A Look at Black Maternal Health Week

by | Apr 10, 2024 | Community Engagement, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Featured

Black Maternal Health Week runs from April 11-17, 2024. 

Black Maternal Health Week, created and led by the Black Mamas Matter Alliance and held from April 11-17, seeks to build awareness of and activism driven by the perspectives and lived experiences of Black Mamas and birthing people. SJSU’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library and the Department of Public Health and Recreation have been participating in and hosting events in honor of this week since Spring 2023. In honor of the approaching observance, we spoke with several SJSU faculty members — Dawn Hackman, health sciences and scholarly communications librarian; Estella Inda, research services and social sciences librarian; Adriana Poo, health sciences librarian; and Rachel Berkowitz, assistant professor of public health — about the week and what it means to SJSU.

Can you tell us a little bit about the history of Black Maternal Health Week – how it started and what it means?

The origin of Black Maternal Health Week (BMHW) is with the Black Mamas Matter Alliance (BMMA). To quote BMMA’s website: “BMHW is a week-long campaign 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 annually on April 11 to join dozens of global organizations in marking this day as International Day for Maternal Health and 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.”

Why is Black Maternal Health Week so important?

In 2021, the maternal mortality rate for non-Hispanic Black women was 69.9 deaths per 100,000 live births, 2.6 times the rate for non-Hispanic white women. In the U.S., Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women. (As the CDC notes, more than 80% of pregnancy-related deaths are preventable.)

In addition, one study found that Black women were two times more likely to report suicidal ideation in the immediate postpartum period in comparison to their white counterparts in the study. One National Institutes of Health (NIH) report in the United States found that 29–44% of Black women experience postpartum depressive symptoms (PDS), yet few are properly identified and/or connected to mental care services. 

As the Black Mamas Matter Alliance states, “Identifying suicidal ideation through screening and supporting mothers and birthing people for suicidal ideation in the immediate postpartum period can potentially reduce maternal deaths.” And these are just a few of the statistics available. 

Alongside providing education on these pervasive and egregious health inequities, BMHW celebrates the tremendous work taking place at local, state, federal and international levels  often led by Black Mamas and birthing people, to mitigate and address these realities. Examples of such work nationally include the BMMA’s policy agenda, the Black Reproductive Justice Policy Agenda, and the Momnibus Act. In California, this state’s Momnibus Act was signed into law in 2021, and community-based Perinatal Equity Initiatives exist in counties across the state. Local efforts such as Voices for Birth Justice, Santa Clara County’s Perinatal Equity Initiative’s work, and Expecting Justice demonstrate the power of place-based transformative efforts in this field. 

How did SJSU become involved in it?

The library has hosted many events for heritage months that have shown off our university’s and community’s rich cultures and diversity. Health equity fits well with this tradition. In 2022, the Network of the National Library of Medicine (NNLM) Region 5 offered its members the opportunity to host screenings of the documentary “Laboring with Hope” to help raise awareness of the health inequities experienced by Black mothers and birthing people in the United States. We decided to align the screening of this film with honoring Black Maternal Health Week, and reached out to the Department of Public Health and Recreation’s Rachel Berkowitz to collaborate on bringing this vision to life.  And that’s how the spring 2023 event series came to be. 

What’s planned for Black Maternal Health Week 2024?

The BMHW theme for 2024 is “Our Bodies STILL Belong to Us: Reproductive Justice NOW!” We are hosting three events, two of which are in collaboration with the Department of Public Health and Recreation’s National Public Health Week (NPHW). The first of these collaborative events takes place on April 11th (3-5PM, King Library, 2nd Floor, Room 213). This activity-centered event, titled “NPHW: Be the Change You Want to See,” will explore methods for advocating for policy changes, with examples from healthcare advocacy and advocacy tied to Black maternal health. Next, we’ll reprise the screening of “Laboring with Hope” on April 15th (12-1:30PM, King Library, 2nd floor, Rm 225 and online via Zoom), also in collaboration with NPHW. 

For the first time, we’re also collaborating with the Santa Clara County Public Health Department’s Perinatal Equity Initiative to host an in-depth panel following the screening to ground the reality of racial inequities in birthing people and birth outcomes in the United States in our local area and highlight the powerful work that is being done to address these inequities here. Finally, the SJPL Black Affinity Group is hosting a “Conversation on Parenting with Purpose” on April 17th, (5-6PM, King Library, 3rd Floor, SJPL Works area) which will be an intimate discussion of parenthood. 

What is the goal of Black Maternal Health Week at SJSU? 

The goal of our campus observing Black Maternal Health Week is to increase awareness of these inequities and the work being done within the broader and local movements for reproductive justice to address these inequities. SJSU students have a reputation as being interested in activism and social justice, as does Gen Z more broadly. It’s our hope that after attending one of these sessions, our students will be inspired to act. For example: they can advocate for themselves or a loved one on any matter, including suboptimal or discriminatory medical care; they can join advocacy efforts to transform healthcare experiences, increase access to foundational resources, and address structural determinants of health; and they can even approach their future professional lives with mindfulness of the harm that can be inflicted on individuals and those closest to them by inequitable or racist systems.

To help achieve this, we created a library guide to document and market past and future BMHW events at SJSU. We encourage people to engage with it and to explore ways to get involved with reproductive justice issues year round. In addition, and aligned with the April 11th event, the SJSU King Library is hosting a traveling exhibit from the National Library of Medicine, For All the People: A Century of Citizen Action in Health Care Reform, which explores the history of health care reform, a contentious political issue in the United States for more than a hundred years.  The April 15th film screening and panel discussion will also be a powerful chance to learn about opportunities to effect change within Santa Clara County through the Perinatal Equity Initiative’s work. 

What do you personally think is so important about this work and this week?

Dawn Hackman: Our students (and I’ll add Gen Z in general) have the power to change the world for the better, whether that’s through advocating publicly for organizational and systemic changes or by individual actions, such as by implementing anti-racism into their future professions. They can even advocate through small things like offering to accompany a friend to the hospital so they have another person at their side to protect their interests. Advocacy can be big or small and our students can do it all. 

Adriana Poo: Our students have the power to create change. By informing them of issues around Black maternal health, I hope they can become advocates or put themselves in positions to develop policies that better serve communities in need.

Rachel Berkowitz: The egregious and persistent inequities experienced by Black birthing people are just one way in which structural racism affects our community. And the reproductive justice movement, led by Black birthing people, continues to drive work at local, national and international levels with the goal of realizing a just and equitable reality. In an era of increasingly regressive policies and practices related to the health and wellbeing of U.S. residents, I think it is vital to take the opportunity to learn about not only these difficult realities but also the powerful work that we can all be a part of to transform our society. 

Estella Inda: I think this work and week are vital in creating awareness and, ideally, change.  

Check out the library guide on Black maternal health here to learn about the events and engage with the organizers. And if you are interested in collaborating on future BMHW initiatives or events, please contact Rachel Berkowitz (rachel.l.berkowitz@sjsu.edu).