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Today is a special day, as we are starting a 3-day podcast focus on the amazing work being done by the Minnesota Healing Justice Network!

In today’s episode, I am joined by EBB instructor, Rhonda Fellows and Dr. Jennifer Almanza to talk about birthing and disparities in Minnesota.

**TRIGGER WARNING: In this episode, we talk about racial violence and Black maternal health disparities.**

Rhonda Fellows is a Certified Birth Doula and Evidence Based Birth®️® Instructor who has 20 years of working with youth and families in the nonprofit world as an after-school program director, co-director of an overflow homeless shelter, tutor and counselor of high school students, teen mission trip facilitator, and healthy relationships guest speaker in health classes.

Rhonda serves family in the Twin Cities Area, and she loves teaching childbirth education classes to help parents realize their rights, options, and feel empowered to advocate for themselves. She is also a teacher of the Evidence Based Birth®️® Childbirth Class. In addition to birth work, Rhonda is a founding member of the Minnesota Healing Justice Network.

Dr. Jennifer Almanza has her Doctorate of Nursing Practice and is a Certified Nurse Midwife. Dr. Almanza’s work amplifies health equity through endorsing physiologic birth, helping clients maintain their agency and power, providing evidence-based care, and pushing reproductive justice via policy and research activism.

Dr. Almanza believes in building the body of research done by, with, and for Indigenous Black, Latinx, multiracial, and other people of color. Dr. Almanza practices with women’s health specialists at the University of Minnesota Physicians. Dr. Almanza is an adjunct clinical faculty at the University of Minnesota Medical School for the School of Nursing department, as she teaches in the Doctorate of Nursing program in Midwifery.

We talk about the events of George Floyd’s murder and the COVID-19 pandemic, and how both events affected Black maternal health in the Minnesota community. We also discuss the importance of decolonizing birth and acknowledging Indigenous birth working practices and cultural traditions.

Resources
Learn about Oily Doula MN here (https://www.oilydoulamn.com/) and follow Oily Doula MN on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/oilydoulamn/) and Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/oilydoulamn/).

Learn about the Minnesota Healing Justice Network here (https://www.mnhealingjustice.com/).

Follow Minnesota Healing Justice Network on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/mnhealingjustice) and Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/mnhealingjustice/).

Learn about Autumn Cavender-Wilson, CPM and Yellow Medicine Midwifery here (https://yellowmedicinemidwifery.org).

Follow Minneapolis Indigenous Breastfeeding Support Circle on Facebook.

Learn about Britt Jackson and Metro Home Birth here (https://www.metrohomebirth.com/) and follow on Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/metromidwiferymn/) and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/MetroMidwiferyMN/).

Learn about Resmaa Menakem’s book, “My Grandmother’s Hands” here.

To learn more about Sabia Wade (The Black Doula) and Birthing Advocacy Doula Trainings here (https://www.badoulatrainings.org/). Follow them on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/birthingadvocacy/) and Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/birthingadvocacy/).

Learn about Roots Community Birth Center here (https://www.rootsbirthcenter.com/). Follow them on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/rootscommunitybirthcenter/) and Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/rootsbirthcenter/).

Transcript

Rebecca Dekker:

Hi, everyone. On today’s podcast, we’re going to talk with EBB instructor, Rhonda Fellows and Dr. Jennifer Almanza about birthing and disparities in Minnesota.

Welcome to the Evidence Based Birth® podcast. My name is Rebecca Dekker, and I’m a nurse with my PhD and the founder of Evidence Based Birth®. Join me each week as we work together to get evidence-based information into the hands of families and professionals around the world. As a reminder, this information is not medical advice. See ebbirth.com/disclaimer for more details.

Hi everyone.  Today I’m so excited to welcome you to a special three days in a row series of the Evidence Based Birth® Podcast. This week, we are going to be highlighting and amplifying the voices of the people behind Minnesota Healing Justice Network. The Minnesota Healing Justice Network provides a supportive professional community and mutual aid network for wellness and healing justice practitioners, who also identify as Indigenous, Black or people of color.

The professionals at the Minnesota Healing Justice Network have been working on the front lines both before, during, and after the murder of George Floyd. In this special three episode series, we’re going to start by talking with two of the birth professionals from the Minnesota Healing Justice Network. So today’s episode, we’ll be with EBB instructor, Rhonda Fellows and Dr. Jennifer Almanza about birthing and disparities in Minnesota.

Then tomorrow we will talk with a family that gave birth during the middle of both COVID-19 and the uprisings in Minneapolis, Janae and Marcel. And then finally, on the third day of this podcast series, we will listen to Ihotu Ali, Daniela Montoya-Barthelemy and Shayla Walker all about their vision for living in a world and birthing in a world with reproductive justice.

So for today, the first episode in this three episode series, I’m so excited to introduce you to Rhonda Fellows and Dr. Jennifer Almanza. Rhonda Fellows is a Certified Birth Doula and Evidence Based Birth® instructor, and has 20 years of working with youth and families in the nonprofit world as an After-school Program Director, Co-director of an overflow homeless shelter, tutor and counselor of high school students, teen mission trip facilitator, and healthy relationships guest speaker in health classes.

Rhonda serves family in the Twin Cities Area, and she loves teaching childbirth education classes to help parents realize their rights, options and feel empowered to advocate for themselves. She is also a teacher of the Evidence Based Birth® childbirth class. In addition to birth work, Rhonda is a founding member of the Minnesota Healing Justice Network. Her favorite things in life revolve around relationships with others.

We are also welcoming Dr. Jennifer Almanza to the Evidence Based Birth® podcast. Dr. Almanza has her Doctorate of Nursing Practice and is a Certified Nurse Midwife. Dr. Almanza’s work amplifies health equity through endorsing physiologic birth, helping clients maintain their agency and power, providing evidence-based care and pushing reproductive justice via policy and research activism.

