My Oral History Internship with Ancient Song Doula Services: A Weekly Encounter with Reproductive Justice

Nicole JeanBaptiste writes of her experiences as a doula and a current OHMA student.

I am a Master’s degree student in Columbia University’s Oral History MA Program.  I also happen to be a doula. A doula is a nonmedical person who assists a woman before, during, or after childbirth, as well as her spouse and/or family, by providing physical assistance and emotional support.  

I’m stating these two facts in hopes that they’ll serve as useful information behind why I’ve chosen to conduct my Master’s thesis work on the evolution of birthing practices among women of African descent over the last four generations.  Clearly, it’s a topic near and dear to me.  Thus, when presented with the option to intern with a New York City based organization for my work in the Oral History program, I thought it was a great opportunity to do some further work with Bedford-Stuyvesant community based organization, Ancient Song Doula Services.  Earlier this year I participated in a truly life altering doula training led by Ancient Song and learned that its Founder and Executive Director, Chanel Porchia-Albert, also known as Jasira Sauda, had an idea for a book that sounded like it needed some oral historian love.  I reached out.  She reached back.  And so the Fall 2014 internship alliance between myself and ASDS commenced.

I must say that each experience at the ASDS office, which is located in Brooklyn’s historic Stuyvesant Mansion, was like witnessing reproductive justice being served.  In an interview I conducted with Chanel in mid-November she described reproductive justice as “anytime someone makes an informed decision about the care that they’re receiving…because [they] are not relinquishing [their] voice or body to someone else’s current position.” Pregnant women would walk into the office, sometimes with an appointment, other times not and Chanel always made time to speak with each mother. The questions ranged from “What do you suspect this rash I’ve developed could be, and should I take the pills the doctor prescribed me even though she didn’t bother to have a look at the rash?” to “Sis, can I deliver my baby here in your office?”  Did I mention that Chanel ALWAYS made time for every mother who walked through ASDS’ doors? Needless to say she kept busy and I certainly felt the effects of her busy life as a mother, community doula, executive director and activist when I waited around during one of the first few weeks of my internship to get an official oral history interview with her.  I waited a good seven hours before we got the audio and video recorders rolling once the office was clear of clients and visitors.  Here’s what the set-up looked like:

It wasn’t long, however, before I took down this set-up.  About ten minutes into our interview, Chanel’s three beautiful daughters strolled in—to stay.  That was my cue to reschedule.  And so we did for the very next day.  Although that second interview was only audio recorded and picked up the suckling sounds of a nearby nursing six month old, it was well worth the wait.  My theories about Chanel’s pure dopeness were proven in that interview.  In it, she shared wonderfully moving stories of her childhood, memories of her late mother, and the day in Union Square when she learned that Black midwives still existed because she actually met one.

I learned a great deal from my internship with Ancient Song Doula Services this Fall.  One lesson that I’ll walk with is that oral history is a process.  Time and patience are imperative.  The other is that real movements move.  I was able to witness the makings and motions of the reproductive justice movement on a constant basis from a grassroots, community based organization in Brooklyn.

For more information on Ancient Song Doula Services, visit their website.

For a report released in October by Choices in Childbirth on Doula Care in NYC, click here.

Below is an infographic on the impacts of and need for doula care in NYC: