Known as one of the mothers of reproductive justice, Loretta Ross asserted in her 2017 book, Reproductive Justice: An Introduction, that not only do Black women need access to abortion, “we also needed health care, education, jobs, daycare, and the right to motherhood.”
Ross was one of 12 Black women who gathered in June 1994 to create a reproductive justice framework, which addresses the impacts of issues like race, class, or sexuality on the reproductive lives of individuals from marginalized groups. Following in their footsteps decades later are the leaders of a Brooklyn, New York-based doula collective, Ancient Song, which has been providing resources for pregnant people and parents and addressing the health inequities in communities of color since 2008.
In New York, Black women are approximately three times more likely to die during childbirth than white women, while the infant mortality rate for Black babies is also nearly three times the rate for white babies, according to the latest data.
Rewire.News sat down with Chanel Porchia-Albert, a full-spectrum doula, reproductive health advocate, and Ancient Song founder to discuss their work to combat the country’s devastating Black maternal mortality and morbidity crisis, reproductive justice praxis, and following in radical Black traditions of community care and teach-ins. The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Rewire.News: How did Ancient Song come to be? What was your own background in reproductive justice prior and leading up to the group’s formation?
Chanel Porchia-Albert: Ancient Song came into fruition based on my own birthing experience. Prior to having children, I had happened upon a natural birth expo maybe two years prior. I was like, wow, this is really great to see all this information, but all of the people that were there were predominantly white. Then I happened upon a Black midwife and a doula, and I got their information. I kept it and held on to it, and then when I became pregnant, after seeking out care from a woman of color OB/GYN and not liking the care, I remembered I had this info. I reached out and connected with the doula and the midwife, and it was amazing. It totally just shifted my entire perspective on how I felt about my own reproductive health. I took a doula training and the rest is kind of history.
But prior to that, I had a lot of Black women I knew who were on birth control and ended up developing fibroids. I had a myomectomy and was told I couldn’t have children or I would have a huge difficulty trying to have children. From that, I became a vegan, changed my diet, and my overall lifestyle habits—six children later.
Rewire.News: Yes, I saw your post this morning. Beautiful children!
CPA: Oh, thank you.
Rewire.News: You said that having the Black doula and midwife on your birth journey was life-changing. Can you go into more details as to what they did differently from your previous OB/GYN?
CPA: They listened, they saw me, they saw who I was. It wasn’t just about them taking care of my body—it was about nurturing my soul and helping to usher me into this new role of being a parent. They took time out to hear me, and they gave me choice. I was never told, “you have to do this” or “you have to do that.”
I was guided through the process. I was able to make decisions about my body in a way that felt good to me, especially with me being a vegan and some procedures I didn’t want done. My midwife was like, “OK, we don’t have to do that; there are other ways to do things.” She was just very gentle and loving. Her name is Memaniye Cinque of Dyekora Sumda Midwifery. She was also my mentor. She is a home birth midwife who has helped to usher a lot of children into this world but who has also changed the lives of individuals who are birthworkers as well.
Rewire.News: I’ve been following midwife Katy McFadden’s #Equity4Downstate campaign to secure funding for SUNY Downstate Medical Center, a Brooklyn hospital in a predominantly Black neighborhood with high maternal and infant mortality rates. I understand that Ancient Song has been helpful in providing community space to conduct teach-ins on the issue. How do you view teach-ins as part of the broader reproductive justice work?
CPA: I think about it like this: It’s not like people don’t want to be involved. It’s when your attention is in survival mode, and you’re thinking about your day-to-day life, you don’t necessarily have time to think about, “How can I get involved in a particular area or situation around my reproductive health,” or any other type of issue. The teach-ins act as a way for folks to be educated or stay informed and understand the things that are happening around them, so that they can feel safe and secure in advocating for themselves and advocating for their families when the time comes.
Rewire.News: Why do you feel like maternal mortality has been such a devastating issue that’s directly impacting the community you serve?
CPA: Why do I think there’s this problem? It’s racial oppression. I think that if we are to look at the historical context of people of African descent in America and our relationship to the health-care system, Black people historically didn’t have access to health care within the context of institutional care. There were midwives and healers within the communities, and that was their source of strength, because of their relationship to the health-care system. As well as the consistent commodification of the body and forced sterilizations of Black and brown people throughout the history of the United States. You have these different instances where our bodies have specifically been used as tools to advance science, but are never shown the love and the care and the decency and the human respect and dignity that we deserve.
So there’s an intergenerational fear of the hospital system. There is an educational system within the institutional framework of medical doctors and nurses that is based on a racial system that was created in order to elevate one group of people over another.
Rewire.News: How has Ancient Song been on the front lines of the Black maternal mortality crisis?
CPA: Since our induction—we started in my house and my living room—it started from listening to the stories of individuals and hearing them over a good plate of food; let people know that there was somebody there that actually cared about them. Since then, we have incorporated programs to center folks and the needs of the community: in particular, Black and Brown folks, [folks from] immigrant communities [such as] those who are undocumented, those who are otherwise considered to be within the margins.
We don’t turn anybody away for lack of ability to afford to pay. We really value the fact that there are other forms of payments and barter systems. We want people to know that everybody, every person, every individual, every human being is valued, and there should be no reason why you shouldn’t be able to get the things that you need so that you can come out of survival mode so that you can thrive. Ancient Song provides full-spectrum doula services and educational classes. We have a donation closet where we give away strollers, diapers, clothing emergency, formula, anything if needed.
Rewire.News: How do you envision the future for Ancient Song and the reproductive justice movement as a whole?
CPA: My vision for Ancient Song is to continue to be a catalyst for change for individuals and a hub for communities, not just in New York but throughout the country and internationally. Be where folks can come and learn, and also take us into a new decade of what does it mean to incorporate movement building and shifting the culture of care and the ways in which we look at ourselves, the way we access health-care services.
I want to see Black and brown people having the tools that they need to be able to engage within the health-care system in a way that affirms them. But also understanding that I want to see us build our own infrastructures where we are supported in a way that makes us feel good, when we’re no longer surviving but we’re thriving. That’s my vision for Ancient Song—to see us move into a future that encompasses the understanding that human connection is an essential key to anything, and really shifting the culture of being in humanity with one another, within health care, but also branching out in other things we do in our lives.
In terms of RJ, I see families; I see a movement; I see hope; I see sustainability, transformation, and accountability.