Dr. Almanza believes in building the body of research done by, with, and for Indigenous, Black, Latinx, mixed race and other people of color. Dr. Almanza practices with women’s health specialists at the University of Minnesota Physicians and is an adjunct clinical faculty at the University of Minnesota Medical School and teaches in the School of Nursing there in the Doctorate of Nursing program in Midwifery.

Welcome, Rhonda and Dr. Almanza to the Evidence Based Birth® podcast.

Rhonda Fellows:

Thank you for having us.

Dr. Jennifer Almanza:

Thank you.

Rebecca Dekker:

I’m so excited that you are coming on to talk about birthing in Minnesota. I was wondering if you could start off by telling us a little bit about what brought you into the field of caring for families during childbirth.

Rhonda Fellows:

Sure. Do you want to go first, Jen?

Dr. Jennifer Almanza:

No, you go for it Rhonda.

Rhonda Fellows:

Okay. Well, I have always loved birth and pregnancy. I was one of those people that would just watch all the movies and all the documentaries about all the babies being born. But I knew I didn’t want to go to medical school. So I never knew that there was anything else that I could do other than just help my friends raise their kids.

So fast forward to when I was 36, one of my friends, Kelly and Mike, they were pregnant for the first time and our small group of friends they said, “Oh, Rhonda, you should be a doula.” And I was like, “A what?” “You should be a doula. You’d be a great doula.” I just had no idea what the word was they were saying. And so that just grew to me secretly researching about doulas and deciding, “Do I want to do this? Do I think I’m able to do this?”

And I started reading the Birth Partner and it really helped me a lot to just get a basic understanding, but I was doing it secretly so people wouldn’t keep asking me. And then my friend Kelly said, “Oh, well, my doula wants you to come to our first prenatal visit before birth, and then you could just come to the birth and pray and read scriptures.” And I thought, “Well, shoot, pray and read scriptures? That wasn’t in the book I read, but I mean, if you want me to do that, I got that. I can do this.”

So fast forward to being at her birth, it was at the Minnesota Birth Center in Minneapolis, and it was different than being at a birth that I had been at before, because now I had been studying about being a doula. And at the end of the birth, the midwife said, “So how long have you been a nurse?” And I said, “No. I work in human resources.” And at that moment I was like, “Huh, maybe this is what I should be doing.” And so it just progressed from there a few months later I got trained and then I’ve just been in the work ever since.

Rebecca Dekker:

And so Rhonda, you’ve been supporting families in Minnesota for how many years now?

Rhonda Fellows:

Since about mid 2016. So for four years.

Rebecca Dekker:

Okay. Cool. And Dr. Almanza tell us about how you went into nursing and then nurse midwifery as a career.

Dr. Jennifer Almanza:

Yeah. So that was never a part of my life plan at all. I also started in traditional Mexican medicine doing training with some parteras from Mexico through a traditional dance group. And similar to Rhonda, I had no idea what being a doula was. I supported a friend of mine who is doing a post-secondary ed option.

So she was in high school when I was in college and she was birthing her first child and I supported her through two babies while I was in college. And then when I left and became pregnant with my second child. Gail Tully was my midwife for home birth, and she was like, “You should consider doing a doula training,” and so I did. The plan was to be a midwife.

It took me a really long time to end up being there just because life is a long twisted path. I did not come from an academic background or with the goal of becoming a nurse my whole life or anything like that. Really became a midwife through trial and error and grit, I would say, more than anything. Yeah.

Rebecca Dekker:

And are you catching babies now or working in the academic sector?

Dr. Jennifer Almanza:

Yes. So I catch babies at the University of Minnesota Masonic. I work actually for the University of Minnesota Department of OB-GYN. I’ve been really involved with research. I’ve been taken under the wing of Katy Kozhimanni Backes and Dr. Rachel Hardeman in the School of Public Health and they have been just the most amazing mentors that a person can have.

So I have ended up in the academia, very solidly ended up in academia, and I’m teaching in the doctoral program for midwives as well for midwifery. So it’s been a journey. It’s been fun, done a lot in the birth world. Yeah.

Rebecca Dekker:

Tell us a little bit about Minnesota Healing Justice Network and how you got involved with that nonprofit organization. Rhonda, do you want to go first?

Rhonda Fellows:

Sure. It started with our friend Ihotu, who will also be on the podcast, and she invited a group of us to go on a retreat. And at that point in my mind I wasn’t thinking anything about a network or anything. It was like, “Yes, a retreat. Away for the weekend. Okay. You got this house? Great.” And it was a group of about 12 of us who went and we just rested and built relationship.

And we just started to know each other because the majority of us only knew Ihotu, maybe one other person that was there. And so it was just a weekend of being refreshed and also starting to see where our passions aligned. And really, it grew from, “Oh, we went on a retreat in June, let’s go again.”

So we went again in October and invited a couple other people who could come and it just grew from building relationships in between retreats and really spending time really aligning ourselves with a desire to serve the community, a desire to serve our communities.

And so we are a BIPOC organization, so Black, Indigenous, People of Color, and really wanting to tackle the issues that we see surrounding our community in general, but a number of us being birth workers, because we’re a group of birth workers, bodyworkers, healers, artists, et cetera. And so a number of us being birth workers really wanted to address the maternal mortality and morbidity rates in our communities.

Rebecca Dekker:

And what about you Dr. Almanza, how did you get involved?

Dr. Jennifer Almanza:

Yeah. I really got involved via Rebecca Polston, who is an African American Birth Center owner, one of 11 in the country, right? We had met, oh my goodness, maybe in 2015 and there was this really loosely Minnesota Cultural Birth Workers group, right? And several of us started meeting, but it was very, very loose.

There wasn’t a lot of time. Rebecca was starting her birth center, I was in graduate school, but we met when we could and we tried to amplify each other’s work as much as we could and just support knowing that everybody’s needed. And so I met Ihotu prior to the retreat. I had known her for a while, Iola, some of the OGs from the Minnesota Cultural Birth workers, doulas, Daniela who you’ll interview.

So it was really about reclaiming and trying to continue our own cultural traditions while we’re doing doula work in the system, me learning the practice of midwifery as a Certified Nurse Midwife. In the institution where I work, I feel really empowered to do that and to bring my whole self and to use all of the tools. I would not say that was my experience.

