Looking Forward , Sarah Verbiest, founder of Every Woman Southeast, reflects on the new year and what it holds.
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It is a mix of snow and sleet paired with freezing temperatures…in the South. Our world is shut down. It is lovely. It is Saturday and we suddenly have a weekend without obligations.


15941483_10211605274597122_6061374549231734917_nAn excuse to stay in sweats, work on small projects, actually talk to family, stay up late watching movies, even bake something. That is even better than the wintry landscape outside my window. It’s a Mother Nature imposed sabbath.

Normally my reflection might stop there. And that would be ok – we as women and an overworked, technology enslaved, “busy” nation could use a random day off now and again. It is both a luxury and a necessity to be able to do nothing on occasion.

But it is 2017 and being awake to power and privilege is long overdue. As I was sitting on my comfortable couch, I reflected that we have central heat, plenty of food, internet access, and in a pinch we can walk down our hill to a 24-hour pharmacy.  I feel safe in my home – it is a refuge not a minefield. Not all women can say this. I am warm in my home. The walls are firm, the roof is solid and whenever our power goes out it is usually back in just a few hours. This is not true for many families. I’m not isolated and alone nor am I anxious about the situation or find the gloomy skies heavy.

If this were a week day, I could work from home and still get paid…and keep an eye on my teen while he was out of school. For many people, not working today (and likely tomorrow) means they don’t get paid. My daughter was supposed to pick up a weekend shift while home from college. That gig is definitely off and she is out of luck for earning much needed textbook money.

Too many people navigate life without what they need to calmly and warmly shelter from life’s storms. For some the snow doesn’t bring a needed respite. How can we hold a space to rest, to enjoy the life we have – laugh in the excitement of our puppy or toddler discovering snow for the first time – while remembering that we deserve this no more than anyone else? Maybe for today it is the naming and recognition that matters – it doesn’t change the world but it can foster compassion. And if compassion in its truest form were a national value there would be no blizzard we couldn’t overcome.


This seismic election has left our natiaudre-lordeon on a spectrum of emotions ranging from anger to jubilation and everywhere in-between. No matter where you might personally fall on the spectrum, let us continue to do the work that this coalition has set out to do together because you matter and the work you do matters!

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Smiling Mother Playing With Baby Son At Home

Black women and their babies have suffered centuries of injustice. Black women’s voices are co-opted, but not heard. Change must happen.

Facts are facts, Black women living in the South face historic, ongoing challenges to their health and wellbeing. While we can argue that all women in the South could have better health outcomes, the reality is that Black women and their babies have suffered centuries of neglect and injustice. Further, Black women’s voices are often co-opted, paraphrased, summarized but not heard. There are insightful and important solutions, strategies, and stories out there that most of us never take the time to hear. Change must happen.More Link

Start sign on the road

Accepting messy and the need to apologize sometimes for inadvertent mistakes are better than silence.

No matter how frustrating life was the day before, or how long the night, out of the dark each morning rays of light emerge. Dawn is a cosmic reset button. I’ve always loved the idea of new beginnings – I am a fearless “resolutioner” every January. I start each day with a fresh “to do” list. I believe in second chances. And so, here we are, months after allowing this blog to lay fallow, a post.More Link

MeganImageThroughout the country governors, mayors, and even the president are issuing proclamations recognizing May as National Mental Health Awareness Month. But raising awareness about mental health and connecting people to service needs to happen year round. For me, as the Communications Specialist at NAMI North Carolina (The National Alliance on Mental Illness), it’s one of the most exciting times of the year. It gives me, and the rest of us at NAMI, the opportunity to talk about the importance of mental health awareness and eliminating stigma.

Millions of Americans are affected by mental health conditions. In fact, 1 in 5 Americans will experience mental illness in a given year.More Link

Ipuzzlen my eyes as a Public Health MD, there is a fundamental difference between prevention and intervention.   I practice prevention if I proactively address an outcome that has been experienced by some, and I make a concerted effort to trace that condition up stream and work to find opportunities for change, especially for those most at risk.  I practice intervention, on the other hand, when I wait until the disease process has already started and then start treating the symptoms. More Link

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).**

SarahRunningWith age comes responsibility. With leadership comes responsibility. With parenthood comes responsibility. Responsibility is important and is something most women take very seriously. But too much of it sometimes can create a life full of “to do” lists, guilt, fatigue and crankiness. Personally, I have an internal barometer that starts to clang when I’ve had too much. Usually I try to ignore it, like the occasional beeping of a smoke detector battery or the change oil car light. But in the end, too much responsibility has the effect of vacuuming out spontaneity and fun from life, leaving in its wake the person my teenagers affectionately call, “naggy mom”.

One of my best antidotes to responsibility is my annual run with the “Cape Girls”. While the typical “girls’ weekend” includes sleep, manicures and wine, I have managed to find a group of overly responsible type A women who agree that a girls’ weekend should also include costumes, a van, sweat, Gatorade and cowbells. I’m convinced that inside all of us is a 9 year old girl who wants to have a sleep over, be part of a team, wear sparkles and feel totally silly and completely accepted. Jan, Kate, Samantha, Liz, Stacey, and Susan (aka the Cape Girls) are the women in my life who help me find that inner girl.

