SARAH VERBIEST

Looking Forward , Sarah Verbiest, founder of Every Woman Southeast, reflects on the new year and what it holds.
119 Posts

duck with santa hatOver the years, I’ve had lots of people ask me how I manage to “do it all”. And I certainly have asked other women the same question. While the smile and shrug response is the quickest rejoinder, I think that we need to be more transparent with each other and either admit that we don’t actually always “do it all” particularly well and/or share a fuller response as to how we do pull it off sometimes.

So in all disclosure, I was very fortunate to have found an amazing partner who believes our home/family responsibilities are to be shared. We have complimentary skill sets, which help us juggle. He is self-employed which gives him the opportunity to flex work into the weekend so he can help with things like picking up a sick kid early from school or dropping off a forgotten backpack. He makes the kids’ lunches, cooks dinner, and does all the grocery shopping and the majority of school pick-ups. Having a partner who truly has my back and supports my career is how I am able to do so much. Gloria Steinem teaches that feminism must include support for men as they take on roles in families that may have traditionally fallen in the “nurturing” category. She is completely right on that point in my opinion.

For my part, I may work 60 hours a week but the academic environment also allows flexibility so I don’t have to be at my desk in order to be working. This means that I too can be flexible to help out at my son’s school sometimes or leave work early for a PTA meeting, then pick up my laptop later in the evening. It may provide an opportunity to work all the time but it also gives me a chance to juggle more efficiently. I also will admit that my car is a mess. I often freak out on Sunday nights when I look at the week ahead. At times, I don’t keep up with my kids on social media as I should, or overlook dust for a very long period of time. I can get overly list oriented and I have been known to drink a glass of wine when I have to help my son (who has ADD) with his homework in the evening.

I find the most solace from women friends who can also admit that they are holding it together with strings sometimes. It is the rare day that I’m good at pulling off all my different roles well. Julie Zaharatos, EWSE Leadership Team member, reflected that she and her friends often feel like they are ducks. They may look calm on the surface, but underneath the water they are furiously peddling their feet to stay afloat. At the end of the day, knowing that I did my best is what matters to me. As we begin this busy time of festivities and expectations, I hope we all can embrace the mess, mania and magic of the season. And also maybe turn off email and sleep in!

sarah
Sarah Verbiest, DrPH, MSW, MPH is the Director and Co-Founder of the Every Woman Southeast Coalition. She is also the Executive Director for UNC Center for Maternal and Infant Health and the CDC Senior Consultant to the National Preconception Health and Health Care Initiative.

During my teenage years, my girlfriends always provided good advice. From who to date and what outfit to wear to school, to what colleges to apply to and how to bargain shop. They did not have a say, however, in my figuring out when to have children. Planning for my reproductive future was always a tricky subject. Between talks with my dad about the consequences of being a teen mom, and the dirty looks given to my fellow students who got pregnant as teenagers, it was a distant goal and definitely not something I intended at a young age. However, there is far more talk today about reproductive life planning, especially among young adults.

RLP-Infographic-WebReproductive life planning is a readiness tool to help women and men of reproductive age develop and work towards their personal goals for having or not having children. Almost half of all pregnancies are unplanned – in North Carolina that is more than 50,000 pregnancies each year. A baby’s vital organs and tissues develop very early in pregnancy, often times even before a woman knows that she is pregnant. The healthier a woman is before pregnancy, the more likely she and her baby are to be healthy during and after pregnancy.

Research has shown that nearly 50% of all medical conditions that complicate pregnancies and negatively impact birth outcomes can be traced back to the preconception period. Since women are likely to go to their friends for advice (like me), experts have determined that providers and consumers should become knowledgeable about reproductive life planning. For instance, providers are now encouraged to ask one key question during each patient encounter, “Are you planning to become pregnant in the next year?” And there are more programs than ever before like the North Carolina Preconception Health Campaign, which educates consumers and providers on counseling strategies that can be used to start the reproductive life planning dialogue.

