Tag Archives: women’s issues

Policy Is About Priority: Where Do Moms Fit In?

This post is by Rylee Sommers-Flanagan, a summer intern with the Health Justice Program and a student at Emory University in Atlanta, GA.

Recently, news sources and blog sites released a flurry of commentary and news articles on the results of a study by the New York State Health Department that indicate unusually high mortality rates for pregnant women in New York, particularly New York City. While the report declined to make a causal link, the article published in the New York Times mentioned not only that “death rates were highest in the Bronx and Brooklyn,” but that black women were “seven times as likely to die in pregnancy as white women.”

Unfortunately, these numbers don’t surprise us. Due to entrenched racial inequalities, health disparities between whites and people of color are visible in both treatment and outcomes. Care is often segregated and sometimes it is simply nonexistent.

Take, for example, Central Brooklyn, where 92% of the population is of color. Since 2003, three major medical providers – Caledonia Hospital, St. Mary’s Hospital and the Lyndon B. Johnson Health Center – have all closed. Also in the last seven years, Central Brooklyn has lost OB/GYN and NICU services at the Interfaith Medical Center, prenatal services at the Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center, as well as two WIC centers and four primary clinics, all now closed.

Losing these services won’t improve the disparate health fates of residents in Central Brooklyn. Predictably, the most dramatically medically underserved are also victims of the highest rates of maternal mortality and similarly elevated infant mortality rates – in Central Brooklyn, 8.75 infants die per 1000 live births compared to 2.1 deaths per 1000 in the Upper East Side.

Maternal and infant mortality are enough cause for concern, but decreased medical services have many more consequences. Another telling example is the remarkable gap in both rates and results of diabetes in Central Brooklyn as compared with the same in New York City as a whole. In 2008, 68% more people died from diabetes in Central Brooklyn than did in the rest of New York City. The story repeats itself to the tune of a variety of medical conditions. Hope seems foolhardy in this climate of hospital bankruptcies, pared budgets, and continuously diminished access to care.

But improvement is not impossible. One approach, embodied in the Infant Mortality Reduction Initiative (IMRI) has been successful in reducing infant mortality and increasing the number of women who receive pre- and post-natal care. By networking with existing programs and creating community partnerships, IMRI is generating progress. Yet, even as the report on maternal mortality illuminated the distance stretching ahead, the city has moved to severely reduce funding for IMRI and consequently participating organization like the Brooklyn Perinatal Network. There are few groups currently filling the gaping fissure left by multiple hospital closures and decreased services in the medically underserved regions of New York City. We need them all to be secure.

New York City is not the only player to blame in this game. According to The Lancet, 23 countries are on course for reducing maternal mortality as outlined in Millennium Development Goal 5, that’s 75% by 2015. The United States is not among them. A surprising set of countries – China, Egypt, Ecuador and Bolivia – are ahead of schedule.

Ultimately, policy is about priority; why aren’t mothers, infants and health a priority? Well, that’s our question for the City of New York, as well as the rest of these United States.

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This Bridge Called My Back: A Retro Look at Women of Color and Power

This post, by Health Justice Director, Nisha Agarwal, originally appeared on the Race-Talk.org blog of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race & Ethnicity and in the Huffington Post.

When it was published in 1981, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color was a vermilion ink bloom on the crisp white wedding dress of the U.S. feminist movement. It was meant to be shocking. This anthology of prose and poetry by Black, Latina, Asian, Native American women was the first to express loudly, clearly, bilingually that the “sisterhood” could not be colorblind. Women of color are not the same as white women. They experience America differently. “I’ve had enough,” Donna Kate Rushin wrote in The Bridge Poem:

I’m sick of seeing and touching
Both sides of things
Sick of being the damn bridge for everybody…

I explain my mother to my father my father to my little sister
My little sister to my brother my brother to the white feminists
The white feminists to the Black church folks the Black church folks
To the ex-hippies the ex-hippies to the Black separatists the
Black separatists to the artists the artists to my friends’ parents…

I’ve got to explain myself
To everybody…

It is an apt metaphor, woman of color as bridge. Always liminal. Permanently negotiating. A migrant between gender and race. That is what makes us different: we can never pick a side.

And here is another thing about bridges: they have to be strong. According to a recent report by the Women of Color Policy Network at NYU, Black and Latina women are disproportionately more likely to be poor, have trouble paying the bills, be worried about putting food on the table, and express concern about the accessibility of health insurance than their white counterparts, but they are among the least likely to benefit from the billions of dollars in stimulus funding being doled out to improve economic well-being in this country. However, I think it would be a mistake to view the women of color who face these challenges as passive “victims” of intersecting layers of oppression.

When I sit in church basements in the South Bronx, strategizing with a local community coalition, the vast majority of people I am talking with are women – women of color. The same is true of the immigrant rights organization I work with in Brooklyn. You cannot begin to comprehend the fight that is in the mothers I represent, who do daily battle with the health and education systems on behalf of their children. The foot soldiers of our modern-day civil rights movement are women of color, just as they were a generation ago, when women outnumbered men two-to-one in the local organizations feeding the Mississippi freedom struggle.

In a way, it is quite stunning that the group most disadvantaged within the socio-economic framework of American society would, historically and currently, be its most vital force for democracy. When historian Charles Payne interviewed civil rights activists to understand this trend in the context of Mississippi – for his masterful book, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, which everyone must read – he found a few explanations. One had to do with the operating style of some of the most effective grassroots organizations from that period, such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

Instead of duplicating gender-biased, hierarchical leadership structures of earlier civil rights groups, SNCC was “structurally and philosophically open to female participation in a way that many older organizations would not have been.” Another factor was the inherent liminality of women of color, or “the fact that historically Black women have had to adapt to so many different expectations and pressures they became relatively open to new situations.” In other words, the ability to see and touch both sides of things could be an engine for liberation as much as it was a source of frustration.

I would like to see today’s social justice movements tap into this creative energy even more effectively than we are. Certainly, there are innovative grassroots groups that support and encourage women of color leadership, but as one moves higher and higher into the ranks of major social justice organizations in the United States, we see fewer and fewer of the women who are so prevalent on the ground. Perhaps this means we need to re-think our organizational structures and unpack the visible and invisible barriers they may impose to advancement by women of color, particularly those without class privilege. I would also like to see women of color band together more effectively and harness our world-changing potential. Yes, we have to work harder, longer, better, louder. But that may be the source of our strength as much as it is a liability:

The bridge I must be
Is the bridge to my own power
I must translate
My own fears
My own weaknesses

I must be the bridge to nowhere
But my true self
And then
I will be useful

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