“Right now, we do know that babies born to black mothers in Dane County are two times more likely to be born at low birth weight, which puts them at increased risk of significant health and developmental challenges and end up dying within the first year of their life,” says Lisa Peyton-Caire, founder and president of the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness. “The actual infant mortality rate is three times higher for black babies than white babies. This is not only one of the most significant challenges we face in Dane County, but one of the most significant challenges we face in the state of Wisconsin where we presently lead the nation in black infant mortality and the gap between birth outcomes of black and white babies.”

Peyton-Caire spoke at a crowded press conference at UW South Madison Partnership in Villager Mall on Madison’s south side Wednesday morning that announced some exciting news: The Dane County Health Council has selected Peyton-Caire’s Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness to lead a collaborative community engagement campaign intended to address and identify solutions to lower the incidence of low birthweight babies born to black mothers in Dane County.

The Council announced that they will work with the Foundation and its project partner EQT By Design to undertake a nine-month public engagement process that will gather the concerns and feedback of local black women, fathers, and their communities as a critical step to identifying needs and solutions that result in stronger health outcomes for African-American babies.

Dr. Jonathan Jaffery, Chief Population Health Officer at UW Health and member of the Dane County Health Council, speaks at the press conference April 26.

“The work that we’re kicking off today in partnership with the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness is a crucial collaboration to improving health outcomes because it recognizes that while health care is an important piece of the solution, it’s not the only solution. A public health approach to improving low birth weigh requires a community-wide, multi-sector response … which you see here,” said Janel Heinrich, Public Health Madison & Dane County Director and member of the Dane County Health Council.

Currently, babies born to black mothers in Dane County are two times more likely than white infants to be born underweight and at risk of significant health challenges and death in their first year of life. This collaboration marks an important shift in the way the Health Council approaches health inequities, Heinrich said, by engaging the voices of those most impacted.

“We also know that it is a long-held, unjust reality that due to systemic and structural barriers not everyone has the same access to the conditions that support health,” Heinrich said. “We know that black mothers are more likely than white mothers to face social and economic challenges that contribute to poor pregnancy and birth outcomes. They are often a result of discrimination and structural racism. Some of these challenges include inadequate housing, food insecurity, income inequities and other really significant barriers.

“So we’re so happy to be here today to collaborate with the foundation that has deep, deep roots in the community,” she adds. “These poor outcomes are reversible, and we need to work on changing that together. The foundation is the perfect partner to ignite this work and we’re really happy to be here today with them.”

“We’re so happy to be here today to collaborate with the foundation that has deep, deep roots in the community,” said Janel Heinrich, Public Health Madison & Dane County Director and member of the Dane County Health Council.

The Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness was one of several organizations to compete in a Request for Proposals (RFP) process to secure the opportunity to design, organize, and lead the outreach effort. The project will include a series of focus groups and forums hosted across the community in collaboration with local neighborhoods, agencies, and organizations to ensure black women most impacted are engaged.

“The foundation is proud to partner with the Dane County Health Council as we collectively work to address and uncover solutions for lowering the incidence of low-birth-weight babies born to black mothers in Dane County,” said Lisa Peyton-Caire. “Since the launch of our organization six years ago, our mission has been very clear: to eliminate health disparities and other barriers impacting the lives of black women, girls, their families and communities.”

Each year, the foundation impacts the lives of over 1,000 local women and girls, Peyton-Caire said, “through health promotion and education programming, wellness-centered events and campaigns that build health literacy and healthy lifestyle behaviors.”

“We link women to resources, social supports, networks and referrals to services and other opportunities they need to improve their whole life wellness,” she said. “And we do that with the power of black women across the city who make that possible for us.”

The partnership on this project with the Dane County Health Council is a beautiful extension of this work, she added.

“We are committed to engaging the voices and the leadership of black women as the primary experts informing us and naming the causes and crafting the solutions that most impact their lives and their children’s lives,” Peyton-Caire said.

Established in 1999, the Dane County Health Council is a self-organized group of health care providers, government entities, and non-profit organizations that work collaboratively to eliminate gaps and barriers to optimal health and reduce disparities in health outcomes. Council members include the four major health systems UW Health, Unity Point-Meriter, SSM Health, and Group Health Cooperative, in addition to the United Way of Dane County, Public Health Madison & Dane County, Access Community Health Centers, and the Madison Metropolitan School District. Council partners recently adopted a joint focus on improving maternal and child health and decreasing the incidence of low-birth weight babies born to African-American mothers in Dane County.

Planning and design has already begun in preparation for the engagement sessions that are expected to begin in late May and continue through the early fall. The process will conclude with a set of recommendations intended to guide and shape strategies and initiatives that improve the health outcomes of both mothers and infants.

The partnership will also involve EQT By Design, LLC, who work to ensure inclusion and engagement is front and center in their work.

“There is important work to be done, and I am particularly interested in ensuring we bring the lived experience and voices of African-American women and fathers front and center on the issue,” said Annette Miller, CEO of EQT By Design. “We’ve already hit the ground running and are confident that this process will be a fruitful step forward in protecting the lives of black babies in our community.”

Written by David Dahmer

David Dahmer

A. David Dahmer is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Madison365.