I worked 15 or so years as their RN and labor and delivery NICU postpartum as a case manager. And I wouldn’t say that was always the case. So I think I’ve landed in a really unique institution to do that. But yeah, sorry. That was the political answer. I went all the way around that question. So yes, from Minnesota Cultural Birth Workers to Minnesota Healing Justice. Yeah.

Rebecca Dekker:

So we know it’s a network, the Minnesota Healing Justice Network, but what are they actively doing in the community? Because I know it’s a super busy network. It’s not just communicating with each other, but you’re also taking care of your community. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Rhonda Fellows:

Sure. So I’ll talk about a couple of other things. So early on, we were, as I said, meeting and getting to know each other, but then it turned into us really being able to see needs through communication, and then how can we do something about this? Even before we were formerly a network, we were already starting to do that through communication with each other.

And then recently, as we know, George Floyd was murdered in our community and our organization was thrust into the limelight, and then all of a sudden people knew who we were, even though we were still in the process of becoming more and more solidified. And so through that process, lots of needs became evident.

And so a couple of the things we did, even starting just this spring, was people in our network having donation locations where people could donate different needs for the community and then those donations were taken to a local coffee shop and art studio. And through that, we are able to serve South Minneapolis, but also anyone who comes and that is actually still happening.

Rowan Emmanuel is one of our great healers in our community and they are running that distribution center still. Also we realized, well, because of course all of this is happening at the same time, because of COVID a lot of medical appointments went to tele or virtual appointments, and we were seeing a lot of our people as well, who really hadn’t been seen, they were concerned about different things.

And so it was in my personal practice I contacted all of my clients who gave birth since October and said, “Hey, let’s do 30 minute check-ins over Zoom.” So it’s like, okay, let someone get eyes on people because we know postpartum concerns oftentimes don’t happen right away, they sometimes show up three, six, nine months later. And I brought that idea and then we just worked on that idea and we started to say, “Okay, how can we do this on a bigger scale?”

So we started working on how we could be a quick resource hotline style for people who needed quick support. And so that was one of the things we also were starting to work on and different ones of us meeting and talking with different people in the community to try to make connections that way. And so those are just a couple of the things. I know Dr. Jen can tell a few more.

Rebecca Dekker:

Yeah. And I was wondering, Dr. Almanza before we get to talking about what happened after George Floyd’s murder, there already was a crisis in Minnesota with maternal mortality morbidity. Can you talk a little bit about the major challenges facing families in Minnesota when they’re pregnant and giving birth even before all of this happened this spring?

Dr. Jennifer Almanza:

Yeah. I mean, it’s a national problem, right? So we’re not unique in that. We had a lapse for a couple of years in our state Maternal Mortality and Morbidity committee, which is now mandated since, I think December of 2018. It’s been an abysmally short amount of time, but that federally this is mandated that we all report in our maternal losses, but we started this fall using kind of the federal database, the MMRIA system. The first 14 States reported back. I don’t know if you saw any of that data.

It was a really well funded study because Mark threw some money towards it in the CDC. But we have great data about race in place, and in Minnesota, we know our Indigenous, rural moms are dying at exponential rates and that data will be published this fall. And we haven’t as a state reported on racial disparities yet.

We were to put out a report this fall on our re-upped committee that just started meeting again last fall, but our meetings were all canceled due to COVID. So we’re just starting back up again with that. It’s a big problem here. The last study that came out through the Minnesota Department of Health was that Black moms are dying at twice the rates of white moms.

But again quality data in is quality data out and we don’t have a lot of quality data in because our institutions haven’t been reporting their outcomes based on racial, ethnic, and language, We also did sexual orientation, gender identity, and so we don’t know.

Rebecca Dekker:

So there’s just been really poor tracking.

Dr. Jennifer Almanza:

It’s been poor tracking and it’s never been mandated to report in that way. So we have one system right now that’s taking the lead in that reporting and I’ve been working on it in our system and like everywhere in the country, our systems are getting bigger and bigger. So that system is a couple of systems now together and my system is about three systems together now as well.

So we have a lot of work to do in that regard, and getting the right people at the table is really important. We have Indigenous traditional midwives in this State. We have Autumn Cavender down in the south, we have Doreen Day here in the Metro.

We have Lisa Bellinger, who does some of her work, but there’s a lot of erasure of Indigenous people in this community like there is everywhere in the nation just because the n is so small. The number of deaths and the number of morbidities, the mortalities are so small because the population is a small population. So it’s a lot of work. We have a lot of work to do in that area.

Rebecca Dekker:

Okay. So you were already facing issues with just not quality data or tracking of these issues.

Dr. Jennifer Almanza:

Yeah.

Rebecca Dekker:

One thing I talk often with people about is that not only do we not only track maternal deaths, but intrapartum stillbirths, stillbirths during labor are not reported or recorded anywhere, not even on birth certificate. So if they list a stillbirth on a birth certificate, they don’t say if it happened during labor or maybe a week before. So there’s very little tracking of what’s actually happening with that as well.

So we know there was this crisis already happening and then we had COVID and then we had George Floyd’s murder. And I remember emailing back and forth with Ihotu and Rhonda, and even though people are following the news and getting involved in their own communities, I don’t think many people outside of Minnesota truly understood what it was like there during that time. So I was wondering if you could tell us about the experience of being in Minnesota during the height of these uprisings.

Dr. Jennifer Almanza:

I guess I can go for a semi and it still is, I’m sure for Rhonda even more, it’s still kind of a trauma response just thinking about those days. It’s horrible. I mean, it literally brings tears to my eyes. I was working at 24-hour shifts the first night and I had a patient who had ruptured her membranes at home and didn’t want any interventions in her labor and birth.

And this was the day when that guy in the semi went after the protestors on the bridge, and I was watching it loosely and doing patient care and all of that. And then when the truck… I was in a room where there was a TV going and the truck came out, I was just sitting there like, “Oh my God.”

