The job titles and roles of activists may differ, but a good activist can be spotted by their passion and dedication to their work. Despite how time-consuming activism can be, it is not something many activists get into for recognition or notoriety. Most of us choose our paths of activism based on the impact we want to have or life sort of decides for us by placing us in social locations where the only path that makes sense is one of resistance. High levels of recognition are typically reserved for men, the wealthy, or those who have been doing this for so long that their fame is an accumulated fame. This blog series is not a remedy to this situation, but rather designed as a way to highlight activists and their justice work through brief interviews.
This installment is an interview with the Founder and Executive Director of Jamaa Birth Village, Brittany “Tru” Kellman. Responses were provided during a one-on-one phone interview, and this interview was reviewed and approved by Ms. Kellman prior to publication.
As the Founder and Executive Director of Jamaa Birth Village (formerly known as Community Birth and Wellness), can you explain how the organization developed?
The organization developed from years of envisioning a way to create a safe sacred space for Black women who wanted to receive authentic care during their pregnancy and childbirth journey from women who look like them; women who could understand where they’re coming from. The seed of this vision began with my first two births, which were cesarean section births for no other reason than it was convenient for my doctor. Both were traumatic experiences that resulted in me having severe postpartum depression and trust issues with healthcare professionals. The positive outcome was that these births challenged me to learn more about women’s health from a traditional African American perspective, which led me to the book Spiritual Midwifery by Ina May Gaskin. This book opened something inside of me. It enlightened me to learn more about women’s “traditional” health. There was only one Black woman in that book and her name was Sondra Abdullah. I admired her so much and carried her story around with me every day as I went deeper into understanding women’s birth and wellness. When my third pregnancy rolled around I was able to have a home-birth with a midwife. A Black midwife was not even an option, so it grew on my heart to make a change.
In 2013, I was invited to Ghana to learn from Sondra. I stayed a little over 4 months. My goal was to learn a traditional African perspective before I started school and got indoctrinated into the Western perspective of medicine. Two weeks before my return from Ghana I had a vision I would create a wellness center – a sacred space for women – where women could be empowered, be held, and be cared for by women who looked like them. My goal was to do an apprenticeship so that I could become a midwife once I returned to the US, but this didn’t happen right away, so I began to self-study and became a doula. I was turned down three times by local midwives in my attempt to become a midwife, so in August 2015 I created a GoFundMe and launched an entire campaign around bringing awareness to the fact that midwifery had been legal in Missouri for eight years but there was not a single Black midwife here. I spread awareness about home birth and other options and raised money for school. I applied to the Midwife College of Utah and for a scholarship. A month later, I received notice that I had become a recipient of the Brianna Blackwelder Equal Access Scholarship – a full scholarship to cover my entire degree, and I had been accepted to midwifery school.
From that point on the doors opened up and people wanted to work and partner with me. I met two local black doulas who wanted a mentor so I invited them under my wing. Together, we worked on expanding our reach. We invited midwives from the greater St. Louis area to speak to local women about their birthing and care options. One of those meetings resulted in an opportunity to partner with a midwifery organization that could help us create accessible and affordable midwifery care in the North St. Louis area where these services were nonexistent at the time. We formed the partnership and I moved ahead with my vision and created Jamaa Birth Village (formerly known as Community Birth and Wellness) as a 501(c)(3), where we provide equal access to midwifery and doula care, breastfeeding and postpartum support, clothing, and other resources to new parents. In January 2016 my home opened up as a midwifery clinic in Ferguson, Missouri, and women from the North St. Louis area began to come. It was at this time that I also became a student of the midwife who headed the midwife organization we had partnered with. After years of envisioning it and working towards it, I was finally able to provide care for women in my community and begin eliminating barriers to their care.
