• Sun. Nov 27th, 2022

Local Black women in the fight for reproductive justice

By Meredith Shockley-Smith, PhD Queens Village /Cradle Cincinnati Director, Equity and Community Strategies

The 2019 infant mortality rate is the lowest Hamilton County has ever seen for Black women. It is a fine time for a win for Black folks. 

       Throughout the country, American citizens are reconciling the effects of racism and putting thought behind problems that are generations old. This local victory should serve as a blueprint for moving forward. It occurred because Black people, and Black women specifically, were given an opportunity to step up, and Cradle Cincinnati’s community of partners were willing not only to trust their judgment, but also to follow where they led.  

         Historically, the rate of Black infant death in Cincinnati has been among the highest in the nation, with Black babies dying at more than three times the rate as White babies. These racial disparities in infant mortality cannot be explained through other socio-economic characteristics like education, income, housing or medical insurance. Research has shown that racism, not race itself, is the driving force behind the high disparity in infant mortality rates in Hamilton County and the nation.

        Since 2012, Cradle Cincinnati has used a collective impact model to align hundreds of partners and made huge strides in reducing infant mortality in Hamilton County. With this collective work, there was a decrease in infant mortality. However, the progress left an alarming racial disparity in the Black infant mortality rate. In 2018, Cradle Cincinnati made an unconventional choice and named racism as a focus in its strategic plan. 

       I, a Black woman and mother, was hired to strategize and co-create with other Black women and to implement a plan to interrupt racism in the healthcare system and support Black women in the fight for reproductive justice. Trusting and valuing the leadership of myself and our team of Black women has circumvented the White “savior complex” trap that many well-meaning nonprofits fall into.   

       The community-led work of Cradle Cincinnati is now known as Queens Village. This work is also led by a team of additional women: Josselyn Okorodudu, Danyelle Bush, Crystal Brown, Lucia Palmarini and often a public ally, currently Charice Hambrick. These women wake up every day to connect with Black women and ask them how to solve the disparity of our babies dying. Black women know what they need, but are so often denied the resources and power necessary to fulfill those needs for themselves and their communities.

      With funders like bi3 (and its flexible funding), Ohio Department of Medicaid and Interact for Health, we are able to create a unique Black woman-centered space and community engagement strategy, where we listen to and act on the guidance of Black women. Early results have shown that the work of Cradle Cincinnati Connections and the Queens Village model, which has informed and empowered dozens of partner organizations, is finally moving the needle on Black infant mortality in Hamilton County. 

      Our learnings and current data indicate that listening to and sharing power with Black mamas is critical if we want to continue to reduce the racial disparities in infant mortality. It’s time to acknowledge the incredible brilliance, resilience and strength of Black women. Though we are strong, we bear too much of the weight of systemic oppression. Reducing the rate of infant mortality in the Black community is one small step in the greater fight for racial justice and equality. 

Against the stark but transformative backdrop of the nation’s response to the murder of George Floyd, we are part of a movement that can only propel us forward. When George Floyd cried out for his mama, all mamas were summoned, and we heard his cry as an urgency for action. Cradle Cincinnati’s focused efforts on reproductive justice are inextricably linked with justice across systems of oppression. It is not only the police that kneel on our necks. Systemic oppression impacts mamas daily. Black folks are carrying the daily burden of under-education, inequitable pay, unaffordable and inadequate housing and unreliable transportation. These burdens are further exacerbated by city, state and national leaders who do not perform their roles as if Black Lives Matter. 

While the core mission of Cradle Cincinnati and Queens Village is to ensure every baby makes it to their first birthday by reducing implicit bias and shifting the racial disparities in health outcomes, this advocacy is wrapped up in the demand for the assured safety of Black lives inside the medical system and out in the streets. Our call is a call for healthy and happy Black mamas, Black babies, Black fathers and Black families. Join the movement: We are lifting an ally campaign “Stand For Queens.” To show your support for Black mamas and babies, connect with us at blackwomenforthewin.com

Dr. Meredith Shockley-Smith is a former professor of Black Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies. She is currently the director of Equity and Community Strategies at Cradle Cincinnati, focused on lowering the infant mortality rate and boosting maternal health in Cincinnati.