Rootead gives birth to groundbreaking family care clinic

One of the first clinics in the country for mind-and-body family care is opening in Kalamazoo. An explicit goal is to protect against the harm from a healthcare system that makes Black families particularly vulnerable.

On the day you are born, if all goes well, your world is simple: sleeping, eating, diaper changing, and the cradling arms of those who have made a commitment to keep you safe.

Lurking in the shadows for many parents are socioeconomic threats, the pressure on a caretaker to get back to their job after taking a leave to bring you into the world, and the manifestations of racism that increase risks before, during, and after you were born.

Even something seemingly simple such as navigating the modern healthcare system can needlessly exacerbate the stress of pregnancy.

But a local doula program that began seven years ago is now transforming into one of the first clinics in the country to make wholesale changes to the way mothers and their families are traditionally treated when accessing pregnancy services.

On Feb. 21, Rootead, a mind-and-body focused nonprofit, will open the Obodo Perinatal Easy Access Clinic within its headquarters at 505 E Kalamazoo Ave., a main thoroughfare of the Northside and Downtown Kalamazoo neighborhoods.

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“We understand that nothing health-related is simply health-related,” says Élan Bridges, the director of Red Birth Green, the reproductive-care branch of Rootead. “We got you.”

It will also be just the fourth clinic in Michigan designated as a Perinatal Safe Spot for prioritizing the safety of the pregnant and parenting, with a goal of decreasing infant and mother mortality rates that are disproportionately higher for Black women and babies.

Obodo means “village” in Igbo, one of the languages spoken in Nigeria and the underlying concept behind Rootead.

  • artwork on the walls at Obodo Easy Access Clinic

On the walls there are drawings of mothers holding children and other culturally uplifting artwork that transitions seamlessly with the drum stations and meeting rooms that support Rootead’s other programs, which focus on dance, music, and body movement as part of a spiritual and mental mending mission.

Bridges calls the Obodo approach “wholistic, with a w” because the practice incorporates “the entirety of the body and mind” – breaking down a traditional method of care that separates childbirth from other aspects of physical health, and recognizing the ways that mental health can be both cause and effect for how a person’s body is faring.

“Mental health largely determines physical health,” says Rowan Jakobah, coordinator of the Red Birth Green program.

While open to all, Rootead’s new clinic will be dedicated to its origins of addressing mortality rates in the United States: Black babies more than twice as likely to die in their first year than white babies and Indigenous babies nearly twice as likely, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The data is worse for the health of mothers.

“Multiple factors contribute to these disparities, such as variation in quality healthcare, underlying chronic conditions, structural racism, and implicit bias,” says the CDC’s Office of Minority Health & Health Equity. “Social determinants of health have historically prevented many people from racial and ethnic minority groups from having fair opportunities for economic, physical, and emotional health.”

Due to this crisis, Rootead began an accreditation process with Commonsense Childbirth to become an official Easy Access Clinic and Perinatal Safe Spot where mothers and families get all the care they need before, during, and after a pregnancy regardless of their ability to pay.

“It is relatively common for Black women’s concerns about their bodies and growing babies to be dismissed or outright ignored,” Bridges says. “The causes of our health concerns are embedded into the environments where we live and raise our children, the stress we endure, and the burden of proving ourselves worthy before our concerns are taken seriously.”

Commonsense Childbirth’s founder Jennie Joseph, a prominent advocate in the midwifery movement, conducted the training for Rootead.

  • a large open space with large windows and walls lined with drums and artwork

Individuals and families wanting the “it takes a village” treatment are immediately greeted as if they are being invited into someone’s home rather than from a desk in a doctor’s office.

The waiting area is also unique: clients can sit on chairs and couches with more of a living room feel or, especially for the kids to play and snack, spend time in the high ceiling and wood floor area where drumming, dancing, and crafting takes place during non-clinic hours.

“In our work, we are given access to the reality of home for our clients,” says Bridges. “We move on our clients’ terms, prioritizing their autonomy and the validity of their experiences.

This begins by inviting our clients into our space, inviting them into our ‘home.'”

It’s in this setting that a thorough check-in can be completed, even before the client or clients see a nurse or medical assistant. Whether it’s getting to know their menstrual cycle in order to increase fertility or help getting an infant to latch for breast milk, staff are trained to help clients identify any deeper factors that may contribute to their overall health like societal stressors or financial concerns.

Obodo doesn’t yet take private insurance or Medicaid; staff members ask clients to just pay as much of the cost as they can afford, if anything at all, due to generous donors and grants that are enabling Rootead’s expansion of its doula program.

Last month, the Red Birth Green doula program celebrated its 90th birth since opening in 2015. Within the first year of Obodo’s opening, they plan to serve 125 families. (Another sign of success, says Bridges, is that many of those who are going through their doula training program now were clients previously.)

Even though money or a job with good health insurance can provide a leg up in the struggle for adequate healthcare, Obodo’s mission goes beyond simple affordability.

The mission of Rootead itself is to acknowledge, raise awareness, and provide support for people as life’s stressors become harmful instability in a number of ways – from living in a home with a neglectful landlord to insufficient transportation to inadequate childcare options. These are compounded by rising prices of consumer goods and utilities.

All of this can feel even more dire when combined with downward pressure on upward mobility, such as expensive or inaccessible educational opportunities, or when employment doesn’t pay the bills or cuts into time people need to create healthy families in the first place, including during and after pregnancy.

Obodo’s job is also to help a client address and mitigate the myriad impacts on their physical health.

The risk can also be perpetrated at institutions such as a doctor’s office, says Bridges, recounting an experience of one of their clients at “another community resource” in town.

“This client is a young, Black woman having her second baby. As she was completing her intake paperwork, the program intake worker immediately asked her if she used any ‘street drugs’ and whether the father of her child was involved. She was then handed a nutrition pamphlet and asked if she understood what she was reading,” says Bridges.

“This client has her MBA, a supportive family, and an excellent partner. Imagine someone speaking to your daughter, sister, or wife that way. It’s inappropriate and shows a complete lack of cultural awareness and, quite frankly, human decency.”

Opposite the waiting room from the kids play area is the nurses station and examination rooms, which have more of the medical care component available at typical clinics but without losing the attention paid to the personalized risks and stressors waiting outside the Obodo doors.

“They are active participants in their care,” says Bridges. “We follow their lead, offering support and education based on their needs and wants.”

The last “station” a client comes to is with Community Resource Specialist Erica Dixon, who makes sure all of the client’s needs that have been identified are then matched with the appropriate community resources, “all the way down to ‘do you have a space to sleep?'” says Dixon.

This removes much of the wild goose chase that accompanies the search for services the most in-need are forced to endure, but which has no place in the type of village that Rootead is building.

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