These People Have Dedicated Their Lives To Keeping Black Babies Alive
I've spent months working on a series of stories about one of America's ugly statistics: black babies in the U.S. are twice as likely to die in their first year of life as white babies (in L.A. County they are three times as likely).
While the data is straightforward, the causes and solutions are complex.
It's a daunting problem to solve, yet I met so many people during the course of my reporting who have dedicated their lives to this issue.
In each interview, I always asked people how they learned about this problem. I often got stories about personal loss or heard that the subject area jumped out at them because they or a family member were born prematurely.
People told me beautiful and heartbreaking things that I couldn't always get into reported stories. They reinforced the themes about the need for more awareness and their stories are crucial for a deeper understanding of how looming and large issues affect people on an individual basis.
And so I want to introduce you to some of the people, from Los Angeles, Oakland and Ohio, who are trying to chip away at this problem in whatever ways they can:
VICKI ALEXANDER is a now-retired obstetrician and gynecologist who has been working on these issues since the 1970s. Several people I talked to said she inspired them to get into the work. She currently runs a nonprofit in the Bay Area called Healthy Black Families.
"We know that when you're under stress that the levels of epinephrine and all in your system just go up, up, up, and that that can cause premature labor. Why don't we create systems of community that can deal with that stress? That's what we're about Healthy Black Families. We're trying to change the model of care from just this individual kind of care to a more collective. We understand what's happening here. It's not just you, ma'am, it's all of us. We're in this together."
ALMA BURRELL spent 18 years working with the Black Infant Health program in Santa Clara County.
"I love my people and I want to see healthy babies. I know things can be better and sometimes we can't save the masses but if I can save five or six or a dozen, in a 20 year span, then that's a great thing. I recently ran into one of the first clients that I served and her son is now entering college. And he's such a handsome young man and he's doing so well. She says that a lot of it is because of what she learned in Black Infant Health. That's the kind of stuff that makes it worthwhile."
KIMBERLY DURDIN is a certified lactation consultant, birth doula and trainer, and mom of six. She runs Kindred Space LA, a community hub for midwifery care, doula support, lactation consulting, support groups and more.
"We can't change systemic racism just because we want to today. We have to deal with it and that causes stress. And when we're pregnant, not only still dealing with that stress, but we're thinking about what our child is gonna have to face and that just adds another layer of stress. What we believe will be helpful is seeing more birth workers of color, more OBs of color, more midwives of color, more lactation consultants of color, etc. Our goal is to train as many folks as we can."
AVIS FILES is the program director for Brothers United, a group support program for young African American fathers in Toledo, Ohio. She recently added infant mortality into the curriculum.
"There was so much conversation about the mother and not the father. I kept saying to myself, [the infant mortality crisis] has to be affecting our fathers. I just happened to go to group one day, and I see a dad with a shirt on with the RIP, with a little baby on it. And I'm like, 'Who's that baby?' And he's like 'That's my baby. I lost my baby 8 months ago.' And I said, 'Bingo. There it is.' I just started studying - how does infant mortality affect fathers? What are they doing about it? And it's not a lot. And when it's not a lot I like to be the first to do it."
RAENA GRANBERRY lost her first baby in 2011 and, after participating in the support and educational programming herself, now does community outreach for Great Beginnings for Black Babies in Inglewood.
"I made that my mission, to be very open about what I went through so that I could let people know that they weren't alone and let them know what I did the first time compared to what I did with my other kids to empower myself and make sure that I had healthy pregnancies. In the outreach, I literally reach out to anyone - whether or not you're pregnant. Everybody needs to know what's happening because we need to change our behaviors, as well as get more systemic change."
NATHANIEL JORDAN, II is executive director of the Fatherhood Matters program at the Columbus, Ohio Kappa Foundation. He's been working to get men in the black fraternity educated about keeping babies safe while sleeping to lower risks of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
"In 1955, I weighed 2 pounds and 9 ounces. My grandmother went to the funeral home and put in my funeral arrangements. Several months later, I came out of the incubator and 63 years later I'm here saving me, saving people just like me, saving our babies."
KIKO MALIN is the family health services division director with Alameda County department of public health.