Over the last three years Jamaa Birth Village has transformed care in North St. Louis County. Since January 2016, within two years of having a dedicated space, we have served over 250 families in our region. In our current phase, the organization is preparing to operate as a midwifery practice, because I will graduate in 2019. We want to continue to provide educational classes and resources, which includes giving warm referrals.1
Could you speak more about the difficulties/obstacles you faced starting the organization?
Starting the organization was difficult because I had a vision and I’m a faithful person, but the other co-founders are more practical, so they had more doubt than I did. The midwifery partner organization was telling me not to start my own organization. They would say, “Let us hire you and you can be the face of the program,” but that screamed inauthenticity to me. I was maybe told five to six times not to start the organization, and that I could buy out the program created under them in five to ten years. I decided to compromise in a way that allowed me to stay faithful to my vision. I know this is my calling. I didn’t have a lot of money, and I didn’t want to wait three years for me to graduate – not with the high maternal and infant mortality rates in my community. I fought through those challenges, which kept coming up like weeds, and kept addressing them until I decided to stand firm on what I wanted to do. Other’s fears could no longer stand in my way. I continue to transform my vision and move forward.
Another issue was that I did not know the first thing about writing grants. This was a struggle for a while. It’s interesting because I’ve been an entrepreneur since 2007. I taught yoga, aromatherapy, and herbal classes so I knew how to manage a business; but none of this prepared me for how to write grants and compete with larger organizations for them!
How does your personal story tie into the work you do?
Well, I was 14 when I got pregnant, and 15 when I had my first son. I had no one encouraging me. The only person who didn’t judge me or make me feel ashamed and dirty was Ms. Manahan – my 7th grade math teacher. She made sure I had my homework. She bought my first car seat and made sure my baby had clothes. She could not be around or present at every turn I may have needed her because her relationship and role in my life was as my teacher. Outside of her I had no one; no mentor or role model. My mother was around but she didn’t teach me life skills or about my body. At the time, I lacked self-esteem, confidence, and self-love. My early romantic relationships were abusive, and now that I think back to that period of my life I can see how traumatic those years were for me.
If I had known about a doula or organizations like Jamaa Birth Village that could have countered those negative influences or provided services that would have ensured I had a provider who cared about me – and didn’t push practices on me because of what I looked like – my pregnancy and birthing experiences could have been different. That’s why once I learned about traditional birthing practices – and was able to give it to myself for my third birth – it all came together for me. I learned that there are more women out there like me; women who need the cycle broken for them too. I believe this is why I was called to do this work and why I want to ensure these services are available to people in my community.
What are the demographics of the population Jamaa Birth Village serves?
We will serve anybody but African American women and families are our target. Ages 15 through 40 is the window that we particularly work with. We chose to focus on this group because we realized there is a systemic cycle that places them at higher risk. They tend to have their babies prematurely, at low birth weights, and their babies are most likely not to make it to their first birthday. Even the women themselves are three to five times more likely to die than white women, just for getting pregnant.
Since the organization has been up and running there have been no Black midwives to refer these pregnant people to, which is really an issue for the care we want to offer. We know that these women are at higher risk because of implicit bias and racism, so we want to make sure the caretakers we offer and refer people to are culturally competent, authentic, and look like their patients. We continue to work toward that goal of increasing Black healthcare workers because we want to break the cycle these people find themselves in by providing adequate care and support.
Can you explain in more detail the services your organization provide?
We provide midwifery referral care, which means we do an intake of the client to understand their needs and preferences. We take their demographics into consideration – so where they live and if they have insurance – and then match them with a midwife who meets their needs the best. That service prevents those who have a hard time finding someone from having late to no prenatal care; and that is if they do not give up and settle for a provider who may not provide the best care. We provide doula care services. Our doulas act as support people who provide personal, mental, emotional, and educational care to the mother and family throughout the perinatal period. Our doulas support women in medicated and un-medicated birth and support them in all birth settings and are also able to accept Medicaid if it’s a high risk mother. Most of the time they work on a sliding fee scale base. For unemployed mothers we offer scholarships to cover the cost of their doula.
