Looking Forward , Sarah Verbiest, founder of Every Woman Southeast, reflects on the new year and what it holds.
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switchpoint photoWhen was the last time you attended a conference where you were challenged with new ways of thinking, seeing your work and the world around you? The SwitchPoint conference hosted by IntraHealth recently convened unusual people from many different industries to create social change. I had the opportunity to participate and my head is still spinning (in a good way). The two day conference included power talks from scientists, artists, activists, engineers, entrepreneurs, gamers, researchers and emerging young global leaders. This was combined with microlab learning opportunities to bring people together to brainstorm as well as a number of impromptu group activities created interesting connections. More Link

GSGoldAwardWhile Girl Scouts cookies are without a doubt delicious and somewhat addictive (fess up – how many of you have eaten a whole sleeve of Thin Mints in a day), Girl Scouts as an organization has a long and proud history of providing girls with learning and leadership opportunities from Daisies (kindergarten) to Ambassadors (high school seniors). More Link


OR: A brief history of why I hated doctors for so long, and why I finally stopped.

xo-jane-logo-660x400“Your blood pressure is a little higher than I’d like. It’s 120 over 90. If it isn’t lower by the time I next see you, I’ll have to take you off the pill.”

I am 20 years old, and sitting in the office of a woman I’ve been seeing as my primary care doctor for about three years. In my teens, when I finally aged out of the pediatrician’s office I’d been going to my whole life, my father’s then-girlfriend had recommended this doctor with the highest praise.

My pediatrician had had an obsessive fixation with my weight. It began when he instructed me to start my first diet when I was eight years old, showing me a colorful chart that explained what size I should be, and pointing out that I was near the top end of the average for my height and age. He wanted me to lose, I believe, one and a half pounds. Maybe as much as two. Every visit — even if I went in because I had a cold, or I had sprained my arm tree-climbing — began and ended with discussion of my weight, and I what I was doing about it.

My pediatrician was the first doctor I ever despised. So I was cool with it when I was told I couldn’t see him anymore. And given that I would soon need someone to give me my first pelvic exam, I was relieved to get such a strong reference from my father’s girlfriend, someone I knew and trusted.

It didn’t work out quite as planned.

My new doctor was never the kind, warm, supportive practitioner that was described to me. She was terse, and often cold; she did not have much patience for questions, and usually seemed in a hurry to finish our appointments. When I went in for that first pelvic exam, I was terrified, as this was before you could look up the details of the process on the Internet, and my dad’s girlfriend was as unforthcoming with her experiences (deeming such matters inappropriate topics of conversation) as my own mother was blasé (she would unflinchingly share every facet of the experience, but always with the hand-waving caveat, “It’s no big deal, you’ll be fine”). I had no objective narrative.

I was shivering on the table under a tiny paper robe, 18 years old, when my doctor came in, my chart in her hand. She frowned down into the folder full of papers and inquired, “If you’re not having sex, why are you getting a pap smear?”

“…Because I’m 18 and I thought I was supposed to?” I had read this, numerous places, that women were supposed to start getting pap smears at 18. I didn’t see anything that said it was only for women having penis-in-vagina sextimes.

She sighed lightly, like doing a pap smear was a waste of her time. I tried to chill out. But the tone for the visit was already set.

Back to the beginning of this story: it’s true that by 20, I was going in to these appointments already tense and braced for a bad experience. I was young, and though I no longer lived in South Florida, I was still on my father’s health insurance. It had genuinely never occurred to me that I could just find a different doctor whom I might see in Boston, instead of trying to fit in physicals on trips home. I suppose I thought changing doctors only happened in extreme circumstances.

When my doctor threatened my birth control, I panicked. My stomach sank and my heart began racing. If you’ve ever been a sexually-active 20-year-old with a pathological phobia of pregnancy, you can imagine my freakout. I mean, I was ALSO using condoms, but I didn’t altogether trust them, so the idea of losing the pill seemed like a terrifying risk.

I gulped and tried to keep it together. “Why?”

“The pill can elevate blood pressure in some people. You’re very young to have blood pressure near the borderline range. I’ll have to take you off the pill if you can’t get those numbers down.”

Notably, this was the end of our conversation. She never actually gave me any suggestions for lowering my blood pressure. Nor did she suggest alternative methods of birth control we could try. She instructed me to lower a number I didn’t understand, apparently through sheer force of will, or else she would take my birth control away entirely. I left the appointment believing those were the limits of my options.

After that experience, I did go back for one more appointment with her, but following that I peaced out of her office for good — although I carried away with me a newfound fear of having my blood pressure checked.