"I was so interested in the life-course perspective. How do we integrate that focus on the social determinants of health? How do we take a broader lens and somehow change what we're doing - in what is essentially an individual service delivery model - so that we can try to look at some of these broader factors? That wasn't happening in Family Health Services before I came into this job. I've really wanted to try to bring us together."
MARK McBEE is firefighter-paramedic for the City of Toledo who has been in the fire service for 34 years.
"Having some experience as a first responder-paramedic, I've encountered situations where we've come upon a SIDS death or unexplained infant death. A lot of times in my line of work, I come across people with newborn babies and what I've found is that sometimes people just don't know what they don't know. We get calls for the simplest things. That gives me an opportunity to say, 'Hey, you know when you put your baby down to sleep you, need to put them on their back.' "
MONICA McLEMORE is a clinician-scientist focused on advancing new standards in reproductive health at the University of California, San Francisco.
"I had been wanting to improve birth outcomes and reproductive health outcomes for people of color, since my whole life. I was a preemie in '69. Having survived that, becoming a nurse, knowing I wanted to be a nurse because I spent a lot of my formative years around nurses, really wanting to deal with these issues. I think there's a perfect storm of people who have lived experience, you have scholars who are very interested in looking at reproductive health outcomes and we have better data."
TYAN PARKER DOMINGUEZ is a clinical associate professor of social work at the University of Southern California who studies racial disparities in infant mortality and preterm delivery.
"Personally, I knew that one of my sisters was born early, but hadn't really ever put it together with anything larger in terms of a population issue until I was in grad school and read that article. And I got married and started having a family. Both of my pregnancies ended in preterm delivery. It's just very interesting that I sort of lived my own research. It hit me that, 'Oh, my gosh, you know, my, my boys are part of the statistic.' And it just made me even more motivated around this issue."
YOLONDA ROGERS has been the county coordinator for the Los Angeles County Black Infant Health program for 17 years. She's been working with BIH since 1993.
"I grew up in zip code 90011, here in Los Angeles. You would always hear, 'Oh, well, Mary lost her baby.' But I'm a kid. That doesn't mean anything to me. All of those loses together are this nationwide epidemic, but it's never been elevated in my lifetime as a little kid that anyone had a billboard or something. We know, I think as a community, anecdotally. But I don't know, until I sit in the health department, its magnitude on the culture."
STACY SCOTT is the founder and director of the Global Infant Safe Sleep Center (GISS), based in Ohio. Her goal is to empower vulnerable and marginalized communities in the effort to reduce Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
"I come from the school of thought that community is key in helping to make this difference. I've worked in public health. I know public health people work extremely hard, and not taking anything away from them, but not only does it take a village to raise a child, I believe it takes a village to save one."
CELESTE SMITH is the minority and community health supervisor for the Toledo-Lucas County (Ohio) health department.
"Black babies matter to me. But if you look at the numbers in our state and in our local county, what are we saying to black babies? 'You're not important,' because we're not doing anything any differently. Until we, as black people, speak up about it, nothing is going to change. My goal is to empower everyone who looks like me, because those are future presidents, the individuals that might cure cancer, that are dying and enough is enough."
SANDRA TRAMIEL is a retired public health nurse for the Alameda County Public Health Department. She still does pregnancy and childbirth workshops around Bay Area.
"I learned about [the infant mortality rates] in a very personal way with the loss of a my first baby at five and a half months of pregnancy. ... I feel I was able to relate to the clients with concerns, with bereavement, with not focusing on guilt of it being your fault, and lifting them up in terms of hope and promise and future. You will always remember this, but it will get easier day by day."
OTHER STORIES IN THIS SERIES
Do you have a story to tell about how black infant mortality has affected your life? Tell us about it.
This project received support from the Center for Health Journalism's California Fellowship and its Fund for Journalism on Child Well-being.
News happens every day. Here at LAist, our goal is to cover the stories that matter to you and the community you live in. Now that we're part of KPCC, those stories (including this one you're on right now!) are made possible by generous people like you. Independent, local journalism isn't cheap, but with your support we can keep delivering it. Donate now.