From left, Elizabeth Dawes Gay, Angela Doyinsola Aina and Joia Crear-Perry of the Black Mamas Matter Alliance. Photo by Donya Currie

From left, Elizabeth Dawes Gay, Angela Doyinsola Aina and Joia Crear-Perry of the Black Mamas Matter Alliance. Photo by Donya Currie

How can we address the tragedy of rising maternal mortality in the U.S. as well as a widening disparity between black and white women?

Make reproductive justice a priority and ensure black women have a voice when it comes to the policies that impact their health care, said presenters at a packed Monday afternoon session on “Black Mamas Matter! Reclaiming Maternal Reproductive Health.” They invited all of us to join the effort to advance the human right to safe and respectful maternal health care.

“We envision a world where black mamas have the rights, respect and resources to thrive before, during and after pregnancy,” said Elizabeth Dawes Gay, a steering committee member of the Atlanta-based Black Mamas Matter Alliance, at the session.

The all-volunteer group is doing amazing work to change policy, cultivate research and advance care for black mothers. Perhaps most importantly, they’re working to shift our culture so black mothers’ voices are actually heard.

Alliance members have put together a toolkit that includes talking points for advocates, multi-sector policy solutions, a research summary and other resources. Some goals for the coming year are to develop a research agenda that identifies gaps and also points to effective or at least promising policies, as well as a new toolkit on promoting holistic care that helps women not only in health care settings but overall.

Alliance member Angela Doyinsola Aina gave a gut-wrenching look at the bleak and depressing history behind the disparities in black maternal health in America. Black slaves were forced to breastfeed their white masters’ babies, for example, and if pregnant, were expected to work in the fields right up until their labor and then return immediately to work with their babies strapped to their backs. Physician J. Marion Sims is known as the “father of modern gynecology” for developing surgical techniques still in use today. But he honed his craft by experimenting on female slaves.

Today, amid an overall disturbing upward trend in maternal deaths, more than three times as many black women die from childbirth as their white counterparts. While the growing number of maternal deaths and pregnancy complications in the U.S. is “a human rights crisis,” Aina said, we all can play a role in making a difference.

“For us to have meaningful impact, we need everyone in this room to work on black maternal health,” Gay said. “We have the skills and talent to make a difference.”

What if you work for a program intended to help improve black women’s health outcomes but no black women are involved in program planning, an audience member asked.

Find an ally and continue to speak out, said panel member Joia Crear-Perry, founder and president of the National Birth Equity Collaborative in New Orleans and one of the five steering committee members for the Black Mamas Matter Alliance.

“This is not going to happen with one program. It’s internalized in us. It’s everywhere,” she said about the tendency to forget to include black women at the table. “For us to change large institutions and health departments, that is really going to take a lot more effort and a lot of us. Just keep pushing.”