SARAH VERBIEST

Looking Forward , Sarah Verbiest, founder of Every Woman Southeast, reflects on the new year and what it holds.
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candle-eleanor-new
It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

I spend a good portion of my professional life educating health professionals about “reproductive life planning,” or, basically, helping someone articulate whether or not they want any (or any more) kids and the steps they need to take to achieve their desired number of children. As a recurrent miscarrier – 7 pregnancies, but only 1 live birth – the irony is not lost on me.

I’ve always been a planner. I used to have every facet of my life planned out with such precision it would put a 5-star general to shame. When my husband and I decided to start trying for a baby, I knew exactly when I should get pregnant to interfere least with my master’s program’s comp exams and summer internship. Then the first miscarriage happened. I had to tinker with my plans, but I decided I could still make it work. Then came miscarriages two, three, and four. My plans were in shambles.

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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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