A Comment on DONA

Okay I can’t resist writing about the recent issue of DONA posting a highly insensitive image. I can’t say I feel quite gleeful or even a bit of Schadenfreude (thought it’s tempting) because this controversy comes at the expense of black folks who are at a particular crossroads of hatred and invisibility in our current environment, but critiques of the establishment neck of DONA are long overdue. I’ve had personal and professional beef with them as an organization since before I was even trained as a doula, and this has only grown over the years. This recent nonsense takes the cake, though.

I’m not going to repost the image. If you haven’t already seen it, DONA posted (for the second time in less than two years) an image of a white woman wearing an afro wig and looking dumbfounded in an advertising campaign. It’s an inappropriate and frankly just bad and nonsensical photo. It didn’t need to exist. The afro serves no particular plot purpose and beyond that, of course it’s offensive when there has to be policy action taken AGAINST the notion that you can deny someone work or access because of their black hair styles. DONA should have known better to begin with, but especially after they were already called out for using this photo, they should have known better than to reuse it.

Now, it is also worth taking this mantle up so that black women, already having to engage in these ridiculous battles to HAVE HAIR and you know…not die in childbirth, can take a nap or drink a beer or play with their kids or do their jobs without having to pause to fight these battles in the first place. And where I am exhausted as a liberally minded person by the constant in circle fighting and purity testing, this is an issue that is just so damn petty and annoying and caused only because people at the top of the biggest doula training organization seem to so constantly have their horse blinders on that I feel like this is something as a policy-oriented doula and a doula who recognizes the shameful truth of the disparities in care within an already failing system that I can’t just roll my eyes and wait quietly for it to pass.


So let’s be clear, I am a WHHHHHHHHHHHite WHOOOOOOOoman. Like, Nordic and Celtic, see-through skin, made of potato and flakey white fish, born in a pile of lily white snow white woman. I’m listening to Philip Glass as rage music right now sort of white woman. I inherited the blonde hair and high arched eye brows of my mother that seem to serve as catnip for older white ladies to come up to me out of the blue and say crazy racist things at my face. I can’t tell you how many Birkenstock wearing older white ladies have approached me on the street in downtown Oakland after I walk out of my front door with my pitbull to ask me if I have this dog because I’m afraid of the black folks on my block. I truly, deeply, wish that I could chalk this up to me being a pathological liar vying for click bait, but trust me, this has happened to me on numerous occasions. It happens to me in line at the Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods — older “progressive” white women commenting on “the hood” where these stores are located (in now highly gentrified parts of the city) to commend or chastise me for my supposed “bravery” at living in such a supposedly threatening area. I wish I could tell you that I turned and screamed at them “I’M NOT ON YOUR TEAM, LADY!” but honestly, I’ve managed to be a bit more subtle in my rebuttal and for that, I am ashamed.

I see these same sorts of comments online regarding this and other issues around the black maternal health crisis. White women, most trained by DONA and CAPPA and the more “establishment” organizations, jumping into the comments to wag their fingers at more radical activists for voicing their anger. This isn’t the exhausting circular infighting that impedes some radical activism. No, this is a symptom of a strain of birth work that is all too accepting of the status quo not wanting to feel threatened by colleagues pointing out systemic problems and demanding action from the organizations that are supposed to represent doulas and help lend legitimacy and protect our livelihood. If DONA and the other major training organizations and their circle of piranhas online can’t see their blindspots, it affects ALL of us in this practice, but particularly the most underserved and undervalued of us — Black women.

Black women are 4x more likely than white women to die in childbirth in this country. We know that statistic by heart by now. We know it because it has finally crossed into the national dialogue. We know it because non-establishment black women yelled, cried, wrote, showed up, pushed forward for decades until this became a statistic we memorized. And let’s be absolutely clear — this statistic is an embarrassment. Our healthcare system is a huge and expensive joke and getting worse, but this particular component of our failing system is a particular offense and there is not a second more we can waste ignoring its causes. As indirect as it may appear, when racism runs so systematically deep that the problem with this image was overlooked TWICE when this offensive image is being used to represent literally tens of thousands of doulas, it is absolutely part of the problem. It cannot rest on the emotional and physical labor of black women alone to redirect this course.

We need to continue to push against initiatives that block access to our already difficult to access yet important work through means disguised as advancement.

With great privilege comes great responsibility and that is something that the directors of DONA can stand to hear repeated lately as bills like Senate Bill S3344B in the New York State Senate begin to dictate to doulas matters of certification and what is deemed, to “be of good moral character as determined by the department. [Section 1 (e)]” As the largest training body in the world, the Board and upper reaches of DONA may wind up having a particularly privileged position to determine what is acceptable behavior within our profession in the eyes of the governmental bodies of one of the most populous states in the country. We need to continue to push against initiatives that block access to our already difficult to access yet important work through means disguised as advancement. As DONA and the other larger organizations with larger boards given more access than many other certification bodies in policy decisions take up the mantle of professional recognition, they need to take heed of their modes of visual representation and know that their views don’t reflect those of a large portion of the birth workers in this country. If they want the seat of power given to what they proudly tote as the supposed “world’s best”, they must accept greater responsibility, pull in more diverse voices, and pay attention to their negligence. **

