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Birth to the Future: How the Doula Expo by Mama Glow is Uplifting An Expansive & Inclusive Vision for Maternal Health

Bintou Diarra, A.B Candidate | Medical Anthropology, Brown University | May 26, 2023

On Saturday, May 20th, and Sunday May 21st, global maternal health and education platform Mama Glow held their third annual Doula Expo, the first and only festival dedicated to empowering birth workers, families, caregivers, and the brands and organizations underpinning their efforts. 

Hosted in a vast 60,000 square-foot space in cultural center Hudson Yards, the Doula Expo hosted over 1000 doulas, birthing people, families, caregivers, non-profit organizations, maternal health brands, and more, for a day of education, advocacy, networking, business development and community building. 

Doors opened at 10 AM to DJ Rashida’s signature fusion of hip-hop, funk, soul, dancehall, and house music. At 11 AM, attendees joined Mama Glow and Mama Glow Foundation founder, Latham Thomas, in an opening ceremony procession led by the rhythmic sounds of the all-female percussion band, Batalá New York, to officially kick off the event. What followed were opening remarks from Latham Thomas and emcee Tatyana Ali, actress and maternal health activist best known for her role on NBC’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. “This space is everything,” said Tatyana Ali. “I know that the answer is us.”

The theme for this year’s Doula Expo was Birth to the Future. In honoring this goal, Mama Glow embraced innovative ideas that delved into the power of imagination, optimism, and the futuristic potential of reproductive justice and birth equity. The theme for this year grappled with the question of what it means to establish an environment specifically designed for the well-being of Black birthing people and other people of color. In Thomas’ words, the Doula Expo was about “leaning into principles around how we can imagine and reimagine and design a future that centers our solutions, our own ingenuity, and lifts up all of the people that are already doing the work. Everybody here is a leader. Everybody here is of service to each other.”

Doula Expo by Mama Glow MainStage, Lucia Vacarro Photography

The arrangement of the spacious venue gave us a glimpse of this futuristic reality. The Birth Space included organizations and brands grounded in improving maternal and infant health. There, expectants and families gathered resources and learned about services to support them in their reproductive journeys. The Children’s Space included a children’s play area where parents and children could complete activities together. At the Food Space, attendees visited food kiosks and chose from an array of healthy local food options and snacks. Accompanying these spheres was the Gathering Space, where attendees convened for main stage content—including keynotes, live performances, and culture-shifting conversations. In the Lifestyle Space and Wellness Space, attendees interfaced with brands and organizations working to facilitate their journeys to full lives, and brands and organizations that prioritized wellbeing, self-care, and mental health.

Among the brands at the center of the interactive booth and lounge experiences were partners CVS Health, Coterie, Bobbie, Elvie, Nanit, My Bump My Baby, Kate Spade New York, UPPAbaby, Vivvi, March of Dimes, Carol’s Daughter, SimpliFed, Veracity, Amina Mundi Apothecary, Agni, Extend Fertility, Oeuf, Bright Horizons, Maman cafe bakery, and more!

Kimberly Council, Assistant Commissioner of the Bureau of Brooklyn Neighborhood Health in the Center for Health Equity and Community Wellness, opened the main stage programming with an announcement on progress within the maternal health sphere in Brooklyn, and the city at large. “I am so glad to report to you that Antonio Reynoso, the Brooklyn borough president, gave 45 million dollars to public hospitals last year in support of maternal health. What we realized, and what the research was telling us, was that Brooklyn was the least safe borough to have to give birth. Black and Brown women were 9.4 times more likely to die giving birth.”

The Mama Glow Foundation understands that a key step in creating a better future is improving the conditions impacting birthing people everywhere. And so, in addition to the design of the venue, the culture-shifting conversations occurring on the main stage served as a window into what a future of liberation could look like for Black birthing people. On Saturday, Dr. Zahira McNatt, Assistant Commissioner of the Bureau of Brooklyn Neighborhood Health in the Center for Health Equity and Community Wellness, talked about the expansion of the lens on maternal health in her solo keynote, where she honed in on the examples of Rwanda and India. This was followed by a keynote by Mahmee Medical Director Dr. Amanda Williams, who talked about how key stakeholders can leverage technology and quality improvement approaches to advance maternal health equity.

In the effort to improve maternal health outcomes, policymakers and other key stakeholders must consider the unique circumstances impacting our most vulnerable populations. The Doula Expo included a wide range of panels that addressed this issue head-on. Thomas joined Amy Romano of Primary Maternity Care and Dr. Andrea Jones and Amy Clark of CVS Health to discuss the importance of an intersectional approach in the fight against maternal mortality. Carol’s Daughter Founder Lisa Price later joined New York Coalition for Doula Access (NYCDA) co-lead Jennifer Gonzales, Mama Glow Research and Partnerships Lead Salma Mohamed, and Mama Glow Doula Yasmine Fequiere, where they highlighted the necessity of advancing doula access in our endeavors to restructure current models of care. The speakers emphasized the importance of equitable, thriving wages for the critical services doulas provide—a reality that Carol’s Daughter’s Love Delivered Initiative and New York City’s Citywide Doula Initiative enable birthworkers to create. 