Planning how many children you want (if any at all), or when you intend to have them, may seem far-fetched. In reality though, there is so much planning that happens day to day, why not consider your reproductive future? You may feel that these decisions are beyond your immediate reach or that you have little control over this aspect of your life. Trust me, time passes quickly and before you know it, if you are a sexually active individual, you could become a parent. So why not plan for it (or plan to delay it) until you and your partner are ready? Your plan could help you consider what form of birth control to use or whether to wait until marriage before having sex. Think of it as your overall guidepost to help you spell out your life goals. It could help you answer questions like what are your plans for school or career, and your plan for finding a life partner. And, how would having children fit into those plans?

Of course, we all know that plans can change. Your reproductive life plan can change too, however it is never too late to start planning or to modify the plan you have. Even if you have children already, your plan can help you think about any other future children you might want. You can also speak with your health provider about how early you can start to try to get pregnant again. Research has shown that waiting 18-23 months is the safest interval between births. Given the high numbers of unintentional pregnancies and the related complications during pregnancy and beyond, health providers are now having more of these conversations with their patients.

Had someone given me a reproductive life planning guide when I was younger, or even asked me about my life plans, I would have paid attention. If nothing else, I definitely would have passed it along to my girlfriends so that I could finally be the one to offer up some sound advice!

Re-Posted Blog from Every Woman North Carolina.

Kweli
 
Kweli Rashied-Henry, MPH is the North Carolina March of Dimes State Coordinator for the NC Preconception Health Campaign, and a Leadership Team member for the Every Woman Southeast Coalition.

vote_500x279I am so glad the November elections are over. Living in a battleground state, I felt like it was the carpet baggers all over again, spending their money in North Carolina to tell me just how bad one or the other of our US Senate Candidates was. The ads would pop up on Pandora, internet searches, the TV, and the radio with dark, depressing messages… I finally lost my cool when three different full-page, multi-color glossy booklets arrived in my mail on November 3rd, all on the same day, filled with propaganda about the candidate that I hadn’t planned to vote for anyway. I am not a swing voter, never have been. And I voted early!

So $100 million dollars later, I still know very little about the Senate candidates and received no information in the mail telling me about our NC Supreme Court candidates, nor the Court of Appeals judges, or even an Amendment on the Ballot that I didn’t know existed, until I was in the poll booth, was confusing, and learned later, would likely put more low income people in the court system in jail. $100 million dollars later, we still have to look under rocks to find money to print booklets about smoking cessation and family planning for new moms much less to support programs to improve the health and wellness of our young men and women in North Carolina. We beg and borrow to find resources to get the lone women’s health message into the media – information that could make a difference in the lives of two generations. There are campaign staff and field teams galore, but we struggle to find resources to keep our coalition, focused on equity and the health of women and children in the southeast, funded.

I get frustrated when I think about the amount of money that was spent to sway political opinion…And thus, I blog…

Imagine what we could’ve done in public health with $100 million dollars in our state. What if campaign funds supported programs that improved the lives of people in North Carolina – they could show the candidates leading by example. What if they matched $1 in advertising with giving $1 to a local non-profit or charity or school bake sale – even better if given directly by the candidate? Sometimes this makes me feel powerless. And then I remember that much change is local and that is something we can influence. I remember that together we can speak truth to power. I remember that as women, we are 54% of the vote, that we manage a lot of household budgets and that we can innovate. Maybe the next time the South gets national political attention, we could insist that fundraisers be held on playgrounds or in community centers with food catered by local residents. We can find creative ways to better spotlight the issues on the real people who are impacted – by the election results and the issues at hand.

Sarah Verbiest, DrPH, MSW, MPH is the Director and Co-Founder of the Every Woman Southeast Coalition. She is also the Executive Director for UNC Center for Maternal and Infant Health and the CDC Senior Consultant to the National Preconception Health and Health Care Initiative.

October 15th always takes me by surprise.  As a recurrent miscarrier – 7 pregnancies, but only 1 live birth – I’m prepped for Mothers’ Day and all the feelings that can evoke.  I’m used to putting on a brave face for pregnancy announcements and baby showers. But October 15th gets me every year. 

You see, October is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, and the 15th is designated as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day – the day when you are supposed to light a candle at 7pm to help create a wave of light around the world.  I love that this day exists.  Oh, I don’t love the reason it exists, but I love that there is acknowledgement of the loss – the loss of hope; the loss of the future you envisioned; the loss of a child, whether or not you got to hold that child in your arms.

