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Erin Lee Thesis Project Explores Community-Based Doula Motives in WA

Erin Lee Thesis Project Explores Community-Based Doula Motives in WA

Erin Lee is a second-year Health Services MPH student from Cleveland, Ohio with a background in Sociology and Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies. Says Erin, “I am deeply committed to pulling from the margins the experiences of Black women within a healthcare context. I am extremely passionate about understanding and eliminating racial disparities in maternal and neonatal health outcomes, which drives my research on reproductive health care and justice for Black women.”

For her MPH thesis with faculty advisor Dr. Jodie Katon, Erin is conducting a qualitative study exploring the motivations and experiences of community-based doulas (maternal support professionals) working for Open Arms Perinatal Services (OAPS). OAPS is a nonprofit organization dedicated to strong community-based support for women and their families through pregnancy, birth, and early childhood. With her research, Erin aims to “understand and uplift the stories of women of color serving as community-based doulas to low-income pregnant individuals here in the state of Washington. Ultimately, my goals are to (1) showcase the positive effects of community-based doulas on quality of care and patient satisfaction during the laboring process, and (2) identify methods to promote diverse community-based doula collectives as part of public health efforts to reduce racial disparities in maternal and neonatal health outcomes.” 

There is an urgent need to address maternal and child health inequities. Pregnancy-related maternal and infant mortality rates in the United States have increased substantially for the past six decades, and already-considerable racial and ethnic disparities are still widening. Black women and infants are dying of pregnancy-related causes at rates nearly 2 to 3 times those of their white counterparts. This epidemic has consistently been attributed to accumulated experiences of oppression, often compounded by low socioeconomic status.

Says Erin, “My decision to focus on these issues is deeply personal. I entered this world as a Black woman, but most importantly, from the womb of a Black woman. Gratefully, I was born healthy, and my mother gave birth with zero complications. However, many Black women and children, historically and currently, have not had that same experience. I am keenly aware of how the concerns of women of color with respect to their reproductive health and goals have historically been ignored, and of the abuse of Black women’s bodies and reproductive autonomy. 

People that look like me deserve to have empowered pregnancies and have healthy babies, regardless of our race and socioeconomic status. I hope that my work contributes to the meaningful efforts of community-based collectives and perinatal birth workers to ensure that all Black and Brown laboring individuals can have positive birthing experiences and raise healthy babies. It is high time to turn the tide, and make Black women’s health a priority.” 

Erin credits her MPH training with helping to prepare her for this research. As she reflects, “During my time here at the University of Washington, I have gained the necessary skills to conduct meaningful research that not only focuses on the health of marginalized communities, but also includes them throughout the research process, so that the data being collected is culturally salient and beneficial. Classes like Qualitative Methods (Dr. Todd Edwards), Social Determinants of Health (Dr. India Ornelas), Health Disparities for African American Women (Dr. LaShawnDa Pittman), and Racism in Public Health (Dr. Clarence Spigner) have truly influenced and prepared me for this work. These courses center the experiences of marginalized communities in the discussion, and have provided me with the necessary skills to conduct high-quality and meaningful qualitative research.” 

Erin’s choice to focus on doulas in her thesis research stemmed from a serendipitous meeting. At a panel event at the Riveter spearheaded by two Seattle organizations, Future For Us and the Maternal Coalition, Erin was introduced to a doula working for OAPS, and heard first-hand about the ways that doulas have positively impacted the pregnancy experience. It was an awakening: “I had always heard about how expensive doula services can be, and I always thought about how this necessary service wasn’t fully accessible and affordable to those who needed it the most. But here, I was seeing amazing people doing on-the-ground work to ensure that women in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties have affordable access to necessary doula care. From that moment, I knew that I wanted to highlight the voices and experiences of our local community-based doulas.” 

Erin’s long-term goal is to work for advocacy and policy organizations that focus on maternal health equity. Says Erin, “it is my heartfelt aspiration to be a part of the collective of birth workers, practitioners, and policymakers that are making a difference for women around the world.” 

Photo: Erin Lee with her mother


For information about maternal and child health training at UW Department of Health Services, visit:

To learn more about National Public Health Week "Maternal and Child Health" Day on April 7, 2020, visit:

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