These Black Midwives Opened A South LA Facility With The Goal Of 'Empowered' Births
Nicole Hamad's infant son Amari was born at home with the help of midwives Kimberly Durdin and Allegra Hill in November.
"There are ways that you can labor so that you're not in excruciating pain and it worked," Hamad said. "Not once during my homebirth did I say that I want an epidural. I knew that I could do this."
It's an experience Durdin and Hill hope they can bring to more people with the opening of the Kindred Space LA birthing center — a unique birthing, education, and support facility owned and operated by Black midwives.
Black babies born in L.A. County are three times more likely than white babies to die before their first birthday, and Black moms are four times more likely than white moms to die of complications related to pregnancy and childbirth.
"Allegra and I haven't been comfortable just being like, 'Wow, that really sucks. All this terrible stuff is happening'," Durdin said. "We have literally pledged our lives at this moment to be a part of the solution."
'CREATING A SPACE WHERE FAMILIES COULD COME TO BIRTH'
Until last March, Kindred Space LA was based in a Ladera Heights office building. Hill and Durdin worked with clients who planned to give birth at home and offered in-person classes for pregnant women, parents, moms with young children, and birth workers.
The business model was based on "lots of people getting together and lots of hugging, lots of crying." None of which was safe during the pandemic.
"It was like the universe was telling us like our time there was done," Durdin said. "It was time for us to now focus on creating the space where families could come to birth."
Today, they offer services in a newly renovated building on Southwest Drive in Hyde Park. The L.A. County Department of Public Health identifies South L.A. as one of the areas with the highest rates of infant mortality in the region.
"I always knew this property as like, this building right before you get to the liquor store," Durdin said during a tour of the facility. "It wasn't very pretty on the outside at all."
Now, frosted glass doors open into rooms with exposed brick and tall wood-beam ceilings. In the birthing suite, clients can labor unrestricted, whether it's laying on a bed, standing, kneeling, submerged in a tub or in the shower.
The care Durdin and Hill offer often starts months before a baby's due date. An initial 90-minute meeting is scheduled to learn about their client's medical history, nutrition, hydration and any apprehensions. There are usually around 13 prenatal visits and four postpartum visits. Studies show midwifery care can improve outcomes for moms and babies.
"We're treating folks based on their individual needs and desires," Durdin said.
During labor, midwives sometimes compare themselves to lifeguards. They monitor mom and baby's vital signs and offer help when needed.
"We're not making a baby come out, that birthing individual is making the baby come out," Durdin said. "They're birthing, we're holding the space for their experience."
A birthing center was part of Kindred Space LA's long-term plan to make it more financially feasible to serve clients on Medi-Cal. In addition to paying providers for services, Medi-Cal also pays out a facility fee.
The fundraiser for Kindred Space LA's birthing center went live on Mother's Day, May 10, 2020. A few donations exceeded $1,000, but most are more modest gifts.
"I am a mother of color struggling with the adversity of being a single mother and a lost young adult," wrote one $10 donor in the comments of the GoFundMe. "I want to support the cultivation of a community with abundant love and care for every woman because everyone wants and need (sic) some type of support and security."
This is one of the basic ideas of reproductive justice, the belief that people have the right to their own bodies and must be able to have children in a safe and supportive environment.
"Part of opening a birth center isn't just about living out this dream of practicing midwifery in a beautiful space," said Kiki Jordan, a midwife based in Oakland. "It's also about 'How can I inspire my people to come and get this care? How can I make sure they see representation in their health care provider?'"
Kindred Space has set a fundraising goal of $300,000. It has raised almost $130,000 so far, which has funded the rental and renovation of the new building and helps pay for services for clients who might not otherwise afford them. The out-of-pocket cost for care is $6,000, with a sliding scale rate for clients with Medi-Cal until they're approved as a provider.
"This space doesn't really belong to us," Hill said. "It feels like it belongs to everybody. And we're constantly trying to figure out how to let our community benefit from this space."
When it's safe again, in-person classes that were forced to go online during the pandemic will meet in the light-filled 2,500-square-foot center.
In the yard out back, there's a towering, leathery-trunked prickly pear in the southwest corner dubbed Grandmother Cactus. Durdin envisions a garden where families can bring their children and birth workers can harvest herbs like nettles, red raspberry leaves and oatstraw.
"(We're) providing for the community in more ways than just catching the baby," Durdin said. "It's about making sure people have access to healthy food, making sure people can have access to herbs."
The tradition of midwifery precedes the founding of this country. It's a history that's sometimes lost given the relatively few Black midwives practicing today.
Keisha Goode, a New York City sociologist who's writing a book about Black midwifery, said less than 2% of the country's 15,000 midwives are Black.
One reason is that some early 20th Century doctors and public health officials labeled midwives as "dark, dirty, evil, ignorant, unfit, untrained and incompetent," in a bid to professionalize obstetrics, Goode wrote in her doctoral dissertation.
"They never went away," Goode said. "They were just systematically disenfranchised."
In addition to birthing babies, Kindred Space LA is helping grow the next generation of birth workers by supporting student midwives and leading doula training.
"They'll be able to come here and learn community-based care from midwives who look like them," Hill said.
'THE ABILITY TO CHOOSE'
In reporting this story, I talked to three women who either had or planned to have their baby with Kindred Space LA. All shared a desire to be seen and heard.
"Pregnancy was a very sacred time, a time where I felt like I should have the ability to choose how things are going," Natalie Gouché said. She's about six months pregnant and plans to birth at home.
Gouché's quick to point out that her current obstetrician is "incredible," but that hasn't always been the case with health care providers.
"I've certainly been in situations where my feelings were dismissed," Gouché said. "And I've been rushed into processes that I didn't want to be a part of."
Over time these experiences can erode people's trust in the health care system. In a series of focus groups organized by the nonprofit group First 5 LA, more than 100 Black women in L.A. County described cold, impersonal communication that didn't allow them to develop a relationship with providers or receive comprehensive information about their medical treatment.
After an uncomfortable experience at a hospital overseas early in her pregnancy, Nandi Zulu started looking for an alternative in Los Angeles. Her sister-in-law recommended Durdin and Hill.
"They're two Black powerful women, first of all, and I felt safe in their hands," Zulu said. They just kind of reminded me of my own mother."
In just about a month, Zulu plans to give birth to her first child, a son, at the birthing center with her husband and midwives at her side.
"I'm appreciative of the fact that I can have this sadly unique experience of giving birth in the way that is right for me and my baby," Zulu said.
In a 2016 survey of California mothers, women of color were more likely to say they were treated unfairly during birth and more than half said they'd be interested in midwifery care for future pregnancies.
On Saturday, I woke up to a text from Hill:
"...We had our first birth in the center yesterday! It was so lovely! There is officially a birth center in south la!"
Prior to the inaugural birth, the midwives had started to meet with clients at the center.
On a recent Friday, Nicole Hamad walked through the frosted glass doors into her last postpartum appointment.
The midwives asked about breastfeeding, family planning and mental health — whether she's talking to mom friends. In between the answers there was easy laughter between them.
Amari weighed in at 11 pounds, 8 ounces including his outfit — "pretty much perfect," Hill said.
Near the end of the appointment Hill asked Hamad for feedback.
"You guys are amazing," Hamad said. "I just felt really cared for."
Later in an interview, Hill said it's part of what they want for all their clients: "Feeling empowered in your birth is something that you carry with you forever."