I personally, have long felt that DONA does not represent me as a doula. I actively avoided being trained by this organization from the outset. In the months leading up to choosing my doula training, I was working at a non-profit in Holland doing legal research for under-represented persons around the globe. I didn’t feel compelled to spend the little money I had to train under an organization that didn’t seem that focused on combatting the systemic issues within the American healthcare system that made doula work as critical and political a profession as it is. I talked to too many DONA trained doulas who felt unprepared for the realities of how political and challenging their work would be fresh out of their trainings and I wanted better. I wanted more. I wanted to be challenged. I wanted the tools to challenge the system. We all should have those skills so that fewer of us get burnt out after just 2-3 years in this field. Initially in my practice, because I chose to train outside of DONA, I was barred from volunteering at many programs (YES, VOLUNTEERING) and those who were blocking my access were very vocal about why they thought I was unworthy of supporting their efforts. I was admonished openly in doula gatherings (and this was in Seattle and Tacoma — the birthplace of DONA) and told to just make cookies for nurses and not cause too much fuss.

That was a decade ago (just had my 10 year anniversary as a doula earlier this month!) and I feel that the gap in the reality of this work and what DONA as an organization promotes as doula work is ever widening. I am proud to have been trained by toLabor and proud to work with more radical training programs like Cornerstone. I am proudly developing my own training program that has a particular bent toward more activism and policy goals and means to bust this broken system from within and without starting this fall. Doulas need more diverse and BETTER representation than they’re getting through DONA.

So what can we do here as allies? There are three main things, as I see it :

  1. Stop giving DONA money, if you can. If you disagree with their policies and practices, don’t continue to train with them or pay for your continued certification through them. At this point, certification is not required to practice as a doula (there are some issues with that, too, but for another day). When you have the opportunity or need to take more classes, choose ones not taught by DONA (there are LOTS). And if clients are concerned about your certification status, you can give a brief explanation of why you chose not to continue with this group. You can still do the work to keep up with your advanced training, but don’t continue to fund an organization that doesn’t represent you or take criticism of their bad practices seriously. They don’t have to remain the top organization in the world if they aren’t living up to that standard. Like it or not, we live in a capitalistic society and money talks.

  2. Whether you choose to stay with DONA or not, SPEAK OUT. Don’t leave it up to someone else to voice your concerns about practices that you don’t agree with. If you don’t want to wade into the swamp of social media with this issue (and I honestly do not judge you for that at all), you can write a personal letter to the board at DONA, a blog post, a letter to your DONA trainer, etc. If you are part of an agency, collective, or group that requires your certification through DONA or if you have a newer doula looking for recommendations, you can speak up on why you’d like them to seek alternatives. I know this gets lost in our digital age, but this work is still fundamentally word of mouth and comes down to making ripples in person in our own communities. This area of our work is no exception.

  3. Show up. SHOW. UP. If you feel that DONA is not representing you, start representing you. This cannot be done just online and it can’t be done just with black women having to do all the work themselves. Submit issues of access in townhall meetings. Start a letter writing campaign. Form strong, local doula community networks so you can show up as a team with an efficient plan and collective voice when issues of determination arise at the local and national level. If you don’t want DONA to be the only seat at the table, you are going to have to whittle together a goddamned chair. That’s just reality. And if you show up and get others to show up, that means that we can divide the work. Someone can take on paying attention to when issues of racism and insensitivity come up. Then another motivated person can formulate comments and official statements against them. Someone else entirely can help make action plans to make sure these issues arise less often. Yet another person can be paying attention to when bills are going to be brought to the floor and how to get more diverse representation in the meetings. No one magical person can do it on their own. It was a team of folks who allowed that image to spread through DONA and onward and it takes a team of people to get it down. We need to show up for each other. That is self care. That is community care.

And I’m going to walk the walk here. I’m not going to cave and pay DONA hundreds of dollars a year to have my courses count for their CEU’s. I was on the fence about it since I feel the doulas they train deserve to have a spectrum of courses offered to them for professional development and because they do have many trainers I respect tremendously. However, I feel that this money I have to grind my teeth in my sleep with stress over getting could be redirected toward scholarship programs, creating more access to my activism training, and supporting the efforts of communities of color having to shoulder so much unnecessary and petty work just to survive a normal biological event in this country.

You are, obviously, allowed to disagree with me about DONA’s structure and trainings in general, but I hope that you will join with me in promoting stronger activism efforts and a push for greater representation in the movement for the legitimacy of our profession and the rights of black persons to have access to safe and supportive reproductive care. If you want to talk more about how, please email me at or fill out a form on the Contact page.

**[Amended] The original posting of this article incorrectly mentioned that DONA and ProDoula were part of the legislative endeavors of NY Senate Bill S3344B. The original source of that information was incorrect and appears to have since been taken down. This article has been adjusted to reflect that. Sincerest apologies for the confusion that had caused.