Vicky Mckinney-Wigley knew Rebecca Polston was the right person to care for her and the fetus growing inside her as soon as she met her. Polston had a warm way of listening, a location in the neighborhood, and the ability to take health insurance. And, importantly for Mckinney-Wigley, Polston is Minnesota’s only black-identifying certified professional midwife. Mckinney-Wigley, a 23-year-old African American gas station employee 31 weeks pregnant with her first baby, never felt comfortable with the doctors she saw in early pregnancy. “It just seemed like they really didn’t care what was going on with me. I couldn’t hold anything down; I couldn’t eat. “They never asked me how are you. How are you doing? They’d be like ‘How’s the baby? ’ First question Rebecca asked me is, ‘How are you feeling? How are you feeling about yourself? ’ And that just showed me that she really cared about me as a person.
Not only as a host body for the baby. My stress just totally went away. The stakes here are high: African American babies in Minnesota are twice as likely as white babies to die in their first year. Alexander labors near her home with the support of her mother, Tulani Alexander. Located in Minneapolis’s Webber-Camden neighborhood, Roots Community birth center is Minnesota’s only black-owned and operated facility of its kind. Its goal is to address the reasons African American mothers are at greater risk during pregnancy and birth: stress, systemic racism, lower-quality care and underlying health issues. Hardeman explains: “Culturally focused care sees people for who they are, what their lived experience is, and what that means for bringing a child into the world. It’s care that builds a relationship from the moment the family walks in the door.” The patients at this birth center come from a wide range of backgrounds, with 50% African American clients. Em’Mae labors at home with the support of her partner, Kemany Novell, and her mother, Tulani.
Hardeman and Kozhimannil are documenting the birth center’s model, with its hour-long prenatal appointments, postpartum home visits and core belief that culture is not pathology. The birth center’s staff see pregnancy as an emotional process as well as a physical one. Polston explains: “There’s more respect, there’s more consent. I need to ask before I touch someone, every single time. It doesn’t matter if a head’s coming out of them. You can’t just stick your fingers in someone’s vagina! No. We all have the same health insurance. Is it because I’m black? I felt like I was discriminated against. The fact that you threatened my child … it made me really sad. Em’mae Alexander, 20, left her previous doctor, too. “They weren’t hearing my concerns. The nurses said, ‘Oh, I love your hair, I love your shoes.’ I appreciate trying to connect, but I’m here for my baby and I had concerns and I at least would want you to address those concerns first.
Just telling me to think positive thoughts and to blow it off is not helping me. Alexander is transferred from Roots Community birth center to North Memorial Health hospital by ambulance. Polston had begun hearing decelerations that concerned her. “I got to the point to where I was like, I don’t want to go to any more prenatal visits. They’re not helpful. I’ll just take my prenatals, stay at home and then call you guys when I’m in labor – and I know that’s not good to do. So I was like, I have to switch to somewhere else. “The birth center was familiar. It was in a community where I grew up in and it was more diverse. To be in that area you really have to have tough skin. I know they hear and experience stuff all day, and they’re very open to any type of culture or lifestyle. And honest, too. Honesty is the real brutal thing that can soothe a parent when I’m going through something.
- Don’t try to work through a sick day
- End Tax Cuts for the Wealthy
- Eat large amounts of food even when they’re not physically hungry
- Doesn’t respond to loud noises
- Policy numbers for any current health insurance plans
Em’Mae Alexander labors in the tub and later at the North Memorial Health hospital. The birth center’s clients are aware of the risks they face. ] feel like we might exaggerate or it’s not the truth,” explains Alexander. Shawna Jackson-Haynes, a pregnant client, says: “You don’t see a lot of minorities as doctors, and with everything in this world you just don’t feel as secure as you could if somebody who looked like you was in those positions. I’ve heard stories. I have trust issues; I get them even when I go for vagina checkups. I’m so nervous, I’m thinking: ‘Oh, my God, I hope they don’t put something in me or take something out,’ and I just don’t get that here. I’m bringing a person into this world; I definitely need to be somewhere where I feel secure and I feel like I can trust who I’m working with.
“So this being a black-owned facility is really beautiful, really nice. It’s something totally different. Top left: Alexander’s friends at North Memorial Health hospital. Top right: Tulani Alexander naps briefly. Bottom: Em’Mae Alexander pushes her baby out as her mother, Tulani; the medical resident Dr Molly Gruber; Alexander’s partner, Kemany Novell, 19; and her doula, Lakesha Gordon, look on. “Culturally, white providers are trained to pathologize people of color and to not believe them,” explains Polston. Though she had to transfer from the birth center to a hospital during labor, Alexander found safety and support. “It went the best it could for me. The words: it’s just mental food. The touch helped, it let me know physically that I’m not the only one going through this. I didn’t have the water birth I wanted, but I was able to be in the tub to relax my contractions and I was still able to have some delayed cord clamping. Those were the two things that were important in my birth plan that still got to happen in some way. Alexander holds her newborn daughter, Xhlai Nola Novell, moments after her birth.