Black History Month Feature: Laurel Gourrier, ROOTT Doula

Pregnancy and childbirth is a life-changing experience that varies for women and families around the world. No birth story is the same due to differences in technological advancements, intrapartum knowledge, and access to proper medical care. Western culture typically involves regular visits to the doctor while the mother follows recommended standards of care. However, the media portrays birth in America to be an event that involves significant risk and intolerable pain. This often results in misleading and inaccurate medical information regarding childbirth, which then leads to negative views on the “normal” birth experience. What the American media today is gravely missing is the alarming rate of black maternal mortality due to systematic racism.

The New York Times states, “Black women are three to four times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes as their white counterparts, according to the C.D.C.” Black infant mortality is also at higher rates than whites. Even with a higher education and income, black mothers remain at relatively similar risks for losing their lives or their child’s. A prime example is African-American professional tennis player, Serena Williams, who earned $27 million between 2016 and 2017, according to Forbes.  Despite being one of the wealthiest women in the world, she was still impacted during her postpartum period with life-threatening complications. This was due to a pre-existing medical condition that was ignored, despite her ability to articulate to medical staff what was happening to her.

Ms. Williams had an emergency cesarean section that was further complicated by a surgical dehiscence (due to symptoms arising from a pulmonary embolism). The Guardian reports William’s statement, “I returned to surgery, where the doctors found a large hematoma, a swelling of clotted blood, in my abdomen. And then I returned to the operating room for a procedure that prevents clots from traveling to my lungs.” She knew something was wrong, and while advocating for her health, her body, and her baby, her nurses ignored her. Even with proper medical care, there are thousands of black women who don’t have it at all. Beyoncé, a well-known African American singer whose net worth is $355 million according to Forbes, also had an emergency cesarean section due to pre-eclampsia.  She, like Williams, was on bed rest for several weeks. Screen Shot 2019-02-27 at 11.06.59 AM.png

It is stories like these, as well as personal experiences, that lead other women of color to pursue careers in maternal and infant health. Laurel Gourrier is a Columbus, Ohio native, who is dedicated to supporting families so that they can have the birth they want and deserve. She is also a special education teacher with the same mission: to impact the lives of others and help them find their inner strength. Gourrier became a certified Doula—an individual providing birth and postpartum support to mothers—shortly after giving birth to her first child. She experienced inappropriate messages and negativity surrounding her pregnancy with her daughter, Naomi.

Gourrier’s mission was to focus on the positive aspects of pregnancy and postpartum care. Because of this, she and her husband began to research positive births and build their birth team. Thankfully she had a fantastic support system that made her birth experience empowering and transformative. “I was lucky enough to have my parents, my husband’s parents, and my best friend Taylor there to support me, so they served as my doula(s)…however, I didn’t realize that there was a huge lack of birth workers of color.” Screen Shot 2019-02-27 at 7.26.58 PM.png

Laurel Gourrier pregnant with her son.

 

There is a considerable need for the birth work community to be advocating for the black community. “In 2017, a reported 33 percent of black women said they personally been discriminated against when visiting a doctor or health clinic, because of their race, and 21 percent said they avoid going to a doctor or seeking health care as a result of discrimination, “ finds Romper. Many black women express how their pain is ignored or disregarded, while the media also focuses on negative views of black women's bodies. Along with black doctors needing to work with black mothers, black doulas are also necessary for a holistic approach to care.

Gourrier works to fulfill the birth vision that mothers and families hope for, within the ROOTT doula collective. Referring directly from their website, ROOTT (Restoring Our Own Through Transformation) is a “Black women-led reproductive justice organization dedicated to collectively restoring our well-being through self-determination, collaboration, and resources to meet the needs of women and families within communities.”

ROOTT Official Website Photo

 

The work behind ROOTT directly impacts what is happening within the black community. As a black organization, with various levels of personal and professional experiences, ROOTT believes it is able to address what black mothers need. Gourrier says, “To shift, transform, uplift, and create change, women of color and families of color need voices in our care and towards what is being done for and to us.” Gourrier understands the attack on black women stems largely from racism.

Collectively, the US has the most women that die during childbirth within the first year compared to any other nation with an advanced economy, according to Rewire News. When it comes to black women there also factors to consider such as more maternal health complications, lower quality maternity care in black-serving hospitals, and the lack of access to quality reproductive care. Gourrier explains that she and ROOTT want to understand and treat the issues affecting lived experiences from pregnant women that may also affect their children. “When you think about what is happening to the brown and black families and what is happening to birth it starts from transportation, food access, housing access, and the way that we are being treated daily. Our daily stressors, thoughts, and experiences manifest into our bodies,” she says. The same can be said for pregnant women who are incarcerated. Just because someone is a black or brown woman does not mean they are the risk factor; rather, it is racism and what goes on in the daily lives of a black woman that is the risk factor. Screen Shot 2019-02-27 at 7.22.39 PM.png

Even with a shift happening for black women and health care, it is still tricky for black doulas in the workplace. In What It’s Like to Be a Doula for Women of Color Emily Bobrow explains, “I noticed that with black clients, my job involved more activism and advocacy. It was my job to make sure these women had access to the things they are supposed to have access to, that their birth plans were respected, that they were seen and heard.” Along with added stress of living in a space with clear-cut discrimination, this can affect mothers, babies, and even doulas as well.

Gourrier wants families to know that their birth experience can be powerful. There’s a misconception that doulas always need to be doing something to the birthing person or constantly be active. Much of the work requires listening, good use of language, and letting families process their feelings. Families are also able to work through their fears, concerns, and find that everything they need is within themselves. Unfortunately, not many births for women of color go this way. The New York Times reported in 2018, “Black infants in America are now more than twice as likely to die as white infants — 11.3 per 1,000 black babies, compared with 4.9 per 1,000 white babies, according to the most recent government data.” This is not much different compared to 1850, where black infant mortality was 340 per 1,000, whereas compared to whites it was only 217 to 1,000. It is imperative that black and white birth workers talk about this, and more so that black birth workers have their voices heard as well.

Gourrier is hopeful for the future of black women and healthcare. There is a better narrative within what is happening to a black woman, and what has been happening for centuries. Gourrier says, “Things are changing because we have organizations similar to ROOTT that are focused on proper care. We challenge the government, challenge communities, and challenge white individuals to understand that really until they start to care about what’s happening to our bodies it's going to benefit everyone.” Gourrier and ROOTT’s vision for the future is that women are able to birth however they choose, without rules and stipulations. She wants people to know that everyone who is a part of someone’s birth team is there for that family, and is there to follow that family’s lead, consent, inclusivity, and love. With great pride, Gourrier goes into why she loves what she is doing. “We value the sacredness that is birth. At the end of the day, it’s exactly how a family wants it.”

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Laurel Gourrier and her daughter, Naomi.

 

Podcast: https://www.birthstoriesincolor.com/  

Visit the ROOTT website here, and its Instagram here