Yet, did I participate?  When all of my lovely friends – my fierce mama tribe – were posting infographics like the brilliant one from Australia on Facebook and tweeting reminders to light a candle at 7pm, did I also post?  Did I light my candle?   No, I didn’t.

I’ve never been a good public griever.  I don’t usually cry at funerals (though I bawl like a baby at weddings).  I learned early not to calculate due dates until I was past the first trimester and grew more numb with each miscarriage, instead throwing myself into becoming pregnant again, parenting my daughter and, ultimately, the adoption of my son.  The shame and secret nature of the loss became internalized – I wasn’t really infertile, as a colleague oh-so-helpfully pointed out, I was just subfertile.  Acknowledging or memorializing my body’s failures seemed like a waste of time.

Infertility, which includes recurrent miscarriages, affects one in eight couples in the US.  It’s a disease that affects women and men from all walks of life – rich/poor, young/middle-aged, all races and ethnicities – although, since treatment is rarely covered by insurance, we usually only hear about the experiences of relatively well-off women and their families.  Those of us working in maternal and child health spend a lot of time thinking about how to help ensure all women and men are able to create and actualize their reproductive life plan, but what we usually focus on is preventing mistimed pregnancies through the provision of education and access to contraception.  While that focus is important, I think that we must also become comfortable talking about infertility and how that affects reproductive life planning, helping people access the limited diagnosis and treatment resources available, and acknowledging people’s loss and helping them find support.

October 15th comes around again in 363 days.  This time, I’ve got my candle ready.

Candle

Want to learn more?  Check out these resources:

RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association

“Infertility is More Common Than You Think” infographic

Stirrup Queens’ Blogroll

 

 
Erin McClain, MA, MPH, is a Program Coordinator for the Every Woman Southeast Coalition and a Research Associate with the Center for Maternal and Infant Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  She is a bio-mom, an adoptive mom, and an unofficial, self-proclaimed tour guide to the “Land of Infertility.”

IndianWomenLogoInterpersonal communication aka face-to-face contact is quickly being replaced by all forms of social media contact, but the fact is that it is not the same. People are opting to text, Tweet, Facebook, instant message, email, blog or any other option rather than face-to-face interaction. Some say it’s simply because it’s convenient and so much quicker. The truth is; it’s a cop-out for when you really don’t want to hear ALL that the other person has to say. In our minds, we have no time for real communication. People of our society are choosing to become passersby or observers only of the many needs of our world with no real ties or commitment to anyone for anything. We mistakenly believe this lack of interaction will lessen our stress because we don’t have to deal with the problems of other people. Actually, even the historically sacred “family meal time” is now competing with smart phones, lap tops, notepads and other electronics; in addition to videos games and television from prior generations. Where will this all end?

IndianWomenblogpic3On Friday, September 19, 2014, a group of concerned American Indian Women held the 8th Annual Conference for American Indian Women of Proud Nations at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. The theme of the conference was “Intergenerational Conversations: Sharing Our Stories to Encourage Healing”. The 2014 conference featured sessions on the Jim Crow South, Historical Trauma and The Waccamaw Siouan Women’s Talking Circle, which featured outcomes from recent community dialogue in the Waccamaw Siouan community. Dr. Mary Ann Jacobs and several UNC Pembroke students presented a session on the Jim Crow South. Committee members believed this year’s conference focused on building bridges between generations. Dr. Mary Ann Jacobs, who serves on the conference planning committee stated, “In years past, some of our younger participants said at the conference, they never had an opportunity to hear about the Jim Crow experience of their elders. That time frame had a dramatic effect on Native communities throughout the southeast. This year, we began a process to share with younger participants about those troubling years as well as the lessons learned by our elders.”

IndianWomenblogpic1Two types of Native communication exercises were successfully demonstrated; a fishbowl and a talking circle. Each is useful in different ways. Fishbowling information is useful to share information and perspectives of members of one group with those of another. The instructions below will assist in your construction of a fishbowling exercise.