Our organization offers breastfeeding support, which consists of educating moms during pregnancy and providing her with nursing bras, covers, pumps, bottles, pillows, and in-person and over the phone support post birth and throughout the duration of breastfeeding time. We also have breastfeeding support circles once a month at the center. We offer postpartum support, which means we link the mom up with a peer support person for up to five years. Parents have someone they can text or call to help them navigate parenthood. We also have a postpartum support circle twice a month. We offer childbirth education in the form of a culturally-based childbirth education class where we discuss the last phases of pregnancy through birth, and common techniques in birth, to better prepare parents on what to expect during the postpartum period. This class is sliding-scale fee based, but we also offer scholarships as funding allows.
There is also our mother-baby closet – a donation closet where we make sure every parent gets diapers, wipes, clothes, and bigger items like car seats and cribs or bassinets. Our closet is a way for parents to access items that help ensure their babies have a healthy start in life. We offer free pregnancy testing. There is also a way for low risk women to rent water birth kits, and the cost to them depends on what they can afford.
You are currently a student midwife. What will becoming a midwife mean for you and the organization?
I don’t want to sound corny, but it would be my biggest accomplishment, besides birthing my children. Growing up I was always told that I would never be able to accomplish anything this big because that was for other people, but the creator gave me this gift, the passion, and this drive. I will have stuck with it and completed this accomplishment against all adversity. I would feel triumphant. As for the organization, it would mean that we’ve accomplished our goal to be self-sustainable, reflect the community, and have someone from and in the community working here. It would mean authentic and genuine care for people with low risk pregnancies, which would prevent them from having to go into high risk environments in order to receive care.
Do you have any advice for others who may want to create an organization similar to Jamaa Birth Village?
First, make sure it’s your passion so that you can tough through any obstacles you encounter as you gain experience and continue your education. Second, make sure you have an outward mindset (the ability to see beyond yourself) to carry your care and program for underserved populations. There is no room for big egos and trophy mentalities in non-profit work geared toward serving marginalized communities. Third, collaborate with leaders, people, and organizations that share your outward mindset and culturally sensitive mentality and who wish to support and further your initiatives.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I would like to be remembered as the teen mom who rose up from and through every obstacle and challenge that a racist and inward thinking society could throw at her. Perhaps, I could be known as someone who worked to end unethical and biased healthcare experiences for women who are so often discarded by healthcare professionals; as a pioneer for saving and nourishing black lives through pregnancy and birth, which is rooted in my unwavering determination and strength from my ancestral lineage.
Brittany “Tru” Kellman is a Women’s Health Holistic Practitioner with certifications as a Aromatherapist, Reiki Healer and Yoga instructor. Since 2008, she’s traveled around the world sharing her gifts of natural health and the path to an empowered birth. In 2015, she became a Perinatal Health provider (Doula, Childbirth Educator, Sexual and Reproductive Health Counselor and Breastfeeding Peer Counselor), Certified Lactation Counselor (CLC), Doula Educator and American Heart Association instructor. She is currently a student of Midwifery working toward the Certified Professional Midwife (CPM) credential through the Midwives College of Utah, in which she’s set to graduate in 2019. She is also the Founder and Executive Director of Jamaa Birth Village, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing accessible and affordable midwifery and doula care for marginalized communities and people of color. She currently resides in Ferguson, Mo. in the greater St. Louis area with her wife and three boys. In her spare time she enjoys reading books, hiking and camping, and exploring libraries and bookstore cafe’s. Her career goals are to ensure that the St. Louis area has a comprehensive birthing village to support people of color, normalizing breastfeeding and empowered births, while restoring the health of St. Louis urban families one birth at a time.
- A warm referral is when one provider contacts another provider and speaks with them about your needs, and then connects the client and the recommended provider. When dealing with vulnerable populations, warm referrals results in more clients continuing their care. A cold referral looks like informing a client and them following-up on their own.