Alicia Roach, Doula and Certified Lactation Educator, Birthing with Dignity Doula Services
Alicia Roach is a doula and certified lactation educator based in Portland, Oregon. She promotes safe, supportive, and empowering birthing experiences for her clients. She’s especially committed to advocating for Black birthing people and their babies amidst the Black Maternal Health Crisis. Alicia was formerly incarcerated while pregnant and her firsthand experience inspired her to testify for House Bill 2535, which would establish a prison doula program at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility.
Listen to our conversation, or read a condensed version of it below.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I was incarcerated from 2008 to 2013, and I found out shortly after my incarceration that I was pregnant. I delivered my son in 2009, and that set me on my path to become a doula because that was one of the worst experiences, but most firing experiences of my life. I started doing research about doula programs and got trained in 2019. I’ve been a doula ever since, and throughout both of my last pregnancies. I’m just going and giving support; I’m making sure that people feel human and feel heard.
What helps you to find continual motivation and what helps to make your role feel most rewarding?
The testimonies that I hear from the clients that I serve— how empowered they feel, the relief that they feel once we first have our prenatal meetings and all of their questions are usually answered. They’re like, “Oh, okay, I can do this.” Just knowing that what I’m doing is actually impacting folks and it’s part of a larger scope of things. Because this is an epidemic… we die during childbirth, our babies die during childbirth, we have trauma created around childbirth… and a lot of people are scared to give birth in a hospital because of horror stories or mistreatment. So, I just make sure that my clients are feeling heard.
What makes your role as a doula most challenging?
When things don’t go as planned in our births. Different encounters with staff and how they kind of disregard my role as a doula. The stories that my moms bring, the trauma that they bring when I’m servicing them. Lived experience is what makes it challenging, but it’s something that I can relate to and I’ve navigated this my whole life. Just to help others navigate it is very rewarding, but the trauma that we bring – the trauma is what’s hard.
How does your role as a doula inform your work as an advocate and vice versa?
I make sure that I stay educated. I make sure that I stay with the latest information. Knowing your rights as a human and making sure that those are granted. Not even speaking and being the voice for the clients that I serve, but just making them aware of what’s going on like, “Hey, how do you feel about this?” Or, if one of my clients asks me a question, I might say, “Okay, well what do you think?” And then I’ll give my opinion. So that way they don’t have a biased opinion and lean more towards what I say. But I like shaking up the system. I like for people’s eyes to be open to real life and to reality. I’ve been an advocate my whole life. I’ve always been the kid to say something, to have an opinion about something. So, it’s just in my nature to nurture and to advocate.
Could you tell us a little bit about your recent experience testifying for the Oregon legislature and the bill that you were speaking in support of?
It’s House Bill 2535 for a prison doula program inside of the women’s prison here: Coffee Creek. There have been horror stories about how moms are treated and how the staff are not equipped to care for a pregnant person. It’s much needed and it’s all-around support. It’s setting our kids up for success. It’s setting our moms up for success because they have something to look forward to. They can be part of their kids’ life and a part of the birth plan. They can feel like they have a voice, and that means the world. People need to be heard.
How was the actual experience for you testifying? Is that something you’ve done previously or was this kind of your first time for this bill?
This was my first time and I was terrified. But to hear the compassion from one of the chairpersons there, and to see the look on her face – she was holding back tears. That gave me hope. It’s something that I’m ready to do again. I’m ready to go back to the Capitol. I’m ready to picket out there. Whatever I have to do so that we can be heard. We can be seen. We can be noticed.
It sounds like the bill you spoke in support of would provide critical support to pregnant and postpartum people who are incarcerated.
Yes, and even to their families that are caring for the babies because my parents were older when they got my son, and they also had my three-year-old son. And they didn’t know, they didn’t have the support. Just to give that holistic family support, that whole wraparound support is critical for everyone, especially our children. My son has had a hard time adjusting and navigating life. I feel like that was because of our separation. He’s the only one that’s had it hard like this with school friends and rebellion. He wasn’t set up for success. They literally told me: “We don’t care what happens to your son. We don’t care if he goes to foster care. As long as you get back to that jail, that’s all that matters.” That was the worst thing to hear. You don’t care about a child? Who doesn’t care about a child? A newborn child, an innocent child? That did nothing wrong because his mom made a bad choice? So, it’s needed.
I think that’s such a testament that you were able to turn that experience around and advocate for other people to prevent them from going through similar situations. Because it shouldn’t have happened to you and people need to know that we need policies that promote family health and wellbeing.
We have a way of turning a blind eye on our reality in the United States, but that’s not doing anything for anyone. It’s just making it worse. Look at what we’re dealing with in the world–mass shootings, all kinds of crimes, and people feel like they’re not being heard.
I think it’s really important how you emphasize ensuring that people who are most impacted by harmful systems are heard. As you know our newsletter is focused on the intersection of pregnancy and parenting within prisons and jails. Our readership includes students and professionals who are interested in this topic. If you were to offer general advice to our readers who are interested in engaging more with advocacy, what would you tell them?
Be open. Just be open because I was in school for social work and trying to talk about incarceration and pregnancy. They weren’t ready to hear that. I always got shut down. Always, always, always. And we’ve got to talk about it. Look at our prison system. They’re everywhere. We have a ton of people that have either been involved, that are still involved, and…it’s just a whole system that needs to be readjusted. If working in this type of work, birth, work, birth justice, dismantling systems is your passion, don’t let what other people say to you discourage you from your passion. Just know that your work is going to mean something.
Thank you to Alicia Roach for sharing her time and insights with the JIWC, and for her work to advocate for House Bill 2535 in support of a prison doula program in Oregon.