Safer Childbirth City Gala Showcases Collaborative Progress Toward Improved Care for Black Mothers

Pictured from left to right are: Muffy Mendoza, Kieashia DeShawn, Syreeta Gordon, Angela Bejarano, Iyanna Bridges, and Amber Edmunds.

Held October 19 at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in Pittsburgh's East End, the Pittsburgh: A Safer Childbirth City Finale Gala was a culmination and celebration of the collaboration of local nonprofits to make Pittsburgh a safer and more equitable place for mothers and babies.

Safer Childbirth Cities was launched in 2018 as an initiative of Merck for Mothers. In 2019, Pittsburgh was selected as one of 10 initial cities, due to the strong network of health and human services, with organizations well positioned to fill crucial gaps in services and address social determinants of health. The multi-year effort aims to foster community-led solutions that will help cities become safer, more equitable places to give birth. The Pittsburgh: A Safer Childbirth City project was born to confront the disturbing disparities in maternal health outcomes in our region, particularly affecting Black mothers in Pittsburgh. The Jewish Healthcare Foundation (JHF) and Women's Health Activist Movement Global (WHAMglobal) closely partnered with seven organizations across the regionBrown Mamas, Elephant Song Doula Services, Healthy Start, Hello Neighbor, Kangaroo Birthing & Maternity Concierge, MAYA Organization, and The Birthing Hut, serving Black mothers and families.

One of the key components of the Safer Childbirth Cities project was the year-long Perinatal Health Equity Champions Program designed to build capacity in the birthing workforce to help address racial disparities and improve maternal health care in the Pittsburgh region. The Champions Program established trusted working relationships among community and hospital birth workers to drive holistic solutions, strengthen the continuity of care, and bridge resources across the maternal care continuum. The projects were highlighted during the Finale Gala through posters throughout the theater.

The Gala event drew a large crowd to the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty.

The Finale Gala event provided a venue for community leaders, legislators, JHF Board members, and members of the philanthropic community to hear from these critical community organizations supporting Black mothers and their families, and network with allies and leaders working toward equitable Black maternal outcomes.

In her remarks, JHF and WHAMglobal Board Chair Debra Caplan, MPA highlighted how women's health has always been a part of the programmatic fabric of JHF, which has provided grants and initiated projects since its earliest days. JHF and WHAMglobal began an intense focus on improving maternal health outcomes in 2017 after the Latino Community Center in Pittsburgh won WHAMglobal's inaugural Big Idea Challenge with a project highlighting maternal outcome disparities. The efforts since that time resulted in the creation of the Pennsylvania Perinatal Quality Collaborative and securing the Safer Childbirth City grant from Merck for Mothers. The Heinz Endowments has been a key partner in this work since the work began, providing funding to support components of the Pittsburgh: A Safer Childbirth City project.

Debra Caplan traces the roots of the Pittsburgh: A Safer Childbirth City project and its impact.

"The Pittsburgh: A Safer Childbirth City project is a testament to what can be achieved when we unite to prioritize equity and partnership, and it serves as a beacon of hope for maternal health care across the nation," Caplan said. "It has shown that when individuals, community, health care systems, and community-based organizations come together with a shared purpose, extraordinary transformations can occur. The accomplishments over the past four years have not only preserved lives but have also kindled hope, inspiration, and empowerment among countless mothers and families across Pittsburgh."

During the Gala, community partners shared and reflected on their work, the support of the program and its impact, as well as the future for Black mothers and birthing people in Pittsburgh. Presenters included Kieshia DeShawn of Elephant Song Doula Services, Amber Edmunds of the MAYA Organization, Muffy Mendoza of Brown Mamas, who presented a clip from the "Brown Mama Monologues," and Syreeta Gordon of Kangaroo Birthing, who also presented a preview of the documentary film "Her Dreams: A Story of the Future of Black Birth."

Some presenters, like The Birthing Hut Founder Iyanna Bridges, shared personal experiences that led them to birthwork and advocacy. Bridges was led to this work by the traumatic experience of her fourth birth, during which she learned about doulas and why it is so important for Black birthing people to have nonbiased support to speak on their behalf during pregnancy and birth.

Iyanna Bridges, a member of the Perinatal Health Equity Champions program, shares information about The Birthing Hut.

As a result of that experience, she created the Blacktivist Birthkeeper Training, her own curriculum, certification, and training program for Black woman inspired to be birth workers in Pittsburgh to bring Black culture, traditional practices, ancestral wisdom and respect of the Black birthing experience. She recently certified the third cohort of Black birthworkers.

"A Black woman is four-times more likely to die from complications from labor and delivery than other women. Sixty percent of those deaths are preventable and it's horrific that this maternal health disparity has yet to be solved," said Bridges, outlining how The Birthing Hut works to combat these statistics with customizable birth services and birth and postpartum planning and support. "We are changing the birth climate within Pittsburgh. We are working to build the Black maternal health profession itself so that we can be side-by-side with our physicians and nurses and midwives and help combat the disparities."

State Representative La'Tasha D. Mayes, a decades-long advocate for Black maternal health and reproductive justice, highlighted forward legislative movement on maternal health issues with the launch of the Pennsylvania Black Maternal Caucus, introduction of the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, and SB 262, which would add "severe maternal morbidity" to the list of reportable events within the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

State Rep. La’Tasha D. Mayes highlights the importance of the work of the organizations present at the event and work being done at the legislative level to support Black mothers.

Rep. Mayes also highlighted the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act, a bicameral bill with the goal of saving the lives of mothers and addressing every dimension of the maternal health crisis in the United States. The 13 individual bills included in the Act will make investments in the social determinants of health that impact maternal health outcomes, extend WIC eligibility, fund community-based organizations working to improve maternal health and promote equity, increase funding for maternal health care for veterans, grow and diversify the perinatal workforce, improve data collection processes and quality measures, support moms with maternal mental health conditions and substance use disorders, improve care and support for incarcerated moms, invest in digital tools to improve maternal health outcomes in underserved areas, and more.

"This work is your legacy. You're doing healing work. You're doing ancestral work. You're doing reproductive justice work. You are doing blessed work. You are doing powerful work. You are doing transforming, life-changing work. Never doubt the idea or the work that you're doing. I'm living proof that if you can do it in Pittsburgh, you can do it anywhere," Rep. Mayes said. 

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