In a world that often prides itself on rapid advancement and cutting-edge technology, many Black women in Detroit are reaching back, reconnecting with a deeply rooted tradition that echoes the call of their ancestors: giving birth through midwives.
Why is this return significant? Historically, Black midwives have played a crucial role in the American birthing landscape. Long before hospital births became the norm, these women served their communities, providing vital care to mothers and babies when racial disparities left them overlooked and underserved.
When European colonizers forcibly brought African midwives to the US as part of the transatlantic slave trade, did they recognize the profound depth of knowledge and expertise these women held? Indubitably. Embedded in their very being were centuries-old African traditions of birth, motherhood, and midwifery. Their roles in their original communities were expansive: beyond aiding in childbirth, they were esteemed as spiritual healers, counselors, and holistic caregivers, addressing everything from breastfeeding challenges to preparing nurturing meals.
Yet, amidst the oppressive reality of slavery in a foreign land, how did these Black midwives rise to prominence? By the mid to late 1600s, their skill sets, knowledge, and unique traditions led them to become the cornerstone of prenatal, birth, and postpartum care for all women in the US, regardless of race or status. How did this shift come about? And what does this reveal about the adaptability and resilience of these African midwives, even in the face of unimaginable hardship? The short answer: Black girl magic.
Sadly, disparities persist. Today, Black women face starkly worse birth outcomes than their white counterparts, often feeling unseen and unheard within the confines of conventional medical settings.
This disturbing reality is backed by harrowing statistics. According to the CDC, Black women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. Addressing this crisis requires not just medical expertise but cultural understanding, trust, and a dedication to racial equity in healthcare.
Enter Birth Detroit. After impacting over 400 Detroit families through their Easy Access Clinic, this Black-led initiative has secured a groundbreaking $3.6 million towards a $4 million capital campaign goal to establish Detroit’s first freestanding birth center. This center, set to open in 2024, is envisioned as a beacon of hope, fostering safe, quality, and loving care throughout the pregnancy journey.
“Every Black woman should feel heard and safe. I’m terrified and I have really bad anxiety in hospital settings, it triggers me every single time, but this experience did not feel like that,” expressed a Detroit woman who experienced her birthing journey with Birth Detroit this summer. “I didn’t feel comfortable with anyone else that I talked to. I didn’t feel seen. Everything that I mentioned, they either turned an eye at it or said ‘oh that’s not possible’ and they just didn’t want to listen to me. But everything that I mentioned or even thought of and felt was valid to the highest extent with everyone at Birth Detroit.”
Birth Detroit’s mission is to midwife safe, quality, loving care through pregnancy, birth, and beyond. Birth Detroit is led by Black women and shaped by community voices, with the goal of improving maternal and infant health outcomes in our communities. Birth Detroit pairs evidence-based models with a foundation made up of equal parts community energy and determination to be leaders in our own care. Birth Detroit was founded in 2018 by its current CEO Leseliey Welch, a public health strategist and co-founder of Birth Center Equity (BCE), Char’ly Snow, a certified nurse midwife and founder of Metro Detroit Midwives of Color (MDMOC), Elon Geffrard, a doula and public health consultant, and Nicole White, a certified professional/licensed midwife. Birth Detroit was founded with the vision that birth should be safe, sacred, loving, and celebrated for everyone.
Welch captures the sentiment perfectly: “It feels great to be a part of the solution. Birth Detroit was created as a justice response to the maternal and infant mortality and morbidity crisis for Black families in the city of Detroit. We asked the community if they wanted a birth center, and the answer was a resounding YES! We want the community to know that Birth Detroit is for us. We are currently offering prenatal and postpartum care and childbirth education classes for families. We are really looking forward to the birth center being open in spring 2024.”
“A birth center in Detroit is vital. I think women and especially Black moms need to have empowered birthing decisions, we need to have places that are culturally relevant and ultimately, we need to feel safe,” an expression from a Detroit mom that was said in Birth Detroit’s testimonials but not just mothers are gaining a sense of understanding and care but fathers are as well as one stated, “The birth center fills a necessary gap, maternal health is important and I love what this initiative is doing for the city.”
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, an influential advocate for racial equity and community engagement, recently bolstered Birth Detroit’s mission with a substantial $1 million grant. Dr. Marijata Daniel-Echols, the foundation’s Program Officer, explains: “At the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, children are at the heart of everything we do. And we know that for children to thrive, their families need to be working and their communities need to be equitable places of opportunity. Like our work in all of our priority places, we build our Detroit investments on the foundation of what we call our DNA: racial equity and racial healing, leadership development and authentic community engagement.” The commitment behind Dr. Daniel-Echols is attached to the advancement of Black women and their children, “Far too many women and babies in Detroit are dying from preventable deaths. At the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, we are committed to supporting programs and policies that will reduce those numbers.”
One might wonder, why is the establishment of this birth center so crucial for Detroit? The answer lies in the shocking lack of alternative birthing facilities in the city. As highlighted by Welch, “Detroit has disparate birth outcomes and inequitable care options. There are few choices for birthing families in the city of Detroit outside of hospitals. There are no freestanding birth centers in the city and few in the state. Research shows that freestanding birth centers, which are homelike places that provide reproductive health and birth care by midwives, improve birth outcomes, enhance the birth experience, increase autonomy and respect, can be protective for Black and Brown birthing people — and are cost-efficient. Detroit deserves a birth center! Many people don’t know the benefits of birth center care, and that research supports that upwards of 80% of us can safely give birth with midwives in a community setting. All people deserve access to all safe birth options: hospitals, birth centers, and home.”
Dr. Daniel-Echols echoed Welch’s statement. “The Birth Detroit founders saw a deep need in Detroit for high quality, culturally congruent and respectful care and decided to take up the challenge to meet it,” Daniel-Echols said. “They did so by first listening to Detroit families about what they wanted and needed and then designed a set of services directly responsive to what they heard. For those of us interested in lasting solutions to our hardest challenges, investing in experts dedicated to serving their communities using a crystal-clear equity lens is essential.”
Yet, despite the overwhelming benefits of midwifery and the role of birth centers, the accessibility to such services remains distressingly low. “First, it’s important for everyone to understand that midwives are specially trained and licensed healthcare providers who specialize in the reproductive life cycle. Midwives should not be conflated with doulas, who are non-medical prenatal, birth, and postpartum support persons. Birth Detroit is a midwife-led maternal health practice. Across the US less than 15% of people have access to midwives. In Detroit, this percentage is much lower,” informs Welch, differentiating between the roles of midwives and doulas.
This resurgence towards traditional birthing practices, helmed by Birth Detroit, is not just a return to roots but a powerful statement for the future. As Dr. Daniel-Echols succinctly puts it, “One of their foundational statements is, ‘We are no longer asking permission to take care of ourselves.’” This is a powerful statement given the many ways in which Black women giving birth in Detroit and across our nation are suffering from poor maternal, infant and child health outcomes in part due to a lack of access to high quality care. “Birth Detroit has an ambitious mission that includes simultaneously providing services to Detroit’s families as it works to build a new way that the healthcare system serves those families.”
In Detroit, Black women are not merely embracing their ancestral practices; they are seizing control of their maternal care, redefining standards, and fiercely championing a future where every Black mother and child thrives.