The state of Wisconsin is facing a black infant and maternal mortality public health crisis.  African-American babies born in Wisconsin die before age 1 at a rate three times higher than white babies. That is a higher rate than any other state in the country.

A new monthly group-based support program for black moms in Dane County, the Today Not Tomorrow Pregnancy Infant Support Program, is on a mission to eliminate some of these black infant racial health disparities. The program – hosted by the African American Breastfeeding Alliance of Dane County, Inc., Harambee Village, Pregnancy, Birth, and Breastfeeding Care, and Project Babies – builds on emerging evidence about how to effectively implement and sustain prenatal care in black communities.

“The work that we do is built on the history of the work that has been done over many, many years whether it was formal or informal and specifically the work that came out of the Harambe Center where we worked with young families helping them understand ages and stages of early brain development, discipline, nutrition … all of the kinds of things that would result in healthy babies and being a lifelong beginning to being healthy adults.” Betty Banks, co-founder of the Today Not Tomorrow Family Resource Center, tells Madison365.

“When they mentioned the intergenerational aspect, Hershey [Barnett Bridges, co-founder of the African American Breast-Feeding Alliance of Dane County] and I and Gail Johnson and several other women continue to do this work and continue to educate and mentor and teach the next generation of doulas, of midwives, of social workers – whomever they may be that have the vision of a strong, healthy community,” she adds. “It all begins with babies.”

The program is for women who are thinking of becoming pregnant in the next year, who are currently pregnant, or who have a child who is two years old and younger. The program is being led by Tia Murray and Micaela Berry, community-based doulas with Harambee Village Doulas, who work to bridge this support gap by providing doula care to those who would otherwise not be able to afford it. The program’s first meeting was held on Thursday, Jan. 23, and by all accounts, it was a great kickoff event.

“We got communication sheets back from people who were at the first meeting and they said it was very much needed and they were looking forward to having the support groups going for the year,” Berry, the executive director of Harambee Village Doulas, tells Madison365. “What they really enjoyed was the aspect of community and coming together specifically with other black women and being able to have shared experiences and having their voices heard – whether they were positive or negative, it was important that they weren’t being judged at all.”

“That was the overwhelming takeaway from the first event – we’re able to talk about people who share our experiences, learn from one another and support one another. ‘We need more spaces like this,’ is what I heard a lot,” says Murray, who is the co-founder of Harambe Village Doulas. “It’s great to see people who look like us. We have a lot of systems and spaces in our life where unfortunately that’s not the case for black people. That’s especially not the case in our health care system.”

Topics at tonight’s second get together at the Today Not Tomorrow Family Resource Center will include things like pregnancy, breastfeeding, relationships, healing, support systems, financial wellness, mental health, newborn care, navigating health system and more. The program was designed to be run by doulas of color, community mothers and health care professionals of color with a specific aim of building trust.

“When people see at Harambee Village that doulas are going to be facilitating there’s a certain message that we’re sending because of the grassroots work we’ve been doing to people closest to the issue,” Murray says. “So, we really try to break through the barrier of trust.”

“As doulas, we really act as a buffer to a lot of the things that women of color experience in the health care system so I think that this is an additional avenue in which we wanted to act as a buffer,” Berry adds.

Back row: (L-r) Hershey Barnett Bridges, co-founder of the African American Breast Feeding Alliance of Dane County; Micaela Berry, Executive Director of Harambee Village Doulas; Tia Murray, co-founder of Harambe Village Doulas,  Seated: Betty Banks, co-founder of the Today Not Tomorrow Family Resource Center.(Photo by A. David Dahmer)

 

The Today Not Tomorrow Pregnancy Infant Support Program was originally specifically designed for pregnant black women but they added on women who recently had babies in the last two years and women looking to get pregnant. Not only are they thinking about the health of the babies, but they are also thinking about families. Murray stresses that this is a program for women of all economic backgrounds.

“Madison is known to be a space for transplants. I think a big piece when people look at disparities, the first thing that comes to mind is low economics – which is huge part of the issue,” Murray says. “But another part of the issue is the statistics where we know that a highly educated black woman will have a worse [health] results than a white woman with no high school diploma.

“So you think about a lot of professional women who are moving to Madison and they don’t have the support. They don’t have family here and they need to understand the resources that we have,” she continues. “We did have a lot of those women and families in our first group. We want to stress that this is not just for low-economic families… it’s for everyone

Sponsors for this group include Dr. Jasmine Zapata, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Anesis Center for Marriage and Family Therapy, FOSTER, The Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness, Public Health Madison and Dane County and UW Health.

“It’s not formal at all. Think of it as coming home to mom’s dinner. A chance to get together with your community members,” Berry says. “We definitely have the generational aspect with our mentors Miss Betty [Banks] and Miss Hershey [Barnett Bridges] as well as having the support of the doulas in the Harambe Village and just being able to be surrounded by people who have like-minded goals and be successful parents and have successful pregnancies.”

“We really want to extend the support and build on what we’ve been building already. We’re building on that Today Not Tomorrow model,” Murray adds. “It’s all about providing support and building community.”

 

Today Not Tomorrow Pregnancy Infant Support Program will be held tonight at the Today Not Tomorrow Family Resource Center. This support group is free. This space is child-friendly but an RSVP is requested for child care for children older than one year old. Please call the TNT Family Resource Center at (608) 268-6968 if you have any questions regarding child care or transportation.