A photo of Jessica Roach snuggling her adorable newborn baby was a fitting start to her presentation at today’s APHA Annual Meeting session on “Birth Justice in Action: Advocating for Culturally Relevant Perinatal Care for Black Mamas.”

The founder and CEO of ROOTT, or Restoring Our Own Through Transformation, in Columbus, Ohio, Roach first gave birth as a teenager living in low-income housing. That pregnancy was healthy, and she carried the baby a full 41 weeks. Her second baby, pictured in her presentation slide, was born after a high-risk pregnancy several years later, when Roach was “partnered, I had a home, I was a nurse and conducting research. I was ballin’.”

Yet at 20 weeks pregnant, she was told she needed to stay off her feet for a month due to an incompetent cervix. The reason: “Black women are just more likely to have these complications,” she was told.

Jessica Roach, Chanel Porchia and Angela D. AiniaThe reasons black women are much more likely to die in childbirth or face pregnancy complications than white women are disturbing and complicated, Roach and her fellow presenters told a packed audience at today’s session in Philadelphia. The reasons are rooted in racism, and public health has a huge role to play in turning things around.

“The problem that we have right now is not going to shift in a day, or in a month, or even in a year,” said Chanel Porchia-Albert, a black mother of six children ages 2 to 11, who is founder of Ancient Song Doula Services in Brooklyn, New York.

The organization served 420 people last year and has 70 doulas on the rolls. It not only advocates for improved perinatal care for black women, but also offers training and direct support through a “reproductive and birth justice framework.”

What does that mean? As Angela Doyinsola Aina, interim director of the Black Mamas Matter Alliance, explained during her presentation, the organization SisterSong has defined reproductive justice as the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.

That definition has been part of the Black Mamas Matter Alliance message at the past three APHA Annual Meetings. Supporting reproductive justice mean more than improving access to care, Aina told session attendees.

“We have to go beyond just talking about giving people, especially low-income people, access to care,” she said.

We also need to ask whether that care is high quality and culturally relevant, she said. In fact, Roach said the phrase “access to care” bothers her, and we should instead be talking about “receipt of care.”

“We’re not in despair,” Roach said to murmurs of agreement, noting that joy is an important part of the conversation about improving black maternal health. “This country and its policy development is.”

Aina received an enthusiastic audience response when making the point that it’s wrong to co-opt and steal black women’s ideas without credit or attribution — she said: “We have to stop calling them on the phone and saying, ‘hey, let me pick your brain.’”’

She also encouraged audience members to attend tomorrow morning’s session titled “Yes We Can! Innovative Methods for Advancing Health Equity,” where a Black Mamas Matter Alliance presentation will focus on advancing holistic care for black women by decolonizing research.

Anyone interested in supporting the work of the Black Mamas Matter Alliance can sign up for the group’s mailing list at blackmamasmatter.org/connect. Find links to webinars and other resources on their website as well.

“Understand that this work is hard and uncomfortable,” Aina said about addressing maternal health disparities. “Don’t give up!”

From left, Jessica Roach, Chanel Porchia-Albert and Angela Doyinsola Aina just before their Monday afternoon Annual Meeting session. (Photo by Donya Currie)