Social profit works to normalize birth and breastfeeding

Porchia-Albert teaches an ASDS doula training at Freebrook Spaces in Brooklyn, NY.

Attention: If you had your doubts about women doing it all, I’ve found one who can. She’s a mother of four all under the age of four and simultaneously, she is saving the world.

She talks about her accomplishments as though they’re effortless, like her benevolence is a simple expectation.

In Fall 2008 this wonder woman I speak of, Chanel Porchia-Albert, founded Ancient Song Doula Services (ASDS), a social profit organization offering free and low cost doula services mainly to teens and women of color residing in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx.

History behind services

Here’s the organization’s start up story: Porchia-Albert, a broker at the time, walked through a birth expo on her way home through Union Square. Not intending to have children at this point in her life, she gathered information to pass onto pregnant friends and acquaintances. She stuck the information in a tupperware bin where it sat for two years until she became pregnant with her eldest son. Having saved the birth expo’s handouts, she was able to find a doula and midwife to assist her in her son’s home birth.

Porchia-Albert says it was a lovely experience. She says her family tells her she sang an ancient-sounding song throughout her labor, one women have been singing for years, which is, by the way, where the name of her organization comes from.

However lovely, Porchia-Albert was concerned about the many women who cannot afford a birthing experience like hers. Novice, New York City doulas can charge between $600 and $2,000 Porchia-Albert says.

So she put out a call on a listserv reporting she would host a doula service and a great group of women showed up she says.

Since then, ASDS has been working to lower the U.S. infant and maternal mortality rate through educating and empowering women in their birthing experiences.

Empowerment through knowledge

Wondering exactly what empowerment means to Porchia-Albert, I ask.

“Knowing the cause and effect of your actions, continuing your search for information and making logical decisions based on that information,” she answers.

Porchia-Albert says that because her doulas volunteer, some come and some go.

“But the volunteers do more than volunteering,” she says.

Strength in community

Women gather for doula training at Freebrook Spaces in Brooklyn, NY.

She calls it community building.

“We live in a society where you are expected to be an individual, but community is something that is needed as well,” she explains.

In an increasingly technological world, Porchia-Albert says online communities are great for sharing resources but adds that things like Facebook groups should be supplemented with women physically coming together.

ASDS tries to offer their doulas a stipend as certain births can occur over days. But even when they aren’t paid for their services, Porchia-Albert says some doulas use their own money to supply families with what they need.

In fact, Porchia-Albert recounts a time she stocked a family’s refrigerator and scrubbed their bathroom to prepare for a birth.

If that isn’t commitment, I don’t know what is.

“We made it work. They just needed a little help and a little guidance,” she says gently.

ASDS does more than a “little.”

Services provided

Doula services are always free for 12 to 19 year olds.

“No matter what,” Porchia-Albert concludes.

Beyond 19 years of age, doula fees are income based.

A variety of doula services including grief, pregnancy loss, labor and postpartum are offered through ASDS.

ASDS works to support teens’ health and well being.  The organization is not involved in any pregnancy prevention projects. Instead, they educate teens and women in general about their bodies so they can make informed choices about sexual activity and reproduction.

“It’s the responsibility of the women who do know to share that information,” Porchia-Albert explains.

Additionally, Porchia-Albert developed a labor and postpartum certification which primarily focuses on women of color but also advocates for reproductive justice in general. The certification is an eight week course offering in depth training on medical aspects of birth but also cultural competency for easier transition into actual practice.

Porchia-Albert explains, “sometimes we…do [doula] training and then think, now what?”

She says this certification really demonstrates how to go out and do the work.

Extending services

Porchia-Albert (left) poses with supporters at 2012 National Rally for Improving Birth NYC.

ASDS extends services to Ethiopian Women’s Prison. At the end of the year, they donate a barrel of leftover, previously donated clothes to the mothers and children born during their incarceration.

ASDS is also a member of the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood. Porchia-Albert says she read about its mission and knew she wanted to support their action to save the lives of women and children.

“Why do women of color and their babies continue to die even in our world of scientific advancement?” Porchia-Albert asks almost angrily. “It’s either a disconnect with the system or an environmental issue that causes us to be affected in ways that other moms aren’t.”

Continuing her mission to empower women and more importantly, save their lives, Porchia-Albert created Doulas for Change which hosts discussions and webinars that address cultural and spiritual beliefs in relation to birth.

It’s a “think-outside-of-the-box” doula training.

“Not every woman is the same and not every technique is going to work the same for each of us,” Porchia-Albert suggests so cogently.

