Decolonizing Birth Support: Introducing Our Community Education and Engagement Program

October 6, 2023 9:33 am Published by

In 1997, Open Arms was founded by community members who wanted to create a world where no one gave birth without support. At this time, doula care was only starting to gain popularity in certain circles, but access was out of reach for many BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and economically disadvantaged families. Open Arms emerged as a trailblazer, offering free, community-based, and culturally responsive doula services. Since then, we have grown to diversify our programs to include lactation support, resource navigation, and adopting a home-visiting model for families requiring a higher level of care. Today, our commitment to adapting and evolving in response to our community’s needs leads us to the formal launch of our Community Education and Engagement program this month!

Increasing Access to Community Care

Open Arms has many theories of change aimed at enhancing birth experiences for families and improving health outcomes for communities. One pivotal strategy involves expanding access to culturally and community-centered care by training aspiring birth workers of color, without any financial burden. Historically, the cost associated with training and certification programs has created a significant obstacle, and curriculum is often rooted in white, heteronormative family structures and norms. Given the alarming racial disparities in maternal and infant mortality rates, the urgency of diversifying the birth work community cannot be overstated. Although Open Arms has long collaborated with community partners to offer doula and childbirth educator trainings, the launch of the Community Education and Engagement program represents the next step forward in nurturing the next generation of birth workers and supporting established ones. Central to our approach is the concept of “rematriation,” an Indigenous-led movement to restore connection to ancestral traditions. To enhance birth support for our communities, we center ancestral and cultural practices, complementing the larger effort from BIPOC perinatal providers to decolonize birth support.

In tandem with our workforce development efforts, Community Education and Engagement includes peer support groups and classes for our families, including our Childbirth Education classes introduced in 2022.

Members of the Community Lactation Specialist Pathway meeting at our offices at El Centro de La Raza.

Community Engagement: The Key to Sustainability

Leading our Lactation Support and Community Education and Engagement programs is Elizabeth Montez, IBCLC, and her experience as one of the few Indigenous IBCLCs in the nation led her to spearhead our Community Lactation Specialist Pathway launched in 2021. Our current cohort enrolled 37 community members, bringing together doulas, midwives, nurses, and aunties to reclaim their birthrights as knowledge sharers regardless of their job positions or credentials. The Community Lactation Specialist Pathway marks just the beginning of our Community Education mission. We are committed to continuing our support for community members and established birth work professionals through expanding our birth doula, community-based doula, and childbirth educator training, certification, and business support.

Elizabeth is excited to step into the role of Community Education Lead and acknowledges “that this program is work that has always existed – knowledge sharing is deeply traditional, and one of the most insidious ways white supremacy shows up is by separating our communities of color from our ancestral wisdom and skills. To be able to coordinate connection that supports community members in accessing the skills, education, and expertise that they feel called to, in a way that is culturally relevant and celebrates us, is deeply restorative on micro and macro levels. We each carry in us the seeds of our birthrights, and this program is about nurturing that within us. I am ecstatic to watch and see the way everyone blooms.”

To ensure the longevity and relevance of this program, community engagement plays a pivotal role. Long-time Open Arms employee and former Director of Doula Services, Rokea Jones, MPA, IMHS, has recently re-joined the team as our Community Engagement Specialist. With her expertise, we are fostering collaboration, communication, and consultation processes that will keep the program responsive and adaptive to the evolving needs of our communities.

Open Arms invites you to join us on this journey of nurturing birth support, increasing access to culturally sensitive care, and embracing the power of community engagement. Together, we can make childbirth a truly supported and transformative experience for all.