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Meet Olivia Samples: Iowa’s First Black Doula

Olivia Samples | May 6, 2019

About a year ago, I came across an article about the maternal health crisis and felt a deep call to do ​something​. I asked the Universe to show me a path. I had recently left a sex educator role where my title was Pregnancy Prevention Specialist and as a young woman with little interest in having children… I wasn’t quite sure where my inquiry would lead.

Through friends of friends, I got connected with Emily Alberhasky, one of the most prominent doulas in Des Moines, IA. We began meeting every few weeks to talk through the process of becoming a doula, the needs in the community and what support I needed to succeed. I am incredibly grateful for the time and resources that Emily was willing to share with me. She saw a need for doulas of color, understood the weight of the issue for my community and used her resources to support me. This is what true allyship looks like.

In November of 2018, I created a Gofundme campaign to raise the funds I needed to attend doula training with Mama Glow. Thanks to an amazing community of women who promoted the fundraiser for me; I raised more than $ 1,300 in about three days. With the addition of some donated hotel points from my Dad, I raised enough to cover the training, flight, and even books I needed. In January I skipped the polar vortex and got to enjoy basking in sunshine and sea air in Los Angeles, CA. I also got to soak up Latham’s curriculum and energy with newfound sisters. Our training also took place over the weekend of both the Blood Wolf Moon and the anniversary of the first slaves arriving in Jamestown which I believe charged the space with even more power. I was so grateful for all the wisdom, stories and sisterhood that was shared. I left the weekend recharged and ready to serve. Luckily, I got to come home to a community who was ready to support me in finishing my certification, starting my doula business and bringing more people to the conversation about birth disparities in Iowa.

Thanks to Emily, in February, during Black History Month, I was featured in a news story, Women Stepping Forward to Help Diversify Iowa’s Birthing Community with Kanika Mayes, another black woman, and hopeful doula, about birth disparities in Iowa. Since this story aired, we have been contacted by many black women in the area who want to become doulas. In April we will begin holding space once a month for support, discussion, and education. The opportunities for this group are endless. I have many ideas, but I anticipate our collective vision becoming clear once we meet. I am so grateful for this gathering of women who feel the same call. There is such a need for us here.

Olivia Samples attended the Mama Glow Doula Immersion Program in LA

I am, as far as anyone knows, the first black doula in Iowa. Being the only black doula has been a great weight. I see so many women who look like me struggling; not only with birth but with finances, relationships, opportunity. In conversation with the women in my community, I have found that there is so much that we collectively do not know or have access to. I’m learning that birth work can be so much more than the traditional care for pregnant people. For me, it has wholly become community care. Birth work is domestic violence screenings and learning how to pick produce and a permission slip to masturbate and so much more. It has been a joy to see all my skills and experiences come together to create holistic care. It takes a village and right now there is a lot of work to be done in ours. I think it’s also important to say that not everyone struggles in this way. There are plenty of black folks flourishing in Iowa, I’d consider myself one. We cannot succeed alone.

I am excited to share all the resources, knowledge and support I can with the families here. So far, that has looked like a lot of little connections spiraling to infinity. My work has been a lot of, “oh do you know…” Which has been a beautiful way to begin this journey: with community.

I recently joined the Young Women’s Resource Center’s Young Moms doula program. The center offers programs, classes, and empowerment for women of all ages in Des Moines. The Childbirth & Perinatal specialist, Ashley Ezzio, who organizes the program has been another fantastic support on this journey. The center is actively working to support young women of color and even offers a mentorship program for new doulas. I am also volunteering with Mercy hospital, a local hospital in my community, to get more birth experience. Seeing the way the hospital functions from the inside has been really revealing and taught me so much already. I have been fortunate to build a relationship with their Director of Diversity who is a major figure in Des Moines and an awesome black woman! In fact, she heads the health committee for the NAACP Des Moines Branch which I also joined recently.

Olivia has fostered a community of supporters in Iowa- photo taken for her news feature during Black History Month. 

All of these connections and efforts to create awareness have felt very progressive. Within the year that I began this doula journey, there has been a huge increase in awareness and conversation. In many of these areas, folks are asking ​me​ what they can do to affect the maternal health crisis in our state which is so powerful.

One project that I’m anticipating a different response from is advocacy for a doula program serving incarcerated women. Incarcerated women have increased risks as you can imagine, but especially for postpartum depression due to having their newborns removed within 24 hours. Doulas could have a tremendous impact on some of the most marginalized women who cannot access many of the supports available to women outside of prison. This project will be a major challenge because of the legacy of mass incarceration and criminal justice disparity in Iowa, but the worst they can say is no. I’m also increasingly confident that the community I’m building will help me continue to advocate for this work.

Being a doula in a small, black, Iowa community is never what I imagined for myself at 22. It has been such healing work for me to serve my community and grow deeper roots in this place that I do not call home. The legacy of birth work continues with me. I’m so looking forward to seeing what else the Universe has on my path; I know this is only the start.

Follow Olivia Samples on Instagram and learn more about her work.

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