HealthRacial Equity

NATAL podcast series gives voice to Black birthing experiences

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Illustration courtesy of NATAL and original artwork by Brittany Harris.

It’s no secret that infant and maternal mortality rates among Black women are significantly higher than that of their White counterparts. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that Black pregnant women also have had significantly higher rates of COVID-19 and resulting complications than White women due to a series of preventable racial disparities like access to quality care and access to quality jobs with benefits.

W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) grantee NATAL, a podcast docuseries, was born out of an urgent need to give voice to the stories and lived experiences of having a baby while Black in this country. The NATAL team uses the docuseries to pass the mic to Black parents to tell their stories about bringing new life into the world, in their own words. The docuseries also highlights the birthworkers, medical professionals, researchers and advocates fighting daily for better care for Black birthing parents.

Gabrielle Horton and Martina Abrahams Ilunga, the executive producers of NATAL, bring an interesting perspective to the Black birthing experience. “Neither of us has given birth before,” Abrahams Ilunga says. But it hasn’t stopped them from being passionate about sharing the stories of the Black birthing experience at all stages of their maternal health and childbirth experiences. For Horton, it was deeply personal. When her childhood friend suffered preeclampsia during her pregnancy, it brought a sense of urgency to create this project.

Maternal health and mortality have been in the spotlight recently, as celebrities such as Beyoncé, Serena Williams and Olympic track star Allyson Felix shared their very personal stories of their struggles with pregnancy and childbirth. These are women who have access to the best quality care for themselves and their babies. The good news is their stories finally brought a new level of national awareness to the plight of Black women. The bad news is that those stories left more questions than answers for others.

Oral storytelling has been around for centuries and is not new, but NATAL stories are a new way of expanding the voices and the way we look at Black maternal health and positive outcomes. “Storytelling can connect people and get them to imagine a new future,” Horton says. Through NATAL, Horton and Abrahams Ilunga are creating a safe space for Black people to share their own stories.

"Who is in a better position to talk about these important health issues than Black people — we know our bodies."

The first season of the NATAL podcast launched during the pandemic in April 2020. Horton and Abrahams Ilunga continued to use a mix of available tools to capture and produce the stories for airing, including virtual recording sessions and working with local producers, which they did even before the pandemic.

“Our work at NATAL is focused on expanding the conversation around reproductive care, and we try to do so by showing a diverse range of stories,” Horton says. NATAL also represents the important and underrepresented experiences of Black, queer and transgender families and gives them a space and place to tell their stories. “We hope this work shows a deep love and admiration for Black folks,” Abrahams Ilunga says, “We see it as a big hug on a cold day.”

They say there was never a shortage of Black birthing experiences to showcase, but they worked hard before the launch to find them. “We reached out to groups including Black Mamas Matter, local birthing centers and providers, other Black parenting and birthing podcasts, and people working in the reproductive justice space who helped open the door for us,” Horton says.

They say there was never a shortage of Black birthing experiences to showcase, but they worked hard before the launch to find them. “We reached out to groups including Black Mamas Matter, local birthing centers and providers, other Black parenting and birthing podcasts, and people working in the reproductive justice space who helped open the door for us,” Horton says.

They will be launching the second season of NATAL stories in August, during Breastfeeding Awareness Month. The second season will focus on the experiences of Black parents in rural America as they push to have babies and raise their families on their own terms. Horton and Abrahams Ilunga say that they want to lift up the things that people can do to support breastfeeding, even if they are not parents. Yet, breastfeeding is only a small part of what the second season will feature. Other topics include reproductive healthcare and justice, the history of reproductive justice grassroots organizing in rural areas, fertility and pregnancy loss, just to name a few. Abrahams Ilunga adds that it is important to hear from the birthworkers, medical providers, researchers and advocates who are out here supporting pregnancy and mothering.

WKKF supports NATAL to help change the narrative related to poor Black birth outcomes. Systemic racism is a primary driver of Black birth disparities. Through their storytelling, NATAL puts a spotlight on the systemic barriers that Black parents face. You can listen to NATAL wherever you listen to podcasts. To kick off the new season, NATAL is going to be doing an Instagram takeover of the WKKF Instagram page from Aug. 25-Aug. 31 @kelloggfoundation during Black Breastfeeding Week.

Andrea Collier
Andrea Collier is an award-winning author who has been writing about health and health policy issues for the past 20 years. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times, The Lansing State Journal and the PostTribune. Her work appears regularly in Essence, More, Ladies Home Journal, Woman’s Day, O, the Oprah Magazine, Real Health, Heart Healthy Living, Heart Insights, the National Medical Association Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, AARP Magazine, More and others. She has held numerous journalism fellowships including the Carter Center Journalism Fellowship on Mental Health and is a former WKKF Food and Society Policy fellow.

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