  • Step1: When all groups have concluded their research or read a selected article they are ready to share their findings. This can be done by using a fishbowl exercise, with one group forming an ‘inner circle’ where they discuss their findings with each other, while another forms an ‘outer circle’, with their backs towards the inner circle, and listens and records the discussions of the first group. The rule is that those in the outer circle can only listen, and cannot contribute to the discussion in the inner circle.
  • Step 2: When the inner circle discussions have ended, the groups swap, so that the inner circle becomes the outer, and vice versa. Repeat steps 1 and 2 until all groups have heard from one another.

IndianWomenblogpic2Talking, sharing and healing circles are useful when the topic under consideration has no right or wrong answer, or when people need to share feelings. Moral or ethical issues can often be dealt with in this way without offending anyone. The purpose of talking circles is to create a safe environment for people to share their point of view and experiences with others. This process helps people gain a sense of trust in each other. They come to believe that what they say will be listened to and accepted without criticism. They also gain an appreciation for points of view other than their own. During the circle time, people are free to respond however they want as long as they follow these guidelines. All comments should be addressed directly to the question or issue, not to comments that another participant has made. Both negative and positive comments about what anyone else in the circle says should be avoided. Just say what you want to say in a positive manner. Speak from the heart. Click here for more information on the Guidelines for Talking, Healing, and Sharing Circles and Principles of Consultation.

Overall this was an inspiring and affirming conference that facilitated intergenerational transfer of Native ways from Lumbee elders and knowledge to younger generations in a very real and unique way. I guess, what is glaringly apparent is that healing tends to happen when there is true and meaningful dialogue that is delivered via face-to-face or interpersonal communication. Let’s not give up on any real genuine chances of healing that still remain for humanity! We need all the healing we can muster!

KayFreeman
 
Veronica Kay Freeman (Coharie and Waccamaw Siouan) is the Co-Chair of the Conference for American Indian Women of Proud Nations Planning Committee, the Community Intervention Supervisor for the Eckerd Youth Alternatives, Inc., and a member of the Every Woman Southeast Coalition Leadership Team

"Autism?" Spelled Out In Child's BlocksMy son, Jaymes, was born in August 2004, and to me at least, he was the most perfect baby. He never fussed or cried, and people would always remark how quiet and well-behaved he was. Everything seemed to be going along great when I took him to his fifteen month checkup at the doctor. As the doctor asked us questions about his development (“Is he talking?” “Running?” “Imitating things that you do?”), I realized that he might be a little delayed in some areas. As a first time parent, I was clueless to what our child “should” have been doing at that age. Luckily, our pediatrician immediately referred us to begin receiving services through our state’s early intervention program.

Jaymes began receiving speech, physical and occupational therapy shortly after that appointment. We spent countless hours every week at the clinic near our house, and Jaymes started showing progress. He started talking, trying new foods and textures, and even interacting with other children. The pediatrician told us that he had developmental “delays” and we believed that he was just taking some extra time to catch up to his peers. In 2007, we moved to South Carolina and transferred all of Jaymes’s services to our new state. As part of the process, his early interventionist wanted him to undergo diagnostic testing by the autism division of the department of disabilities and special needs. I wasn’t worried, I looked up all of the signs of autism on the internet and Jaymes didn’t seem to fit them. Plus, none of his therapists had even mentioned autism to us. The testing took about 2 weeks. They wanted to observe Jaymes at home, in their clinic, and at his school. Finally, the results were ready. They called us in to the clinic and told us that they had decided to diagnose him with autism. This news hit us like a ton of bricks. My husband and I went home, in shock. “Autism? How could our perfect child have autism? I don’t even know what that means!” So for a few weeks, we wandered around in a dazed state. Finally, I decided that I had to take action and find out what kinds of resources were out there. After some research, I found so much information on agencies, applications, and meetings. It was overwhelming and I didn’t even know where to begin. I still wasn’t ready to process all of it, and life went on, in this new state of normal.
Several months later, I was cleaning out drawers and came across some information I had found again. This time I felt like I was ready to tackle it. One of the first brochures I pulled out was for an organization called Family Connection of South Carolina. Their pamphlet said that they could connect me with other families who had children with autism, so I decided to give them a call. Soon, I had been matched with another parent whose child had autism and I was attending support group meetings, family events, and educational workshops. My family (which had now grown to 5 members) and I participated in everything that Family Connection offered.

