This summer, we’ve been exploring birth justice. Defined by Black Women Birthing Justice, birth justice “exists when women and birthing people are empowered during pregnancy, labor, childbirth and postpartum to make healthy decisions for themselves and their babies.”
And birth justice is something we all deserve, but many folks are denied, on the basis of sexism, systemic racism, taboo, anti-Blackness, transphobia, ableism and more. As doulas and birth workers, we believe it’s our responsibility to not only work toward birth justice, but dismantle our own privileges and biases that perpetuate injustice. (We can be the change we wish to see in birth!)
To that end, this week we’ve been inspired by Ulrike Schmidt, a licensed midwife in Austin, Texas and one of the organizers behind Austin Birth Fund, a $50,000 fundraising effort to provide financial support to pregnant Black people in the Austin area seeking home birth and/or midwifery care, as well as Black student midwives who need to cover the cost of their tuition. (The fund is currently 20% of the way to their goal—with $9,268 raised.)
To amplify the fund, Schmidt took a minute to chat with us about her journey to Austin Birth Fund and her practice as a birth worker.
Who: Ulrike Schmidt (she/her) is a Licensed Midwife and the principal of Heart of Gold Midwifery. She currently serves the Austin, Bastrop and surrounding Central Texas areas.
1.) First things first, how would you describe who you are?
I’m Ulrike Schmidt. I am a mixed race (Black and European descent) mama to three girls and a midwife/advocate in the Austin area. I’ve been attending births since 2012 and have been licensed since early 2017. I am outspoken and passionate about the intersection of human, civil and birth rights. I am also just a human—I am not perfect, but am am trying my best to lead by example and leave this world a little better than I found it.
2.) What is your relationship to birth work, currently? What does your practice look like?
I have a home birth practice here in the Austin area. I live in Bastrop, so I serve Travis and Bastrop counties and surrounding areas. To be honest, my practice serves mostly white families and families of color, but not many Black families.
My relationship to birth work has definitely evolved over time. The common thread is that I fundamentally see pregnancy and birth as natural and normal, but also as human rights issues, always have. But this is becoming increasingly nuanced, and patriarchy and white supremacy’s effects are glaring, and this has really led me to repeatedly question how and why I practice and who I am truly serving.
3.) What led you to pursue birth work?
It was something I started considering back in 2007, I think? When I learned that out-of-hospital birth was a thing (How sad is that?! I didn’t even know it was an option!). I had friends who free-birthed their baby in Hawaii, and it planted a seed.
Between that, and learning about midwives who attended home births, I got excited and inspired. I realized it was actually a human rights violation, to not allow women and birthing people autonomy, as well as the right to choose where and with whom they birth. That plus a realization one night in 2011 that goddamn it—I had to do work with some value in it and make a difference in this world. And that all just grew as I started attending births and realized how truly sacred a time pregnancy, birth and postpartum was. (Life-changing.) And how prevalent it is that this time is stripped of reverence and true care, especially among people of color.
4.) What does the role of birth work look like to you now?
I am big into autonomy and advocacy. I love walking and working with people who are interested in taking responsibility for themselves and their pregnancies, births and postpartum experiences. So much of conventional prenatal care is leading folks down a trail of breadcrumbs, not letting them know they have options and choices. It’s very intentional and paternalistic. I’m happy to meet people where they are, if that’s what they want: I’m here to walk with them and hold space.
But it really makes my heart sing when folks do the work—the emotional and spiritual work of pregnancy, when they read and research options and become fully informed. When they think about and prepare for pregnancy and birth and postpartum (not just what to expect when you’re expecting). I think when we foster this, folks are set up for a really embodied and powerful experience, that they can take with them into new parenthood.
I get this doesn’t suit everyone, and even pregnancy to pregnancy it can change. But this is spiritual work, dressed up as physical work. And really, the folks who on some level get that the most, are the ones I hope gravitate toward me. A healthy pregnancy, and powerful birth and postpartum period, free of trauma, is our birthright.
And so spreading the word about midwifery care, and autonomy, as well as helping to ensure access, is super important. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) individuals are denied this at the greatest rates.
5.) What are you currently working on to shift the birth world?
This is a big question. First, I need to be clear that I am not alone in wanting and working toward a shift. And in central Texas we have awesome people and organizations doing this work. Mama Sana Vibrant Woman ATX, Black Mamas ATX and Rebirth Equity—to name a few. Melek Oz is also a Black Austin midwife who works hard to address and improve these disparities.
I’d like to see a melding of everything I’ve touched on. I believe midwifery is the answer to a lot of the issues we’re seeing regarding maternal and perinatal mortality and morbidity. We (hopefully) all know the stats of the U.S. being 55th worldwide in maternal mortality, and that BIPOC women and individuals are disproportionately affected, regardless of education, class or income. Racism is killing mothers. People birth in the hospital thinking that’s the solution: that it will save them and their baby should something go wrong. Yet Black women and birthing individuals are dying of preventable causes, over and over. So, one solution is staying out of the lion’s den. But, for this to most effective, we also need more Black midwives (because, gasp!, midwives can be racist, too).
So, we need access. We need more Black midwives. We need more Black lactation consultants for moms, parents and newborns (only 69% of Black women, compared to 85% of white, breastfeed. And this, too, has deep roots in racism). Change will not come top down. It must be bottom up, which is why grassroots efforts and organizations like the ones I mentioned make such big impacts.
6.) What do you hope other birth workers and doulas take away from your work?
Another big question—start by questioning your personal narratives.
People are responsible for identifying and unpacking their own sh*t. Whether it’s unconsciously supporting and upholding deeply patriarchal and white supremacist systems in your practice, or your own racism, that is your work. You are either in a process of dismantling, or you are in a process of upholding. So, do the work.
And if you don’t, do not serve communities most affected by these toxic paradigms, because it’s killing folks. Being performative is killing folks. Walk the walk.
It’s OK, and good even, to be critical of ourselves when it comes to this stuff, because it grows and thrives in the dark. We need to shine light on it all, to get uncomfortable, because that’s where and how change happens. There are countless Instagram accounts, books, articles that discuss and unpack all this, also, so not knowing where to start is an excuse. Just do the work.
7.) How can DTI’s community support you and uplift you?
Keep doing your thing! Keep shouting out about the local organizations and people who are on the ground making differences in our community.
In addition to those organizations and people mentioned above, there is also a GoFundMe campaign started for Black women and individuals in the Austin area, to help offset the costs associated with home births. Funds will also be disbursed to Black student midwives to help offset the costs of modules, supplies, exams, etc. (as well to those folks interested in becoming lactation consultants).
So, if you’re able to give, please do. In the spirit of reparations, equity and access, 100% of funds raised will be given to Black women and individuals who are interested. Once a certain amount is raised, we will begin an application process, too, so spread the word!
PS: You can also tune into DTI’s Instagram account (@doulatrainingsint) on Sunday, August 2, 2020 for a special takeover by Ulrike, exploring the fund and her practice.