Sister, Community Engagement Expert, Doula
In memory of Twyla Mack
– Kendalyn Mack Franklin
I came to Fresno in 2012 from Compton, California to go to school at Fresno State. And so I’ve been here for 10 years and met my husband at State. Fresno is a great place to build: If you’re looking to build your career, pay off debt, and understand who you are, Fresno is a good place for that. That’s how I made my own decision to stay after I graduated.
In college, I joined a historic Black Greek letter organization called Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Incorporated. I immediately took a leadership role and became President of our undergraduate chapter. So I had heard about Black Infant Health and asked them to come and do a presentation for the students and community of Fresno State during Finer Womanhood Week. They agreed and Sabrina Beavers of Fresno County’s Black Infant Health came to do the presentation. When she came in and did this presentation and was talking to us about the infant mortality rates and preterm birth rates for Black women, I was immediately intrigued. I immediately knew we were in a state of emergency and that I had to get involved. Before Sabrina left, I told her, “I am gonna find you after I graduate.”
And we’ve been working together ever since. She is a Community Champion for the Voices for Birth Justice Fresno campaign and she is now the coordinator of Fresno County’s Black Infant Health. That presentation really inspired me and set off the fire for me to do this work.
What would it take for Black people to have safe births in Fresno? Well, that is a loaded-ass question. There’s so many things!
The number one thing for me right now: All women in Fresno and particularly Black and Indigenous women need to have access to alternative birthing environments beyond the hospital setting. They need to know about home births, birth centers, unassisted births as well as hospital births and be able to choose which option aligns with their ideal birth experience, because there’s a lot of us that feel safe in hospitals and there’s a lot of us that don’t.
In the United States, we deliver almost 100% of our babies in the hospital, yet our country is one of the worst places to give birth compared to other countries, especially for Black and Indigenous mothers and families. Evidence shows that people who give birth at home are more likely to feel respected by their medical provider and have overall better birth outcomes. So while we get everyone on board with treating Black and Indigenous women and their families like human beings, we can provide opportunities to access alternative birthing environments as well.
All these things that would make Black women feel empowered during their birth. If more people knew about and had access to other birthing environments, inevitably we would operate within a structure where more Black women feel respected and safe, because the statistics show that these are the places where they get that the most. To have safe births for Black women in Fresno would require a change in the mindset of our entire nation.
Fresno is known for hospital births. There are no birthing centers that are not attached to the hospital. There was one that was created in 2015 that no longer exists. The midwife is still around but the birthing center is not. And the next closest one is outside of Fresno, about an hour away.
Right now we’re in a hospital-centered mindset around birthing. What we need most is for our medical practitioners to be trained in assisting births without interventions, too. Because thus far, the medical education system has only taught us to facilitate births with interventions. Medical providers don’t even know what it looks like to have a full blown holistic birth without any interventions. There are so many OB/GYNs, nurse practitioners, and doctors who have never seen an uninterrupted birth — it is just so rare for them because they have not been trained to support one. If we train OB/GYNs to facilitate unmedicated, uninterrupted, intervention-free births, then we can allow women to just be women and to do what God designed our bodies to do. And if women would like interventions or medication, then they should have access to that, too.
My oldest sister passed away before she was one year old. Her name was Twyla Mack, and she was my father’s oldest daughter. From what he could explain to me, the doctors told him that his blood type and her mother’s blood type just weren’t compatible. My father didn’t have a name for the diagnosis.
I, of course, didn’t meet her because my father didn’t have me for another 15 years. But she was very, very important to my father, and he only had one picture of her that was so sacred, he kept it in a safe place and he only brought it out a few times.
I wouldn’t have known about her at all, but one day I was visiting home from college — when I was probably 19 or 20 — and we were looking through a photo album together. He was showing me pictures from when I was a young girl, photos of my other sisters, and photos of his siblings and himself from when he was young, and I remember seeing this picture of a baby. He started to just flip past it and I made him back up like “Hey, who is that?”.
He told me that she was my big sister, Twyla, and that she passed away. In that moment, I was just stuck. Like “I have an older sister who passed away and I’m just now learning about her?”
As I look back on that moment, I think, “Wow, he wasn’t going to talk about her.” If my father was alive today, I would ask him why. What emotions did he have? Did he think that people didn’t care? When he talked about her, did people just say, “Oh, I am sorry” and then move on to the next thing? What was his experience with having a child that transitioned? How have you been supported, how have you been loved? I have realized that it affected my father in ways that I will never understand.
