The United States is in the midst of a maternal mortality crisis, with deep inequities rooted in systemic racism influencing health outcomes. Black women are three times as likely to die while giving birth as white women and are more likely to experience disrespect and abuse from medical professionals during pregnancy and childbirth. To address these systemic issues and achieve high-quality health interventions for underserved people, the work of community-based organizations is essential. Community-based organizations fill gaps in the traditional health care system by providing alternative care models that support underserved and under-resourced communities. That’s why Maven Clinic and March for Moms are partnering on a new program, MPact for Families, investing in community-based organizations that are committed to advancing equitable maternal health outcomes. The program provides financial support, mentoring, and skill support to amplify extraordinary community-based organizations like Black Mamas ATX, helping them enhance their capacity to serve the populations that are core to our shared missions.
Located in Austin, Texas, Black Mamas ATX aims to ensure that Black women thrive before, during, and after childbirth. We sat down with executive director Kelenne Blake-Fallon and grant manager Erin Backus to discuss how Black Mamas ATX is leading the charge in Central Texas to help Black mothers get the education and resources they need to have healthy pregnancies and births.
Q: How did Black Mamas ATX get started?
Black Mamas ATX started in 2018 as a community-based participatory research project at the University of Texas at Austin. The original intention of the research project was to provide an evidence-based intervention to address the maternal health disparities that Black women face during pregnancy and birth.
The founders of Black Mamas ATX developed the idea for our doula program and brought together a group of women from the community that formed the leadership team. They started training two doulas and offering doula services. Somewhere in the process, a year or so in, Black Mamas ATX moved away from being a research project and more towards becoming an independent community-based organization. The research project was dropped and we hired an executive director and some of the leadership team transitioned to being the first board, and here we are.
Q: What are the different programs the organization offers?
From 2020 onward, we’ve focused on survival work and structural change, because the pandemic isn’t going away and this is our new way of life.
Our programming consists of our doula program and the monthly Sister Circle support groups for the Black community in Central Texas, which includes Austin and the surrounding five counties. These programs offer holistic support and education for people who are both pregnant and postpartum. We also provide racial equity training in collaboration with Joyce James consulting.
Q: The Black maternal mortality crisis is occurring in the whole country, but Black women in Texas are disproportionately affected. What’s it like working in that environment?
We work hard to prepare women and make sure they’re able to advocate for themselves, but power dynamics and structural racism are still highly prevalent in Texas. It’s hard to hear about it over and over again. We’ll hear about yet another situation where someone is affected for the rest of their life by something that happened to them where it didn’t have to be that way. And we think to ourselves, “In 2022 we still have to deal with this?”
One of the challenges is getting accurate numbers on Black maternal health for Texas. In Austin, the last time the public health department gave us new numbers for our area was in 2017. We are patiently waiting for more up-to-date numbers. We know it’s getting worse, but we don’t have the numbers to prove it. People will measure what they think is important, and they don’t think Black maternal health is important enough to measure. In a way, it comes to us to measure that type of thing. But as a doula support organization, those outcomes aren’t only dependent on what we do. Because at the end of the day, that mom still has to interact with the doctor, people at the hospital, or wherever she chooses to give birth.
Q: How did COVID-19 change how your organization worked to support the community?
In 2020, everything shifted online. Our doulas were not having hands-on experience teaching families. They were teaching over the phone or on zoom. But there are some things that need to be hands-on. It’s important to be present in a household so the doula can meet the partner, see things, and give suggestions or tips. We still leave it up to the doula if they want to go in person. The support groups also went online.
What we’re finding now, is that the folks who were all online are not as strong in advocating for themselves. They’re more easily swayed away from their birth plan. There was a loss of something there. That’s why in-person doula support, alongside any virtual care, is so important.
But being online meant more people from anywhere could join the support groups. This means we’re more accessible now in the community to people who may not have gotten this support before.
Q: What has the impact of Black Mamas ATX been?
Since 2018, Black Mamas ATX has served over 130 Black mothers, providing over 2,300 hours of doula care, prenatal care to over 50 women, and assistance in 38 births. We’ve held 27 monthly Sister Circles, and 91 women have benefited from the support group. We also have a 100% breastfeeding initiation rate.
On average, women receiving services stay with the organization for 18 months. We are providing people with a community with peer-to-peer support. Our workshops, preparation, and lactation workshops are open to anybody. We’re growing this community to be a resource for anyone who is Black, has a uterus, and cares about reproductive justice.
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