I left that room and just called this patient and said, “Look, I don’t know if you’re going to be able to get to the hospital tonight. We will keep you in a bubble. Nobody will ask you to do anything, just please come to the hospital because I don’t think you’ll be able to…” We’re in Minneapolis far from South Minneapolis where a lot of this stuff was happening.

It was just surreal. It was just absolutely surreal. The second night I was off so I went down there to offer some medic assistance with some of the street medics and I had a couple of lacerations because exploding bottles, because they burnt down a liquor store that night, but they just let it burn. There was no tear gas, there was no rubber bullets. They just let our city burn. Yeah. It was ugly. It was horrible.

Rebecca Dekker:

And the smoke caused a health threat in itself, correct?

Dr. Jennifer Almanza:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. We almost evacuated the medic building where we were, I don’t know, three times because we kept getting… And it did end up burning, but while we were there, there was just this constant threat of like, “Oh, it’s going to… They’re cutting the gas lines because there’s going to be…” It was just insane. It was a war zone. I don’t think we understand how privileged we are to live in a place that hasn’t seen war like that because that was a war zone.

Rebecca Dekker:

It always seems like when there’s disasters, these kinds of things, that pregnant families and people who are most vulnerable experience the effects the most. How did the members of your organization react to face these multiplying crises?

Rhonda Fellows:

Well, I would say it was… Like, I was starting to say earlier, it’s just multiple people doing multiple things all at the same time. And then there’s this place internally for me specifically, but I’ve heard other people talk about it where you’re a doula and you have a number of families who are due now, and you’re thinking, do you go out and protest during COVID?

Do you go out on the front lines and help during COVID? Or do you stay at home so that you know you haven’t gotten COVID because you know you have births coming up. During COVID hospitals went down to having one support person, but birth centers and home birth if you were professional doula, at least in Minneapolis area and St. Paul, you could still attend those births.

And so there’s this war that’s going on inside of you of, “Well, shouldn’t I be outside there? Oh, but this person, this person and this person or do in the next couple of weeks, so do I owe it to them to stay home.”

And so you’re fighting that war, but you’re not really sleeping and you’re constantly on the phone or online with each other in the network discussing, “Okay, this is happening. This is what I need. This is happening. This is what I need. We need a driver. Can you find a driver? Can you find this? And then find someone to bring it to this place?” And it’s this constant whirlwind of crisis management, and-

Rebecca Dekker:

And it went on for a long time.

Rhonda Fellows:

Yes. And in the midst of this whirlwind of crisis management to help the community, each of us in the network are people of color as well, and so we have our own response, trauma, response, confusion, frustration, anger, sadness. You’re dealing with all of that, at the same time you’re trying to help. And then you’re also, like I said, for some of us doulas, “Well, where should I be?”

And so I would say how the network respondent was in all ways, all different ways and lots of things happening at lot of times and a big part of what we did was we had Zoom. And so every single day there was a Zoom call for us to be on together and to be supportive of each other.

And sometimes there was a couple of us on there and we’d just be sitting there in our own homes, not even talking to each other, but being together. And that was a big part of being able to support the community was supporting each other so that we could take care of ourselves well.

Rebecca Dekker:

You mentioned drivers, was getting from place to place a huge issue for families, even families in labor?

Rhonda Fellows:

Yes. I mean, when I say drivers, yes, definitely for families in labor, but also for community needs. At my house, I also… As Rebecca moved in the middle of everything and so at both of the houses I lived in, I was collecting baby items outside so someone could pick them up and drive them to…

I needed a driver to come to my house. So even drivers in that way, but I had a client who was in labor and it was one of the nights where the KKK was hot and heavy in our community and full regalia, and the national guard was hot and heavy and there was a curfew and I’m a Black person, and I had to decide, “Do I go to this birth?”

And I was doing virtual support with the family, but they were going to a birth center. So I technically could go. And in the middle of the night, we just decided I’m not going to go. I’m not going to go be at your birth because it’s not safe for me, a Black person, to leave my house. So all that. I mean even before we made the final decision not to go, I had lots of white doulas, which I’m super grateful for contacting me and say, “Rhonda, I’ll go. I’ll go. I’ll go.”

And then I did set up with Justine that she would go for me because she lived close to that particular birth center. But also the family said, “Oh, well, we’ll just pick you up.” And it made sense like, “Okay, yeah… Let’s… That’ll work.

I’m not going to drive, but then if we get pulled over, I don’t want you to not get to the birth center because now this Black person in your car is being questioned.” And it’s so many layers to all of this. So yes, families needed drivers and Black people needed drivers too. And it’s just…

Rebecca Dekker:

It wasn’t necessarily safe for you as a Black person to drive around.

Rhonda Fellows:

No.

Rebecca Dekker:

Especially not under curfew.

Rhonda Fellows:

Not after curfew. Personally, it felt okay if I needed to go somewhere quickly during the day when there was very bright sunlight, that was okay. But as the sun starts to set, then you don’t want to go out of the house because it’s not safe. And even though there were people protesting in the evening and kudos to them for feeling that call to be there, but it wasn’t safe.

Dr. Jennifer Almanza:

And I think those of us… The group that I went out to do medics part with was all Chicano, Latino, Indigenous people because we all felt like we cannot send anybody Black out in the streets. There’s all of these levels, right? We just were trying to care for each other in the best ways that we could and it was everything from extra filling inhalers to bringing groceries, to bringing flowers, to bringing herbs for steams and all kinds of things.

I think that was the biggest impact of the network in that moment. That was the biggest need because you have all of these people from COVID. We had already had that loss from COVID of our doulas and our bodyworkers, and our healers and our somatic therapists are people who really need that face to face, who are working for big institutions that were taking this massive hit from COVID to serve the community, to clean up the crap that these big systems have caused, right?

So It’s really complex, but the support was community. It was just community. It was just rooted in this. We all got to make it through this. And thankfully we had started it before George Floyd.

Rhonda Fellows:

Right.