I kept my distance from doctors as much as possible for a few years after that. I went to a Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston for annual physical exams, but only so they would give me birth control pills. I paid for it all out of pocket, strolling past the bulletproof glass and the two sets of doors you had to get buzzed through, blissfully ignorant that just a couple years before, abortion opponent John Salvi had shot and killed two people, and wounded five others, at two family planning clinics in the Boston area. I thought it was just, you know, a cheap place to get the pill.

My experiences were slightly better at Planned Parenthood, but I never saw the same person twice, and thus never had much of an opportunity to build a relationship with anyone.

Eventually, in grad school, I got my own health insurance, and established myself with a regular primary care doctor. She was nice enough, but not long out of medical school, and her bedside manner was a little wobbly. She was fond of saying, “So, what are we doing about our weight?” like clockwork at the end of every appointment (who is “we,” exactly — could I be fat because YOU are eating too many donuts?). She liked handing me pamphlets about nutrition and calorie restriction, although she never once asked me what my daily diet was actually like. When I inquired about why I might be getting pain in my right shin when exercising, she was incapable of discussing possible causes or treatments beyond “lose weight” — and when I noted that, were I to take her advice, exercise would probably be a necessary component of doing so, she stared at me blankly.

xoJaneAuthorSome of her efforts were hilariously ham-fisted. Like the time she inquired as to whether I had ever considered gastric bypass surgery, literally at the same moment as she was scraping my cervix. (Even today, I wish I’d had the muscle control to have shot the speculum right into her face. HULKGINA SMASH. As it was, I only laughed maniacally.)

My health insurance changed again, and I chose a primary care doctor at random from a large book in my employer’s HR department, mostly because I had walked past the clinic where he worked many times, and it was conveniently located.

I had avoided male doctors ever since my pediatrician. I’d bought into the idea that male doctors are always terrible and patronizing to their lady patients. Given my prior experience, I didn’t take much convincing on this point. But there weren’t any women doctors accepting new patients at this particular clinic, and I thought, well, I’ll just go with this random guy for now, and change it later.

Dr. R was soft-spoken, warm, and had a kindness about him that put me right at ease. On my first visit, I explained that I would prefer not to be weighed as a matter of course every time I came in, unless it was necessary for some specific purpose — like to get the correct dose for a medication. I was willing to be weighed when needed, but my lengthy history of dieting and disordered eating meant the experience of getting on the scale caused such psychological upheaval that I would rather only do so when I really HAD to. I was literally trembling when I asked if he would be okay with this.

Dr. R, ever calm and measured, cocked his head to one side and asked, “How familiar are you with your body? Do you feel like you notice when things change?”

Familiar with my body? What does that even mean? At the time, I was sewing many of my own clothes, so that seemed pertinent. I explained that I knew my measurements intimately, and would notice if they changed, because it would affect my sewing. “If you wanted to MEASURE me every time I came in, I would be FINE with that!” I was selling this idea hard.

He laughed and told me that weighing individuals on every visit was mostly about tracking unexplained changes in weight, because that could indicate a problem that might otherwise go unnoticed. However, he said, “I think I can trust you to report any changes in your size.”

The shock and relief I felt took me days to process, and it wasn’t just about not having to be weighed all the time. The notion of being trusted with my body was utterly foreign to me. I was in my mid-20s, and still partly convinced that I had no right to govern my own body, that I could not understand my own health, that only doctors could unravel those mysteries and I had simply to accept whatever they told me about myself. This is a common experience for many women, especially women who are fat, but I hadn’t realized it had affected me so deeply until that moment.

I had never before met a doctor before who thought that my impressions of my health and wellness were as valuable as his own. This wasn’t a one-off thing, either. Over the decade that I saw him, Dr. R and I would routinely have discussions in which he would offer his own expertise, but then ask me how I felt and what I thought, and always in a manner that was sincere and interested. It wasn’t that he just went along with whatever I said, but he made me feel like I had the right to give input as the occupant of the body in question, rather than being dictated to, a passive and obedient patient.

In short, it felt like he and I were collaborating in my health, that I was an active participant in my own care. This was such a precious and magical gift, after all those years of thinking of my body as an aberrant monstrosity I was fighting, rather than an inexorable and valuable part of me.

