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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Listen to Black women voices’: Exhibit on Black maternal health comes to Carl Maxey Center

Stephaine Courtney holds the e-book she created highlighting Spokane’s leaders of color at her home in Spokane on March 4, 2022. For Black Maternal Health Week in April, Courtney created an exhibit to explore and celebrate issues surrounding motherhood.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

To honor the journey of birth, Stephaine Courtney invited the Black community to display in an art exhibit their uneasy reality: Black people are dying in child birth.

“This art exhibit is showing the collection of motherhood, and the power of our history, but it’s also there as a tool to educate the community and start a larger conversation in how we are welcoming children in our community” said Courtney, the director of the Learning Project. “It’s not just about Back women sharing their stories, but understanding the history of our health care system. Why is there so much mistrust? What can be different? How can we listen to Black women voices the way we haven’t in the past?”

Originally created to coincide with Black Maternal Health Week in April, the exhibit was part of a weeklong program highlighting the history of birth in America, while also diving into alternatives through community building exercises and seminars. Natural or holistic births, doulas and other alternatives were explored, including practices that encourage health for both the family and the newborn. It returns to public view on Sunday at the Carl Maxey Center.

The art exhibit is inspired by the Black Mamas Matter Alliance’s health week to raise awareness and advance healthy birth practices in the Black community.

“This is our first pilot that we’re running in the community to establish the first Black Maternal Health Week, but build upon it throughout the year to help elevate Black voices and find solutions,” Courtney said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy than white women. Within that study, research determined more than 60% of those deaths are preventable. Issues around Black birthing health are also heightened by other racial disparities, including stress and lack of access to healthier food. Courtney’s Black maternal art exhibit also comes after the Washington Legislature passed a bill to expand Medicaid to cover doula services.

“That is a huge win, and people need to understand what the bill means and how it’s going to build so many different support systems, so mothers who are giving birth don’t have to suffer in silence,” Courtney said.

The exhibition will solely highlight the first steps of parenthood, including the physical and emotional health of new parents.

“In order for us to move into a stronger, more conscious, birthing-focused community, we have to have conversations and elevate voices that have been silenced or oppressed,” Courtney said. “Because there are tons of Black women who are going through this mentally and physically every day.”

Shakayla Delcambre donated photos to the exhibit, detailing the story of her journey of being a new mother who struggled with addiction.

She is expecting a son this month, but is wary of the delivery. She believes that her past birthing experiences in Spokane have traumatized her and, as a Black woman, put her in more danger.

Delcambre mentioned that during the birth of one of her daughters, she was injured by the epidural needle that still gives her nerve pain. The needle, intended to deliver a local anesthetic to the space around the spinal nerves in the lower back, was injected in the wrong spot, and has left her with nerve issues effecting her back, hips and legs. She recalled moments where she would explain her symptoms and doctors and nurses would still be skeptical.

“Because of those issues, I went to the emergency room a lot not knowing what was wrong with me, but they labeled me a ‘hypochondriac,’ ” Delcambre said.

Medical professions also widened the scope of how medical professionals treat Black women as general patients. Her concerns about her overall health, including issues with chronic pain, have often went ignored by health officials.

Delcambre asked friends and family to attend her doctor appointments for emotional support. She experiences PTSD episodes from “being inches away from death” as she recalled moments of being ignored by medical professions.

“Even if I were to speak about the issues, they would let me go home and die,” Delcambre said.

Also part of the exhibit is Brianna Simpson, a Detroit childbirth educator who shared birthing photos of her son. She calls the relationship between Black people who have given birth and health care professionals “concerning.” Even in a city like Detroit, where the population is 77% Black, Black women’s pain is not a focus.

“You have the doctors that don’t take mothers serious when they think something is wrong, so you minimize what you’re feeling. And doctors tend to see mothers as numbers, dollars, instead of individuals. When they hear a couple of things, they assume something and lump you in a group with the rest of the society,” Simpson said.

Simpson switched from an obstetrician-gynecologist to a birthing doula, donating photos of her natural birth at the Ascension Providence Hospital Alternative Birthing Center in Southfield, Michigan. She also included photos of her breastfeeding with the hopes of “normalizing a mother nurturing her child in public” as it “helps normalize the postpartum recovery process.”

“I’m proud of myself,” Simpson said. “The nurses came back and I was breastfeeding and doing the things instinctively without anyone telling or coaching me. They were so shocked that it was instinctual.”

Adding an additional layer, the exhibition is set to display two weeks after Politico broke news of the Supreme Court’s draft ruling that would overturn Roe v. Wade.

Courtney worries that a total abortion ban will also affect those who experience miscarriages and other pregnancy complications.

“It’s going to challenge how things are categorized,” Courtney said. “(Medical professionals) are having people sign things that says you’re having voluntary abortion after you’ve just had a miscarriage. I’ve heard this two more times from other Black women. “

Courtney hopes that the exhibit will show how community support is another important piece to the birthing process and new parents.

“It’s different when people know they are supported and their community culture that is around them ensures that,” Courtney said. “We want to share this in other spaces and we are going to be in different locations to not only share this, but also look for opportunities to build upon it. Our goal is to elevate Black voices in different ways.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Feb. 8, 2023, to correct the spelling of Stephaine Courtney’s name.