Racial disparities in Wisconsin infant mortality rates drive local groups to find solutions

Executive director of Harambee Village Doulas said unifying Dane County organizations is key to ensure adequate care

· Apr 30, 2019 Tweet

UW is doing much, but could do more
Riley Steinbrenner/The Badger Herald

Micaela Berry moved to Madison seven years ago. The oldest child of four, she said her inspiration to go into birthwork came from witnessing the birth of her younger siblings.

Berry is the executive director of Harambee Village Doulas, a collective of birth professionals who support women and families in south central Wisconsin with a specific goal to dismantle disparities along lines of race, class, gender and sexuality that lead to negative birth experiences, especially for women of color, women who face economic barriers, survivors of trauma, immigrant women, and LGBTQ and transgender women.

This is an arduous goal, considering Wisconsin’s infant mortality rate for African Americans is the highest in the nation.

The Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness recently released a report that found that social and economic pressures have led to the racial disparities in infant mortality in Wisconsin.

The report identified stressed black family systems, generational struggles for economic security and stability, and the impact of institutional racism and bias on black life and progress as root causes of low-birthweight black infants.

Babies born to African-American mothers in Dane County are two times more likely than white infants to be born with low birth weights, a factor which puts the infants at risk of significant health challenges and higher mortality rates. Recent Public Health Madison & Dane County data show black infant mortality rates as high as twelve infant deaths per 1,000 live births during 2016-2018.

Berry said she was unaware of Madison’s racial disparities  when she first moved here.

“I was very ignorant to things that were happening here, and once I became educated on it and understood, I wanted to make a difference, and I have used my doula certification to help the community,” Berry said.

Having lived in nine different states at various times in her life, Berry said she has not experienced racism anywhere else the way she has in Madison.

When Berry moved here, she was working as a teacher. She said several students were taken out of her class by their parents once they found out she was a woman of color. Her knowledge and education have often been put under scrutiny as well, she said.

“What I have seen is systematic racism in the healthcare system, red-taping in communities and not allowing people of color to buy houses in certain areas so they can live in healthier conditions,” Berry said.  

She said the unfair job market and high incarceration rates of African American males causes stress to families and pregnant women.

Tia Murray and Tamara Thompson created Harambee Village Doulas in 2015 to help address these racial disparities.

Berry joined them with her experience working for Peace of Mind Nannies. Ever since, they have provided doula and maternity services to primarily women of color and Spanish-speaking women in the region — in some cases for free.

Harambee Village has also helped families and mothers find better housing by partnering with Common Wealth, a non-profit that aims to improve the housing and business climate of neighborhoods in Dane County through racial equity and community health improvement.  

Furthermore, doulas at Harambee Village advocate for women of color in the community by playing an active role in committees when decisions are being made that impact them, Berry said.

“We’re really trying to change that systematic way of doing things,” Berry said.

According to the Capital Times, none of the mothers cared by the Harambee Village Doulas have experienced a preterm birth, a leading driver of infant mortality.

Berry said if all Dane County organizations can unify and ensure everyone is getting the care they need, it will make Dane County a better place for everyone.  

The University of Wisconsin will open the state’s first Prevention Research Center this fall, thanks to a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. UW is one of 25 academic institutions to receive five-year funding from 2019 until 2024.

“The center will take an indirect approach to solving these problems,” Dr. Deborah Ehrenthal, director of the center, said.

Ehrenthal is an associate professor in the departments of obstetrics and gynecology and population health sciences at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.

The overall goal of these centers is to study how communities and individuals can avoid risk for chronic illness. The initial research project will focus on addressing postpartum depression in Wisconsin mothers, improving the mother-infant relationship and infant development, according to a press release.

Ehrenthal said their research aims to improve the health of low-income women, infants and families in Wisconsin. They plan on engaging campus researchers, public health practitioners and community-based and government organizations across Wisconsin.

As for Berry, she takes comfort in the energy fueling her and those passionate about the issue.

“Even though I deal with racism or I see these disparities, I don’t get sad because I know that there are more people with my mentality” Berry said. “My mentality is not special, everyone can have it. If we just treat each other with the respect and love that we desire, I think that that is the first step to making things better.”


This article was published Apr 30, 2019 at 8:15 am and last updated Apr 29, 2019 at 5:32 pm


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