By Sarah Merke
By the second grade, SeQuoia Kemp knew she wanted to be a nurse. By middle school, she was writing papers on reproductive health issues such as abortions and miscarriages. As a teenager, she witnessed a Black midwife help a childhood friend give birth.
Kemp’s calling was clear: She would devote her life to helping pregnant women and to fighting for women’s reproductive rights. She says it may have been her destiny all along. Kemp was a rainbow baby – born after her mother suffered a miscarriage – an experience her mother always talked about openly.
By 2014, after attending four births and becoming a doula herself, Kemp started Doula 4 a Queen. She since added to her expertise, earning degrees in public health and nursing from the University of Rochester.
“I wanted to be in the birthing role, but throughout my doula training, I learned the state of affairs of birthing while Black,” she said. “I always had the passion, but the training taught me that this type of care is necessary and it’s life-changing. And so that’s what shifted for me. I was like, ‘if there’s Black women in my community who can be saved or helped or have better outcomes by having my support, then I want to be able to do that.’”
The maternal mortality rate for Black women in the United States is almost three times the rate of white women, according to a 2021 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many factors play a role in the mortality rate for Black women, one being medical experts who don’t take Black women’s complaints of pain seriously. For this reason, Black women are turning to doulas. Doulas support women through the labor process and advocate for their rights.
“We hear so many experiences and stories of women, you know, just being railroaded into decisions, just being like this was told to me and so I did it, that’s not how birth should be,” she said.
When Shakera Kemp, SeQuoia’s sister and owner of The Cuse Curlfriend hair salon in Syracuse, was pregnant, she saw firsthand the impact of her sister’s role as a doula.
“I felt really safe and secure, I knew that I was going to be supported on all sides because she was so knowledgeable and so passionate about the work that she does,” Shakera Kemp said. “I feel like when somebody is that way about their work, they’re gonna treat your pregnancy as if it’s their own.”
SeQuoia Kemp encourages everyone to partake in birth education as she believes this is a fundamental step for a healthy pregnancy.
“A lot of people go into birth not knowing their rights trump policy, that the hospital policy is not law,” she said. “I just fear for people who don’t do any type of childbirth education.”
In addition to being a doula, Kemp has started her first few weeks of remote learning this month at the Commonsense Childbirth School of Midwifery to become a Certified Professional Midwife (CPM). When finished, Kemp will be allowed to perform midwife duties in Florida but not in Syracuse, as CPMs are not licensed in New York state. Kemp is supporting a bill-Senate Bill S310– in the New York State Legislature to change that.
“CPMs are typically people of color,” she said. “They use holistic and indigenous practices that are not considered the same as Western medicine, so there’s a lot of political reasons why CPMs are not given the same support as certified nurse midwives or midwives. People deserve to have diverse options of where they can give birth, and we are doing communities a disservice by forcing them to just go to the hospital.”
At Doula 4 a Queen, Kemp also teaches educators, students, and healthcare organizers to provide information on doulas and how they can contribute to reducing Black maternal and infant mortality rates. Kemp has spoken at Upstate Medical University, the University of Rochester and other universities nationwide.
“I just see it as bringing people into the reproductive justice movement and being able to teach people to ask questions and push back because you might be asking the question that can change the trajectory of what happens in a birth,” she said.
Kemp has also started training other community-based doulas. In 2021, Doula 4 a Queen had their first training session in collaboration with Village Birth International. Since then, Kemp has trained more than 20 community-based doulas.
Hawa Omar, a senior majoring in public health at Syracuse University, is a doula in training at Doula 4 a Queen. Omar was already interested in combating the maternal mortality rate for Black women, and training under SeQuoia has taught her the importance of community.
“Growing up in Syracuse, I thought I couldn’t wait to get out of Syracuse,” Omar said. “But SeQuoia has stayed committed to Syracuse. It’s very beautiful to see her giving back to the community, even though she’s not making the most amount of money in this world. But what she’s doing is impactful and she loves it so much.”
Kemp’s advocacy often goes beyond the terms of doula care. With a background in public health, her patients will seek her help in other aspects of their lives, such as housing. With this in mind, Kemp wanted to ensure she could offer doulas who provided her patients the same level of respect and care.
“I want to be everyone’s doula,” she said, “but I can’t be everyone’s doula.”