As a child, Bell was in awe of her mother’s pregnancies, believing childbirth attended by midwives was the “most beautiful thing in the world.” She had no idea how rare her mother’s experience was. Before the early 20th century, giving birth at home with a midwife – often a woman of color – was common. But as medical education was formalized, doctors touted pain relief to persuade mothers to labor in hospitals, where midwives were unwelcome. In the 1960s and ’70s, the women’s movement campaigned to train midwives as nurses, resulting in midwifery becoming a mostly white profession. Today, less than 5% of midwives in the U.S. are people of color.
Seeking change, Bell – a UCSF assistant professor of family health care nursing – is one of many people now helping UCSF “do the hard work of re-diversifying the midwifery profession.” Co-leader of the Midwifery Mentoring and Belonging Program, founded in 2019 at UCSF and Cal State Fullerton, Bell pairs Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) midwifery students with working midwives as mentors and preceptors.
Turning the tide
Traditionally, BIPOC students have struggled at academic medical institutions largely due to racism in classrooms, textbooks, and hospitals. “Consider a Black student walking into a hospital where preceptors are white, but patients are Black. Comments are made about who’s having babies – and why. How awful for students to hear preceptors speak poorly of patients who look like your family.” The tide, however, is turning. Twelve of 13 students in the program’s class of 2023 identify as BIPOC.
Midwives as lifelines
“You see the beautiful moments, and then you see utterly devastating moments when babies die unexpectedly. Mentorship becomes a lifeline by offering reassurance that you’re not alone. It’s having someone who can stand by you. They might not have the answers, but they’ve been through it.”
When Bell decided to follow her heart into midwifery, she interviewed at top schools and soon discovered that UCSF champions the values she holds dear. “I was blown away by UCSF’s commitment to reproductive and social justice.” She believes UCSF’s dedication will ensure that future preceptors look like the community they serve: “That’s the hope.”