We watched, “When the Bough Breaks,” the second episode in the Unnatural Causes documentary that focuses on the connections between the stress of racism that African American women experience throughout their lives and statistics that indicate high rates of premature delivery, low birth-weight babies, and high infant mortality among African American mothers. The film describes research studies indicating that genetics, education, or economics play a role in these birth outcomes but cannot alone, or in concert, account for such high statistics among African American women.
The film revisits the social programs of the 1960s and 1970s, when efforts by government and community empowered African Americans and provided greater opportunities and support. During this time period the overall health and maternal health of African American women improved significantly. Since 1980s, as many of these government programs lost funding and many areas of the United States have become unofficially re-segregated, these gains in health and wellbeing among African Americans have declined significantly. According to the documentary, “Each year, babies in the U.S. die at twice the rate of those in Japan or Sweden – most because they are born premature. Although our numbers are better today than they were in 1970, we fare worse relative to other countries...Of the premature babies who survive, many face a lifetime of learning and medical problems, including increased risk for hypertension, diabetes, and coronary artery disease.”
Following the film, acting as moderator, I introduced a panel of three women whose work is directly related to the challenges laid out in the episode. Dr. Carol Hogue, an epidemiologist at Emory University, and Dr. Fleda Jackson, a psychiatrist who works at Emory and Atlanta Regional Health Forum, were featured in the episode and are actively engaged in research and outreach efforts connected to this topic. Our third panelist, Dr. Lia Fasse, is a neonatologist at Athens Regional Medical Center, provided a local perspective. The panelists offered some initial commentary and then I opened up the discussion to the group.
Highlights from our discussion:
- A Somber Note: At the onset of our discussion, one woman remarked that the fight to end racial injustice always comes down to money, or a lack thereof. She expressed a sense of frustration, not knowing what might help us move forward.
- Strategies for Daunting Problems:Dr. Jackson raised the importance of building greater awareness of the connection between racism and health as a key first step in tackling the problem. She shared information about the “Save 100 Babies Symposium” in Atlanta that is raising awareness of this problem much as our Unnatural Causes series is trying to do in Athens.
- Moments in the Everyday: Others in the audience talked about the need to find teachable moments where we as individuals can raise these issues with family, friends and community -- using personal examples to get the point across.
- Local Matters: Several comments came from a handout we distributed with local statistics, provided by Dr. Claude Burnett and the Northeast Georgia Health District, that suggest that African American women and their babies who live in the Athens area have much better health than African American women in general in the United States. What programs have worked well in our local community?
- We Need a Vision: A final comment from an audience member summed up the spirit of the group: we need a new vision to move forward. In response to this call to action, I shared that the Russell Library and the other conveners for this series were all committed to continuing to build on the conversations and ideas expressed in the series in future programs. Everyone has to keep these issues in mind and continue this type of productive discussion. We’ve made a good start; now let’s keep the momentum going!
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Post by Jill Severn, Head of Access & Outreach, Russell Library