One day, in late 2011, I received an email that the director of Family Connection for our area was leaving her position. I wasn’t looking to leave my current job, but my husband told me: “You should apply for that job. You would be great at doing stuff like that…supporting other families. After all, that’s pretty much what you already do anyways!” He was right. If I met someone in the grocery store whose child had a disability, I told them about all sorts of different agencies and programs. So, I applied for the job, was hired, and become the program coordinator for Family Connection in my area!
As part of my involvement in Family Connection, I was honored to be selected as one of the Association of Maternal and Child Health Program’s (AMCHP) Family Scholars in 2012. The Family Scholars Program is a training program for emerging family leaders. Through the program I was able to increase my knowledge of emerging local and national issues that relate to children and youth with special health care needs, as well as hone my advocacy skills by visiting with my senators and congressmen in Washington, D.C. My participation in the Family Scholars Program led me to take on a new position within Family Connection, managing a parent-to-parent support program through our state’s Title V agency, wherein we have trained parents in local health clinics throughout the state to help families navigate the resources available in their local community.

I’m grateful that I work for a family-serving organization, because everyone there is also a parent, and understands doctor’s appointments, medical emergencies, and most importantly, mental health days! My co-workers are also there to support me emotionally when my son’s journey hits a rough patch. Hearing the voice of another parent saying, “I know exactly what you are going through” was a groundbreaking experience for me and I am truly grateful for it. Talking to others is a vital part of any coping or healing process. This is why I felt so compelled to work with families who have children with special healthcare needs. It gives me the most fulfilling employment experience I have ever had, and I am so glad that I am able to help others find the same comfort that I did in knowing that there are others out there to share your journey with you.

TracieTracie L. Hayward is the Lowcountry Area Coordinator and Project 360 coordinator for Family Connection of South Carolina. Tracie has three children, ages 10, 8 and 3. Her ten-year-old son was diagnosed with autism at age three, and she has been involved with Family Connection as a Support Parent since his diagnosis. In her free time, she enjoys reading, travel and getting together with family and friends. | www.FamilyConnectionsc.org

“You girls are worthless… a waste of my time.”

army dogtagsIn 1978, I was a visionary 18-year-old girl from Johnstown, Ohio – a town encompassing a grand total of 2.9 square miles and whose idea of big news involved an increased corn yield for one farm family or the next. With nothing to do but go to school and clean the house, I had plenty of time to think about what I wanted to do with my life, and please believe, I knew. I wanted to be a world-renowned artist, to draw for Disney, to have an excuse to express my “artistic” flare in everything I do and wear. In high school I drew all the time, I painted murals on school walls; I even doodled as I daydreamed. When I got my acceptance letter from the Columbus School of Art & Design I knew that I’d finally be able to do something I loved. And then my first dose of reality set in.

My parents told me just one month before I was set to graduate from high school that they wouldn’t be sending me to art school. My world immediately stopped spinning; gravity had lost its force and I was suddenly floating in an abyss of uncertainty. And all too quickly I started free falling back to earth, suddenly terrified about the prospect of my life. My options according to my mother: marry a man or get a job. So, I decided on the latter. Just a month after graduation, I joined the United States Army with the rest of the guys I thought had no future. And let me tell you, doing so changed my life forever.

Over the course of my 20-year career as a woman in the United States Army, I have many memories, both good and bad.  But the experience that continues to stain my mind is what I endured in basic training. Basic training was a very structured and rigid environment with daily threats, intimidation, and high expectations.  If political correctness existed then, I surely wasn’t aware of it. Drill instructors were openly sexist against their female platoons to a degree that most would find unbelievable today. These weeks of training involved not only torturous physical exercise, but a constant condemnation of each female private. We were told by our male drill instructors that we were worthless and a waste of their time. And what’s worse, they told us that the entire platoon would pay if we “cried for our mommies and daddies.” So I didn’t cry.