Dr. Jennifer Almanza:

So, I mean, it was functioning already, but it did, what is it? Crisis is the… What is that saying you guys? Crisis is the birthplace of innovation, I think something like that. Crisis is birthplace of innovation. And I think we’re still in a creation space with Minnesota Healing Justice in trying to really figure out a very solid futurism kind of plan for how this network can best sustain the work of folks who are so needed in this world right now.

Rhonda Fellows:

Right.

Dr. Jennifer Almanza:

I mean, so needed. These are exactly the people in this network who needs to create the new paradigm, right? The new-

Rhonda Fellows:

Right. Thinking and speaking futuristically, we have a number of people in our network that are doing amazing things. And even in the midst of all that has been happening over the last month, one of our local doulas completed midwifery school and started her home birth practice. Her name is Britt and she is just trailblazing right now.

She’s currently the only Black home birth midwife in our area and like I said, her business is in the beginning stages. She just posted the first birth just last week. And so even that process of, in the midst of everything, we have to keep moving forward. And that’s one of the businesses that had…

She’s a part of the network, but obviously, before the network, she was working towards this goal. And so if you go to our website and you’re on our social media, you’ll see where we’ve been posting not only has she started this home birth practice, but she’s also started this fund to raise money for BIPOC families who can’t afford home birth.

Rebecca Dekker:

So that she can earn a living wage by attending their births.

Rhonda Fellows:

Right. And then they could have a discounted or maybe one would have a free to pay for it.

Rebecca Dekker:

And you said her name is Britt. What’s her last name?

Rhonda Fellows:

Jackson.

Rebecca Dekker:

Britt Jackson. Congratulations Britt if you’re listening.

Rhonda Fellows:

She will listen.

Rebecca Dekker:

Follow Britt on Instagram.

Rhonda Fellows:

Yes.

Rebecca Dekker:

Support her work.

Rhonda Fellows:

Please. Her website is Metro Home birth. Her business name is Metro Midwifery.

Rebecca Dekker:

Metrohomebirth.com and-

Rhonda Fellows:

Yes. Metrohomebirth.com.

Rebecca Dekker:

And Metro midwifery. That simple.

Rhonda Fellows:

Yes.

Rebecca Dekker:

I think it is important to remember some of the joys in the midst of-

Rhonda Fellows:

Yes.

Rebecca Dekker:

I know the word rest came up a lot in my email communications with Ihotu. When were you able to start finding moments of rest or the ability to do some self-healing?

Rhonda Fellows:

You said when, as if it was-

Dr. Jennifer Almanza:

When, like it happened.

Rebecca Dekker:

Have you gotten any rest? I should rephrase my question.

Dr. Jennifer Almanza:

No.

Rebecca Dekker:

Have you been able to get any rest?

Rhonda Fellows:

It’s a great question. I just was talking to my friend I’chelle in Ohio yesterday and I said, “I think I’m starting to feel a little bit like myself in random moments,” but I think one way to answer your question is even though George Floyd was murdered, past tense, and we are this far away from it, or even though COVID and Minnesota, the big surge of it had happened and maybe it will, even though those things feel like they’re behind us, we’re still in the midst of it.

Yes, things are so much quieter, but they’re not quiet and it’s not silence because things are still happening. And in the midst of that, I feel like I find moments or maybe even a full day where I feel like, “Oh, I feel like Rhonda right now.” And then you remember the stories because that trauma can still be there or is still there, or you hear about a need somebody has, and it reminds you, “Oh yes, we’re still here.”

Or the people who don’t have homes, that are living in the park and what’s happening with them. There’s just so many things that come up. People don’t realize in other States probably that we have a tense city, and so-

Rebecca Dekker:

I don’t think that’s something that’s being talked about outside in other states.

Rhonda Fellows:

Yes. So in the midst of that, it’s like there’s times of risk, but I think for me to specifically answer your question, if I just sit by myself in a space that for me is re-centering or a way I can find rest. And then a group of us from the network, we went to a park recently and sat by the Lake.

So we were outside during COVID and even though I’m not an outdoors person, that specific thing made me feel rest, just being there, being near people and just to be able to sit in that space.

Rebecca Dekker:

Yeah. So much of what we used for healing was taken away because of COVID, the human connection, touch, all those things. So getting outside and being with others outside was healing.

Rhonda Fellows:

Yes. Definitely being outside was healing, but then also, even in my home just moments when I just sit and I’m not doing anything, I mean, that would be for me. How about Jen?

Dr. Jennifer Almanza:

Yeah. I mean, I think a couple of weeks in I had a trip planned, daddy did decide to go ahead and go on. That was just up to the North shore to lake Superior, which has always been a very grounding and centering place for me. And it was just like a three day thing, a lot of hiking and just being in nature, and that was healing definitely.

There are different organizations that are offering spaces for people from our network to go try to do those things, and I think our work with each other has been, and Ihotu’s a great gentle leader in this way that she reminds us, “Rest. Rest. Go do it. You have to take that time to go do that because the work is going to be there indefinitely.” It’s a lot. There’s a lot of requests.

There’s a lot of need and it’s going to be enduring for a while and what we really need is all of us to be able to have those moments where we’re like, “Oh God, this is…” Rhonda is one of the most amazing human beings I’ve ever met. She just shines. When she’s at a birth, I’m like, “We’re good.” So it’s finding however we can to protect that for each other, with each other, for ourselves. And get back to that, I think is part of the work of this network as well. And there’s a lot-

Rebecca Dekker:

So the network is healing the community but also healing itself.

Dr. Jennifer Almanza:

The healers.

Rebecca Dekker:

Is there plans for trauma counseling or some kind of healing for the trauma that you’ve experienced as a collective?

Dr. Jennifer Almanza:

Well, I go to therapy. And we do have the amazing Resmaa in our community who wrote My Grandmother’s Hands, and Rhonda told me about that book and said, “You need to go read it.” And I did, and I got to see him speak here, but we have teachers, wise people telling us to be in our bodies. It hasn’t felt safe for a long time to be in our bodies here I think. Because it has been very jarring, but we have somatic bodyworkers in our network.