I couldn’t have articulated any of this before I started seeing Dr. R. I didn’t know why I hated going to the doctor, why I sat in every waiting room feeling sick and powerless and grotesque. When white coat syndrome — a relic of my earlier experiences that I’ve not yet overcome — caused my blood pressure to surge when I first entered the exam room, Dr. R would recheck it at the end of my visit when I was calmer, to get a more accurate reading. He explained that using a too-small blood pressure cuff for your arm measurement can give a false high reading. He never made assumptions, but rather asked questions, posed hypotheses, ran tests, and worked to get the most accurate results possible. He preferred to operate within reality, and not vague generalizations. He believed me. He trusted me.

To put it simply, Dr. R treated me like a person worthy of dignity and respect, every time I saw him.

And that is what I said to his former PA last week, when she told me he had died a couple months ago.

I knew he had been sick. Dr. R had gone on medical leave a few years back, and then returned to work for a time, and then gone on leave again. Cancer.

His PA explained she didn’t have it in her to call every one of his patients to let them know, which I totally understood. I realized I was crying. Embarrassed, through sobs I told her that he was the first doctor I ever knew who made me feel like I had the right to be involved in my own health. I told her it really changed me, made me relate to healthcare in general and my body in particular not as things I tended to out of a begrudging sense of miserable duty, but because I was worth taking care of.

I wish I had told him that. He probably never planned it, or intended it — he clearly wasn’t trying to be an activist in the exam room, or to give me revelations, or build me up or anything like that. He was just doing his job. It was just how he worked. And just being himself was enough to help people.

Compassion is not a prerequisite for practicing medicine. Obviously. Medicine has its share of practitioners who relate to their patients as bodies on an assembly line. And I can even understand this, given the state of healthcare in the US, and the fact that virtually no one is getting the support they need, on either side of the desk. Primary care doctors and nurses often work impossibly hard to help more people than they can feasibly handle, and patients often suffer as a result. Doctors and other medical practitioners are not bad people, but they don’t always have the resources to be the kind of professionals they would like to be, and years of working in difficult circumstances will make anyone a little jaded.

Early on in confronting my doctor fears, one of the first revelations I experienced was when someone suggested that your doctor is technically your employee — if you don’t like the job she’s doing, you can fire her and find someone else. This idea helped me to learn to advocate for myself, but it also set me up to think of that relationship as adversarial; I was always waiting to be challenged, and in the panic of the slightest misstep, I would often have to decide whether to fight back (and come across as noncompliant) or lay down and let it go (and hate myself later).

And then I met a doctor who was truly, authentically compassionate and committed to asking questions, and testing and validating the facts, rather than moving forward with sweeping assumptions. And I realized that I didn’t have to hate doctors, or going to the doctor’s office, and I didn’t have to hate dealing with health stuff. I didn’t have to see it as a fight. I didn’t have to expect to feel dismissed or attacked. I didn’t have to feel guilty or broken or wrong or bad.

I could just, you know, try to be healthy. 

Lesley Kinzel is the Deputy Editor at This blog was originally posted on on July 21, 2014. Click here for the original posting.


goalsIn the last couple of months, I have been to at least five different conferences and meetings in Kentucky on various Maternal and Child Health issues. At these conferences, I’ve heard some really excellent speakers, been exposed to new ideas, participated in brainstorming sessions, and even celebrated how far we’ve come in our efforts to reduce premature birth. After each conference, I leave feeling motivated to make improvements, full of ideas, and excited about the things I can do to help. But…I have to admit that as I sit at my desk reflecting on these meetings, I’m still a little discouraged by how far we need to go to improve services for all moms and babies.

At most of these meetings, the same issues continue to surface: How can we ensure that pregnant women deliver full-term healthy babies? How can we make sure that every mom has access to care and transportation to every prenatal visit? What can we do to reduce the number of pregnant women smoking or abusing drugs? How can we reduce early elective deliveries? What can we do to reduce infant mortality? It seems almost overwhelming all the things that need to be done right now and all at once to provide the best possible care for moms and babies.

So, as I’m making goals for 2015, I’m wondering where to start? While looking back over my notes from the most recent conference hosted by the Kentucky Institute for Patient Safety and Quality, I’m struck by a statement made by Jennie Joseph, Executive Director of Commonsense Childbirth, Inc. Jennie has created an Easy Access Clinic, a prenatal and postpartum care clinic where no one is ever turned away, in central Florida. At the conference, Jennie said, “It doesn’t cost any money to be nice and treat people well.”

I think that is some really excellent advice and a great starting point for my 2015 goals!! What are your goals for 2015?


KaraBrownWritten by Kara Brown: Kara is the Associate Director of Program Services for the March of Dimes Greater Kentucky Chapter and Leadership Team member and Co-chair of the Education and Communications Committee with the Every Woman Southeast Coalition.

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 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.

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.

"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. |

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.

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.
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