How? Well, we run a 200-mile relay. What? To explain, an ultra team relay means that you have a big van that becomes your home for 32+ hours. You spend your time dropping off a runner, cheering on a runner and switching out…and also not getting lost, talking and snacking. All the other crazy people around you also wear costumes, play games like “tag the van” and cheer each other on. After a while, when the adrenaline kicks in, you dream up all kinds of innovative ways to encourage your runner and rediscover that indeed you are still a funny, creative and carefree spirit after all! And, even better, that it is possible to escape the work world where one has to think a lot about relationships and doing things the right way, and be in a circle of women who totally like you exactly how you are and somehow make you feel better about yourself. I love the contrast of the van full of laughter and conversation with the solitude of running and the chance it gives me to dream and imagine. Put the two together along with a cape and it is my perfect vacation.

While spending a weekend running is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, I strongly encourage everyone to find a way to rediscover her inner girl. Organize a sleep over with your friends. Go out dancing. Go on a church retreat with people you love (where you are NOT in charge). Camp and get really dirty. Get our your hot glue gun and art kit and make your own tiara. Sing karaoke. Let go of responsibility just a little bit and have fun. Perhaps you’ll find, as I do, that letting go sometimes makes it easier to carry on.

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.

SarahDownsRecently, my fellow graduate interns and I had the opportunity to participate in the March of Dimes 2014 Lobby Day at the North Carolina Statehouse. As volunteers, our mission was to visit lawmakers in their offices and garner support for funding of the You Quit Two Quit program, an evidence-based program that focuses on tobacco cessation among pregnant women by providing support for women, and training for healthcare providers; and for maintained funding of the Healthy Baby Bundle of programs aimed at reducing infant mortality in North Carolina, including the NC Folic Acid and Preconception Health Campaign, Safe Sleep, and the East Carolina University high risk maternity clinic. All of these programs have been recommended and endorsed by the North Carolina Child Fatality Task Force as important initiatives to reduce the rate of infantAdvocacy Day mortality in North Carolina, which is among the highest in the nation.

When we arrived in the morning, dressed in purple to indicate our support for March of Dimes, we met the people we would be working with that day. We were given packets with the names of the legislators we were assigned to drop in on, and talking points for each of the programs for which we were going to be advocating funding. Afterwards, we were briefed by several individuals from the March of Dimes, including Tiffany Gladney, the Communication Coordinator, and the coordinator of Lobby Day, and Peg O’Connell, the North Carolina Chapter Advocacy and Government Affairs Consultant. They reviewed the talking points with us and answered all of our questions. We then broke into small groups, and began our visits with the legislators.

In all, my fellow graduate interns and I dropped in on 8 senators and representatives, including Senator Josh Stein, Senator Mike Woodard, Representative Susan Fisher, Representative Jean Farmer-Butterfield, Representative Susan Martin, Senator Don Davis, Senator Louis Pate Jr., and Senator Ronald Rabin. Throughout the day, we benefited from the expert advice and guidance provided by the leaders of our teams, Catherine Heindselman, Director, Eastern Carolina Division of the North Carolina Chapter of the March of Dimes, and Gwen Carmon, the National Director of Volunteer Diversity and Development at March of Dimes.

Lobby day attendees at briefingOccasionally, we were able to speak directly with the lawmakers, though in most cases, we spoke with an aide, and left materials for the senator or representative. When speaking to representatives and aides, we emphasized the importance of funding these programs for the reduction of infant mortality, and improving the lives of mothers and babies in the state of North Carolina. All of the lawmakers and aides expressed support for the March of Dimes, and were eager to learn more about the programs for which we were advocating funding.

At the end of each meeting, we took pictures with the Senator or Representative with which we met, and invited them to enjoy apple pie with us in the courtyard. Unsurprisingly, this was a big hit, and many people joined us for “Mom and Apple Pie”. This gave us an additional opportunity to speak with lawmakers and their staff about why the funding for these programs is so essential, and how it can save not only healthcare costs, but also the lives of so many North Carolina infants who die in the first year of birth.

3interns.AdvocacyDayBy the end of the day I was struck both by the astounding bipartisan support of March of Dimes we encountered, which I found particularly surprising and refreshing in this time of partisan division, and by the importance of talking directly to our representatives about those issues we find worth speaking up for. This was my first experience lobbying lawmakers, and while it seemed intimidating at first, it was the ideal introduction. The event was well organized, and a lot of effort was put forth to make sure that all of us volunteers were prepared for our meetings with legislators, and felt confident in our ability to advocate for the issues we feel strongly about. The cause of reducing infant mortality is certainly worth standing up for, and I felt confident representing March of Dimes, a well-respected organization with a 76-year history of improving the health and lives of mothers and children, from defeating polio to reducing infant mortality.

While I have always been interested in the political process, this was the first time that I involved myself in the process so directly, and it reminded me that the only way a democracy can truly function is if its citizens get involved.

Sarah Downs 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 Health Behavior.
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