Berkshire Doula Project educates community on reproductive rights

(From left) Adam Calogeras ’18, Roshny Vijayakar ’17, Elizabeth Curtis ’17 and May Congdon ’17 are leaders of The Berkshire Doula Project. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Curtis.
(From left) Adam Calogeras ’18, Roshny Vijayakar ’17, Elizabeth Curtis ’17 and May Congdon ’17 are leaders of The Berkshire Doula Project. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Curtis.

The Berkshire Doula Project is a new club on campus seeking to provide doula services and educate Berkshire County residents on reproductive justice.

Co-chair Elizabeth Curtis ’17 explained that a doula is “a person who provides continuous and nonjudgmental physical, emotional and informational support to a person during pregnancy. That used to be just childbirth, so, in the ’70s, when doula became a term, this was a support person during labor and delivery. And that was proven to significantly improve outcomes — shortening labor times, reducing the need for medical interventions.”

Because doulas proved so successful in childbirth, the notion was later expanded to include other areas of reproductive support. “It was applied more full-spectrum in the early 2000s when [the doula community] said that childbirth is not the only experience in pregnancy or in a person’s reproductive life where they require this kind of nonjudgmental support,” Curtis said.

The club’s historian, May Congdon ’17, elaborated on the concept of a doula: “My understanding of a doula is any type of person who supports a patient through a reproductive health moment in their life, whether that be an abortion, a miscarriage, a childbirth. And then the notion of the doula is sort of becoming more and more broad to encapsulate other life experiences such as death and dying.”

Despite the broad applications of the term, the Berkshire Doula Project trains volunteers to work specifically as abortion doulas.

The Project was inspired by a similar one at Wesleyan University.

“At the CLPP [Civil Liberties and Public Policy] Conference at Hampshire College, which happens every year and is this incredible reproductive justice haven, we heard a speaker from the Wesleyan Doula Project, which was the first college-based doula project,” Curtis said. “And I had read about the New York Doula Project, which is pretty well-known in reproductive justice circles. I had never imagined being able to do something like that on our own, but seeing Wesleyan’s project was so inspiring.”

The Project held its first  training session in late September, when full-spectrum doulas from the New York Doula Project led training at the College.

“We’re currently in our pilot program, so everyone in the leadership circle and whoever signed up during that training are going through a small-scale process of doing all the paperwork, going through the motions and seeing how it works in the clinical setting for us as students and volunteer doulas this semester,” Co-chair Roshny Vijayakar ’17 said.

The Project has had to adapt its model for the Berkshires.

“We are actually the first rural doula project; most doula projects have been in urban centers that have easy access to clinics, so we’re also trying to figure out how we can be most helpful to the community and how we can adapt our model to better support the community,” Curtis said.

Congdon’s research on hepatitis C in the County has given the group some important background on healthcare in Berkshire County.

“[One] of the obstacles that I ran into with the hep-C project was transportation,” Congdon said. “And there [are] a lot of issues, one of them being stigma; I ran into that in terms of stigma against injection-drug users for hepatitis C, but it’ll be really interesting to see how the public response is to the Berkshire Doula Project.”

The Project is also working to reach beyond the purple bubble.

“We made the decision to change our name from the Williams Doula Project to the Berkshire Doula Project because, in addition to looking for more student volunteers, we’re also open and really enthusiastic about non-Williams students joining the Berkshire Doula Project and becoming trained as doulas,” Volunteer Coordinator Adam Calogeras ’18 said.

The club also hopes to engage other local college students.

“One of our goals is next to reach out to MCLA [Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts] and the local nursing school, too,” Curtis said.

Engagement with the greater Berkshire County community also means partnering with other local reproductive justice organizations. The Project is working with the only physician in the county that accepts referrals for elective terminations. The Project has elected to keep the provider’s name private.

In addition to this provider, the Project has many other local partners. “We’ll be working mainly with Tapestry Health, which is a group that’s incredible — it’s basically the Planned Parenthood of Western Massachusetts, and they’re based in Pittsfield and work with this provider,” Curtis said.

Curtis also highlighted the role of the county’s rural setting in facilitating relationships between organizations.

“Because it’s a pretty small community, we are able to work with a lot of the organizations in the area and plan on becoming part of that network,” she said. “So unlike in a city, where an urban doula project might be able to work with patients and with the providers and that’s its whole scope, I think we get more community focus.”

The Project’s leaders also hope to work with doulas in other specialties.

“[In terms of] abortion doulas, we’re the ones who are starting it [in Berkshire County,]” Curtis said. “There are lots of birth doulas in the county, and we’re hoping to bring them in and have them as a part of the Doula Project.”

In the wake of last week’s presidential election, the leaders discussed how the Project might be both affected by and be part of combating new policies on reproductive rights. Curtis expressed concern, although she noted that Massachusetts is less likely than other areas to be affected by new policies.

“Obviously the people who are involved in this group are very, very upset and concerned with the outcomes of the election,” she said. “But in Massachusetts, we are in a bubble that remains relatively isolated from the struggles that are going on in getting legal access to abortions and birth control around other parts of the country.”

Calogeras emphasized that the Project hopes to be part of combating potential policies affecting immigrants. “We’re looking to become more aware of how race and documentation status intersect with people’s need, and perhaps unmet need, for reproductive care,” he said.

The Project is hosting its first public event, a salon, this Friday  in Hardy House, which will be a guided discussion on reproductive health access in Berkshire County.