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Midwifery clinic in Ferguson celebrates opening on Juneteenth, hoping to change health outcomes for black moms

Midwifery clinic in Ferguson celebrates opening on Juneteenth, hoping to change health outcomes for black moms

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FERGUSON — In the weeks leading up to the Friday grand opening of a new midwifery clinic in Ferguson, protests against racial inequity raged across the city and around the nation sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, a black man.

The protests helped shine a light on the new Jamaa Equal Access Midwifery Clinic, whose mission is to reduce stark racial disparities in maternal and infant health outcomes.

In one week, the clinic raised $40,000 in donations and signed up sponsors to outfit each of the clinic’s 24 spaces.

Jamaa founder and director Brittany “Tru” Kellman said Floyd’s death made ending racial oppression more urgent for everyone. People of all races were looking for ways to do more than just protest. They found Jamaa.

“They said, ‘I want to find people trying to actively dismantle racism,’” Kellman said. “It was a beautiful thing.”

Inside the new 4,000-square-foot space across from the public library, women will receive prenatal and postpartum care with a midwife, mental health services, parenting and childbirth classes, breastfeeding support, massage and chiropractic care.

Community health workers will work with families for two years, helping them with needs such as safe housing, food, transportation and finding a job or improving their careers.

Women will be able to receive care whether or not they have insurance coverage thanks to $150,000 in grants and other donations.

Kellman wanted the grand opening, which will be streamed live for the public at 11:30 a.m. on Jamaa’s Facebook page, to be held on Juneteenth, the anniversary of the day in 1865 when a Union general read federal orders in Texas declaring all slaves were free. News of the Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect in 1863, had not reached Texas until after the Civil War ended.

“We want to let people know we are here, and we are doing everything we can to free people from oppression and make sure babies are not being born into this same system of racism and bias,” Kellman said.

When it comes to health, one of the most glaring disparities can be seen in the care of new moms and babies. Despite having among the most advanced medical care in the world, black women in the U.S. are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women. Black babies are three times more likely to die before their first birthday.

The reason for these stubborn inequities is an interconnected web of social factors including lack of access to health care, healthy food, transportation and safe housing — the result of decades of systemic racism isolating neighborhoods both physically and emotionally.

A large study released a year ago found that families of color experience higher rates of mistreatment by health care providers during birth. Mistreatment includes verbal abuse, stigma, failure to meet standards of care and delays or refusals of care.

Kellman has long been trying to meet needs in the community. Her first difficult birth experience as a teen mother led her to study holistic wellness, yoga, aromatherapy and herbalism. She trained to become a doula, guiding women though labor, birth and newborn care.

Kellman gathered women into “sister circles” to heal and talk about trauma, relationships and birth experiences.

Four years ago, she opened Jamaa Birth Village — a space where pregnant and new moms could seek comfort and support — in a historic storefront on the northern edge of downtown Ferguson. Jamaa is Swahili for family.

Kellman has since become Missouri’s first black certified professional midwife, whose training focuses on delivering babies at home.

The village served as resource center, where pregnant and new moms could take classes and get items like books, maternity clothes, baby clothes, diapers and breastfeeding supplies.

Kellman also created a doula training program, specifically geared toward providing unbiased and culturally appropriate care to black women. Doulas have been shown to improve birth outcomes and communication between patients and their providers.

When Jamaa’s small storefront started bustling with families, Kellman began looking for a new space in Ferguson about two years ago.

Two SSM Health internists happened to be retiring and closing their primary care clinic just a block away. The doctors agreed to donate $125,000 of the $185,000 building to Jamaa.

To cover the rest, Jamaa also launched a $60,000-in-60-days fundraiser. An anonymous donor put in $40,000.

As workers put finishing touches on outside of building over the past few weeks, passersby told stories of when her clinic served as a “mini hospital” providing primary and urgent care in the 1960s, when north St. Louis County lacked health facilities.

The rear section of the building was for “coloreds only” during the decades of racial segregation after the clinic was first built around the 1940s, Kellman learned.

“We are turning this around for our people,” she said. “No longer will black pregnant women have no other option but to go into spaces that don’t honor their whole selves. No longer will they have to receive biased secondary care.”

Michele Munz • 314-340-8263 @michelemunz on Twitter

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