Student Advocacy Projects–Postpartum Resource Center

For the SW846 class the past two years, I have worked with some of my former colleagues and organizational allies to identify a couple of potential student advocacy/organizing projects in advance of the spring semester. I present these as options to students through the Blackboard virtual classroom and in the second week of class, but I also encourage students to bring ideas from their own work or practicum sites to offer to their classmates as project options.

This year, I had several student groups who identified and developed their own projects, and it was exciting to see how those played out, particularly as they complemented the students’ existing work in the field. It is also an important part of the learning process to present one’s ‘pitch’ for a project and attempt to recruit other students to that particular cause. In many ways, it’s a kind of organizing in itself–figuring out how to talk about what it is that you’re committed to in such a way that your colleagues will become committed to that same cause, and then finding roles for them to play in the effort that are meaningful to them and helpful to you.

This project really exemplified that process; a student, Jen Stoll, raised her hand to suggest a project related to her work at the Postpartum Resource Center of Kansas. It was still in the early stages of development, and so Jen was a little vague as she talked it through, but her passion for women experiencing postpartum mood disorders, and their families, came through as always. Immediately, two students, neither of whom had ever done anything related to this population or issue, said that they wanted to work with her. She and I were both a little shocked, and she then faced the task of working with Hillary (Unrein) and Ashley (Marple) to define the project and carve out tasks within it.

The crux of the project relates to birth trauma and how women who have been victims of abuse can be revictimized by standard procedures employed by medical professionals, particularly those that deny women control over their own birthing experiences. This is another social problem that I had really never thought about, and, at the end of the semester, I think the entire class was grateful to Jen, Hillary, and Ashley, for raising our consciousness. The project is very much ongoing, and it is truly multi-faceted, involving:

  • Advocating for Medicaid to reimburse for doula services, given that doulas’ presence at births is related to a more empowering experience for women
  • Development of a curriculum for providers to sensitize them to the problem of birth trauma
  • Organizing a core group of women to serve as consultants to the curriculum development process
  • Training women to become certified as doulas
  • Collaborating with organizations that serve survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault to identify program participants
  • Developing a list of recommended providers with a demonstrated commitment to protecting women from revictimization

    And I’m probably leaving something out–it’s a pretty massive undertaking! They spent considerable time just navigating the Medicaid system to figure out the steps involved with pursuing approval of a new reimbursable expense, and that process is just getting started. It is key, though, to the fulfillment of PRC’s goal that services be available to women across the socioeconomic spectrum, and I think it sends a strong statement that they’re going to make that a priority. I expect they will also find, though, that while the Medicaid process is cumbersome, it is at least more publicly accountable than private insurance companies, whose own rules about covered services are often even more opaque.

    The community organizing and coalition-building pieces are moving slowly, as PRC tries to establish itself with new partners and new constituencies, but the students see the value in building these relationships, and it seems that they’re definitely moving in the right direction. One of the more significant pieces of learning to come from this project, I think, was Jen’s process in explaining her work and her passion to two newcomers, a process that she’ll have to repeat dozens of times as she seeks allies around the community. Both Hillary and Ashley served as a sounding board, often, for Jen, and helped her to refine messages, an ongoing struggle for an organization dealing with an often-hidden and stigmatized social problem.

    At the conclusion of the semester, students present their accomplishments, their process, and some reflection on their learning to their classmates. The presentation for this group was probably the most impactful and controversial in my history of teaching this class. The students sought to challenge all of our ideas about mothering and childbirth and family formation in order to illustrate some of the difficulties in confronting postpartum mood disorders and organizing this population. I consider myself fairly sensitized to these concerns, with a family history of PPD, but I still found myself pausing a bit as I considered the powerful stereotypes that I, as a mother in this society, have absorbed.

    In the presentation, Hillary said (I’m paraphrasing, hopefully closely!) that she was just struck by Jen’s passion for women and their babies and that, even though she didn’t really have any idea what Jen even meant by ‘birth trauma’, she just had to be close to that kind of passion, and she knew that she would learn a lot from organizing and advocating in that environment. That really struck me, because I can’t think of a better measure of leadership than convincing someone to join with you in your cause just because they want to be close to the power and energy that you bring to it.

    Is there anything that you would like to add to this, Jen and Hillary and Ashley? Given that this project involved one student who had real background in the issue and two that did not, what could I have done as an instructor to better facilitate the process for you? Have other students or instructors had similar experiences? Does anyone have advice for PRC in dealing with Medicaid?

  • 2 responses to “Student Advocacy Projects–Postpartum Resource Center

    1. What an experience! I still get tears in my eyes when I think of that day when Hillary and Ashley said they wanted to work with me on this project. It marked the beginning of taking this “theory”–researched just enough to show the impact of past abuse on birth experiences & the impact of birth experiences on long-term health and mental health outcomes for mom & baby–and turning it into practice. Really, for the first time, nationally.

      Leading and implementing the project simultaneously was difficult, as Melinda said. I think it would have been good to have had a sit-down meeting with Melinda, at the outset, to really define the scope of this project that could (or should) be covered in class. Also, learning some techniques for leading people who really, genuinely want to help but don’t quite “get it” yet. And, honestly, Melinda offered this, but at the time I didn’t know what I needed.
      Would love to hear advice for dealing with Medicaid–both privatized and state-run.
      This was such an excellent experience for me & I hope it was for Ashley & Hillary, as well. We continue to make strides with the community organizing piece, bringing Doulas of Greater Kansas City into the project in just a week.
      Every Master’s in Social Welfare program should offer such an advocacy & organizing experience. How possibly can we fulfill our ethical responsibility to “advocate for living conditions conducive to the fulfillment of basic human needs” without such practice?

      • melindaklewis

        I think that part of the value in doing hands-on advocacy like in this class is that it’s really only through trying organizing work that we learn the questions we need to ask, figure out the areas that will be most challenging for us, and develop a ‘feel’ for the work and how we can best work within it. Students are consistently surprised by the areas they enjoy the most, the parts that are hardest for them, and how they change and grow in the organizing, in particular. I’m so glad to hear that the project is still progressing, and I am so pleased with how this group came together and, together, created a dynamic and really transformative process for each other, in addition to accomplishing substantial, more concrete, work. Thanks for your feedback, Jen–if any other students have thoughts about their projects, I’d love to hear them!

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