Growing up in rural Arkansas, I started my career as a babysitter because I loved children and dreamed of becoming an OB-GYN and delivering babies. But after earning a biology degree from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and having a son to care for, I discovered a new path — public health — that would enable me to continue working toward a heartfelt goal: tackling health disparities for Black mothers, fathers, and babies.
I earned a Master of Public Health and then a doctorate in Health Systems and Services Research with a concentration in health economics from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences before becoming an assistant professor in the Department of Population Health at the University of Kansas School of Medicine.
Public health seemed like the best approach for a person with my type of passion. I wanted to dismantle systems that create health disparities and barriers to achieving good health outcomes. I wanted to highlight the strength of Black communities in light of the data reported.
The statistics show stark inequality and health disparities set the stage from the beginning. On a national level, Black maternal and infant mortality rates are worse than they were 15 years before the end of slavery.
Every year in the United States, about 700 people die during pregnancy or the year after. Another 50,000 people each year have unexpected outcomes of labor and delivery. Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than White women. In Kansas, despite representing only 7.1 percent of the population, Black women accounted for 14 percent of pregnancy-associated deaths. In Missouri, the pregnancy-associated mortality rate for Black women is four times higher than that of White women.
The question remains: what happens in the beginning and middle?
At the beginning of the story, society impresses that Black women and the social determinants of health are the causes of the disparities. Yet, the data doesn’t tell you that Black women can be wealthy, have health insurance, be highly educated professionals, or initiate prenatal care in the first trimester, and still experience racism and pregnancy-related deaths.
The middle is the story of neglect, devaluation, and dehumanization of Black bodies. It is downplaying Black women’s fears and silencing their voices. It is the chronic stress of racism, macro, and microaggressions that causes our genes to age prematurely, making pregnancy riskier and at earlier ages for Black women.
The entire story has taught us what to learn but the story fails to help us unlearn.
As a community, we must unlearn that:
- Black women absolutely do not experience racism
- We can determine the value of Black bodies
- Black women need to be taught how to take care of their children
- Black-led organizations should not be at the forefront of this work
- Black fathers are absent.
The story often and intentionally leaves out the voices of Black families to tell their stories and inform solutions. Of the utmost importance are the stories of the numerous ways that Black women and Black communities are thriving! Black women and families are caring for and supporting each other in the face of systemic violence. In Kansas and the Kansas City Metro area, numerous initiatives — often Black-led — work tirelessly to intercede on behalf of Black women and their families.
The Kansas Birth Equity Network (KBEN) is one Black-led initiative with a goal to highlight the strengths of Black families, dismantle the stigmatization of Black families, and reduce the disparities by elevating the voices of Black families.
Our vision is every Black mom, birthing person, dad, and infant receive quality and intentional prenatal, neonatal, and postpartum care in the state of Kansas.
KBEN was borne out of a partnership between two Black women at the University of Kansas Medical Center and members of the local historically Black fraternity and sorority chapters in Sedgwick County, KS. In working to achieve birth equity, we must recognize, prioritize, and learn from the ways that Black communities take care of and support each other.
The reason I do this work is because I truly believe that every Black mom/birthing person, every Black father, and every Black baby deserves to celebrate the baby’s first birthday and to be healthy.
We as a state need to do better, and to do so we must rewrite the story of Black families thriving and see beyond the data.