By Ana Paula Markel, CD/BDT(DONA), ICCE, IAT

As the year comes to an end and my term as DONA International President comes to a close, I find myself reflecting, as one normally does this time of the year. I am reflecting on all that has been accomplished, and my goals, hopes, and dreams for our organization in the new year. I hope that my year as President had a positive impact on DONA International. It certainly has been a humbling time for me.

I felt the need to share my reflections with our DONA International community. 2018 was a very important year for DONA International as it was filled with important achievements and decisions that will impact the future of our organization. Here are seven of my key takeaways from my year in service as DONA International’s president.

A supportive and courageous team makes everything possible

As doulas, we are often on the giving end of support and I had to make a conscious decision to allow people to help me, and for me to be open to receiving support. The talents and enthusiasm of the people around me carried me through this year. Leaning on and relying on my team was the best decision I could have made for myself and the organization.

Clarity in organizational ownership is important

DONA International belongs to our members. A common mistake I have made in the past and certainly witnessed with other volunteers who have served before me is to treat DONA International as “our own.” I can clearly state that every decision in 2018 was made based on our members’ preferences and not with my own personal preferences in mind. Reading membership surveys, speaking to other leaders and many of our members were crucial for not only for me as president but for the entire board.

Embrace my strengths and recognize where I need improvement

Knowing my strengths and commitment to our members gave me confidence. Equally important was to identify areas or topics I didn’t know much about or needed to improve in myself and in the organization. People are not interested in a leader who knows everything; nor do organizations want (or need)  a leader who is always right. People support a leader who is real and is not afraid to change, grow, learn and yes, even make mistakes.

Listening skills developed in our own doula practices are vital for healthy leadership

As doulas, we know that by listening, we demonstrate respect towards our clients. By being a good listener, we support them to process and find the answers they need. I was reminded of this in many of the interactions I had this year. I recognize this is an area I have to work on daily. I invested my time in connecting with our members and our trainers and listening to their ideas, needs and even their frustrations. This has helped me to make decisions that are more reflective of the needs of our members.

Letting my guard down taught me the path to truth

In listening to our members, fellow board members and trainers, there were times that I heard strong voices who were frustrated and sometimes even unhappy with DONA International, the board or myself. My initial reaction was to share an explanation or reason defending my view. With time, as I practiced being fully present and listening with both my ears and my heart, I realized that opening and holding space for people to voice their concerns was pivotal to truth. And truth means our members, leaders and trainers are loyal, and they love DONA International. The reason they speak up is the desire to see DONA International continue to thrive and grow. This was probably my favorite aspect of this role, therefore I thank each and every individual who was courageous enough to have difficult conversations (or emails) with me.

Healthy boundaries lead to productivity

Just as important as listening openly, I also had to learn where the healthy boundary line was between fruitful interaction, constructive criticism or disrespect and destructiveness. Questioning decisions, or vision brought fruitful results but I soon realized my boundary line was drawn if the character or integrity of a volunteer was being questioned. One of the promises I made to my peers on the board in our first meeting was that I would support them and have their back. Our leadership team is made of volunteer doulas who passionately devote their time for the common good of our membership and the entire organization. I certainly do not expect all our members to agree with every decision the board makes, but I certainly expect respect towards the board and constructive discourse.

Remember where you come from before deciding where you want to go

This is probably the most important lesson I learned this year. I knew this would be a huge year for DONA International’s education department. Since we are an educational organization, any decisions about education affects our entire organization. Probably the best decision I made was to include our founders in many of our conversations this year. Phyllis Klaus was a huge source of strength and support by email. Penny Simkin was present in person at our January board meeting and in many phone calls regarding education decisions and Annie Kennedy filled a vacant seat on our executive committee. The continued presence of these women are a direct connection to the life force of our organization, our mission and the reason DONA International is successful. There is a humility, curiosity, and nimbleness about them that is grounding and inspiring. Their calming wisdom guided us through growth and even some of the difficult decisions we had to make. I fully believe that DONA International is going to continue to be the gold standard for the doula profession because not only our board, but our entire membership respects our roots, our history and our values. It gives us power and grit to grow without compromising ethics.

In closing

Finally, I am excited for 2019 and the future of DONA International. I am so excited to sit on the board next year as immediate past president and support and admire Ravae Sinclair and Melissa Harley as our next President and President Elect. I am very excited for the newly elected board members to start their terms and join this incredible team. There is something very electrifying at the beginning of a new board year. There is a lot of work ahead of us. Doulas are more recognized than ever before, and more states are moving forward in acknowledging the important role doulas play in maternal-infant health and yet, much still needs to be done for families of color and doulas of colors, community doulas and the families they serve.There is something extraordinary and daunting at the same time about the thought of doulas being the answer to many of the gaps in maternity care. It is important for doulas to have a seat and be included at the table whenever important conversations about our profession are happening. This is vital for the future of doulas.

I want to thank you, Sharon, for your great work, your support and for this opportunity to pour my heart out as my final project as DONA International’s president. I want to thank our membership for this incredible, humbling and life changing experience. My commitment to DONA International and doulas has only grown and my passion for supporting doulas is stronger than ever before.

Wishing our members a very successful and fulfilling 2019 with a heart filled with gratitude.

Ana Paula