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

By Kathy Hodges – Co-Executive Director, Family Violence & Rape Crisis Services

Violence in relationships is a reality for far too many women in our community, especially young women. The CDC estimates that at least one in every 3 women will be the victim of violence in a relationship at some point, and our history at our agency suggests that for many women violent relationships often start in their teens and twenties. This violence often impacts all aspects of a woman’s life and makes it difficult for her to seek health care, find support from her family and friends, or to support herself and her children financially.  Her partner may not only control where she goes and who she talks to, but may limit her access to contraception and coerce her into unwanted sexual activities.

Women who are being abused by their partners often carry around shame and guilt for their violence. They are isolated from community supports, and feel they have nowhere to turn.  Our communities must be prepared to recognize violence and provide support for victims in order to turn around this epidemic of violence.  We all must know the signs:

  • Injuries that don’t match the explanation or recurrent injuries 
  • Fear or anxiety about a partner’s response to a situation
  • Reluctance to participate in activities without a partner’s permission 
  • Withdrawal from family, friends and social situations 

Each of us can be the bridge a woman needs to safety in her life. We can help her to change her situation. The first step is to listen to her and believe her.  She may never have been able to share this before, so she may need to talk for a while.  It is important to let her know that you believe her.  If anything, she is likely minimizing the violence she has experienced.  It is every bit as difficult as she is telling you.  The next step is to connect her with supportive services.  Your local domestic violence agency is a powerful resource and ally for her.  Help her get in touch with the agency by sitting with her and helping her with the contact.  Finally, she needs you to keep the door open and help break the isolation she is experiencing.  She may not be ready to leave.  She may not be ready to do anything.  Just by talking to her and listening to her, your support can help her start to see her way to safety – the first step on her path.

We are looking forward to our next Every Woman Southeast webinar which will focus on the postpartum visit – an important opportunity for interconception care. It seems that this is another topic of great interest in the Southeast – we have over 370 people registered! While we like to feature home grown programs, we’re reaching over to the West Coast to learn from Dr. Jeanne Conry, MD, PhD who has provided leadership to work in California where our innovative colleagues have reconsidered and improved the postpartum visit.

Why is this visit important? For many women, this may be one of their last encounters with a health care professional – for their own care – for a long time. While Health Care Reform has the potential to provide ongoing access to health coverage for all women, our current system of care leaves low income mothers without coverage once they are about 6 weeks postpartum. In our region over 12% of new mothers find themselves pregnant again within 6 months of giving birth. The risk of preterm birth increases with short birth intervals.

Interested? Please join us for the webinar on October 13th from 12-1:30 EST. You can register on our website. We will post the slides in case you miss it. You can also start a conversation on this topic – add a comment to our blog!

Thank you to Team Alabama for inviting me to talk about the Every Woman Southeast Coalition at their annual Perinatal Symposium in Birmingham last week. While thunderstorms kept me in the Charlotte, NC airport longer than I liked, the weather in Alabama was beautiful! At the Symposium, I was honored to follow a fantastic presentation from Rose Horton, President-Elect of AWOHNN. The presentation was the first I’ve given about EWSE since we decided to push our boundaries and commit to addressing health inequities and the social determinants of health. I think it went over pretty well. The slides are posted on our website.

I also got a glimpse at Albama’s fantastic preconception health campaign called GALS – Get a Healthy Life. Here is a link for more information http// Seriously – a public education campaign that features shoes – fun and great information.

The Women’s Integrated Systems for Health Webinar series concluded with two excellent presentations on policy and advocacy. The slides and suggested links and resources from each of the webinars are posted on our website – under initiatives. We’re still working on getting up a few of the recorded presentations but encourage you to check them out now. The WISH program also just recorded and posted an overview presentation about the initiative and the training opportunities that will continue to be available. Next steps for WISH? Six online study modules coming January 2012.

The 3rd National Preconception Health Summit is just around the corner. The agenda and registration information are posted at Check it out! I know times are tight, but the registration fee is only $175 and the current room rates are only $92. The Summit begins officially Sunday evening June 12th and finishes up at the end of the day on June 14th. In addition to excellent plenary sessions, the Summit includes alot of work sessions and many networking opportunities. Every Woman Southeast will have a display booth and will be part of a break out session panel.

I attended the 2nd National Preconception Summit in California a few years ago. I came home with a lot of new ideas. I was also impressed at the energy around the importance of working with policies, the environment, local communities, health care providers and public health leaders to support women of reproductive age in being as healthy as they can be and in planning and reaching for their goals in life. I hope to see you at the Summit in June!

On April 6th Sabrina Matoff-Stepp and Anna Kindermann from the Office of Women’s Health at HRSA will share information on the new Bright Futures for Women’s Health Initiative. This presentation is part of our Women’s Integrated Systems for Health (WISH) webinar series. The presentation will be recorded and available for viewing a few days after the webinar.

The first webinar in the series went very well. The slides and speaker bio are posted on our website. Free access to the archived webinar will be available shortly. Dr. Melzter-Brody made many key points about the critical and overlapping issues that impact women of reproductive age, particularly those who are pregnant, postpartum and new mothers.

Why does all of this matter? As the preconception movement grows into the women’s health initiative that it is meant to be, we all need to think about weaving our different work and projects together to meet the needs of the whole woman.

Is your project doing this? Tell us how!

We still can’t believe that we had almost 300 people listen in to our webinar last week on Interconception Health for High-Risk moms. The response to this topic and to the webinar series has been wonderful. Clearly there is a significant interest in sharing ideas and practices in providing services and support to this important and under-served population.

If you missed the webinar, you can see all the slides on the EveryWoman Southeast website. Feel free to email or call the speakers directly if you have questions about their presentations. We’d also love to hear from you if you’ve been working with these moms. Please email Sarah at

A special shout out to our wonderful speakers – especially Juanita Graham from Mississippi who called in while snowed in at home with her power set to go out. Now that is dedication!

We’re currently working with the NC Institute for Public Health and the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health to launch a free 6 part series that focuses on integrative community approaches to optimizing mental and physical health among adolescents and women of reproductive age. The Women’s Integrated Systems of Health (WISH) project has information about their work and the series on our website. Just click on Initiatives and then WISH.

In the meantime, don’t forget to register for the 3rd National Summit on Preconception Health and sign up for our listserv.

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