by Lauryn Bray
In honor of Seattle Black Maternal Health Week 2023, Black Liberated Kin Mobilizing Access for Maternal Autonomy & Solidarity (BLK MAMAS) Collective hosted an event at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute on April 14. Their fourth annual celebration, “Our Joy Be Full: Black Kin Healing the Collective Body,” and the event created space for conversations about self-responsibility and rest, reclaiming bodily autonomy, and embodied practices of joy. In accordance with Black Mamas Matter Alliance’s (BMMA) official 2023 programming theme, “Our Bodies Belong to Us: Restoring Black Autonomy and Joy, Our Joy Be Full” was an event designed to build community among Black birth workers and Black birthing people while celebrating and bringing awareness to Black maternal health in order to promote and facilitate collective healing.
BMMA, based in Atlanta, Georgia, is an alliance of Black birthing people and Black birth workers that centers “Black mamas and birthing people to advocate, drive research, build power, and shift culture for Black maternal health, rights, and justice.”
After analyzing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), researchers from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found three things:
Maternal deaths increased during the pandemic compared to 2018 and 2019. The GAO analyzed data from the CDC and found that maternal deaths increased for everyone due to COVID. The data shows that in 2020, there were a total of 861 maternal deaths in the U.S. compared to 754 in 2019 and 658 in 2018, and 102 of those were COVID-related. This would put the number of non-COVID-related deaths at 759, meaning there were five additional maternal deaths not caused by COVID. In 2021, there were a total of 1,178 maternal deaths and 401 of those were related to complications caused by COVID. This makes the number of maternal deaths not caused by COVID 777, meaning that there were 18 more non-COVID-related maternal deaths than in 2020 and 23 more than in 2019.
COVID-19 contributed to 25% of maternal deaths in 2020 and 2021. Most of the spikes in these numbers are caused by COVID; however, when subtracting the number of deaths caused by complications from COVID, we are still left with a steadily increasing number.
The maternal death rate for Black or African American women was disproportionately higher compared to white and Hispanic or Latina women. The maternal death rate for Black or African American (not Hispanic or Latina) women was 44.0 per 100,000 live births in 2019, then increased to 55.3 in 2020, and 68.9 in 2021. In contrast, white (not Hispanic or Latina) women had death rates of 17.9, 19.1, and 26.1, respectively. The maternal death rate for Hispanic or Latina women was lower (12.6) compared with white (not Hispanic or Latina) women (17.9) in 2019, but increased significantly during the pandemic in 2020 (18.2) and 2021 (27.5).
BLK MAMAS Collective and BMMA are two examples of organizations that center this data in their work. “Our Joy Be Full” was a testament to the commitment of Black birth workers, Black birthing people, and anyone else in between continuing to do work that aims to significantly lower these numbers.
The event at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute comprised four main parts, including yoga and meditation facilitated by yoga nidra instructor Sophia Haddix, the BLK MAMAS Marketplace, and food courtesy of Comfort Zone. Also at the BLK MAMAS Marketplace were tables with information from several organizations providing perinatal services. Most claimed to center BIPOC and immigrant/refugee communities in their work.
Among the organizations represented was Global Perinatal Services, which provides free doula services for up to one year after the baby’s birth and low-cost doula training services for those looking to start a career as a birth worker. Training is free for those who go on to work for the organization.
Open Arms Perinatal Services, an organization that provides community-based support during pregnancy, birth, and early parenting in partnership with King County Public Health, was also in attendance, as well as Quilted Health and WA/CA Therapy Fund.
BLKBRY, a local Black woman-led collective of doulas and lactation specialists, had a table as well. Founded by Jazmin Williams, BLKBRY (pronounced “blackberry”) takes its name from the famous Tupac Shakur lyric “Some say the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice; I say the darker the flesh, then the deeper the roots.” The missing letters in the organization’s name are intended to symbolize what is missing for Black birthing people in healthcare. BLKBRY prioritizes serving Black birthing people first and is committed to always centering Black people within their work.
Hosted by birth worker, educator, and community advocate Rokea Jones, a late afternoon panel featured three guests — Ashley Albert, Doris O’Neal, and Monique Altheimer — who spoke on how their life experiences brought them to the work they do today.
Albert was first to speak. The Rainier Beach-raised educator, advocate, peer counselor, survivor, and parent said her experience as a youth in foster care and an incarcerated woman are what brought her to the work she does today.
“Families need support and not surveillance,” said Albert, who spoke to the audience about her ongoing work with national legislators to repeal Biden’s Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, which is designed to speed up the process of transitioning a child from foster care to adoption. The act was intended to lower the number of children in the foster care system, but Albert argued to the audience that the legislation actually permanently separated children and parents that might have been on their way back together.
A Central District-based clinical and community health associate at the Tubman Center for Health and Freedom, Altheimer spoke about her experience as a former sex worker who was trafficked and how social services organizations were able to help her escape. She credited the Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS) with pulling her out of the lifestyle, and says her work with the Tubman Center allows her to pay it forward.
O’Neal, who is the director of gender-based violence specialized services at YWCA, joined virtually via Zoom and informed the audience about how her career has led her to witness the rifts between law enforcement and survivors. O’Neal spoke passionately about her partnership with the King County Prosecutor’s Office to devise a model that prioritizes survivor needs in an attempt to minimize future conflict between law enforcement and survivors.
In addition to being asked about their work, the panelists were also asked about allyship — who their allies are and who they wish they were — and how they avoid burnout and make time to rest.
After the panelists exited the stage, African dance teacher Makeda Ebube invited the theater to participate in a series of holistic interpretive dances before keynote speaker Sabia Wade was invited to the stage.
Wade is an author, educator, full-spectrum doula, executive coach, and birth neoterist — or someone who is “forward-focused and dedicated to innovation and sustainability to create a pathway to a new reality for birth,” according to Wade. Her presentation focused heavily on self-responsibility and how individuals must make time to practice and embody joy in order to preserve and promote mental and maternal health.
Black Maternal Health Week takes place for a week every April and is part of National Minority Health Month, a month-long initiative to advance health equity for all races. It was officially recognized by the White House on April 13, 2021, and has been adopted by similar Black-led collectives across the country, such as BLK MAMAS.
Lauryn Bray is a writer and reporter for the South Seattle Emerald. She has a degree in English with a concentration in creative writing from CUNY Hunter College. She is from Sacramento, California, and has been living in King County since June 2022.
📸 Featured Image: In honor of Seattle Black Maternal Health Week 2023, Black Liberated Kin Mobilizing Access for Maternal Autonomy & Solidarity (BLK MAMAS) Collective hosted an event at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute on April 14. (Photo: Mary Jean Media @Maryjeanmedia)
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