“It is doubly necessary that we show up and require all necessary stakeholders to engage in this conversation around reimbursement. Our doulas really need to be paid, but the ones that are really showing up for our communities are Black, and Indigenous and Brown. We need to pay them for the work that they do and the trauma they’re experiencing entering hospital systems,” voiced Mohamed. “Show up for your doulas. Really stand by their side, and whenever you hear about disrespect, please be loud about it and ensure that these hospitals are being held accountable.”

The Mama Glow Foundation does not just want equitable pay for birth workers. They want birth work to always be treated with dignity and respect, which requires the maintenance of its legitimacy in the United States. In a keynote speech, managers of March of Dimes’ Mission Programs Simone Snead and Brittany Palmer broached this topic as they reflected on the consequences of the professionalization of midwifery. “As we are making national recommendations, we need to consider the potential barriers that can come with certification discrimination. Most of us are working within a hospital, institution or system because that is where people are having their babies, but what happens if they prefer or require a certain kind of credential or certification?”

The Mama Glow Foundation treats an empowering birth experience as a baseline. Caregivers and birth workers must reimagine models of parenting as well. Jillian Hervey of the electronic music duo, Lion Babe, honored the principles of soft parenting on a panel with Asasiya Muhammad, founder of Inner Circle Midwifery; Lindsey Kling, Vice President of Partnerships at Coterie; and Megan O’Neill, Associate Beauty Editor at Goop

And of course, with various thought leaders and changemakers come important announcements regarding advances in maternal health. On Saturday, Amy Clark, Lead Director of Community Impact and Philanthropic Partnerships at CVS Health, announced that the CVS Health Foundation finalized a 5-year, 4 million dollar partnership with maternal health organization March of Dimes. On a panel discussion about infant feeding and first foods justice, Bobbie for Change’s Lead, Michele Lampach, announced their commitment to the Mama Glow Foundation to fund the development of a restorative justice program, an Infant Feeding Specialist Program, and scholarships for 100 BIPOC doulas to receive lactation training. These initiatives will assist in expanding and diversifying the doula work force to contribute to the great work happening in maternal health spaces everywhere.

For all of the players shaping this wonderful event, maternal health is of personal significance. On Sunday, founder Latham Thomas and emcee Tatyana Ali kicked off the event with their own fireside chat titled Joy is our Birthright, where they talked about the importance of storytelling within the context of maternal health. “I grew up believing and being taught that storytelling has a purpose. We are storytellers because we are human. That is how we understand our experiences, where we are in the world, and who we are,” says Ali. As an actor of great visibility, she understands that she speaks for many birthing people in her work. “If I see that something is wrong or I know that something should be better, I really do feel like I should say something.”

Undoubtedly, storytelling is one of the many powerful mediums through which Mama Glow and its partners enact radical change. Programming included a screening of the Birthing Justice film coupled with a community address from executive producer Denise Pines, and a solo talk from Abby Epstein, the filmmaker and director of The Business of Being Born

The fight for safe, empowering birthing experiences is one for us all, and the Doula Dads present at the Expo continue doing great work to uphold that. Following Ali and Thomas’ conversation was a fireside chat moderated by 4Kira4Moms’ Founder and Mama Glow partner Charles Johnson, where speakers came together to address the role of Black fathers in addressing the United States’ reproductive justice crisis. “My wife Kira passed away after giving birth to our son Langston in 2016. I’ve been on record saying time and time again that if there was one thing that I would change about my experience to have better protected my wife and my son, it would have been to engage a doula.”

Birth workers assist people during the most vulnerable time periods of their lives, which means they, too, need nurturing and care. On a panel moderated by community organizer Marz Lovejoy, Mama Glow Doula Dr. Perpetual Anastasia Hayfron joined START Treatment and Recovery Centers’ Chief Programs and Strategy Officer Dr. Michael T. McRae and Black Girls Smile Inc. Founder Lauren Carson to call attention to the value of intentionality in easing self-care for those on the frontlines working to create better realities for birthing people. 

Hayfron imagines a world where personal care comes without apology for birth workers and birthing people, and they model that in their daily practices. “I am not going to say sorry or ask for forgiveness for honoring myself, because that is how I ensure I’m not bringing any hypocrisy to my work. I am also encouraging and educating families—not just women, but families, to do that for themselves within birth and outside of it.” The Doula Expo presented attendees with the opportunity to lean into this ideology towards the end of the event, with 15 minutes of mindfulness with Black Girls Smile Inc. 

The principles of birth work are often seen as antithetical to those of biomedicine, but the Doula Expo is a place where leaders bridge many gaps. On Sunday, Dr. Nakati Douglas of Extend Fertility took the stage to discuss advances in assisted reproductive technology, and Bobbie Dietician and Nutrition Specialist talked about the potential role of research and science in driving radical approaches to infant feeding. 

Much like founder Latham Thomas and the Mama Glow Foundation, the Doula Expo is a turbine of ingenuity and innovation. It is a simultaneous call to action and a celebration. It is a rest stop for the visionaries working tirelessly to create better outcomes for Black and Brown birthing people and infants everywhere. Most of all, it is an affirmation of the ability to turn future possibilities into current realities in the world of reproductive justice.

For more information on Mama Glow’s programs and partnerships and to stay in the loop on what’s next, please visit www.mamaglow.com. To learn more about the Doula Expo visit: www.doulaexpo.com.

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