For many of us, it was our first time away from home, so you can probably imagine the fear and loneliness we felt at the end of each day – days that started when most sane people were still sleeping, days filled with yelling, threats, hustling from one place to the next, rapid eating (with little breathing or tasting), and listening to drill instructors as they berate you, your family, and even your pets.  After a day like that you can probably image how the only source of relief from all of that stress would be a good solid cry… but crying was considered a “cardinal sin.” Just one tear rolling down your cheek would mark you as weak.  So, I learned not to cry. Nothing broke my exterior – not the birth of my children, the pain of a broken ankle, the disappointment when I didn’t get selected for promotion, or the death of fellow soldiers.  By the time I was promoted to Sergeant First Class, I had completely forgotten that whimsical girl from Johnstown.

blog authorNeedless to say, the Army completely altered me, my personality, and my ability to feel emotions. But on the day of my retirement it was as if a dam broke. After 20 years I was finally able to release a lifetime of pent up joy, pain, hurt, happiness, and disappointment that I’d endured for so long. And since my retirement I’ve realized that that young starry-eyed girl is still alive and well in the mind and bodyof a woman who’s lived it all. In spite of my experiences in basic training, I look back on my time in the military with a sense of fondness, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I will now cry at the drop of a dime.  Until next time, Hooah!!

 

Frederica Zabala, US Army retired Sergeant First Class, mother of two and grandma!

Children Discovering Starfish On BeachThere is a story that has been told for years in many different settings. Two people are walking along the beach and come across a large group of starfish that have washed onto the shore. One person begins to pick up a starfish and toss it back into the sea. The second person questions the value of the effort in making a difference, as there are clearly many more starfish that need to go into the water than the person can manage. The star fisher thrower responds as he/she tosses in another starfish, “it mattered to that one”.

While this story is often used to inspire staff that may often feel overwhelmed by the work ahead, it is a story that needs a new ending in my opinion. Perhaps this is a bit sacrilegious but I just need to say it. Yes, it absolutely is important when our actions can make the difference in a person’s life. But this story largely reinforces a focus on the individual (saver and saved) – the current framework in health care, social work and often even in public health. If we wish to make larger change, saving one starfish at a time is no longer adequate. Looking at this from an equity frame we might consider the possible bias of the starfish thrower. Is he/she selecting starfish randomly or perhaps unconsciously being drawn to the more colorful starfish or the bigger starfish, and picking those up first to save? From a prevention-focus the person could ask why the starfish are washing up on the beach in the first place? Is there a problem in the water? Are they escaping from a big predator? Or, it an unfortunate combination of sand erosion and wave pattern? Until that problem is addressed the few starfish being tossed back just might end right back up on shore! From a consumer perspective it might make sense to ask the starfish if they want to be thrown back. Perhaps they all wanted to be on the beach to enjoy the sun or stars.

Finally, thinking about collective impact, if getting those starfish back into the ocean is essential, then call out for partners. Get shovels. Get boogie boards. Rally other beach goers to lend a hand. In truth, ALL the starfish on that beach matter. Small victories are critical for helping avoid burnout and to know we are making a difference in spite of big odds. But there are many forces out there that have also made this THE time to think about prevention and population health. It is time for a new story.

 Sarah Verbiest, DrPH, MSW, MPH is the Director and Co-Founder of the Every Woman Southeast Coalition. She is also the Executive Director for UNC Center for Maternal and Infant Health and the CDC Senior Consultant to the National Preconception Health and Health Care Initiative.

11People of all income levels, employment categories, races, ethnicities, and locations in the United States are exposed to environmental toxins and toxicants. Such exposure is thought by many to occur primarily through the intake to food, water and air, but what some fail to realize is that the clothes they wear, detergent they use, housing they inhabit, furniture in their homes, or transportation they take are all sources of environmental contaminants. Unfortunately, exposure to toxic chemicals is an increasingly common part of everyday life.

Today more than 84,000 chemicals are in use in the US, the majority of which have yet to be tested for toxicity to human health and the environment. Of the chemicals that have been tested, most have only been evaluated for their acute consequences to adult males in industrial settings. Toxic chemicals that enter the environment pose health problems for women – especially women of color – that are unique from those for men, because women and minorities are more likely to work in lower-status, lower-wage jobs. They tend to be disproportionately exposed to a myriad of hazardous chemicals, including agricultural pesticides, home cleaning products, industrial cleaning products, and chemicals used in hair and nail salons. And as such, they bear a greater burden of the diseases and conditions associated with these exposures.

