife?
Sierra Sankofa: Find a mentor. Know your purpose, your passion and your price. Read any and everything you can get your hands on and never stop learning. Listen to your clients; stay humble always.
JR Valrey: What inspired you to become a doula? When?
Sierra Sankofa: My own journey to motherhood inspired me to become a doula. I trained under a local midwife while pregnant with my oldest daughter and started attending births in 2015. I’ve been a birth educator for almost 4 years now.
JR Valrey: How could people stay in touch with you?
Sierra Sankofa: My website is www.sankofamamadoula.com. I’m most active on Instagram, so following me there will keep you current on my movements: @SankofaMama