Forward & Interview by Carolina Meurkens, Photography by Joana Meurkens
In Part Two of Mixed Mag’s Black Birth Worker Interview Series, we interviewed doula and health advocate Lea Jean- Francois. As I enter month seven of my pregnancy, I’m inspired more than ever to share the work of birth workers. Their dedication to maternal health advocacy is integral to helping birthing people across the country gain the knowledge and empowerment to overcome the hurdles of birthing in a broken health care system. I was personally inspired to hear about what the younger generation of Black birth workers are doing. With the rising rates of Black maternal mortality, it’s important more than ever that we continue to bring stories of birthing people and the people who support them to the forefront.
Tell me about yourself… where are you from/ where did you grow up? What’s your cultural background?
I was born on Staten Island, and grew up throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn and Staten Island. I come from a mixed background with half of my family coming from Haiti and the other half is European and Russian Jewish. In addition, I was also raised by a Puerto Rican family so there is a lot of Caribbean culture present while growing up and still today.
Can you tell me briefly about the work you do? What led you to become a doula?
In high school, which was made up of predominantly black and brown students, I worked closely with the health center as a peer advocate. Some of my peers were pregnant and at first I did not realize the treatment that my peers were receiving was anything out of the ordinary. It was a reality that I was so used to so it was hard to question what else it could be. But when I got to college, a predominantly white institution, and started to be involved in the science and medical field— I realized there are huge health disparities. The treatment my peers were experiencing through the birthing process was nothing like the treatment other women were getting at the hospitals associated with my university. It expressed in real time the privilege certain neighborhoods have that others may not even know about. So I became a doula because I was aggravated with a system that continuously failed POC and I value an integrative take on medicine. It’s important to advocate and support expecting mothers to experience a birth in the way that is for fulfilling for them, while challenging a healthcare system that often fails women in general during the birthing process. As a doula I hope to be a vessel for expecting mothers to hold the agency they always had.
How do you help destigmatize natural birth and help your clients embrace birth with joy?
I always want the client to tell me what they imagine their birth to look like and we take it from there. If a client wants a vaginal birth without interventions, I am happy to help her feel comfortable as much as possible through that. At the same time I totally respect if a vaginal birth without intervention isn’t for the client. I embrace the wishes of the client wholeheartedly. I also share all the resources, including statistics, that convey the rights the clients have access to when other medical professions step in. I hope to always have a conversation where the birthing person can share what their actual desires are despite what others have said, to see what is possible for the birth plan.
With the stark rate of Black maternal death rates in the U.S, can you speak on the importance of black midwives/ doulas… how do you view your role as a Black birth worker?
Black maternal death rates in the U.S is a scary truth that is not new, and neither is the value of Black birth workers. So often we see Black women having to support their own community as they’re the only ones showing up. The role Black birth workers play is crucial in creating a safe environment/ instilling change/support and more.
What are challenges you’ve faced as an individual…. What has your journey been like?
Challenges of being a doula for me have been in working towards redefining what care looks like within the health care system for WOC and those involved in the birthing process. The journey has been a lot of work surrounding education and trying to get resources on what a doula even is out there to communities, so the journey is continuous. But I am so full of joy when working with mothers and the doula community and I am endlessly grateful for that.
What challenges do your clients face?
My clients face the challenge of being seen in the healthcare system and having their voices heard. As a doula, I do not try or want to be the one speaking for my client, rather I want to uplift and advocate what the mother is trying to convey.
How does the work you do build community and honor ancestral lineages in Black birth working?
Redirecting whose voice is heard in the healthcare system honors Black women. Healing the extensive trauma the healthcare system has been a vessel for honors the ancestral lineage Black birth workers strive for.
Can you speak on the importance of mentorship? Who are some important figures in your journey or role models you look up to?
Mentorship in the doula world is crucial, and I give so much of my growth in this field towards other doulas. Endless advice, suggestions, motivational support, and a considerable amount more, it is a community filled with other people wanting you to do well to support mothers— that is just beautiful. Many of the important figures in my journey to the doula world were Women of Color. They’ve inspired me to be a doula and we continue to teach/ learn together.