Boston Fed LELE team's maternal health focus aims to strengthen local families, community Boston Fed LELE team's maternal health focus aims to strengthen local families, community

During Black Maternal Health Week, team highlights need for support for new parents During Black Maternal Health Week, team highlights need for support for new parents

April 13, 2023

Soraya DosSantos and Samia Walker are doulas in New Bedford, and they noticed many of the expecting mothers and new families they work with needed more of the same things: advice during pregnancy, post-partum care, even support during labor were a few of them.

That’s why these maternal health advocates started the “Sacred Birthing Village” program through their work in the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s Leaders for Equitable Local Economies initiative (LELE). It’s an effort to revive a community approach to supporting new families, particularly in communities of color.

DosSantos and Walker said it’s especially important to highlight the need for community support during Black Maternal Health week, which is recognized from April 11-17. Hundreds of mothers in the U.S. die annually during pregnancy or the following year, and Black women are more than twice as likely as white or Hispanic women to die from pregnancy-related causes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 80% of these deaths are preventable, the CDC says.

“It takes the entire community, or ‘village,’ coming around a new life, which is really indigenous to people of color,” DosSantos said. “We all have to be in the business of tending to new life. … If the mother, the baby, the father, or the rest of the family is not well, our communities will be broken.”

Volunteers support mothers for a full year after birth

The LELE program is part of the Bank’s Working Places initiative, and it supports local leaders who are working to strengthen the economies of smaller cities in Massachusetts. DosSantos and Walker were chosen to be a LELE team in 2021, and the Sacred Birthing Village built on their prior work to improve maternal and infant health.

“We spent time asking the community, ‘What do you need?’” Walker said. “Women gave us a lot of insight into the challenges they were facing, questions they couldn’t ask their doctors, and stories they wanted to share.”

The Sacred Birthing Village pairs expecting mothers with trained volunteers who take on a “sister-friend” role and commit to supporting the new family throughout pregnancy and for a full year afterwards. Walker said volunteers typically accompany expecting mothers to doctor’s appointments, connect them with resources, and sometimes coach them through labor.

The continuing support after childbirth is critical, she added.

“When people talk about maternal health, they often focus heavily on the pregnancy aspect of it, but a large part of what we do is after the baby is born,” Walker said. “(Mothers) often get one postpartum doctor’s appointment, and then they’re on their own.”

DosSantos said it’s cause for celebration when a new mother is healthy a year after giving birth. According to the CDC, the maternal mortality rate for Black women was 69.9 per 100,000 in 2021, compared to 26.6 per 100,000 for white women and 28.0 for Hispanic women.

“Looking at the Black maternal health disparities in this country, many of our babies and mothers do not make it to (the year) mark,” she said.

Team aims to expand access to education, inspire and impact community

DosSantos and Walker said the Sacred Birthing Village has a new home in New Bedford where families and other community members can find support, classes, and workshops. They’re also aiming to secure funding to expand maternal resources and supports in the area.

Walker said they want to inspire more community members to join their efforts, as well as help provide opportunities for people of color who want to work in maternal health as doulas, midwives, OB-GYNs, or other roles.

“We don’t have enough in this area, meaning our providers don’t match our population, and that can be really challenging,” she said.

DosSantos said she and Walker are continuing to build relationships with healthcare providers whose patients may need more support.

“There really isn’t much in our Greater New Bedford community for pregnant and maternal wellness … so we want to make sure the entire community has a very viable option for exploring the pathways to a healthy and successful family,” she said.


Read research on maternal and infant health from the New York Fed. Learn more about the Boston Fed’s LELE program on the Working Places website.

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