We have these reminders and we’re the lucky ones, right? Because we have a lot of clients that we see who’ve never had the privilege of having therapy or a somatic body session or bodywork or anything that’s brought them back in to feel why they’re holding this stuff. So I recommend it all the time to the clients that I see, that’s the..

I teach and do some GYN research, but my primary job is clinic and the hospital. So I think that’s part of our job in the system, right? Is to get people out of our systems and make sure that they have access to deinstitutionalized care.

Rebecca Polston says, and I love this quote, “Increased access to racist systems doesn’t mean better care,” right? So we’ve focused so long on access and getting people into our systems, but that’s entirely not the solution for the problems that we’re having right now.

Rebecca Dekker:

I think that raises a good topic for another podcast episode, some time to talk about somatic experiencing and bodywork and the importance of those healing practices. I got to experience my first somatic experiencing session with Sabia Wade of The Black Doula and it was really incredible. And then myself with my own chronic migraines, which I’ve suffered from since a child, right now the only relief I can get is from a craniosacral therapist who practices out of their home.

Dr. Jennifer Almanza:

Yes.

Rebecca Dekker:

And she has the ability to know where my muscles in my neck are tensing up. And she knows exactly how to get them back to normal. It’s incredible. No doctor has ever been able to do that with me, that healing power of touch. It’s all deinstitutionalized, like you said, it’s word of mouth, trying to find someone who can help.

Dr. Jennifer Almanza:

Right.

Rebecca Dekker:

Right?

Rhonda Fellows:

Yeah. I’ve been going every week or every other week to a chiropractor at Viva Chiropractic. She said, “I’m a doctor. I don’t have to close. I’m essential” And it has been lifesaving for me to go consistently, which I had never done before. Not consistently as that, and then also in the past couple of weeks started getting massages again, because of course with COVID you stopped doing that.

And it’s, I can wear my mask when I lay face up. If that’s what I have to do to get the bodywork I need to be healthy, then that’s what I’ll do. But yeah. So definitely finding ways to be healthy and finding the different types of therapies.

Rebecca Dekker:

And making those therapies accessible to people who don’t normally seems like it would be an important goal.

Rhonda Fellows:

Right.

Rebecca Dekker:

So Rhonda, Janae and Marcel, your clients, will be sharing their birth story on another episode, do you have any context you want to offer to prepare listeners to hear their interview because you were their doula?

Rhonda Fellows:

Yes. First I’ll say they took the Evidence Based Birth® Childbirth class, which was a great experience. Heather Christine Struwe and I, we teach that together and from that I became their doula after they were in my class and that was an exciting part of the process for us. But then they were supposed to birth at the birth center that we are currently talking about, Roots Community Birth Center in North Minneapolis and Rebecca Polston, the one we keep mentioning, she is the owner.

They were supposed to birth there but with the uprising after George Floyd’s murder, it wasn’t safe to birth at the birth center and so they switched to a home birth. And so that is like a precursor to their story of taking the class, feeling really prepared to have a beautiful birth center birth, which needed to switch to a home birth for safety purposes.

And then I let them pick up their story from there, but they really felt prepared for their birth through having a doula and taking the Evidence Based Birth® Childbirth class and as they went through their birthing experience. They use a lot of those tools to help them navigate our medical system.

Rebecca Dekker:

So they’ll talk about their shift to a home birth and then shift to a hospital birth. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about… You were there in person with them at home and then you had to shift to virtual support.

Rhonda Fellows:

Yes.

Rebecca Dekker:

Have you been giving a lot of virtual support recently or have you been able to go into hospitals?

Rhonda Fellows:

Yes, and yes.

Rebecca Dekker:

Both.

Rhonda Fellows:

Both. So the last hospital birth I went to was actually with Dr. Jen, early March, and then that’s when COVID changed our lives, and then I only did virtual births. I didn’t have a birth center birth scheduled until end of May. And so I basically did the entire spring virtually, and so virtual work for me and most doulas look like phone conversations, text messaging and video calls.

Sometimes that would be video calls when things were pretty quiet at the hospital, or it would be video calls when they needed help making decisions or video calls or texting or phone calls when it was time for pushing. And so it just varied from person to person. And I just went to my first hospital birth last week. So yes, just middle of July.

Rebecca Dekker:

Long time. Yeah.

Rhonda Fellows:

Yeah. So from beginning of March to middle of July, there I didn’t attend any hospital births. Almost all of the hospitals in the Minneapolis St. Paul area are open to have the second support person or doula. And so for Marcel and Janae’s birth, it was a great home birth experience. One of the things that I’ve noticed throughout COVID, but especially after George Floyd’s murder is a lot of people’s water breaking earlier than what I’m used to seeing.

It’s interesting because as a childbirth educator, I often teach, “It’s around 10 or 11% of people, their water breaks first or early.” And then all of a sudden, everybody, every client I had in a month’s periods of time, their water broke no labor, around 37 weeks. And it was like, “Whoa.”

Rebecca Dekker:

It’s interesting that you say that because a news article came out about, somewhere in Northern Europe, how preterm birth rates were low. And I was like, “Well, they didn’t measure it here.”

Rhonda Fellows:

Definitely. I believe it’s the stress of everything.

Rebecca Dekker:

I believe so. Yeah.

Rhonda Fellows:

But really from the time George Floyd was murdered until mid to end of June I was seeing person, after person, after person. 37 weeks, water would break, no labor for a day, some two. After the water broke, no labor. Yes. So I definitely believe that it was the stress of everything happening that people’s bodies were reacting in different ways.

I’m grateful that it was 37 weeks for my clients and not 32 weeks or whatever, because all of my clients did end up having healthy baby and healthy families, but it definitely was a huge difference. And Marcel and Janae will, I’m sure, talk about that as well, because they’re one of the ones whose water broke at 37 weeks and that led them on the journey that they experienced.

