One of the biggest disparities affecting people of color in the United States concerns maternal mental health. In 2022, WorkingGroup512, based in East Austin, received a $5,000 grant from the Hogg Foundation for its maternal mental health project. The project provides holistic support and healing to a focus cohort of Black mothers and primary caregivers, ages 16 to 65, caring for at least one child between birth to two years old.

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In this episode of the podcast, we speak with Neishai Gregory, a doula who works with Working Group 512, and Virginia Baldwin, a mother and client, to learn more about the organization’s work building a community of care for Black women as they experience the mental health challenges of pregnancy and parenting.

A Community of Support

As a doula with WorkingGroup512, Neishai Gregory is energized to be following in the footsteps of her great-grandmother, a midwife.

“This is where I’m destined to be,” Neishai says. “This is where I need to be. I need to be out in the community helping women go through their pregnancy journey and their postpartum journey.”

Neishai finds it incredibly gratifying to be a member of the birth worker community. She offers support to mothers and caregivers who are facing mental health challenges with few resources. Providing free services to teen mothers through Austin Independent School District is also an important part of her work.

“WorkingGroup512 gave me the chance to be a part of this community when there were a lot of doors closed in my face,” says Neishai.

Black Women’s Unique Challenges

While mental health impacts everyone, it doesn’t impact everyone in the same way. Women of color face unique challenges.

In much of the Black community, stigma surrounding mental health remains and the need for mental health care and support is minimized.

“Growing up in the Black community, mental health wasn’t something that was acceptable for Black people. We were taught we didn’t have those kind of problems,” says Virginia Baldwin. “So, when you were facing something like depression or anxiety or PTSD, you weren’t allowed to talk about it. You couldn’t bring it to your family or to your friends [to ask for support].”

Stereotypes that reinforce the exemplar of the “strong Black woman” putting other people’s needs ahead of her own adds to the challenges Black women, and Black mothers in particular, face.

Strength does indeed result from struggle, says Virginia, “But sometimes it’s hard to put on that face. It’s hard to put on the front that we’re okay and nothing is wrong in our life.”

Addressing Unmet Needs

As a BIPOC-led organization that gives hands-on support to the BIPOC community, WorkingGroup512 prioritizes people whose needs are often inadequately addressed in the larger context of public policy.

“[State and local political leaders and institutions] don’t protect me. They don’t protect my community. They don’t protect my kids’ future,” says Neishai. “That’s why WorkingGroup512 is in the community – to help our community. We’re here for our future. We’re here for our children, our grandchildren.”

As an expectant mother who has also experienced pregnancy losses, Virginia has found the organization to be a welcome source of support and strength.

“Battling some of the fears I have in this pregnancy, it’s been great to get together with women who are pregnant or have small children or have experience in this field to talk to about what I’m going through, what I’ve been through, and to help them with whatever they’re going through,” Virginia says. “We’re building a community, a sisterhood that has made a huge impact on my life.”

A Community of Support

Like most nonprofit organizations with limited budgets, WorkingGroup512 benefits greatly from financial donations and donations of supplies that enable them to continue providing services. Currently, they are also seeking expertise and resources to help launch new programming that promotes and supports breastfeeding.

“I think a breastfeeding seminar would be an excellent opportunity for our community,” Virginia says.

She recalls her own struggles to breastfeed her daughter without helpful information or support from others, and notes that despite the medical community’s admonishment to breastfeed, few resources exist for women in need.

In keeping with the organization’s existing services, new projects like the breastfeeding seminar promise to build a much-needed community of support for Black mothers and caregivers in East Austin.

“We can come together to talk,” says Neishai. “To learn from each other and to be united.”

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