Most people don't know what a doula is.
But a new Albany-based non-profit organization believes doulas have an important role to play in reducing the Capital Region's high African-American infant mortality rate.
Called the Birth Justice Project, the group was founded by midwives and doulas — trained professionals who support women during labor, birth and the post-partum period.
DAY 1: 'Any death hurts': In Schenectady and Albany, being born black is a fight against the odds
DAY 2: New Baby Cafe in Schenectady aims to help nursing mothers
DAY 2: Glenville, Albany women form Black Breastfeeding Empowerment Network
DAY 3: Improving birth outcomes should be a priority
Research has shown that using a doula makes a difference — that women who use doulas are more likely to have healthy babies, and less likely to experience pregnancy and birth-related complications.
Unfortunately, the research also shows that most women never seek the services of a doula, despite these benefits. According to one study, fewer than 10 percent of pregnant American women use a doula.
The Birth Justice Project is hoping to change this.
The organization wants see more Capital Region women use doulas, and more women become doulas, too.
In particular, the group would like to see more African-American women use and become doulas, because they are the group most at risk of experiencing a bad birth outcome. The idea is that making doulas more commonplace in the African-American community will save lives, and that increasing the number of African-American doulas is key to accomplishing this.
"Our goal is to improve birth outcomes," explained Rose Mitchell-Tenerowicz, an Albany resident and doula who helped found the Birth Justice Project. "Birth is a microcosm of society. These disparities are exactly what you'd expect in a country with massive racial disparities."
The Birth Justice Project is a promising initiative, and it deserves support.
It takes a grassroots, empowering-the-people approach to a problem that has long confounded the medical establishment, and looks to the community for solutions, rather than doctors, hospitals or government agencies.
I met Rose last spring, not long after the Birth Justice Project hosted a brainstorming session to raise awareness of the Capital Region's shockingly high African-American infant mortality rates and discuss how best to address them.
It was this event that piqued my interest in infant mortality — a problem that hasn't received nearly enough attention at the local or national level, even as babies' lives hang in the balance.
Mitchell-Tenerowicz lives in Albany's Mansion Neighborhood and works out of the Family Life Center, an independent childbirth education center that offers classes and other birth-related programming.
When she learned how high the infant mortality rate was in her own zip code — 16.5 deaths per 1,000 live births, compared to a countywide rate of 7.1 deaths per 1,000 live births — she was appalled.
I, too, live in this very same zip code — 12202 — and I shared her alarm.
Why, I wondered, are so many babies dying in our neighborhood? And what can be done to change this?
The Birth Justice Project is one possible vehicle for change.
Right now the group is focused on raising money, growing its board of directors and forging relationships with other community groups.
"We want to build an organization that really represents the community," Mitchell-Tenerowicz told me. "We want to build a facility and hire trainers to help people become doulas. We're looking to build a community doula program."
One 2013 study, from The Journal of Perinatal Education, found that doula-assisted mothers were four times less likely to have a low birth weight baby and two times less likely to experience a birth complication. Other studies have shown that women who use doulas have lower rates of Cesarean births.
The Birth Justice Project is an initiative of BirthNet, a Capital Region non-profit organization founded about 15 years ago with a goal of educating "the public about maternity care in order to improve it."
In the past year, the group has shifted its focus to the area's high African-American infant mortality rate, and it's easy to see why: Once you become aware of the problem, it feels urgent.
At least, that's how it feels to me, and it's why I'm eager to see the Birth Justice Project carry out its mission.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's. Her blog is at https://dailygazette.com/blogs/thinking-it-through.