Five Washington organizations led by and providing support to people of color were recently granted funding from the state to help address a concerning trend: disproportionately high rates of maternal deaths among the state’s most vulnerable communities.
Mortality rates in Washington’s communities of color were already troubling before the pandemic, according to a report on maternal deaths that highlighted stark racial disparities: From 2014 to 2020, the rates of pregnancy-associated deaths per 100,000 live births in Washington were more than eight times higher for American Indian and Alaska Native people than for white people, and more than 2.5 times higher for Black people and for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander people compared to white people.
A growing divide
Then things got worse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nationwide maternal mortality rates rose by more than a third from 2020 through 2021, with disparities holding fairly steady between white and Hispanic people and growing between white people and Black people, who experienced mortality rates of 69.9 deaths per 100,000 live births.
Addressing these disparities is the goal of the Washington Department of Health’s Birth Equity Project, which earlier this month identified the five organizations, each of which will receive funding of up to $200,000 per fiscal year for a total of two and a half years.
“This grant is just going to open up so many doors for so many people,” said Stephaine Courtney, the founder of one recipient group, Shades of Motherhood in Spokane.
Helping families of color
BLKBRY, another recipient organization, offers several services — including doula support, prenatal lactation and feeding education, and individualized nutrition support. Founder Jazmin Williams wants to make sure she’s not the only one making decisions when it comes to the money.
“We really wanted to leave it to community,” she said. “It’s also a way for community to be able to call us in and call us out … We want community to hold us accountable in making sure that all of our programs, our classes, our resources are aligned with the Black community.”
Williams, a reproductive and birth worker, started BLKBRY after she noticed lapses in Black perinatal and infant healthcare.
“I founded BLKBRY to really fill in those gaps,” Williams said of her Burien-based organization, which works mainly with descendants of enslaved Africans in the U.S., though BLKBRY is also seeing more people with ties to other places, like the Caribbean and West Africa.
Providing affordable or no-cost support
The organization has a few different plans for the state grant, including using it to offer free educational classes for Black birthing people. Williams also plans to offer reproductive and birth support at no cost, either virtually or in person.
“Virtual support will most likely be for our folks that are out of the area,” Williams said, though BLKBRY is working on developing its partnership with Shades of Motherhood in Spokane. “So we can make sure our Eastern Washington folks connect with them for that in-person support.”
Courtney of Shades of Motherhood also wants to ease the financial burden on community members, planning to use some of the grant money to provide a stipend that enables people to pay for a doula of their choice.
Doulas can offer physical and emotional support during pregnancy and birth, from answering questions about birth to massaging clients during labor – though there are other types of doulas, like those who support people who are dying or seeking abortions.
Adding more birth workers
The money could make a major difference for members of the Nisqually Indian Tribe, who have historically had limited access to maternal healthcare but may feel uneasy seeking services outside of their community due to historical trauma.
“A lot of our tribal members and folks that live here on the reservation don’t necessarily feel comfortable going somewhere else,” said Amber Arndt, health planner for the tribe. “They want to get their services here, from the people they know. The people they trust.”
That’s why it’s important for the tribe to offer a range of services, according to Arndt, who named a few possible avenues for the grant money, like providing birthing family classes and training community health representatives as lactation specialists.
Building the corps of doulas of color
In Spokane, Courtney wants Shades of Motherhood to dedicate some of its grant money to empowering doulas of color.
“There are a lot of doulas that are Black, that are in this community, that are no longer practicing,” she said. “Because they’re not getting clients or they’re not getting resources or they’re not getting connected.”
She wants to put the state funding toward training 15 doulas of color this year and working with them for the next few years; creating an advocacy space at Spokane’s Emmanuel Family Life Center, where doulas of color can learn, develop and continue training; and creating a doula library, where doulas in the community can get items – like educational books, diapers, blankets, toiletry kits and stress balls – for free.
Message: You matter
In Courtney’s vision, Shades of Motherhood will let people know that they aren’t alone and that their existence matters.
“We are here to amplify those voices and educate our community as much as possible,” she said. “So that we can make a difference and, again, go back to crushing the crisis.”
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