Skip to main content

Meet the CUBE venture combating Durham’s staggering birth disparities

October 31, 2019 • Erin Reitz • No Comments

Durham Volunteer Doulas (DVD) is strengthening its mission to offer accessible doula care in the Triangle area. In 2019, DVD’s first full year in operation, the nonprofit has supported 33 local mothers and offered two free doula workshops to local community members.

Before DVD launched, there were no organizations focused on connecting birthing people in Durham to free doula care. In fact, DVD co-founder Liv Neely explained that three out of the four women on DVD’s inaugural leadership team were Duke students like her, who had to venture across Tobacco Road to find a volunteer doula opportunity with UNC Hospital’s Birth Partners program.

“I had so many meaningful experiences volunteering at UNC,” Neely said. “I couldn’t imagine folks in Durham being any less grateful for access to volunteer doulas. It was just a matter of geography.”

After connecting through a group chat, the women quickly recognized they possessed the passion and determination needed to expand local doula accessibility beyond UNC’s hospital walls; and they did just that. Since its founding in July 2018, DVD’s growing team has created a thriving volunteer doula program that assists low-resource birthing people in Durham and its surrounding communities.

What is a birth doula?

Childbirth is often described as “beautiful” and “miraculous,” but despite our era’s expansive list of modern medical advancements, many people still experience scary and disempowering births. Birth doulas attempt to mitigate these harmful scenarios by offering non-medical support to mothers before, during, and after labor. DVD’s guidance may include:

  • Creating a birth plan, offering pre-labor education about the birthing process, or practicing relaxation techniques during a client’s pregnancy.
  • Providing massages, leading breathing exercises, and facilitating conversations between the mother and medical team during a client’s delivery.
  • Reflecting on the birth experience, helping with feeding issues, or recommending other community resources after a client’s labor.

Although birthing centers provide some of this instruction, it’s often delivered inconsistently and impersonally. Adding a trusted doula to a care team is proven to positively impact mothers and their babies. Recent studies have shown that the presence of a birth doula contributes to reduced rates of cesarean sections, reduced times in labor, and decreased postpartum depression post-labor.

Graphic showing the health benefits of having a doula, including 34% fewer negative birth experiences.
Graphic courtesy of

The cost of care

These positive outcomes are attractive to most expecting parents, but the cost of hiring a doula is not. Private doula fees vary significantly, ranging from $250 to $2,500 per birth. DVD combats this financial barrier by providing clients with free doula care from the time they connect through their postpartum periods.

Manisha Dubey, DVD’s Community Outreach Manager, is quick to point out the unjust paradox that lies in the lack of doulas accessible to the very communities that need them most.

“Maternal mortality problems are especially exacerbated in non-white, non-resource rich populations, but doula care is only readily available to people who are fairly well off,” Dubey explained. “So, there’s a large need for volunteer doulas and a nonprofit like DVD to help organize them.”

Disparities in Durham

The substandard treatment non-white women encounter in hospitals received national media attention in 2017 when tennis world champion Serena Williams blamed the life-threatening complications she faced after the birth of her daughter on her medical team’s racial biases. Williams – who has a history of blood clotting – requested a CT scan after delivery, but her nurse and doctor did not concede to this procedure until she was gasping for breath. The CT scan revealed several blood clots in her lungs, just as Williams had intuited, and she was rushed into surgery.

Unfortunately, traumatic delivery experiences rooted in prejudice are not uncommon. The 2018 City of Durham Human Relations Commission Report on Structural Racism in Durham revealed the following birth disparities in Durham:

  • Although minorities make up 41% of all Durham births, they account for approximately 57% of all infant deaths and low weight babies.
  • Over half of infant deaths in Durham between 2005 and 2009 happened in African American families.

Dubey and the DVD team are motivated to lower the statistics of birth crises for all Durham mothers.

“Birth can be especially overwhelming for birthing people who are discriminated against and we want to get the word out that doulas are the best non-medical intervention to improve these experiences,” she said.

A sustainable cycle of support

Two community members get hands-on experience at DVD’s first volunteer doula training in March 2019. Most doula trainings cost hundreds of dollars. DVD’s was free.

DVD has received $2,500 in community donations and $12,000 in grant funding this year, which has propelled expansion efforts such as awareness campaigns and supplemental reproductive justice training for current doulas. The nonprofit is also one of ten elected ventures participating in CUBE, UNC’s social innovation accelerator. As DVD concentrates on establishing a viable business model, its leaders continue to prioritize investing in the heartbeat of their organization: the volunteers.

“The most rewarding thing about being a part of DVD is working with such an amazing group of people. Our volunteer doulas and leadership have so much passion for maternal and child health,” said Ana Gomez, DVD’s Executive Director. “They are what make our organization.”

This fall, the team is recruiting more residents to join DVD’s roster so that their work does not wane once student leaders graduate. Current goals like this highlight the leadership team’s focus on DVD’s sustainability and their belief that the nonprofit’s momentum can evolve into a long-term movement that guarantees a happy and healthy future for all Triangle mother and babies, without a price tag.

“I want to get to the point where people don’t have to think so hard about whether they can afford a doula,” Gomez said. “If someone wants a doula, I want them to have confidence that they can reach out to DVD and refer themselves, or even a friend, for a doula team.”

Durham Volunteer Doulas is hosting “Doulas + Churros Chats” for expectant mothers and doulas at Cocoa Cinnamon – Lakewood throughout the fall. To learn more about Durham Volunteer Doulas, visit or engage with them on Facebook.

Leave a Reply