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This past weekend, students and community members gathered in Griffin for training to become abortion and IUD doulas. This is the first time the Berkshire Doula Project (BDP) has hosted an entirely student-run training. Doula training seeks to prepare students, faculty, staff and community members to be a support for individuals dealing with the physical, mental and emotional challenges of abortion and IUDs. After this training, students have the opportunity to participate in the greater doula support network at local clinics.
Behind this whole project are this year’s BDP trainers: Claudia Forrester ’18, BDP site coordinator, Madeleine Elyze ’18, BDP meeting coordinator and Julia Blike ’19, BDP historian. They all have their own reasons for becoming involved with BDP. It was friendship with BDP co-founder Elizabeth Curtis ’17 that introduced Elyze and Forrester to the Berkshire Doula project.
For Blike, a quick and unplanned decision to join BDP became a life-changing opportunity: “BDP has been a savior for me in so many ways: I have met some of the most amazing people, whether that be like-minded Williams students or incredible medical professionals like Shannon [McLaughlin-Carvajal, certified midwife nurse] or Dr. [Joan] Lister, the nurse practitioner and since-retired provider who works with us at BMC [Berkshire Medical Center], or even staff at [the College] who are so willing to help and support students in any way they can, like [Health Educator] Laini [Sporbert], our birth control queen who comes in to BDP with all her props to teach us about safe sex and contraception without compensation, just because she loves it,” Blike said. “There’s nothing like the feeling of finding a space where you feel completely supported and empowered not only to do amazing work and to build confidence, but also to feel vulnerable and to grow and learn.”
The Berkshire doula community began with the efforts of Curtis and co-founder Roshny Vijayakar ’17, along with fellow alumnae Mary Congdon ’17 and Abby Robinson ’17. BDP came into existence during the spring of 2016, with the first doula training the following fall.
BDP relied on support from doula chapters throughout the Northeast. According to Elyze, “The first training was led by the New York Doula Project and the training last spring was led by the Wesleyan Doula Project.”
BDP maintains a close relationship with these fellow organizations. Although spread throughout different campuses, the doula movement is a product, as Forrester explains, of several questions: “Knowing that pregnancy is an incredibly trying time, why are we only rewarding one outcome of pregnancy?” Forrester said. “What about miscarriage, abortion, stillbirth and birth for adoption? Why are birth doulas only available to those who know about them and can afford them?”
These questions have pushed BDP towards a new definition of a doula, one that can provide support for individuals beyond situations of childbirth. For Blike, being a doula represents being able to provide a similar type of emotional support and knowledge about medical procedures that she received growing up from two physician parents.
“When I think of the word ‘doula,’ more than support, I think of advocacy. For me, my job as a doula is to advocate for my patient, all the while reminding myself of how incredibly difficult and terrifying it can be to try to advocate for yourself in the hierarchical and stressful environment of a hospital,” Blike said. “To be a doula is to always be in someone’s corner, and to voluntarily fight their battles (to be heard, to be seen, to be taken care of) for them when they do not have the strength, knowledge or energy to do so for themselves.”
Recognizing the challenges of creating a doula training space that includes comfort for trainees, but also takes into account disparities in privilege, experiences and knowledge, the organizers targeted five training objectives: reproductive justice, acknowledging previous and initial trainee experiences and perspectives, collaboration with providers and medical professional, understanding what it means to be a resource by and for the Berkshire County community and self care for doulas.
BDP organizers Forrester, Elyze and Blike define these goals through their method in conducting doula training. “The most important part of training in my mind is rooting BDP in the framework of reproductive justice. As an organization we aim to trust, center and validate the experiences of those who have been historically marginalized by the medical industrial complex (by this term we mean the system of medicine that has become corporate and focused on profit and efficiency as opposed to centering patient-care),” Forrester said. “Being ‘full-spectrum doulas,’ we recognize the bodily autonomy of all people and understand that the medical profession in the U.S. has not always been for everyone. Not everyone getting an abortion is a woman, which makes it difficult considering the language around the ob/gyn field as ‘women’s health’ and so we always try to use the language of ‘pregnant people.’”
Including “Berkshire” in the name, rather than “Williams,” has quite a significance as well, reflecting the importance of making the trainings open to not just students. “We have never had a training that was purely students. Especially since the patients we support are rarely Williams students, we wanted to make sure our organization isn’t another way ‘Williams students can give back to the community’ but rather an organization that simply allows people to support and care for other people,” Forrester said. “By that I mean that we are trying to depart from the mindset that Williams students are saviors for this estranged outside ‘community’ but rather just actively being involved with the medical center where we all live.”
The training itself included several icebreakers and exercises meant to allow attendees to recognize both their own limitations and unique perspectives brought to the table. The activities included exercises such as walking to distinct areas of the room in response to prompts and questions in respect to attendees’ views on abortion, sexual health and reproductive justice.
McLaughlin-Carvajal and Lister, both part of the Berkshire Health Systems clinic network, spoke on their experiences and the importance of doulas in clinics. Sporbert, who is also a current doula, spoke on birth control and how to communicate this information to those receiving support.
After the two days of training, BDP made sure that attendees understood the significance of self-care in being a doula. “A day of any kind of training is tough, let alone a day of doula training. So we end training by reading a poem and talking about self-care – we provide a list of things that help us and a zine which provides space to think about how you as an individual take care of yourself,” Forrester said. “Self-care is a huge part of being a doula – we never send a doula to BMC alone. The 30 minute drive back from BMC serves as a sacred time and space for the two doulas to debrief the day: what went well and what went poorly. As Julia [Blike] puts it, it’s a chance to doula the doulas!”
According to all three organizers, the training was a success. Participants brought plenty of enthusiasm and desire to learn with them. After this training, BDP will continue its mission in offering doula support for the Berkshire community, simultaneously expanding its partnerships with other clinics. Current challenges for student doulas at the College include the timing of surgical procedures (Fridays at 7:30 a.m.) and managing the commitment of being a doula while being a student. “It really ends up being a very small population of people who commit their entire selves to advancing ideas of reproductive justice and creating better care for people with uteruses throughout their reproductive lives,” Blike said.
Elyze argues that the current challenges in reproductive justice are what makes the cause of the doula worth it. “I want people to know that healthcare policies and legal access to abortion care are not enough,” Elyze said. “There are other barriers to access and it is easy for the clinical setting to feel very isolating or lonely. That is part of why our work is so important. We provide empowering and compassionate care because patients deserve support and, especially in a busy hospital setting, a personal advocate can make a huge difference.”