Decolonizing Birth Conference 2017: part one

Decolonizing Birth Conference 2017: part one

by Molly McShane

This past September, Ancient Song Doula Services hosted their annual Decolonizing Birth Conference.

Ancient Song’s mission is to provide quality doula services to low-income women and women of color, and they live this mission with a commitment to providing doulas, trainings, and advocacy to their Brooklyn community. You can read more about them here.

This year, the theme of the conference was “Addressing Trauma and Oppression through a Collaborative Care Framework.” I was able to go for the second year in a row, and was so grateful for all the wisdom shared. I wasn’t able to attend every session, but laid out below are some notes and takeaways from the workshops, panels, and speakers on practicing radical birth work.

The first workshop I attended was entitled, “The Body Keeps the Score: Trauma in Childbirth,” named after Bessel van der Kolk’s book of the same name. Both the book and the workshop focused on how trauma is carried in the body and the brain, as well as ways to heal from it. The workshop was led by Emilie Rodriguez, Dr. Griselda Rodriguez-Solomon, Miguelina Rodriguez, and Sangeet Raj Kaur, all of whom are survivors of sexual abuse and served as each other’s doulas. Presenters highlighted how in birth, bodies may remember trauma and memories or feelings may come up that have been repressed, but also that childbirth itself can lead to triggers and PTSD. As we know as birth workers, in labor an important thing can be to release and let go to the power of your body, but to survivors of trauma, not being in control can cause a lot of fear. So how can birth workers be present to patient/client trauma? The presenters offered ideas for all stages of pregnancy.

  1. First, in prenatal care clear communication is very important. A pregnant person may or may not disclose their trauma, but do not push for that and instead read the signs, like extreme physical discomfort during vaginal and cervical exams or checking out mentally during prenatal visits. Hold space to hear the type of birth they want and the fears or concerns they have about how birth may be triggering. One presenter offered birth art as a way to talk about an ideal birth. Make sure to have some one-on-one time with a patient or client to check in about these things or express some signs you’re seeing that they may have experienced trauma.
  2. During labor is when embodied trauma can become very present for a birthing person. To create a sense of safety and control, mind who is in the room (Is anyone not necessary? Are there more men around than the birthing person is comfortable with?), clearly talk though everything you’re doing (“I’m putting on a glove” or “I’m adjusting the blood pressure cuff”), and hold space for questions, affirmation, and acceptance of whatever feelings come up. In early labor, presenters suggested that nausea at around 40 weeks, or PROM (premature rupture of membranes), can be signs that there is emotional processing that needs to happen that may be related to past trauma. Here is the most important part: An affirming, conscious, and intentional birth can be so healing for survivors.
  3. In the postpartum period, parents may also find that triggers pop up unexpectedly, particularly around breastfeeding.

Lastly, presenters affirmed that self-preservation and self-care as a birth worker are really important. It is imperative not to let your own experiences of trauma cloud your understandings of your patient’s or client’s, but it is also essential to know your boundaries and limits and to reach out for support when you need it.


  1. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk
  2. Heal Your Birth Story: Releasing the Unexpected by Maureen Campion


The second panel I attended was called, “Maintaining Autonomy as Community-Based Organizations: Addressing Systemic Oppression within the Nonprofit and Ally Industrial Complexes.”

It was led by Aimee Brill, Chanel Porchia-Albert (director of Ancient Song), and Asteir Bey. In this panel, we split into small groups and talked about the ways that funding systems are set up to support certain types of organizations and how frustrating it can be when funders limit the work based on grant requirements. For example, it can sometimes be easier to get foundation funding if you’re a 501c3 nonprofit versus a Community-Based Organization (CBO). I hope there were funders in the room to hear the frustrations of birth workers across work affiliations (CBOs, NGOs, public health, city agencies)! For more on how funders can better support small racial justice oriented organizations, check out this article from a fund that supports reproductive justice initiatives.

The first keynote of the day was Marinah Farrell, LM, CPM, but unfortunately I was unable to attend her talk. The first keynote I did attend was given by Ericka Hart, a breast cancer-warrior, sexuality educator, activist, performer, and queer Black woman. (For more information about Hart, check out her website). Hart spoke to the conference about making sure birth justice is non-gendered and includes the experiences of marginalized people, including queer people, people of color, and trans and gender non-conforming people. She made the whole conference repeat after her, “Not All People with Breasts Have Nipples!” and “Not All People Who Have or Want Babies Are Women!” We all practiced turning to a partner and, playing the role of a 12 year old and a parent, asking how babies are made. Two volunteer groups affirmed that there is an age appropriate way to have the conversation with children, focusing on the biology of pregnancy without talking about sex or the gender of parents. She also suggested that drawing pictures with young people is very useful. Hart went on to elaborate on a few keys to her sexuality education practice: first of all, she emphasizes that gender is in your brain. Secondly, she tries to phase out the language of “pregnancy prevention” in her classes and instead shares information about birth, doulas, and midwives so people feel empowered to make choices whenever they become pregnant.


  1. What Makes a Baby? By Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth
  2. Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth

Tune back in next week for more write-ups of the fascinating information shared at the Decolonizing Birth Conference!

Molly McShaneMolly McShane is currently a student, nanny, full-spectrum doula, and now one of your Communication Committee Interns! Molly grew up in Washington, DC and graduated with a BA in Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist studies from a small school in Vermont in 2016. She is now a Brooklyn resident taking prerequisite classes before applying to schools with the intention of one day becoming a midwife. She is particularly interested in trauma-informed care and how to best serve LGBTQ families in birth. In her spare time, Molly likes to watch Call the Midwife (over and over again), take walks in Prospect Park, bake pies, and read birth-themed books. Talk to her about reproductive justice, the connections between witches and midwives, and prenatal care in Star Wars!

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