She explains that racism affects what access colored women have to pregnancy, birthing and mothering resources.

She notes, “This is about all races coming together and just making it work.”

CLC training makes a difference

When asked about becoming certified as a Lactation Counselor, Porchia-Albert says her training allows her to offer even more guidance concerning breastfeeding’s importance.

“I’m able to really talk to women of color more in depth about what it means to breastfeed as opposed to allowing women to fall into the saturated, preconceived ideas of what the journey of motherhood entails,” she says.

Porchia-Albert explains this told journey like this: get pregnant, go into the hospital, listen to what they tell you, get excited about getting free stuff (like formula), bottle feed.

Porchia-Albert doesn’t have a particular aversion to artificial feeding, but she says that it shouldn’t be a first option. Her CLC training has allowed her to talk about the risks of formula feeding and help women realize the long term effects artificial feeding can have on herself and her baby she says.

CLC training has offered Porchia-Albert a certain consciousness concerning consumerism as well.

“Boy, everything is based on being a consumer,” she sighs. “As women, we have been blessed with being able to feed our babies without needing extra tools.”

Porchia-Albert agrees that there is a place for infant paraphernalia. For example, nipple shields might assist a baby born prematurely.

But for the new mom who walks into Target completely overwhelmed and spends hundreds of dollars on stuff just because it’s being marketed to her and she thinks she needs it…Porchia-Albert chuckles at this scenario.

She makes clear the distinction between the things we need and the things we think we need.

“All you need are breast pads so you don’t leak all over,” she jokes.

Consider the client

When working with clients, Porchia-Albert remembers to consider each unique situation.

“You can’t tell someone to buy a $300 pump when they don’t have the means to do so,” she says. “It isn’t their reality.”

Another important thing that she reminds us is that “it doesn’t cost anyone anything to ask a question.”

So I continue on my search for her knowledge.

Opposition and realism

Porchia-Albert (right) poses with supporters at Miles for Midwives event.

While ASDS has helped 107 women and counting since its founding, why do so many others oppose traditional birthing options?

Fear and lack of knowledge Porchia-Albert answers.

“Our vision of birth is what we see on TV,” she says.

We joke about the ridiculous portrayals on networks like TLC and agree that things like women not knowing they are pregnant is ridiculous. Because of this television eruption of water breaking, huffing and puffing, writhing and epidural-ing, Porchia-Albert has been asked if she’s in a cult and has been called things like Granola Mom because her experiences don’t resemble those on A Baby Story.

I wondered what her opinion is on the trend of elective c-sections and the occasional tummy tuck immediately after delivery.

“When people have the money to do things, they do it just because they have the money,” she responds. “They don’t understand what they’re putting their bodies through.”

However if women make conscious decisions and are willing to deal with the ramifications of an elective surgery, she supports that choice.

But she adds, “When you do that and it influences a community and they think they have to live up to a lifestyle and can’t; they are seen as less than. No one should be made to felt inadequate.”

Potential solutions

Porchia-Albert suggests obstetricians receive co-training with midwives so they better appreciate what the “natural” birth model looks like and so that they can make educated decisions about their patients.

Porchia-Albert tells me about a book called Sacred Woman by Queen Afua. It’s about women getting in tune with ourselves.

“Our wombs bring forth life so we should cherish them, love them, talk to them. Ask her: How are you doing today? If you’re good, I’m good!” Porchia-Albert playfully role plays.

I wonder, why shouldn’t we when men talk to their penises? Our life bearing organs deserve that kind of respect and attention too!

More community involvement

2012 National Rally for Improving Birth NYC.

On Labor Day, ASDS participated in the National Improving Birth Rally. Porchia-Albert says their turnout wasn’t bad.

“As long as we reached one person, we’ve met a goal,” she says. “It has a greater impact than doing nothing at all. People will criticize you; they can criticize until the sun comes up.”

But then she asks, “What are you doing to make a change? I’m tired of people talking. Just do it. Let’s brainstorm. Let’s make it work.”

ASDS somewhat recently participated in Miles for Midwives to support NYC metro area midwives.

“We try to support as much as possible, but sometimes it’s difficult when you’re entrenched in your own communities,” Porchia-Albert admits.

I reassure her that ASDS’ efforts are abundant.

Next year, ASDS plans to host a birth expo called “Take Back Birth.”

For more information about Ancient Song Doula Services visit its website or Facebook page.

Photos retrieved from ASDS Facebook page with permission from Chanel Porchia-Albert.

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