What’s killing so many Black mothers and their babies?

Conference on maternal/infant health targets institutional racism

(Photo by James L. Stroud, Jr.)
(Photo by James L. Stroud, Jr.)

On November 12, the “Maternal Child Health, Safe Mothers, Safe Newborns Global Conference” was held at the Hubert H. Humphrey, School of Public Affairs on the University of Minnesota Twin Cities Campus.

It was organized by Fartun Weli, founder and executive director of Isuroon. The nonprofit’s stated mission is to build Somali women’s self-sufficiency so they can lead healthier, more productive lives in Minnesota, nationally, and in Somalia.

According to the organization’s website, this conference was held because Somalia has one of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates, with one out of every 12 women dying from pregnancy-related causes. This high maternal death rate compares to only one in 2,100 Caucasian women dying in childbirth in the United States.

Also, Somalia has an extremely high infant mortality rate, with one out of 10 children dying before their first birthday. Causes of these high mortality rates include lack of publicly run maternal health clinics, poverty, war, adolescent pregnancy, and high Somali birth rates.

Congressman Keith Ellison, who was in attendance at the event, asked, “What is the relationship between income inequality and poor health outcomes for Somali women, African American Women and other African-born Americans, and what is this attributed to?”

Stella Whitney-West
Stella Whitney-West

Stella Whitney-West, CEO of NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center, responded, “What really has the greatest impact on health outcomes is not clinical care, but rather what we call the social determinants of health. Clinical care is about 20 percent, so we do not want you to stop clinical care. But when you look at the social determinants of health, it is really about 50 percent of social determinants that have effects on health outcomes.

“What do we mean by social determinants of health?” she continued. “That is income, that is housing, that is education, that is looking at the neighborhood that we live. All of those things have a greater impact on our health than clinical care.”

“What we realize is that institutional racism is actually the cause of income inequality and persistent poverty,” said Weli. “Because if you look at how institutions are deciding policies, how and what programs work, who is making those decisions, and who gives the funding, you can see a pattern of people of color missing. Usually the people of color are the recipients of services, but they have never had any input…

“Institutional racism makes poverty a way of life for people of color who are lower income,” Weli continued.

Fartun Weli
Fartun Weli

“How it does this [is that] you don’t know how the resources are spent. [We] get millions of dollars for people of color or people of low income, but have our graduate students, with master’s degrees [and at] social workers level, who are working as outreach.

“They are not directors or in management positions,” continued Weli. “So what you see is underemployed and underpaid individuals of color that are being under-utilized with social skills and community skills.”

At the conference Tawara Goode, director of the National Center for Cultural Competence, spoke on federally funded organizations, schools and other hiring facilities being culturally competent, which is important in order to serve clients and the community.

Tawara Goode
Tawara Goode

“Somali women are concerned about a variety of health issues and the role of culture and religion as it relates to prevention strategies,” stated Goode during a workshop. She discussed how in Western society we have these implicit biases that determine how we “work and serve” others. In order to fully understand and help others culturally, she said, we need to tailor services to be “culturally competent.”

“It really looks at what are the values within an organization,” Goode said on describing cultural competence. “What are the guiding principles? We have to have more information from different cultures. [Companies] have to have policies in place. They have to have structures in place, [as well as] behaviors, attitudes and practices that will enable them to work effectively cross-culturally.” Goode made it clear she was not talking about cross-racially or ethnically, but cross-culturally.

She said the first step is to understand our own culture before we can understand the similarities and differences with others. Next are policies, procedures, practices and structures being addressed, in order to work with interpreters, elders, and less-fluent English speakers.

“We need to be in faces, we need to make noise,” said Weli in regard to policymakers. “We have to make people be uncomfortable and be in their faces. We need to ask questions… What is the root of the problem?


Brandi Phillips welcomes reader response to bphillips@spokesman-recorder.