Birthing Justice: The Urgent Fight for Equality in Maternal Healthcare

For most women, pregnancy is a time of joy, bonding with family and looking forward to the future of childbirth. For Black women, however, it can be a time of overwhelm and taking more preventive measures. 

Statistics show Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. The untimely death of Olympian Torie Bowie further sheds light on the systematic racism and discrimination within the American healthcare system and childbirth.

Bilen Mesfin Packwood, CEO of Change Consulting LLC is on a mission to disrupt social and racial injustices, one campaign at a time. After her own birthing journey left her feeling unsupported and unheard, Bilen worked with Deliver Birth Justice, a campaign that used the stories of Black families and mothers as a tool to highlight issues facing Black mothers and babies.

What inspired/Motivated you to start Change Consulting LLC?

Change Consulting was born out of a desire to help racial justice changemakers tell stories about their work and their vision to create a more just and joyful world.

I founded Change Consulting in 2008. Since its inception, this work has been deeply personal. As a Black immigrant woman, I learned a long time ago that a lot of the issues I experienced growing up – racism, exclusion, poverty – were part of a systemic problem facing many Black, immigrant, and communities of color. I learned it was necessary to change systems in order to change material conditions, and am committed to using communications to help do that.

Fifteen years later, Change Consulting has grown into a team of 14 movement-minded communicators who are committed to helping the changemakers working to advance some of the most important issues of our time.

Can you share some of the challenges Black women face during pregnancy?

Last year, an amazing organization called Parent Voices Oakland asked Change Consulting to conduct listening sessions with Black birthing people in the Bay Area. As a Black mom myself, I jumped at the opportunity to work on this project, as I tend to do on any project that centers Black mothers. Together, we held five listening sessions with nearly 40 Black mothers in Oakland and Hayward. We asked participants to speak about the challenges they face; their pre-conception, pregnancy, and post-birthing experiences; and what they need so that, along with their families, they could live full and healthy lives.

What we heard was this: During birth and beyond, Black mothers are caught under the weight of countless systemic challenges, including housing insecurity in a region grappling with vast wealth inequality and displacement, lack of access to basic resources such as mental health support, and fear and worry about the safety and security of their kids. When resources are available, participants are often met with biases and hurdles when trying to access them. They talked about the isolation they felt, the deep lack of community care and support networks. One after the other, they shared personal, harrowing, and raw stories about their birth journey and what they experienced in hospitals – pain many of them have yet to heal from.

Their stories reflect what Black mothers in the Bay Area and across the country face. Here are just some of the heartbreaking statistics. Black women in the Bay Area are twice as likely to live in poverty than other residents and to report experiencing more hardships during pregnancy — such as homelessness, loss of a loved one or food insecurity.

Black babies in the Bay Area are two to three times more likely to be born too soon or too small, or to die before their first birthday. Black women in America are two to three times more likely to die in childbirth than white women.

Despite these multiple, interlocking challenges, the Black mothers in the listening sessions expressed strength, resiliency, creativity, love, and a deep determination to create a better life for their families and children. They called out the disconnect between how they saw themselves and how the world perceived them – through a lens of racist, preconceived notions and stereotypes associated with Black women and women of color.

The statistics indicating that Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women are alarming. What are some of the key factors contributing to this disparity?

Black mothers, babies, and families deserve to be healthy, safe, and supported throughout their birth journey and their lives. Yet, all too often, racism is harming Black families’ ability to have safe and healthy pregnancies and births. Research shows that the complications Black mamas face are driven by toxic stress related to healthcare provider bias and transgenerational exposure to systemic racism.

Your advocacy through Change Consulting LLC aims to address social and racial injustices. Could you provide more insight into how your work is making a difference, particularly in relation to issues affecting Black mothers and babies?

Change Consulting is all about partnering with social and racial justice leaders who are working on some of the most important issues of our time, and providing the communications support they need to make change possible. Our clients bring the vision, mission, and people-power, and we bring the experience and expertise in racial justice communications and communications best practices.

We use communications as a tool to shift the systems that harm Black communities and communities of color. We are committed to racial justice, centering Black communities, and supporting the leaders and changemakers at nonprofits, foundations, and mission-driven entities who are addressing this issue in a myriad of ways.

We see communications as the hub from which all other facets of an organization or effort come together. When done strategically, communications reflect our highest aspirations, move people to take action toward the change we seek in the world and provide the glue that strengthens organizations, initiatives, or campaigns as a whole.

Our theory of change is to build the continuum of communications services changemakers need— both the strategy and hands-on implementation — and provide learning opportunities to grow the sector.

We helped develop and launch Deliver Birth Justice, a campaign that aims to mobilize all corners of the Bay Area — including health professionals, policymakers, and community members — to end racism and achieve birth justice for Black families.

We partnered with Nourish California to advance the #Food4All campaign, an effort to guarantee essential food assistance to people otherwise ineligible due to their immigration status, by lifting up the stories of those impacted.

We are grateful for our partnership with Black Futures Lab, supporting them to launch and raise awareness of groundbreaking initiatives including the Black Census Project, the Temperature Check poll, and the Black Policy Institute, towards their goal of building Black political power across the U.S.

What are some specific measures or interventions that we can do now?

When it comes to Black maternal health, we can collectively shape a society that centers, cares for, and protects Black mothers, so we are not facing and fighting those dangers alone. For solutions, I look to groups and efforts led by Black women, and am sharing those examples here so we can all rally around them and Black mothers:

  • We can push for policy and systems change to improve Black maternal health outcomes. Organizations like Black Mamas Matter Alliance and efforts like Deliver Birth Justice are two places we can start.
  • We can stop family separation, protect Black mothers’ rights to parent and ensure that Black families can stay together. That’s the work that groups like Afiya Center and Operation Stop CPS are doing.
  • We can fight to put Black women, who are often excluded by our current economic structures, at the center of economic policies.  I’m excited about the work that groups such as California Black Women’s Collective are doing in that area.
  • We can end mass incarceration’s harm on Black families and communities by supporting groups like Essie Justice Group. This Mother’s Day, Essie is once again leading Black Mama’s Bailouts in California as part of the National Bail Out Campaign.
  • We can partner with organizations like Parent Voices Oakland that are helping to build power among Black parents and parents of color to advocate for affordable, accessible, quality child care, among other changes.

A good friend of mine and a well-known advocate for maternal health, Natalie Berbick, once told me “imagine if Black mothers, women, parents didn’t have to fight so hard to advocate for our own wellbeing and that of our children, and instead could just BE, living and thriving in peace and abundance?” That is the future we can help shape.

What is next for your organization, how can women support your efforts?

At Change Consulting, we will continue to grow in service of our mission, and continue to operate out of integrity and consistency, live out our values, and cultivate a container that cares for our team and our clients. If you are a leader working to advance racial justice and are looking for communications guidance and support, please contact us

Jakia Cheatham - Myles

CEO/Founder of Pretty Women Hustle Magazine

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