  • Breast cancer: Repeated exposure to toxic environments is related to an increased risk for breast cancer. While this form of cancer is diagnosed 10% less frequently in African American women than White women, the former are 40% more likely to die from the disease. Disproportionate environmental exposures, socioeconomic status, and inadequate access to quality health care all contribute to this higher rate of morbidity.
  • Asthma: The disparity in asthma prevalence and severity provides a striking example of the effect of disproportionate exposures and health outcomes. The prevalence of asthma is highest among multi-racial Americans, Hispanics of Puerto Rican descent and non-Hispanic blacks, and is also higher among those living in poverty.
  • Birth Outcomes: African American women have consistently had higher rates of preterm and low birth weight babies, in spite of prenatal care usage, behaviors during pregnancy, and socioeconomic status. A growing number of studies have associated certain environmental contaminants with these poor birth outcomes.

12People of color now comprise a majority in neighborhoods with poor air quality, disproportionate exposure to toxic hazards, unhealthy housing conditions (e.g., mold, dampness and pest infestation), and lack of safe areas for physical activity. Race and socioeconomic status are highly correlated with living near harmful sources of pollution (e.g. commercial hazardous waste facilities); in fact, 46% of low-income housing units sit within about a mile of factories that report toxic emissions to the EPA. These poor environmental conditions have led to higher-than-average rates of asthma, lead poisoning, and exposure to contaminated water, pesticides and mercury, especially among women and children living in these areas.

Environmental racism – the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color – is the reason so many people, especially women, have become involved in the environmental justice movement. This movement seeks to abolish environmental harms by improving environmental conditions, identifying and mitigating structural inequalities, and finding solutions to empower traditionally marginalized people. While there is plenty of work yet to be done, the fact that these issues are being taken into account indicates that the environmental health of minority women is becoming a national priority.

To ensure your environmental health and to help protect that of minority communities:

  • Recognize that women suffer unique effects of environmental hazards and advocate for policies that improve reproductive health and pregnancy outcomes.
  • Push for stricter regulation through legislation such as the Toxic Substances Control Act that establishes health and safety testing, bans the most toxic chemicals, and protects the most vulnerable populations.
  • Support the equitable distribution of green space, walking and biking trails, and playgrounds in low-income communities.
  • Urge regulatory protections and safer labor practices for those exposed to toxic chemicals in industries dominated by low-income workers and women of color.

Health inequities have persisted in this country for decades – in health care, housing, education, and even in the environment. But the fact of the matter is that they are and always have been avoidable. Poor communities and women of color are systematically and unjustly exposed to environmental contaminants that hinder them from being the healthiest individuals they can be. And until the environmental health of these populations is accounted for, the generations that follow will never know what it feels like to be truly free from environmental contamination.

Amanda Zabala is a graduate intern at the Center for Maternal and Infant Health. She is currently attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Gillings School of Global Public Health, and majoring in Maternal and Child Health.

On June 13, 2014, I had the opportunity to attend Tulane University’s 2nd Biennial Black Women’s Health Conference (BWH) in New Orleans, Louisiana, representing the Every Woman Southeast Coalition (EWSE), and connecting with one of our coalition members in Louisiana. The full conference agenda can be accessed here and click here to view the recorded highlights from the conference sessions.

1As an exhibitor, I had the opportunity to connect and speak with different conference attendees, sharing resources and information about Every Woman Southeast. People truly appreciated our newsletters’ topic areas, which prompted a few attendants to speak about their own health experiences as it related to the newsletter themes. Additionally, it was great to connect with other organizations and agencies that were represented at the conference. Many professionals in the health, social work, and criminal justice fields were very interested in learning more about EWSE, and were appreciative of the fact that we were represented there with useful and informative resources to share. Everyone LOVED the Birth Control after Baby and the Taking Care of You: Your Post-partum Health and Visit Booklets.

As a conference participant, I had the chance to listen to the dynamic keynote speaker, Dorothy Roberts, and had a chance to get her to sign a copy of her latest book, Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-first Century. Dorothy Roberts delivered a powerful presentation, illustrating the thread of inhumane historical medical practices (e.g. “the father of gynecology”, J. Marion Sims), the racial stereotypes and racist structural policies that impact black women and their families, and the connections to current poor maternal health outcomes of black women. I was also able to attend a couple of breakout sessions that focused on black infant and maternal health disparities, factors that influence black women’s decisions to pursue counseling, and understanding the historical exploitation of black women’s bodies and its effect on black women’s health.

