The third Doula Expo by Mama Glow returns this weekend, May 20-21, at Hudson Yards in New York City. Coined “Coachella for birth workers and families,” the Doula Expo is an annual culture-shifting festival that caters to birth professionals and mamas (and their broods) and centers a vision for the future of birth work. Mama Glow Founder Latham Thomas (one of Oprah’s Super Soul 100) will be joined by actress and maternal health advocate Tatyana Ali, who will be the festival’s emcee, with music provided by DJ Rashida. For expectant mothers and families, The Doula Expo is a safe space where participants can access resources, meet practitioners, and experience products and services from brands and organizations in the maternal and infant health spaces. Additionally, attendees will be able to learn from leading industry experts, make new connections, expand their birth village and be empowered.
Thomas wanted to create the Doula Expo to center the discussion of Black women’s birthing experiences. She wanted to do this while creating a community. “The Doula Expo is the first and only event of its kind centering and celebrating a vision for the future of birth work. This is our third festival in two years. We started in Bushwick, Brooklyn, in a 6,000-square-foot space, where we hosted 400 attendees, then grew into a 16,000-square-foot space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and we are hosting the 2023 Doula Expo in a 60,000-square-foot space in Hudson Yards, Manhattan. The Doula Expo was born out of a need to gather community post-Covid-19. We wanted to bring together folks from the birth community, caregivers, and families impacted by the pandemic,” she says to ESSENCE.
Thomas continues, “There is a nationwide imperative to expand the doula workforce as a response to the current maternal health crisis in the U.S. We believe in centering the power of community, imagination, joy, and unique problem-solving as we work together to design a future where birth is safe, affordable, and equitable. This event elevates important conversations and convenes people from all walks of life and industry with the desire to improve maternal health outcomes.”
For birth professionals, including doulas and care providers, The Doula Expo is an opportunity to convene with peers and industry leaders, develop authentic connections, and build community with other birth professionals. The festival is designed to help participants amplify their work, connect with organizations, and grow their businesses.
This year’s theme is “Birth to the Future,” as the Mama Glow community is leaning into principles and thought leadership that explores the imagination, hope, and futuristic possibilities for reproductive justice and birth equity, amid the bleak and harrowing maternal mortality crisis statistics as Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women, according to the CDC. Aside from that, many Black mothers report not feeling heard by their providers, including during delivery. Unfortunately, the festival’s emcee, Ali, had that experience with the traumatic birth of her first son. In her heartfelt 2020 ESSENCE essay, she recounted her birthing story and called out the patriarchal behavior and views that allow other Black mothers’ stories to be hidden, dismissed, and ignored.
Ali believes the Doula Expo can empower mothers to be transparent about their birth stories, whether harrowing or not. “We’ll all be together for a common cause, to ask questions, to learn. The reason it’s important to share our stories is for healing. It’s also important to share our stories because it’s not our shame to carry whatever our stories are. We can learn from each other,” she says.
Thomas shares a similar sentiment. “It’s important to have a festival like this because birth is sacred and should be celebrated. Black mothers and birthing people deserve to feel joy. They should be looking forward to their birth and not hold a fear that something may happen to them. The Doula Expo is a reminder that we matter—Black joy matters. Black birth matters,” she states.
Ahead of the festival, we sat down with Ali to chat about the importance of birth equity, her activism work amid the maternal mortality crisis, and how all mothers can reclaim their joy.
ESSENCE: What does it mean to you to host the Doula Expo?
Tatyana Ali: I’ve known Latham Thomas, the founder of Mama Glow, for many years and she’s a dear friend. The work she’s doing with her nonprofit is incredible and important. After the first traumatic birthing experience that I’ve had, and after also having the most incredible experience working with a Black midwife and people in the reproductive justice movement, I want to do anything and everything that I can to help build spaces where we are safe, where we are sharing information, sharing our stories, and where our families can be, you know, exposed to maternity care workers who will give us what we need.
A part of your ESSENCE essay that I enjoyed was how you spoke to the importance of demystifying the mystery of what’s happening in our community regarding the maternal mortality rates. I think this festival will help bring more bonding opportunities for black women and mothers and the needed visibility of what’s happening in our community.
Yes, absolutely. We want to show that it’s happening in silence and that the world is listening, watching, and seeing how we will fix this. Also, there are real, tangible ways to make things better for all of us to end maternity care deserts in our country and be able to report disrespect and abuses in our hospitals. The Momnibus bill hasn’t been passed in its entirety yet, and if we all come together as Black women and decide that this bill will be passed completely, it will. We deserve to be joyful and have the biggest, brightest hopes and dreams for our children and our own birth experiences. You know, not only is a baby born on that day, a mother is born too. We need our power to go into this world and be moms; nobody can take that power away from us.
The theme of the expo, “Birth to the Future,” focuses on imagination, hope, and possibilities for reproductive justice and birth equity; how can we, as Black women, begin to hope for a better tomorrow when it comes to birth equity amid glaring death statistics?
A huge part of it is this Momnibus bill. This legislation was created with Black birth workers and advocates at the table with the Black Maternal Health Caucus. The bill addresses environmental concerns, continual coverage, Medicaid coverage through pregnancy, birth, and the postpartum period, and lactation consulting. Being able to imagine a future while also saying, “What do you imagine for yourself? What do you want your birth experience to be like? Where do you want to do it? Do you want a birth center? Do you want a hospital? Do you want to be at home?” Having a midwife for a long time was really for middle class white women, but we have all these options too, so how do we make them available? There’s so much work being done. And it’s right there. We’re right there at the precipice of changing it.
As you know, midwifery isn’t new in our Black community, but unfortunately, at times, it’s now considered taboo or not the preferred choice of care. We’re seeing the effects of the maternal mortality crisis on Black women and mothers; how important is it that we go back to our roots?
Let me tell you something. I worked with an incredible Black midwife for the birth of my second son. I did not have one need that was not unmet. There was no choice that I was not given. And I was given those choices by my midwife. She asked every time she touched and measured my belly. My autonomy was completely respected. She got to know my family; she knew my oldest son. It’s an incredible experience to be cared for by somebody who looks at you and sees themselves, to be loved on, to be touched with loving hands. It is it’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Knowing our history is important too. And there’s a reason that some of us have funny feelings about Black midwives, Black doulas, or Black women caring for us. There are historical reasons that they’re not the first person that comes to mind. Black women caregivers were licensed out, sometimes even criminalized for doing the work they had done for centuries. There’s a reason we have those feelings. But it’s time to rethink all of that.
How do you think Black mothers can reclaim their joy at this point?
There are so many microaggressions that we, as Black women, have become very adept at navigating, in many areas of our life, right? In the workplace, going to the grocery store, taking our kids to school, and dealing with the teachers and principals. We push through, but this is one place where I don’t think we can do that. We reclaim our joy by reclaiming our power. It’s your body. This is your baby. You are the mother. Nobody cares more about the health and safety, and well-being of our babies than the mother, so you reclaim your joy by realizing that you have the power. It’s yours.