Personality: Kenda Sutton-EL

Spotlight on co-founder and board president of Birth in Color RVA

12/24/2020, 6 p.m.
Kenda Sutton-EL knows that all births aren’t equal in Virginia.

Kenda Sutton-EL knows that all births aren’t equal in Virginia.

As a birth worker and student midwife, she has seen firsthand how “the most joyous occasion has turned into fear” with what she calls “horrifying” mortality rates for African-American mothers and infants. As a result, the childbirth narrative for Black women is far removed from other racial groups, she says.

This problem led Ms. Sutton-EL to found Birth in Color with Nikiya Ellis in November 2018 to provide support and education to expectant Black mothers, their families, health care workers and the community at large.

Two years later, Ms. Sutton-EL, who leads the nonprofit as its first board president, says the outlook has changed for the better.

“I think we’ve definitely conquered everything that we wanted to do,” Ms. Sutton-EL says. “It’s great to see the work actually being done, and seeing how quickly things can change within two years if you’re actually really doing the work.”

Working throughout the Commonwealth, Birth in Color strives to change the conditions and narrative of Black maternal health through a focus on aid, awareness and collaboration. It has created partnerships with organizations such the Richmond City Health District, Planned Parenthood and the Virginia Department of Health.

With services ranging from providing birth and child care experts for expectant mothers, to prenatal classes and educational material for expecting families and reproductive health care workers, Birth in Color’s roughly 40 members have helped more than 700 women through the birthing process—before, during and after delivery.

As board president, Ms. Sutton-EL works as an advocate and as Birth in Color’s policy director, creating the group’s agenda and outlining laws and policies they want to see proposed and approved. She has focused her term on creating strategies that lead to change in the maternal and infant mortality rates.

The major strategy for achieving these goals has been influencing policy and decisions within the Virginia General Assembly. During the 2020 legislative session, Ms. Sutton-EL says, Birth in Color advocated for establishment of doula certification and for Medicaid payments for doulas.

Ms. Sutton-EL also worked to directly inform and educate legislators on the matter and related topics to ensure those writing the laws wouldn’t fall for stereotypes and misconceptions.

“A lot of the public doesn’t even realize that the numbers are so high,” Ms. Sutton-EL says. “It’s time for a real change and for them not to keep saying that it’s because of a lack of access or lack of prenatal care.”

Ms. Sutton-EL also continues to conduct racial bias training for hospitals and health care providers. And while she says those within the maternity care system often don’t admit how deeply racism goes, those that do make the effort to correct their work when she shines a spotlight on inherent bias issues.

Looking ahead, Birth in Color is preparing for the upcoming 2021 General Assembly session and working alongside patrons for an infant mortality review board and an inmate pregnancy protection work group.

Meet a childbirth champion and this week’s Personality, Kenda Sutton-EL:

No. 1 volunteer position: Maternal and birth justice advocate and board president, Birth in Color RVA.

Date and place of birth: Oct. 8 in Richmond, but I grew up in Northumberland County.

Where I live now: Richmond.

Occupation: Holistic nutritionist, clinical herbalist, lactation counselor, birth worker and student midwife.

Education: Old Dominion University and Reynolds Com- munity College.

Family: Husband, Bobby Sutton-EL, and children, Karin and King.

Birth in Color RVA is: Birth in Color RVA is a birth, policy and advocacy nonprofit focused on raising awareness and providing services for Black women giving birth. We want to change the narrative of Black maternal health, not only in Richmond, but around the world. Birth in Color RVA provides culturally centered support to pregnant women, their families and birthing communities to ensure a safe delivery and make better decisions for children. Our services range from providing expert birth workers, doulas and lactation consultants for expectant mothers, to prenatal classes and educational material for reproductive health care workers.

When and why founded: Birth in Color RVA was founded November 2018 because of the high rate Black women and infants were dying during childbirth.

Founders: Kenda Sutton-EL and Nikiya Ellis.

Number one goal or project as board president: To create a safe space for Black women, as well as families, during childbirth and early education. To implement strategies to create change in the maternal and infant mortality rates.

Strategy for achieving goals: Creating policies within the General Assembly. The first step was in the 2020 General Assembly session helping to establish doula certification and Medicaid payments for doulas. For the upcoming legislative session, we currently are working for creation of an infant mortality review board and an inmate pregnancy protection work group.

Why I accepted position: I am super-passionate about ensuring that Black women are well taken care of before, during and after the birth process. The Black maternal and infant mortality rates are horrifying. The most joyous occasion has turned into fear.

Prenatal care in RVA is: Dependent on your provider. Prenatal care should be about education and ensuring you are properly nourishing your body enough to carry over to your unborn child.

Racial disparities in our maternity care system are: Although some won’t admit it, racism is a key factor within the maternity care system. I have done racial bias training with providers and the answers to some of the questions still baffle me.

A birth worker is: Birth workers and doulas are the same thing. A birth worker is a trained companion who is not a health care professional and who supports another individual through a significant health-related experience, such as childbirth, miscarriage, induced abortion or stillbirth, or non-reproductive experiences such as dying.

How a pregnant mother can access services: They can reach out via Facebook, Instagram, email or our website, www. birthincolorrva.org.

What a mother or family can expect when working with Birth in Color RVA: They can expect someone who will empower, uplift and educate families before, during and after the childbirth process. We pride ourselves in teaching how important prenatal care is and also how to start your journey to parenthood.

How COVID-19 is impacting families Birth in Color RVA works with: Initially, it was tough when hospitals weren’t allowing birth workers in. We were able to effectively advocate to have that changed. Switching gears to offer everything virtually, including childbirth education and prenatal visits, was challenging for clients without internet access, but we were able to overcome some obstacles.

Advice to expectant mothers during pandemic: Breathe. Implement self-care during this time and don’t overthink the process. Create boundaries and stay within those boundaries.

How Birth in Color RVA assists fathers: By providing childbirth education one on one with each father. We encourage the father to remain a part of the bonding process and focus on key items the father can do to support.

Upcoming special projects: Training birth workers from the community to help them serve their community.

How I start the day: I start my day with meditation and a cup of tea.

Best late-night snack: Apples and peanut butter.

How I unwind: Reading.

Quote that I am most inspired by: “The thought is the cause of it all”— Johnny X. Williamson

At the top of my “to-do” list: Create a birth/wellness center.

Best thing my parents ever taught me: The power of saying “No.”

Person who influenced me the most: My grandmother.

Book that influenced me the most: “Strength to Love” by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

What I’m reading now: “PowerNomics” by Claud Anderson.