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  • Writer's pictureChardá Bell, IBCLC, CBE, CD

Honoring Black Maternal Health Week 2023

The theme for Black Maternal Health Week 2023 #BMHW23


“Our Bodies Belong to Us: Restoring Black Autonomy and Joy!” ​


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5 Ways to Support Black Maternal Health


Maternal mortality rates in the U.S. are much higher in the United States than our peer nations and steadily rising as they have nearly doubled over the past decade. Recent data has shown it has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 global pandemic.


Black Maternal Health Week was cofounded by The Black Mamas Matter Alliance to amplify the diverse voices, perspectives & lived experiences of Black birthing people. Raise awareness of the systemic pitfalls contributing to the Black maternal health crisis; to enrich the dialogue surrounding Black maternal health; and to promote solutions, policies, and research as well as increase community involvement.


Every time I get on social media, I see new case of clearly preventable neglect in the hospital system that has affected a Black woman either during or immediately after labor and delivery, sometimes in pregnancy and within the first year postpartum. The level of neglect ranges from physical and/or mental pain to the worse, being mortality. Black women are STILL dying at a rate 3-4x higher than our white non-hispanic women counterparts and it's STILL beyond outrageous and absolutely heartbreaking, as a Black woman, mom and birth worker, I feel so much empathy when we lose one of our sisters to this preposterous miscarriage of reproductive and birth justice.


The needs assessments have been done a million times over. We already know what the desires of Black women and birthing people are, we are being listened to but not heard.


One of the solutions proposed as a response to the needs assessments, that would benefit this crisis greatly would be providing more culturally-congruent practices with a focus on mission aligned Black Midwifery care, Black IBCLC lactation consultants and full-spectrum Black Doula care with sound evidence-based methods. We just all need to continue doing the work and fighting the good fight and causing good trouble for this to be implemented nationwide.


Another way to continue this work is through advocacy and awareness such as Black Maternal Health Week.


Black Maternal Health Week (BMHW) is celebrated annually April 11-17th. It is a week long campaign that is founded and led by the Black Mamas Matter Alliance​ to build awareness, activism, and community-building​ to amplify ​the voices, perspectives and lived experiences of Black Mamas and birthing people.


The week is intentionally held during National Minority Health Month and begins on April 11th annually to join dozens of global organizations in marking this day as International Day for Maternal Health Rights – an opportunity to advocate for the elimination of maternal mortality globally. The activities and conversations hosted throughout the week intentionally center the values and traditions of the reproductive and birth justice movements. ​


We have been fighting this for years and I must say I've experienced some battle fatigue. For those of us are in this work day in and day out, then you get on social media for a good laugh but all you see is more sadness and pain, it becomes a haunting experience. I've decided to start speaking on this subject matter with more awareness around the audience that I'm speaking to, because not everyone needs to hear these horrendous stats. I'm talking about pregnant Black folks, those trying to conceive and those who maybe just had a baby. I understand that we need to be educated on the facts, but I also think there is an appropriate time and place to do so.





I work for a non-profit that's whole mission is to eradicate the Black maternal health crisis in San Diego County, our organization is also a part of the larger national initiative to do so. This is done through increasing access to culturally congruent and mission aligned care like doulas, midwives, OBGYN's, IBCLC's, etc. All skinfolk ain't kinfolk, so if your midwife or OBGYN is Black but they aren't necessarily interested in supporting Black folks without judgment, shame or just out to get your coin, like some I've unfortunately run into, then that's not the goal. We need like minded people in our corner, those who will listen AND hear while providing trauma informed care from the lens of navigating the Black American experience.


So this year, I've decided to take a different approach to supporting Black maternal health week. I have also encouraged my work colleagues to do the same for ourselves and our clients. Instead of reading stories and watching films on the harrowing ordeal that we already know exists, I've suggested that we acknowledge it by saying let's focus on what could go right and what we can do to help ourselves instead of focusing on what has gone wrong and preaching on the stats to folks who just don't get it.


I'm not saying we should ignore the stories of our fallen sisters and families that have lost their lives to this preventable crisis. I'm simply saying we should find new ways to raise awareness and develop positive ways to foster resilience and continue fighting the good fit. We are tired, I know I am and so many others.





Here are 5 new ways to honor and celebrate Black maternal health week:

Self Care + Support

This week can be heavy, working in Black maternal health can feel exhausting, freedom truly is a constant struggle. So we must be armed to protect ourselves and that doesn't just mean our bodies but our minds. We can do this by practicing self care. This month, my non-profit job is providing Self Care bags to Black Moms in San Diego, they can come to my Southeast San Diego Breastfeeding Clinic to get them. Many folks benefit from journaling, singing, dancing, taking a shower or bath while meditating, painting, getting out in nature. Whatever your thing is that makes you happy, do more of that, often as you can.


I'm also hosting with GC/HS a virtual yoga healing session for Black women. Doing this with a fellow Black birth worker, Kaila Matthews. We will enjoy some rich discussion before the session as well. We are going to do this on the last day, intentionally as a way to decompress from the stories of the week.


Silence as Resistance

Yesterday was heavy, put it down. Best advice I've seen on this topic. I have developed battle fatigue, compassion fatigue and injustice fatigue. Sometimes I just can't take reading another sad story, I become enraged, because I care so deeply. But this is draining on my soul, mental health and overall psyche. I've gotten to the point when I've jumped on seen a story, and said nope, not today, I'll have to read about it tomorrow. I've told colleagues not to share stories with me unless I ask, respecting my own boundaries. I've also taken a major step back from birth work sometimes to decompress and not be in the trenches because being there and living it plus seeing it everywhere else except for work can make you feel crazy.


