Shantel Pipkin is used to people being surprised when she tells them she's a doula.
"A woman actually took me to the side and said, 'Are you a doula?' and I said, 'Yes I am.' She said, 'That's funny, I only thought Jewish people had doulas," Pipkin, who is black, told In The Know.
But while doulas — experienced helpers who provide emotional support and physical comfort throughout the childbirth process — do play an important role in some Jewish communities, their presence reaches much wider. Meghan Markle famously hired a doula when she gave birth earlier this year, the latest in a long line of celebrities to recently seek a doula's help.
As doulas become more mainstream, women like Pipkin are trying to break down the perceptions that have previously defined their job.
"I do notice a difference with how women of color are treated," Pipkin told In The Know. "There's stereotyping, there's pressure — you're instantly pinpointed as being argumentative."
Doulas like Pipkin and Cristina Ramos — the CEO and co-founder of Mammissi Advanced Holistic Doula — realize they aren't just fighting those stereotypes for themselves though. They're also fighting them for the women they work with.
Ramos says that her role in providing doulas to communities where they previously weren't common is part of a larger trend to fight the "industrialized system" that is making pregnancy increasingly dangerous in the U.S. In the last thirty years, the country's maternal mortality rate has actually risen steadily, while, according to the Harvard Business Review, the percentage of women dying during childbirth has decreased in every other developed country.
"[The problem is] not the doulas. It's not the midwives," Ramos told In The Know. "It's the system in a whole, and how do we change that?"
A doula's job may be to support expecting mothers, but they also work to support one another. For women like Alreema Vining — who owns Labor Mami Advanced Full Spectrum Doula — having a community of like-minded individuals is vital to their success.
"When I started on my journey, I didn't know anyone. And I would go to people and ask them for help and I got turned away a lot," Vining told In The Know. "Until I came across my doula sisters... I can go to them and I can ask them anything."
These doulas want to provide that same sense of belonging every time they work with a new mom. That's where, for Vining, Pipkin, Ramos and many of their peers, the real power of the profession lies.
"A lot of women are just thinking that their only option is the hospital because that's the only thing they know," Pipkin told In The Know. "I think it's time for us to change that storyline by showing positive images of births — especially of women of color birthing."