In my adult years, I just want to always call her name and acknowledge her as my sister, someone who is a part of my sibling line. It affected me because I have lived so much of my life, not knowing that I had an older sister, not knowing that my father was walking with this loss, because we never brought her into our space.
As I create my family, I want to make sure that we do that. We speak her into our home and we acknowledge her existence. I wish I would have grabbed the picture of her when my father passed away. It’s just photographic memory at this point. For me, having the opportunity to honor my sister through this campaign really does mean a lot to me. I hope that my father would be happy that I’m doing this. My heart feels full to be able to say, “She was here and this was my sister.”
I do many different things to support the birth outcomes for Black families in Fresno. I have spent a lot of my time serving as a subject matter expert for Black maternal health and community engagement. The way that manifests in my life is through supporting large institutions with creating and maintaining meaningful connections and relationships with local families here in Fresno and the Central Valley regarding different public health issues, but primarily around infant mortality, preterm birth, and maternal-child health as a whole. Similar to what I’ve done as the coordinator of the Voices for Birth Justice Fresno campaign.
Another way is that I am supporting birth outcomes for Black families is through my commitment to academia at California State University, Fresno. I am currently an MPH candidate writing a thesis on how Black reparations can reduce infant mortality among African American/Black working women. In that way, I’m also participating in the academic conversation.
I am recently became certified as a birth and postpartum doula. So, not only am I supporting institutions, engaging in the academic conversation, I’m also directly supporting Black and Indigenous women through maternity in effort to manifest their ideal birth outcome.
Eventually, I will train as a homebirth midwife. I want to take it a step further because doulas primarily provide emotional support, information, and comfort measures, through pregnancy, birth. and postpartum. Certified and trained homebirth midwives are able to give medical advice and respond to any complications, if need be.
The fifth way I am supporting birth outcomes for Black families is by using my voice to amplify the voices of the community. Speaking at community forums, conferences, meetings, etc. about what I’ve witnessed, experienced, and learned. Bringing community voices to the table where there is money flowing and decisions are being made. Always making sure that community voice is heard in those spaces. Because it is very easy to drown out their voices — and it is not always intentional — but you always need someone there to make sure we stay in alignment.
Honestly, I didn’t know about the statistics until I got to college. My sister who came right after me — she’s a year younger than me — she was born preterm. And I remember all throughout my childhood, my dad would say, “Alexus was born early. She was so small, she could fit in the palm of my hand.” He would extend his hand to show me that like… she was that small.
At the time, I always thought, “Wow, you were born really small” but it didn’t really resonate with me until I started to understand what preterm birth really was and how much more at risk that makes you to experience infant mortality. So I became extremely grateful that my sister is here with me. I love her so much and I’m so happy that I get to experience life with her.
Both of my siblings experienced adverse birth outcomes and the two women in their lives (my father’s first girlfriend and then his wife, my mother) also experienced adverse birth outcomes. Noticing that pattern and knowing that it is common, I grew sure that there are other people who have experienced this and their families are not talking about it in the same way my dad wasn’t talking about it.
All of that wrapped in a bow is what really keeps my fire going and helps me to understand why this is so important. It is my own personal experiences and also the experiences of the other women that I’ve interacted with. All in alignment with God, I know that this is the way. This is what I am here to do.
Every Black woman who is pregnant needs to be enrolled in Black Infant Health. If we have 800 Black births in Fresno, all 800 families need to be referred. That’s not the reality here in Fresno: Black Infant Health in Fresno County gets only a third of the Black births each year, which is not good. We know how often infant mortality and preterm birth happens in the Black community, so every Black family should be referred to Black Infant Health.
Fresno County’s Black Infant Health has been around for 33 years and it is still not a household name. There are so many Black families that do not know about Black Infant Health. If I could do anything in this interview, I want to uplift Black Infant Health as the number one resource that every Black woman and family should know about.
It requires our providers to make that referral. If the doctor gets a Black woman who is pregnant, or a Black family that is expecting, they should make the referral: Black Infant Health. It’s not to say that they are intentionally holding out on sharing this information. Many medical providers don’t know about Black Infant Health. It’s just that it’s not embedded in the system. It needs to be institutionalized. Not only is it not a household name, but it is also not being utilized properly.
And dream that
Around Black people
Whether that be their
Family, extended family, community, cities, counties, state, country, hemisphere
All of that, on the micro and macro levels
That the world around Black people would acknowledge them as
So much so that they treat them as such,
Treat them as human beings.
That everyone acknowledges the divinity that is within them
And that the energy that surrounds
Black future mamas and daddies,
Black birthing people,
Black families, and
Is completely transformed
Into highest vibrations,
Yeah, that’s my hope.