At 17-years-old, a time when many of us were out partying, Boston native Shafia M. Monroe got the calling to become a midwife. She’d heard the stories of granny midwives who were the gatekeepers for the safe delivery of babies and care for mothers during enslavement, and wanted to be just like them. The only problem was, back in the 70’s, it was hard to find someone of color to train you. But Shafia was diligent, and found midwives from Ghana, Pakistan and Alabama. These women would teach her how to deliver breech babies, twins and to use her ear in the absence of a fetoscope to listen to a baby’s heartbeat. By age 24, Shafia was catching her first baby, and it was also around this time that she realized there was a real void in the black community.
“Black women had horror stories of birthing in the hospital, and wanted to birth at home, but there was nothing in place for us,” says Shafia. “The established midwifery community, made up of middle class, suburban white women, were nice, but they weren’t interested in coming to the inner city.”
The year was 1978, and it was then that she teamed up with a nurse and midwife from Alabama, Majeeda Workneh, and they formed the Traditional Childbearing Group.Together they would change birth policies, teach birthing classes at low cost, and deliver babies all over Boston. The two women became so popular that they caught the attention of the Boston Globe newspaper and the Massachusetts Dept. of Public Health.
“We were given funding because no one was doing what we were doing, “says Shafia of this time she dubs, ‘the good old days.’
In 1991, Shafia received ‘a calling’ to move to Portland, Oregon. Though she didn’t know exactly what her next step would be, she knew she wanted to continue birth advocacy work on an international level. “I recognized that midwifery was becoming Westernized in countries all over the world, and if we came together we could form a stronger voice,” recalls Shafia.
So she called up the midwives she knew within the midwifery community, women who now looked to her as ‘the young one’ with the energy and tenacity to move things forward, and was encouraged and supported in creating The International Center For Traditional Childbearing (ICTC).
Today, the renowned organization advocates for improving birth outcomes and increasing the number of midwives and doulas of color throughout the United States, as well as Columbia, Trinidad, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Jamaica and more. One of ICTC’s biggest accomplishments is getting the State of Oregon to recognize the use of doulas in improving birth outcomes in underserved communities, which has resulted in doulas now qualifying for Medicaid reimbursement. Perhaps Shafia’s biggest accomplishment, though receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Human Rights in Childbirth Foundation was pretty huge, is the impact that she’s had on her peers.
Erykah Badu, the 4x Grammy Award-winning singer, doula, and student midwife, is a proud International Spokesperson for the organization. Monica Simpson, Executive Director of leading reproductive justice organization Sister Song says, “Shafia is the Queen Mother. We all look to her when getting into this work.”
And when news spread of Shafia’s recent retirement as head of ICTC, renowned midwife and birth activist, Jennie Joseph , wrote Shafia a heart-felt letter. In it, she spoke of being clueless when she came to the U.S. from Britain, however it was Shafia’s example and guidance that ultimately lead her to where she is today. She writes, “I am so grateful for all that you have done, and I will continue to fight for the cause. You have shown us all what is possible.”
So what’s next for this now retired Queen Mother who has spent the past 36 years dedicated to midwifery?
Don’t expect her to start knitting blankets just yet. “I’m excited to begin another chapter in my life to accomplish personal goals, writing, business ventures, and enjoying family,” she shares. “And I will always stand in the legacy of the Black midwife as a revolutionary, for birth justice, healthy birth outcomes and to promote the benefits of midwifery throughout the African Diaspora.”
This article first appeared on Madamenoire.com on July 29. 2016