2Earlier in the week, I attended a week-long training as part of my professional development with the CDC’s Public Health Prevention Service Fellowship. A half-day was dedicated to topics in health disparities, which included keynotes from former CDC Medical Officer Dr. Camara P. Jones MD, MPH, PhD, who presented on levels of racism and health disparities, and from Environmental Justice Officer at the CDC, Dr. LaToria Whitehead, PhD, MPH, who presented on environmental justice and her work with the CDC. One of the points that stood out to me most was how Dr. Jones defined health equity and described “achieving health equity.” She stated:
…Health equity is assurance of the conditions for optimal health for all people. Achieving health equity requires valuing all individuals and populations equally, recognizing and rectifying historical injustices, and providing resources according to need. Health disparities will be eliminated when health equity is achieved…” (Source: Jones CP 2010, adapted from the National Partnership for Action to End Health Disparities).
Another highlight of the training was that I had the opportunity to co-facilitate a discussion during a breakout session for the viewing of the Unnatural Causes Episode Two: When the Bough Breaks documentary.

I mention the above experiences because it ties back into my participation in the roundtable discussions during the BWH Conference roundtables session on racism-based stress and pregnancy outcomes of African-American women. During this session, the presenters also showed a video clip from the Unnatural Causes documentary and led a discussion as well. The most poignant component of both discussions was when audience members shared their personal stories about their pregnancy, experiences with healthcare providers, and spoke about their experience with racism in general. Since we only had a short amount of time for discussion during the breakout session I facilitated, our discussions centered more on people’s reactions to the disparity of poor birth outcomes between college-educated black women and high school drop-out white women, and opportunities for public health professionals wanting to become involved in work that seeks to address these disparities.

On the other hand, the roundtable discussion during the BWH conference centered more so on ways to address the issue of infant mortality experienced 3by African Americans. This led to a very long and dynamic conversation and feedback to the facilitators. Some of the roundtable participants were very shocked at the fact that racism is a huge factor in poor birth outcomes, some believed that this was not new information and that the black community has always been aware of the overall health impact of racism and oppression, and other participants expressed criticism for how the documentary failed to leave room to show examples of how black women have organized historically and in the present-day to address such issues with poor birth outcomes.

The stories, perspectives, and solutions that were presented by participants of the roundtable discussions at the BWH conference made me reflect back on the points presented during Dr. Jones’ presentation when she pointed out the importance of being willing to talk about and address historical injustices when engaging in health equity work with communities, and the racially-gendered policies that impact black women’s health as presented by Dorothy Roberts. It also prompted me to reflect on the importance of facilitating an emotionally charged topic and having information readily available for participants.

Attending this conference was very meaningful, in terms of sharing the EWSE resources, connecting with other health professionals and organizations, and to get a pulse on how information pertaining to black maternal and infant health disparities is received by the communities most impacted.

For a few examples of black maternal health initiatives spearheaded and/or organized by black women, see below:

Mommy in Chief,” is MadameNoire’s original web series that explores the ups, downs, and everything in between of being a modern mom. The series offers a fun, inspiring, and practical take on parenting for mothers in a variety of life stages and child ages.

Black Women’s Health Imperative’s CEO and President’s Call-to-Action on Black Women’s Maternal Health

Mocha Manuel an online resource where black moms go for information and inspiration for pregnancy, parenting and beyond!

Black Women Birthing Justice is a collective of African-American, African, Caribbean and multiracial women who are committed to transforming birthing experiences for Black women.

Birthing Project USA is the only national African American maternal and child health program in this country.

The Black Maternal Health Project by Women’s eNews on Pinterest is a social media resource page with resources and information from breastfeeding to childbirth culturally geared towards African American women.

Angela D. Aina, MPH is a CDC Public Health Prevention Service (PHPS) Fellow serving her two-year field placement with UNC, Center for Maternal and Infant Health.

**The statements in this blog post  are those of the authors and do not represent the official position of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).**

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