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.
In June 2015, SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective and the Center for Reproductive Rights launched Black Mamas Matter conversations on race, reproduction, parenting, and rights to build concrete steps to improve the maternal health of Black women in the South. Our coalition’s Angela Aina represented us at this important gathering, and continues to lead us forward. Over the past year, our team provided input to the toolkit that was developed from those conversations. In June 2016 Angela and I attended a reconvening of this amazing group in Atlanta to launch the Black Mamas Matter tool kit.
The toolkit itself contains excellent information along with strategies for change. Framing this work with a human rights lens is a strong and logical approach. Please take time to read and understand this work. I also learned a few other things at the gathering.
The words “reproductive justice” are highly charged in this circle (and many others), with people often equating this with abortion rights. Some question if these words may even need to be sent on vacation for a while in the South. While access to contraceptives and pregnancy termination are certainly implied, the fuller meaning of this concept is that women should have the right to decide if and when they will have children AND that they have the right to be healthy while carrying and delivering those children who can then be raised in safe and healthy communities that create opportunities for their well being and prosperity. This convergence of reproductive equity and maternal and child health is long overdue.
New movements are sorting themselves out. Relationships, links and platforms are being built as a generation and population are fed up with the status quo. The Trust Black Women organization, for example, is building solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Groups such as SisterSong are expanding their vision to include issues around maternal and infant mortality. There are many competing issues and allies must provide space and respect as this work grows. White leaders need to follow…and listen. While I might be ready to go full tilt into a new movement, this is not my place and I need to honor the process.
Finally, this is a time for complex thinking around intersectionality. For example, any midwife starting or leading a birth center faces many challenges. A Black midwife faces those same challenges layered upon all the other injustices and road blocks she faces as well as patients who need extra care for their hearts as well as their bodies. I may be insanely busy some days as a director and feel like I’m navigating river rapids, but a Black woman director is feeling the same way AND paddling upstream instead of down. I don’t have answers. It wasn’t my choice to get the easier road. But it is my responsibility to understand my role in the system and use that knowledge to activate toward equity.
The Black Mamas Matter conversations will hopefully continue. We all can begin by reviewing this report, starting conversations and working to shake things up here in the South.
By Sarah Verbiest, Every Woman Southeast Coalition Director
About the Toolkit
This toolkit begins by explaining the human rights framework as it applies to maternal health, and then examines the data and research on maternal health in the U.S. with a special focus on racial disparities. To help bring that data to life, the toolkit includes personal stories about sexual, reproductive, and maternal health from Black women living in the South. The toolkit also contains an overview of policy recommendations proposed by various stakeholders. The policy brief is followed by a list of resources that advocates can consult for more information, a set of talking points on maternal health, and a set of suggestions for building connections and dialogue with other stakeholders engaged in Black maternal health across the country.
Read the toolkit here.