The New Orleans Public Library and TrainingGrounds are teaming up to bring a free play center to New Orleans East.
Partner Spotlight: Sista Midwife Productions
Louisiana’s maternal mortality rates rank 47 out of the 48 continental United States, according to the Louisiana Department of Health, and the state has the fifth highest infant mortality rate. Black mothers in Louisiana die four times as often as white mothers, and Black babies are twice as likely to die as their white counterparts.
Against that backdrop, Nicole Deggins’ work in birth advocacy is all the more vital. Deggins is a certified nurse midwife, community educator, and public health and birthing expert. Her organization, Sista Midwife Productions, is on a mission to improve pregnancy and birth experiences, and to eliminate perinatal disparities.
Their work focuses on increasing the number of black birth workers, teaching families about their rights and options, and creating transparency and accountability within childbirth education and the medical obstetrical system. Sista Midwife Productions regularly hosts workshops, seminars and “edutainment exercises,” as well as ongoing projects aimed at improving birth experiences for Black women.
One example is the Birth Story Project, which Deggins started in 2018 in partnership with High Heal Productions, another local doula and birth advocacy group. The project brought mothers together to share their childbirth stories –– the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the joys and the traumas, and everything in between.
“Since then, it has morphed into just generally an opportunity for people to come and feel heard and respected and honored as they tell their stories,” Deggins said. “Right now, there’s conversations in the community around Black maternal health and Black women not feeling heard, which is where the Birth Story Project comes in.”
Deggins recently teamed up with the Library to organize Sista Midwife’s next Birth Story Project event. Along with Shukrani Gray, the Library’s African American Resource Collection and Equity and Inclusion Librarian, Deggins will host a Sister Sharing Circle at East New Orleans Regional Library on October 15.
“The Library is a place where people feel welcome and comfortable,” Deggins said. “Sharing your story –– especially when trauma is involved –– is hard. Being in a place where you feel wanted and at ease, like a Library, can make that process a little less difficult.”
Sista Midwife and the Library started working together in 2020, and both Gray and Deggins said the partnership has been mutually valuable.
“By partnering with organizations like Sista Midwife Productions, we are able to reach the community in a more equitable and inclusive way, because we’re allowing people who are already doing the hard work to provide their expertise in our programming,” Gray said.
Deggins said the Library has also helped to expand her organization’s reach.
“The Library is free and accessible to everyone, so naturally that allows for a wider audience,” she said. “Coming into libraries and being associated with the Library brings us to people who might never think of connecting with doulas or with birth advocacy, which is, ultimately, what we need to do if we want to generate real change.”
Choosing to host the Birth Story Project at a Library located in New Orleans East was not a coincidence, Deggins and Gray said.
“I was very excited when Shukrani brought up the New Orleans East as an option, because that area is a total maternal health desert,” Deggins said, noting some New Orleans East residents have to travel up to 30 minutes to access healthcare.
“While we’re not providing healthcare in terms of delivering babies or anything of that nature –– this is an opportunity to provide something that is helpful and open and loving to the community surrounding the women in the East,” she said.
In addition to healing traumas, Deggins said the Birth Story Project is about creating a sense of community and validation through shared experiences.
“One of the things that happens often, is that you feel like you’re in the silo. ‘Nobody is listening to me. They think I’m making this up. I’m out here on an island by myself,’” Deggins explained “We want to help people know that they’re not alone. Through these sharing circles, we hear you, and we honor you, and we bear witness to your journey.”
In the four years she’s been hosting Birth Story Project Sharing Circles, Deggins said she’s had countless mothers tell her they’d never had the opportunity to talk about their experience.
“There is a woman in particular that I think about often. Her son was in high school at the time, and as she told her story, tears were streaming from her eyes. Afterwards, she was like, ‘I’ve never gotten that out. I’ve held that in for 16 years,’” Deggins said. “That’s what this project is all about. We want people to be able to let go of their traumas. To stop holding it in, and finally be able to move forward. To heal.”
Deggins said some of the most impactful circles she’s hosted have had mothers and daughters hearing each other’s stories for the first time.
“In the telling of the story, it’s like ‘wow mom, I didn’t know that,’ and ‘yeah, daughter, I didn’t know that either,’” Deggins said. “And so now, there’s not only a healing of the individual, there’s also a healing that happens between these parents and children. You hear about generational trauma, but this is generational healing.”
Sister Sharing Circles are not only for people who have experienced birth, Deggins said, noting that families, loved ones, and pregnant people are encouraged to attend.
“We hope pregnant individuals who come to a Sister Sharing Circle learn and become empowered to control how they experience their pregnancy and birth,” Deggins said. “We want to break the cycle of how Black mothers and babies are treated, and this is one way we can do that.”
In addition to healing through stories, Sista Midwife is collecting data to help inform their advocacy work. All people who have given birth or experienced pregnancy — regardless of race or gender identity –– are encouraged to fill out the survey.
The Sister Sharing Circle at East New Orleans Regional Library, 5641 Read Blvd., starts at 1 p.m. on October 15. It is a family-friendly event and refreshments will be provided. Registration is encouraged, but not required. More information here.
Interested in the African American Resource Collection? Follow them on Facebook @AARCNolaLibrary to stay up to date with their programs, materials, and resources.