At This Women Of Color-Run Texas Clinic, Low-Income Mamis-To-Be Receive Free Pregnancy And Birth Support

credit: (Courtesy of Cindy Elizabeth)
(Courtesy of Cindy Elizabeth)

Pregnancy can be one of the most intimate and transformative experiences in someone’s life. But for many low-income women of color, outside factors, like the bureaucratic hoops they have to jump through to attain government assistance, could make it one of frustration, stress and trauma. In Austin, Texas, Mama Sana Vibrant Woman helps ease the hurdles and empower Black and Latina women by offering them free pregnancy and birth support.

The nonprofit organization, which includes wellness clinics, offers expectant mothers culturally-specific assistance, like support groups, exercise classes, nutritional help, acupuncture, meditation, access to doulas and a network of midwives, as well as education on topics like prenatal care, labor positions, comfort measures and overcoming fears — all at no cost.

Beyond offering health services, the founders, all women of color who have dealt with oppressive and discriminatory systems during their own pregnancies or early child-rearing years, aim to offer a holistic approach that includes the emotional wellbeing of mothers. They hope to educate and empower women so that they know their options during the pregnancy and postpartum stages of their lives and are equipped to advocate for themselves and one another.

“For us, it was about building power to really impact how they feel about themselves and how they feel about their children and community,” Kellee Coleman, who co-founded the organization in 2012, said at a recent panel.

Mama Sana Vibrant Woman began with an all-volunteer collective of Black and Latina mothers known as Mamas of Color Rising that formed in 2008. The women all faced challenges, ranging from difficulty acquiring and maintaining Medicaid for themselves and their children to barriers in receiving and keeping food stamps and affordable housing, and wondered if their struggles weren’t unique.

(Courtesy of Mama Sana Vibrant Woman)

Their fears that the issues they experienced were widespread were confirmed by a community survey.

“We sat at various welfare centers, WIC offices and public schools during times that mothers were waiting and approached them with our community survey,” Paula X. Rojas, a member of the subgroup of Mamas of Color Rising that launched Mama Sana Vibrant Woman, told FIERCE. “We found a pattern of mothers of color facing discrimination, lack of autonomy or decision-making power during pregnancy and birth.”

The 100-plus mothers surveyed expressed feelings of alienation and disempowerment that set off chain reactions that affected them throughout parenthood.

“From there, we identified that working toward ‘birthing justice’ could serve as a key point of community intervention to address what we began to call the ‘womb-to-prison pipeline,’” she said. “We spent the following few years building collective power and organizing to make systemic change to address this form of injustice.”

According to Mama Sana Vibrant Woman, the womb-to-prison pipeline is described as children of color who are more likely to eventually end up behind bars due to social injustices and issues of inequality. The pipeline is typically described as school-to-prison, but Rojas said this can start as early as in the womb if mothers are at a disadvantage to provide their children much-needed resources.

(Courtesy of Mama Sana Vibrant Woman)

In addition to their services, the group also challenges the womb-to-prison pipeline through political advocacy. In 2012, for instance, the collective successfully advocated for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to make a “rules change” to add licensed midwives as healthcare providers under Texas Medicaid. They were disheartened, however, when most local providers chose not to implement the change, which would’ve given mothers of color an alternative option for their prenatal and labor/delivery care.  

On Thursday, Rojas, along with founders Coleman and Jeanette Monsalve, led a panel where they discussed the power of community to create change at What’s the Fix, a health care conference presented by HealthSparq and the Design Institute for Health at Dell Medical School.

“[Paula] went from being insured and treated in a nice way and having access to a clinic that was quick and inviting to, ‘Oh, you’re going to the Medicaid clinic now,’” Coleman said during the panel. “It was like night and day. The walls were gray and the people weren’t kind.”

At Mama Sana Vibrant Woman, women can either walk in or make an appointment at a wellness clinic offered one Saturday every month. The ambiance is inviting and welcoming, reminiscent of a spa, with soft music playing in the background and complimentary tea and snacks.

Women can meet with Rojas, a licensed midwife, or another midwife, who also serves as a registered nurse and nurse practitioner. Additionally, they can visit with an acupuncturist, homeopathy specialist or prenatal massage therapist.

 

(Courtesy of Mama Sana Vibrant Woman)

“These are things we know really help people maintain their health during pregnancy but are not accessible to low-income people,” Rojas said.

Women can even join a prenatal or postpartum group, which offers interactive workshops and complimentary childcare. A complete meal is served before the meetings start and each session finishes off with an exercise, typically yoga. The workout aims to help mothers manage stress while keeping their bodies healthy and ready for birth.

Complete sessions are offered in two-hour blocks, with transportation provided to those in need.  

Mothers can also take part in childbirth preparation training.

“This normally would cost hundreds of dollars for someone to get ready for birth pain. Mothers learn management techniques, position, breathing, knowing what to expect in hospital and what to prepare yourself for; know your rights and that of your partner’s if you have one,” Rojas said.

(Courtesy of Mama Sana Vibrant Woman)

Mothers can register for the groups in 16-week cycles, with classes occurring every other week. Each one is offered in Pflugerville, a suburb northeast of Austin, as well as in southeast and central east Austin, and they are available in both Spanish and English.

“I think it’s too soon to tell if we’re going to fully move the needle on what it will take as far as infant or mother mortality rates, but we’ve already seen improvement in initiation and continuation of breastfeeding and healthy birth weights,” Rojas said.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment is giving mothers a feeling of safety and support, allowing them to let their guard down.

“When you’re pregnant, you’re supposed to let others care for you. When you have to be on the defensive, it really creates a situation that exacerbates chronic stress,” she said.

Read: How Racism And Xenophobia Harm Latinas’ Reproductive Health

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