Jessica Roach is the Co-founder and Executive Director of Restoring Our Own Through Transformation (ROOTT), a nonprofit organization focused on providing community-based maternal-child health and birthing support in Columbus, Ohio. As a Black women-led reproductive justice organization, ROOTT offers affordable doula services, healthcare provider trainings, and organizational consultation, while validating their clients' environmental stresses.
Roach came to understand later in life just how influential her family stories and arguably, DNA, played in her calling to this work. Her great-grandmother was known as a healer who assisted women with childbirth in her area of Irondale, Ohio at a time before Black women were allowed into hospitals. Growing up, Roach remembers there always being other women and babies being around, as well as hearing her father talk about how he was the "sickly" child and how Mama Hart was always making teas and salves to help him Jessica learned about these practices for helping mothers and their children, as well as about the vital role healers like her great-grandmother played in the community's life.
As a teenager, Roach gave birth to her first daughter, and was cautioned by medical professionals that she was at risk for a pre-term baby, high blood pressure, and gestational diabetes because she was African American. She had a healthy pregnancy, however, and credits her support team -- which included her great-grandmother, grandmother, father, and uncles -- for her positive experience.
Seven years later during her second pregnancy, Roach faced a different situation. She was told that she had an incompetent cervix, a condition that can lead to premature delivery or even miscarriage. She developed preeclampsia, a pregnancy disorder characterized by high blood pressure, and delivered her daughter at 34 weeks. The only explanation she was given was that being African American placed her at higher risk. "It just really didn’t make any sense to me," Roach said. "I was really upset, and I was angry, and I had some issues with postpartum depression."
Roach went on to become a clinical nurse, serving women as they gave birth, terminated pregnancies, and adopted children.
When she was pregnant with her third daughter, Roach tried to avoid the complications of her second pregnancy. She focused more on self-care – engaging in prenatal yoga and eating well during her pregnancy – and had a home birth assisted by a midwife. Her daughter was born at 42 weeks with no major health concerns. After her youngest daughter's birth, Roach was inspired to leave nursing and instead to become a doula and home birth midwife. "Seeing the differences in each one of my children and the differences in my experiences in those pregnancies, and those births, and the follow-up care ... [I thought], 'There’s something not right about this,'" she said.
In July of 2017, Roach founded ROOTT together with co-founder Monique McCrystal, with the mission of addressing black maternal and infant health. Jessica had long before discovered that the statistics surrounding infant mortality rates for the African American community are staggering – the mortality rates are two to three times higher for black infants than for white infants, and black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. Research suggests that the cause of the disparity is not biological, but instead a result of health, social, and economic determinants, at the root of which lies racism. In Columbus, Ohio, the neighborhoods with the most inequities are also those with the highest infant mortality rates. According to the Columbus Infant Mortality Task Force, "The lifetime stress of living as a minority in our society has an adverse effect on birth outcomes."
Roach believes she experienced this phenomenon firsthand with the birth of her second daughter, but it wasn't until later she considered the impact of racism-related stress. "My whole life had been this environment of really high levels of toxic racism," she said. "My interaction with law enforcement, my interaction with peers, ... noticeably being treated differently [and] feeling like I had to perform at 120 percent versus my counterparts that only had to perform at 80 [percent]. And that was just the work environment."
ROOTT's full-spectrum doulas assist clients at any and all stages of pregnancy, from preconception to postpartum, with a pay-what-you-can pricing model. They facilitate body positioning, meditation, yoga, connection to community resources, and more. The typical support timeline will include prenatal guidance, education, processing past births and how they contribute to the current pregnancy, and formulating and following through on a birth plan. Those who request postpartum services can obtain them for at least a year after birth. Additionally, ROOTT offers support with abortion and adoption.
Collectively, ROOTT's staff has provided services to over 250 clients throughout their careers. "We don’t have the high percentages of preterm and low-birthweight babies," said Roach. "We don’t have the cesarean section rate. We don’t have the issues with maternal mortality or morbidity. We have never lost a mother."
Roach is currently pursuing a master's degree in public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her former research includes structural racism and social determinants of health as well as the impact of intergenerational and historical trauma on African-American health. Her career spans more than 20 years, and includes the additional roles of public health advocate and independent scholar.
Seeking through ROOTT to revive the tradition of communal birthing practices that’s rooted deeply in black history, and that she experienced as a young girl on the heels of her great-grandmother, Roach puts forth a community-based model of care where meetings, focus groups, and workshops all take place within neighborhood spaces. Indeed, community self-investment is a key part of ROOTT’s work as it combats infant mortality. As part of its model of community economic stability and sustainability, ROOTT pays its doulas for doing the work, rather than relying on external “saviors” to come in and establish neighborhood needs and goals. “That’s revolving the money inside of the community,” Roach says.
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