Training a New Generation of Black Birthworkers

Meet the fourth-generation Black midwife who runs Central Virginia’s first Black-owned birthing center.

Black midwives in Richmond, Virginia.

Learning midwives Kandice White (far left), Nikiya Ellis-Chavis (center left) and Audrey Gentry-Brown (far right) with fourth-generation midwife Racha Tahani Lawler-Queen (center right). (Photo by Eric White) 
 

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In a world shaped by modern technologies and conveniences, some traditions and legacies are still being passed down through generations like sacred heirlooms. Just look at Racha Tahani Lawler-Queen, the great-great-granddaughter of four generations of Black midwives.

“My grandma Mary is our midwife matriarch at 93 years young,” Lawler-Queen tells Next City. “She used to help my great-grandmother Louisa and great-great grandmother Ma’Belle at births. Grandma Mary worked in labor and delivery as a nurse and midwife for over 40 years.”

Last year, that legacy of community empowerment through cultural preservation led Lawler-Queen to open Gather Grounded Midwifery Birth Cottage, Central Virginia’s first and only Black-owned birthing center. And now, through a new apprenticeship program, she’s working to train and support a new wave of birthworkers of color.

“It’s a vital step towards ensuring Black families in Central Virginia receive the advocacy, support and representation they deserve,” says Kandice White, one of three learning midwives in the new apprenticeship program.

“We’re learning in a way that supports us physically, emotionally and financially while ensuring that Black families have culturally congruent and equitable options to birth on their terms,” White says. And through providing that care, she says, they’re doing the crucial work of “keeping traditional midwifery alive.”

Located just south of Richmond, the Gather Grounded Midwifery Birth Cottage aims to be a haven for birthing families seeking holistic, community-centered care. It’s provided an inclusive environment for families opting for non-hospital births, whether it’s a vaginal birth after cesarean or a twin delivery.

“To create true change, Central Virginia still needs traditional Black midwives,” Lawler-Queen says. (She eschews the term “doula” due its origins in the Greek word for “slave.”)

According to VCU Health, Black women in Virginia experience a pregnancy-related mortality rate 2.3 times higher than that of white women. In Richmond, infants born to Black women are between 1.5 to three times more likely to die in comparison to those born to other races.

Localities in Virginia are beginning to take action. Richmond City Council recently authorized $10,000 in funding to implement an RVA Doulas-in-Training program, while Henrico County offers a community-based doula program for pregnant people who identify as Black or African American. Eligible residents can receive free doula services through a partnership with local reproductive justice organization Birth In Color, part of a small but growing ecosystem for Black birthworkers in Richmond.

Recognizing the ongoing need for diverse midwives, the Birth Cottage this year began offering free health visits, prenatal and postpartum care, and lactation support. And this week, as Virginia officially marked Black Maternal Health Week for the first time, the Gather Grounded Birth Cottage Midwifery launched its Traditional Midwifery Freedom Path program with three local apprentices.

The ultimate goal? “To support this birthing community, grow the number of Black midwives in Central Virginia and secure funding for the next three years of The Traditional Midwifery Freedom Path,” Lawler-Queen says.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Lawler-Queen carries within her the Southern foundation and wisdom of her ancestors, whose roots stretch from Elmo, Texas, to Chandler, Oklahoma and the Bayou, shaping her path as a midwife and community leader.

After apprenticing with an unlicensed Black midwife and attending nursing school, Lawler-Queen ventured to El Paso, Texas, to pursue midwifery education. Over the next decade, she served as a homebirth midwife and preceptor in Texas and Oakland, California, before returning to her roots in Los Angeles.

In 2011, she opened South Los Angeles’ first birth center, less than five blocks from her grandmother Mary’s home. “I closed the doors in 2016 to go deeper and connect to my South African heritage, to go and learn about the midwifery traditions of my ancestors to incorporate in my current midwifery practice,” Lawler-Queen says.

Lawler-Queen says the decision to move to Richmond was “a spirit-led move.” After meeting virtually with Black and Brown birthworkers across the country, she learned of a void in Central Virginia. “They shared the deficit with regards to Black midwives and birthing spaces here,” she said.

The initial site selected for the “Birth House” was in Southside Richmond, but Lawler-Queen had to find another location after numerous permitting barriers and hold ups. “Walking away from already $40,000 invested was devastating and I almost gave up on opening a birthing space here,” Lawler-Queen says.

Less than three months later, she was able to secure their current location, more modest than the original vision. In August 2023, Gather Grounded Midwifery’s “Birth Cottage” opened its doors.

Through the center’s new apprentice program, three local midwifery students — Audrey Gentry-Brown, Kandice White and Nikiya Ellis Chavis — are embarking on a yearlong journey guided by experienced Black nurse midwives. The culturally-affirming program, in partnership with Black Farm Studio House, aims to train and support Black, Brown and Indigenous midwifery students.

The learning midwives will receive a monthly stipend, one month of paid rest as well as financial support securing midwifery books and equipment.

Ellis-Chavis, the founder of The Diverse Birth Collective, a birth advocacy group focused on providing culturally-centered support in the Richmond area, says that financial support is crucial to sustain this work.

“In my previous apprenticeship, the demands of being constantly on call, fulfilling familial roles, studying, and earning a living forced me to halt my educational journey,” she says. “I eagerly anticipate the opportunity to pursue my studies unencumbered by financial constraints and to glean wisdom from an experienced Black midwife.”

This story has been corrected to reflect that Gather Grounded Midwifery Birth Cottage is the first and only Black-owned birthing center in Central Virginia, not the entire state.

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Barry Greene, Jr. is Next City's Equitable Cities Reporting Fellow For Reparations Narratives and a native of Southside Richmond, Virginia. Through his newsletter and moniker “density dad,” Greene is constantly working to spread awareness of the necessity to think of families with young children as well as seniors within the built environment. As a 2023 NACTO Transportation Justice Fellow, Barry aims to help Richmond return to its glory days of leading the industry in public transportation. You can catch him commuting by Brompton, bus or both in conjunction.

Tags: racematernal healthwomen's health

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