Mayor Muriel Bowser held her fifth annual Maternal & Infant Health Summit sponsored by Aetna and Johns Hopkins Medicine. This day-long series of panels and lively discussions filled the Walter E. Washington Convention Center with the voices of Black and Brown women and the intermittent giggles, baby talk, and laughter of their children.

Mayor Bowser convened a family-friendly gathering designed to educate and create time for fellowship. She said the purpose of the gathering was to celebrate the changes underway and the progress that has been made, to increase awareness of necessary data and to see this abysmal set of metrics and trends come to an end. 

The 2022 Summit showcased the research, advocacy and paradigm-shifting led by some of the nation’s brightest minds on the myriad facets of the national crisis known as Black maternal and infant health. 

The opening plenary was a powerful panel discussion hosted by the new President/CEO of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Nicole Austin-Hillery. The plenary panel featured Mayor Bowser who is now a mother, registered nurse and Rep. Shontel Brown (D-OH-11), and Rep. Lauren Underwood, (D-IL-14) who is a teacher.  

These two new members of Congress established the Black Maternal Health Caucus, the largest bipartisan caucus committed to advancing policy solutions that improve birth outcomes and end disparities. Rep. Brown comes to the work with a working knowledge of the crisis in Ohio where Black women are three times more likely to die in childbirth than their white counterparts no matter their socioeconomic status. 

Dr. Ndidiamaka Amuta-Onuagha, M.S. in Public Health, the founder of the Center for Black Maternal Health and Reproductive Justice shared her research and advocacy efforts at Tufts School of Medicine. She shared the need for unconscious bias training to become a part of medical education.

Panel host Nicole Austin-Hillery said, “Mayor Bowser is creating a template for change by making this more than a women’s issue. We need to add the voice of corporate America and consumer brands to this dialogue.” The panel stated corporate America should be charged with not only financing the event but also leveraging their power to persuade on behalf of an issue that destroys families.

There were two more panels: “Health Outcomes” and “Culture in Parenting.”

The former, hosted by Sherenne Simon from the March of Dimes included representatives from Aetna, the US Office of Women’s Health, the American Heart Association, Sibley Memorial Hospital- Johns Hopkins Medicine and DC Health. They discussed topics like  pre-existing conditions that Black women wrestle with that put Black women  at higher risk for birth complications: hypertension, heart disease, depression, and anxiety. 

They also discussed the side effects of the medicines we take for chronic illnesses and called for personal accountability because 50%  of Black  pregnancies are unplanned, so there’s no time to prepare the body. 

These health issues make Black women even more vulnerable, which led to a conversation about the social determinants of health – external factors that significantly influence Black women’s overall health, specifically heart disease, poor self-care and stress. 

Each panelist discussed the silent killers of Black pregnant women – from institutional racism and microaggressions, to aging parents, poor air quality, economic disparities, worry over children, partners and the implicit bias of the healthcare system. Black women are inundated with stressors and these factors exponentially impact their pregnancies and post-delivery care.

The final plenary panel, hosted by Carol’s Daughter Founder Lisa Price, explored birthing options and practitioners, the role of the birthing doula and postpartum doula, supportive technologies for pregnancy, and ways to prepare for delivery that are nourishing, protective and affirming. 

Panelists Jessica Foster of Wolomi, a pregnancy companion app, and Juan Pablo Segura, maker of Baby Scripts, touted the role of technology in improving birth outcomes, monitoring blood pressure and helping to manage other key determinants. 

Unique Morris-Hughes discussed paid family leave, Latham Thomas of Baby Glow and Milan A. Spencer of Black Mamas Matter Alliance examined how to be more supportive during the birthing process and  advocate for partners and each other throughout the process of birth. One of the  sobering data points of this session:“For every one death, there are 70 near misses.”

After the plenary panels, there were breakout sessions, the most popular of which was the “Baby News Network Conversation with Moms in Media,” featuring celebrity mom Tamar Braxton; national news correspondents Monica Alba, Adrianna Hopkins and Jeanette Reyes; artist Tori Alamaze; and the comical Cosmopolitan magazine columnist, Julee Wilson. 

These women told similar stories of racist encounters with healthcare providers, being unheard during doctor visits and the struggle with body image during and after pregnancy because they are on such public platforms. 

Each woman touted the necessity of being surrounded by a village of people during the physical transformation that happens and the post-delivery moment that can be mentally overwhelming. 

Postpartum depression was a central discussion. Tamar confessed that she didn’t bond with her son at birth and shared how badly that made her feel. She really didn’t want to be bothered. She wrestled with guilt and that simple confession erupted into a conversation about the unspoken ugliness of motherhood – the moments when traditional motherhood narratives tell you how to feel and behave, even though these ideals are not based in  reality. In fact, reports that 20% of women encounter impaired bonding with their baby. 

Each woman shared how they struggled with postpartum depression differently and encouraged the audience to be honest about how they’re feeling daily so that they can begin to heal their bodies and their minds. Given their highly visible lives, each new mom discussed the pressure of that while trying to “snap back” or get their bodies back and return to work. They discussed the guilt and struggle of either wanting to go back or never wanting to go back. There were multiple “Amens” from the audience of working women either pushing strollers,rubbing their bellies or waving their hands in agreement. The Mayor’s Summit on Maternal & Infant Health was a nourishing and transparent dialogue that armed the audience with data and freed the audience to speak their truth. It was a collective sista-hug, much-needed and deeply felt.