But for me as a doula, so I’m at the home with them doing the home birth, and then later into the process of birth, things just changed. And it was like, “Whoa, what just happened within her body?” And when she transferred to the hospital, that was a scary thing, because it was around 11:00 PM and the National Guard was still in town.

And we all convinced the midwives, the birth assistants, myself, and even them, they came to a point where they realized maybe we do need to go to the hospital. And it’s like, “So do we all caravan? How do we like, but if we caravan, are we going to look suspicious and bring attention to ourselves? And we don’t want attention because we don’t want to be stopped and it’s after curfew.”

And all of that we talked about earlier in the podcast already, that was in that moment of needing to transfer from home birth to hospital birth. And so everyone made it to their destination safely, but we couldn’t go with them. So normally when you transfer from out of hospital to hospital birth in the midst of the birthing time, then the doula goes with them, the midwife goes with them to the hospital.

Midwife couldn’t go, the doula couldn’t go and so that also intensifies the situation that you’re in because you need to transfer, and so it just was an interesting experience. So now they’re at the hospital and now I become virtual. So I had been very hands on, very close physically in proximity to both of them.

And you go from having a home full of people, including her sister who was there the whole time, a home full of supportive people to not only you’re at the hospital, but the lighting is different, the smell is different the people are different and you’ve never met these people because you’re transferring.

And so we have that whole situation. We’re helping them navigate, helping them get rest, and then there’s silence, because it’s part of virtual birth. Oftentimes there’s this period of silence and you’re like, “Okay, I’m not really sleeping, but I’m going to try to sleep.” And as the doula you don’t know what’s happening, and I understand it’s not about us, but there’s that sense of-

Rebecca Dekker:

There’s that connection.

Rhonda Fellows:

… people. These are my people and I want them to be fine, and so there was just a few text messages and then one of Dr. Jen’s partners, her name is Ann, she’s an amazing CNM, and she was their midwife when they transferred. And I literally screamed when I found out she was there because I knew Jen was out of town, and I was scared, honestly that Jen was out of town with the situation.

So to know that Ann was the midwife on duty, was like, “Okay, everything’s going to be fine.” That’s exactly how I felt. I was nervous and then I was like, “Oh, we’re going to be fine. It’s going to be fine. Ann’s there.” And their birth did go well. There’s some twists and turns they’ll get to talk to you about, but the birth itself it did go well. And when it was time, when they had started pushing, Ann said to them, “It’s time to call your doula.”

And not a lot of times was that happening for doulas where the provider would say, “Call your doula.” And a lot of families did experience because of the virtual doulas, “Oh, you don’t need your doula. You’re fine. You don’t need…” A lot of people experienced that. So for this family, for them to be told by the provider, “Hey, call your doula. This is the time that the doula should be on the video.”

And so then I was on video with them the entire time of pushing and the birth, and then as you mentioned, the baby was taken to the NICU and Marcel went with the baby. And so I stayed on video with her for the next two hours until she was able to go to the NICU.

Rebecca Dekker:

Thank you, Rhonda, for doing that.

Rhonda Fellows:

You’re welcome.

Rebecca Dekker:

And I just think we could have had the midwife in this conversation as well, but Dr. Almanza had to go on vacation as she already told us.

Rhonda Fellows:

Yeah.

Dr. Jennifer Almanza:

The right midwife.

Rhonda Fellows:

Yeah she was amazing.

Rebecca Dekker:

The right midwife for the right situation. That’s amazing. So I want to ask one final question, what does Minnesota Healing Justice need most at this time?

Rhonda Fellows:

Well, there’s multiple things. Well, one of the things I meant to mention earlier, we were talking about… I forget how you said it Jen, about access and getting people into the system, getting more access and how that’s not always the answer. And one of the things that I’ve really been trying to do through social media and my own contacts is I’m calling it Decolonize Birth.

What I’m doing is each week I am marketing basically, posting about one specific things, one specific way to decolonize birth. And so it’s kind of funny how it started because I work full time in human resources, which I didn’t say, for an organization called Youth Works, and we do teen mission trips, which I love the work that we do. I also love the birthing community work. And people are always saying, “Rhonda, when are you going to quit your job? When are you going to quit your job?”

And it’s like, “One, I don’t hate my job. And two, I can’t afford to quit if I was ready to quit.” Mentally, if I was like, “I need to quit now,” I can’t afford it. So I made this post called it Decolonize Birth, and I was like, “Any response to people? Well, here’s my Venmo, my PayPal. You can just be a supporter of me financially if you think I should quit my job now.”

And it was multiple ways people can support me before I could even quit my job. Share when I’m teaching classes, share those flyers, tell other people, tell people who are pregnant that I’m a doula. So it started out that way, and then it… For me, everything is bigger than me. And so that was the first thing I did. Decolonize birth by helping a Black birth worker to do the work full time.

And then after that, one week I talked about Britt’s home birth business, Metro midwifery that we talked about. One week, I posted multiple times that week about Nadine Ashby. They are a wonderful Black birth worker in our community who, that’s the word I wanted, business partner have started birth revolution and you can look up on the birth revolution online as well.

And they want to train people to do birth work differently and to affect the community and the ways that we need to be served, not in a colonized way. One week I talked about them and then there is a midwife student that I don’t know that someone posted. She is a Muslim woman and I saw that she’s raising money to finish midwifery school.

So one week I focus on decolonize birth by financially supporting the student midwife, and so that’s what I’m doing right now. And most of the people will be people from the network that I talk about, but that’s just one of the things that the network, I, we are doing is putting it out there, and we need people to be able to support the work that each of us are doing. So that’s one of the things that people can do.

They can support the individuals doing the work through the network, but also people can support the network financially. And one way they can do that is we have this 1% program where we are saying, we’ve been saying this to white birth workers around us, but it could be anyone, 1% of your earnings donate that to the network. So that 1% program is what I will be on this coming Sunday we’ll have through my decolonize birth.

Dr. Jennifer Almanza:

It’s our sustaining membership program.

Rhonda Fellows:

Yes.

Rebecca Dekker:

And that’s what Ihotu said to me too. She says, “What we need right now is recurring donations, not…”

Rhonda Fellows:

Yes.