So, take a break from social media and news whenever you need it. The stories are rolling in daily. It can be quite heavy sometimes. If it is starting to get to you, make an effort to avoid it and come back when you are ready. If seeing birth trauma stories are harmful to your psyche or triggering your own experiences, feel free to check out. I know I have to stay clear of preeclampsia and pregnancy loss stories because I've experienced those two things we commonly hear in the Black Maternal Health crisis. As someone who is trying to conceive with dealing with infertility, it's not the best for the mindset to read about how brutal it can be to simply be Black and pregnant in America. You can stay woke without being fully invested and engaged in every story that comes out.


Gather in Community

Gather with one another for times of reflection throughout the year, not just one time of the year. There is no need to work in silos and the time we are working against is precious. If we can work together to achieve a common goal, we will all be better off and begin to see this crisis be dismantled. We will thrive not just survive. I propose we do more local gathering and then plan state and national gatherings as often as we can. I love this event that is being hosted by the Black Student Resource Center at San Jose State University "Laboring with Hope" screening & discussion.


I do my best to gather with birth workers, community, clients just for space to share and be with one another. Whether it's online or in person, some time is better than no time. We don't even have to do anything grand, sometimes a simple coffee and chill is all we need. Time to reflect and restore our peace.


Influence + Push for policy change


Schedule meetings with legislators, it may take months but it's worth the wait. Like this Black Infant Health program in Fresno, CA planned this year at the Black Wellness & Prosperity Center. Legislators in public office are the change makers who have the power and ability to leverage new laws and incorporate new policies in our society to combat this on systemic and structural levels.


Be organized. Show up and show out! Go with a list of stats & demands in hand, have survivors and families of the fallen share stories in person or on video. Keep it short, concise and to the point. Arrange a follow up meeting to hold them accountable. Post it on your social media and let folks know you are holding these electeds to the highest standard when it comes to listening to our Black families. This strategy is like a silent protest or sit in but with an open conversation involved. Say your peace, ask them questions and allow them an opportunity to ask you some. This is what real advocacy looks like.


I was an elected official for 4 years which made it easier for me to do this type of "lobbying" for change. If you don't have any political connections, start attending meetings like women's political clubs or Black political clubs to introduce the cause and ask for them to help you with an in to schedule meetings with local and state policy makers. Run Women Run is a political but non-partisan organization that may be a way to bring about these meetings. They also gave me an endorsement when I ran for public office.


You can also make contacts with the hospitals and care provider offices. Organize and request meetings by teaming up with larger non-profits and other large community programs like Healthy Start or Black Infant Health, to facilitate open discussion around Black maternal health and their role in it. Healthcare professionals play a critical role in reducing these preventable maternal mortality incidences. The Hear Her campaign was launched by the CDC in an effort to have these types of conversations between Black women & health care providers to make sure any issues are adequately addressed.

Here's a sample script to take to a hospital or health care provider meeting:


When patients are engaged in their healthcare by being included and made the leader of their health team, it can lead to improvements in safety and quality of care. Take steps to make Black women feel understood and valued during their visit with you. Here is a list to help you better support your Black clients and help eradicate disparities in maternal health: Ask questions to better understand patients needs and things that may be affecting their lives.
Help patients, and those accompanying them, understand the urgent maternal warning signs and when to seek medical attention right away. Help patients manage chronic conditions or conditions that may arise during pregnancy due to toxic stress and racism, like hypertension, diabetes, or depression
Recognize unconscious bias in yourself and in your office. Provide all patients with respectful care, simply treat others how you would want to be treated!
Address any concerns your patients may have by providing options and alternatives, explaining benefits, risks, and what happens if they do nothing.

Pay Black Women, Uplift Black Birth Workers

Support Black lactation consultants, doulas, midwives, OB's, birth workers and body workers who are doing the work and fighting this fight. We need all the support we can get!


Right now, Black birth work is kind of like the Underground Railroad, but even Harriet wouldn't want us to be underground no more! We need to be speaking on national and international platforms. Share our stories and information with journalist, media, universities, and other systems. We are the original birth keepers for these United States, and it's about time people remember!


Spread the word on our businesses (which are usually small and one person operated) and help us be known and respected at higher levels. The only way we can continue to sustain this work is by rising up and being noticed by the general public. For instance, BMHW was officially recognized by the White House on April 13th, 2021.


We need to be paid for speaking in print and online publications, participating as leaders and speakers at professional conferences and workshops, and raising public awareness by conducting interviews on mainstream media outlets that are open to discussing health disparities. We Black women need to be the ones doing this, not anyone else because much of the speaking be done focuses on

the medical cause of death—such as cardiovascular conditions, hypertension, hemorrhages, and thromboembolism—but not the larger environmental context.


When others speak for us, we don't get to explore the root causes of the racial disparities in maternal health in the United States. A non-Black person cannot speak to the variations in lived experiences across socioecological spheres. Having a first hand perspective of understanding the differences between White and minority women in the United States is critical to evolving our policies and creating effective programs and practices to reduce and eventually eliminate racial disparities in maternal health.


Conclusion

The way to begin restoring our joy and our Black bodily autonomy is through acknowledging when we need to take our breaks and when we need to rise up. There is a time and place for everything, the time is now, it was yesterday, it's tomorrow. But one thing I'm going to continue reminding my clients of and myself is that our bodies belong to us. Even when the system is f*cked, no one not even the devil himself, can take this or our joy away from us. We are resilient, we are powerful, we are Black moms!





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