More Than Inclusion: What the Birth World Can Learn About Belonging

Photo by  Diana Simumpande  on  Unsplash

This weekend I was a part of a study a friend of mine, Mariah, is doing for her masters in Urban Planning. She’s a Black woman, one of the few (if not the only one) in her program, and she’s been studying how Black women experience urban settings differently than other groups. When I walked into the study room, I was greeted by her and four other Black women at the table — most of them I didn’t know well...

Mariah asked us questions about what we liked and dislike about the city, what we didn’t want to see more of and what we wanted to see more of — and then the most memorable part for me — she pointed to a large paper map of Richmond on the wall, and gave us boxes of different colors of pins and told us, “Yellow is for safety, orange is for inclusion, blue is for belonging, green is for usefulness, red is for places you avoid. Place these pins on the map, and then let’s talk about why.”

Yellow is for safety. Orange is for inclusion. Blue is for belonging. Green is for usefulness. Red is to avoid.

As I’ve thought about this since leaving that room, I realize I walk through the world with different color pins in my pockets, and I mark the places that I go.

Blue is for belonging. When I first walked into Brewer’s Café, a black-owned coffee shop across the bridge from where I live, I recognized the sounds of Daniel Caesar on the speakers, Lauryn Hill, Chance the Rapper, SZA — and other songs I didn’t know, but I’m pretty sure I heard my dad play on a long car trip or my cousin turn on once as we got dressed to go out. It felt like walking into my own space, or the space of someone I knew and loved. And I looked around and saw so many brown faces, inside and walking by outside. It looked like walking into my house, or my aunt’s apartment, or my great-uncle’s place. The owner smiled at me, introduced himself, asked me about what I did, stayed and chatted for a while. It felt like meeting a friend of a friend. I felt like I had been there before, could be there again — like I belonged there.

So I put a blue marker on the map in my mind where Brewer’s is, and I’ve always made it a point to get back there when I can.

Yellow is for safety. Red is for avoid. Every once in a blue moon, I pick up mail for a couple who has a house on Monument Avenue. If you’re not familiar with Richmond, Monument Avenue is a long strip of a road with a wide grassy median down the center of it, and very large, beautiful homes on either side — and it’s where all of our monuments, including Confederate monuments honoring Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson live. Monument Avenue is an area that’s easy to feel physically safe in — it’s well lit, there’s regular foot and/or car traffic, and — depending on who you are, the knowledge that police could easily get there quickly may add or subtract from that sense of physical safety.

When I was working with the couple on Monument — first helping them unpack their new house and then picking up mail for them when they were away and bringing it inside — I always felt physically safe. But sometimes I did wonder… Anyone who lived next door, or across the street… How would they see me? Not as the owner of a place like this, for sure. As a cleaning woman? As a college kid, just doing some work on the side? Or as someone who was trying to sneak in, make trouble? I’d met one of this couples’ neighbors once and he made no eye contact with me and didn’t acknowledge me after I’d been specifically introduced to him. I looked at him as he didn’t look at me, and heard his silence loud and clear, “You don’t belong here.”

So, yes, I did feel safe there. And no, I didn’t.

Orange is for inclusion. Green is for usefulness. I went to college at a private school, the University of Richmond. It’s rightly known as the bougie school in the city. It costs nearly $65,000 a year to attend and is mostly upper-class white – even today it has under 30% students of color (compared to 50/50 white/non-white racial breakdown at our rival school fifteen minutes away, VCU). The University of Richmond, however, had small class sizes, beautiful facilities and lots of funding opportunities for students. The school basically guarantees study abroad to students now (at least that’s what I heard #jealousalumna). I didn’t study abroad while I 

was there. But I did apply for, and receive a grant that enabled me to live in the city over the summer and travel across the U.S. to study my thesis topic of human trafficking in the U.S. (with my friend and classmate, Addie), and another grant that I used to purchase a new laptop and the full Adobe Creative Suite (which I still use today for all of my design work).

The University of Richmond was not created with students of colors’ belonging in mind. It was created with our exclusion in mind. Then, under increasing societal pressure, our inclusion became a lesser of two evils; by the time I arrived on campus, our inclusion was a good look for the institution; and now, I believe our inclusion is developing into a more authentic and intentional commitment every year.

I was only able to be included in this community because my tuition was covered by two scholarships, and my room and board was paid between my income as a Resident Assistant and my parents and money my grandmother had saved for me in bonds from when I was born. Through scholarships and work opportunities, my university opened what would have been a locked door, and let me in.

I was included — and I’m really grateful for that, because it was incredibly growing and useful.

Now, what does any of that have to do with parents of color and the birth world?

In the birth world today, in my opinion and based on what I've seen we have a lot of spaces where parents of color feel physically safe, but mentally and ethically unsafe, or that they see as useful and inclusive, but very few spaces that they feel like they belong in.

I wanted to use my own experiences to frame this conversation because this issue really does come down to individual experience. 

We know generally that physical and mental danger triggers physical responses that can create negative health outcomes for folks. With such a large history of folks being mistreated in common health spaces like hospitals and clinics, it’s no wonder these cycles continue in these spaces. So what can we do to impact individuals experiences there?

We know anecdotally that when someone enters a space they feel included in, but not that they belong in — they may not experience that feeling of danger — but they’re still going to have a guard up, and not speak or be themselves as freely as they would otherwise. This reminds me of a story one of my favorite midwives, who’s a white woman, once told me about a patient of hers, who was a Black woman — the mother-to-be didn't talk much, at least not until she met her Black doula — she seemed like another person she was so engaged and connected! Does every POC parent need this? Certainly not, but when you’re in a city with no POC care providers at all… then you don't have an option to have it if it would help, do you? What can we do to impact individuals experiences here?

Now, when someone enters a space they feel they belong in, walls go down, and people experience positive health outcomes. Look at Jenny Joseph and Common Sense Childbirth! Women who received care at that black-owned and led midwifery center had lower pre-term birth and low birth weight rates compared to the averages in the county and state. At the Take Root conference a few weeks back, I heard more Black and Native and Latinx midwives and birth workers talk about the positive impact of having – in particular – POC-led spaces for birthing people in their communities, too.

Inclusion isn't bad. It isn't a dirty word. But it isn't the end all be all, either. It's a step that will fulfill the needs of some, but fall short for others. Creating authentic spaces where parents know they belong — this is the best practice we should all be working toward. We're already seeing the fruit, so let's keep going.