Rebecca Dekker:

I think a lot of organizations in the wake of George Floyd’s murder or Brianna Taylor’s murder, and the others were flooded with one time donations, but that’s not necessarily what these community organizations need. They need the ongoing support.

Dr. Jennifer Almanza:

I think for people working in systems that there are so many times that they don’t know who the community is. And I know that so many initiatives have failed, even at the level of CMQCC in California, one of our big quality initiative drivers, because they don’t have a relationship with community. It’s going to fail if you don’t know who in your community is doing this work.

And so I think that the onus needs to be on our systems to a really big extent, to care enough, to learn who are your Black doulas, who are your Indigenous doulas, who are your Indigenous midwives, and for those people to really ground down and humble down and understand that the safety that we talk about in systems does not equate to the safety that these families are looking for.

That sometimes the safest thing that they can do is to be with somebody who looks like them, speaks like them, prays like them regardless of where that is. And so that is the work that we have to do. These systems were not made for Black, Indigenous or people of color, and it’s going to be incredibly hard if not impossible, to retrofit them to be serving to our communities.

And so while we undo those systems, whatever extent we’re able to, we need to be able to build up these other systems alongside so that there is a viable, and I don’t even want to call it a safety net because it’s not. It’s a system that was made by, for, and of BIPOC people that is made to serve our communities. And so it’s really at both ends. I don’t know that I’ll be leaving. I’m a single mom.

I don’t think that it’s feasible for me to work in a place that doesn’t have better retirement, all that stuff, right? We’re all our own colonizers. But there are financial issues with that and so I think it’s really important that we make it viable for other… Because a lot of us are, right? A lot of us out here are working on a single income and raising children and doing all the things.

And that’s definitely a role as a biracial person, as a bi-cultural person that has always felt like my role is bridging kind of systems and worlds. And so that’ll be the work that I’ll be doing through the network, but I think the network actually needs more folks doing that so that we’re simultaneously building things up over there.

Rhonda Fellows:

Right. I would also say the network could use as more people join the network and even those that are in it to be trained in more things. And because we all have our trainings in different ways, but then additional training. And so oftentimes people will tell us about training and not think of the barriers that some people have for those trainings.

And so some people may donate money to the network so that we can train more people or some organizations that are hosting trainings will hopefully have scholarships or spaces that they gift to network members so that we can continue to be trained in different ways and in different areas. And there’s so many trainings in so many different areas that are out there. And so that’s also a way.

Dr. Jennifer Almanza:

Thank you so much, Rhonda and Dr. Almanza for coming on the Evidence Based Birth podcast. I want to remind everybody to check out the work of the Minnesota Healing Justice Network at mnhealingjustice.org, and also their Instagram page is @mnhealingjustice. Is there a way that people can follow your work as well?

Rhonda Fellows:

Sure. My business name is Oily Doula, because I am very central oil person, but my website is oilydoulamn.com, and that’s how you will find me on social media as well, oilydoulamn. MN for Minnesota.

Dr. Jennifer Almanza:

Yeah. And I think we have some other folks whose work we would love to have on your site Rebecca, if possible. Some our need of midwives and doulas and breastfeeding lactation support. So we’ll get that information to you so that we can have their information in case people want to donate to those folks as well.

Rebecca Dekker:

And I think I talked with Ihotu, she said she would love to feature a lot of the members of the network. So we’ll make sure in the short notes to link to some of the healers and birth workers that people can follow and support. So thank you both so much for sharing your heart and your wisdom and your knowledge with us.

Rhonda Fellows:

Yes. Thank you so much for having us.

Dr. Jennifer Almanza:

Thanks for making the space for us and for all your work. I use your work all the time in my work. Thank you.

Rhonda Fellows:

I was going to say the same thing. We’re grateful for the work you’re doing.

Dr. Jennifer Almanza:

Yes.

Rhonda Fellows:

As a person who’s gone through your Program, and one of your instructors, I tell people all the time when people say, “Well, who’s teaching and training and getting people to the place where they can teach.” And I always say, “Evidence Based Birth®.” In order to be an Evidence Based Birth® instructor, you have to learn about and understand and grow in your understanding of the plight of a lot of LGBTQ community in our system as well as BIPOC people, their plight in our system.

And so we appreciate that you are doing that work and that people don’t know you changed your videos so that when families take your class, that it’s inclusive. Things like that… A lot of organizations are not making their material inclusive and so we appreciate the work you’re doing and that you are pushing white people to be more aware and to fix themselves. I’ll say it that way.

Rebecca Dekker:

There’s a lot of work to do. I’ll just say that, for us.

Rhonda Fellows:

Yes.

Rebecca Dekker:

I’m so happy that I can partner with you, Rhonda and that I can do my part. I can ask of myself. It’s just keep doing my part.

Rhonda Fellows:

Thank you.

Rebecca Dekker:

All right, everyone that wraps up this interview with Rhonda and Dr. Almanza. Thank you so much for listening to their important words. And I encourage all of you to find out who is doing this work in your local community. Do you have a birth justice organization that is led by Black, Indigenous, or people of color?

Can you commit to supporting your local organization or if there’s not one near you commit to supporting organizations such as Minnesota Healing Justice Network, that is doing such amazing work.

One of the things that the founders of the Minnesota Healing Justice Network have told me is that it’s really important for people, especially business owners in the childbirth field, doulas, childbirth educators, and others to commit a portion of their profits, maybe even just 1%, but whatever you’re able to do to commit a portion of your profits, to recurring donations to a birth justice organization.

You can find a list of birth justice organizations that are led by Black, Indigenous, and people of color at evidencebasedbirth.com/birthjustice. And you can donate to the work of the Minnesota Healing Justice Network at mnhealingjustice.com. Thank you so much for listening everyone, and I’ll see you tomorrow with another special episode in the series where we’ll listen to Janae and Marcel’s birth story.

 

Listening to this podcast is an Australian College of Midwives CPD Recognised Activity.

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