THE BLOG
07/13/2012 02:34 pm ET Updated Sep 11, 2012

Saving Our Future: Remember the Black Infant Mortality Crisis

AP

These are particularly tough times for black communities everywhere. From Detroit to Port-au-Prince to Cape Town, we have among the world's highest levels of unemployment, orphans, school dropouts, and HIV/AIDS.

But a critical issue that is getting lost in the fray is the continuing black infant and maternal mortality crisis.

African-American women have the nation's highest rates of infant mortality--more than two times the rate of white women. And to make matters even worse, now the daughters of African immigrants have the dubious distinction of having caught up. Second generation African women now have the same infant mortality rate as their African-American sisters.

Those of us who are better off often think that this is an issue affecting people "still in-the-hood or the village." But all black women, regardless of income, educational level or health insurance status, are at risk. On top of all this, Amnesty International reports that US black women die in childbirth at four times the level of white women.

Theories abound about why this happening. A complicated set of social, cultural, health and even environmental factors are interacting to put US black women at risk. Among the most troubling explanations is that chronic stress due to historic and continuing institutional racism and lack of social supports during pregnancy have a biochemical impact across generations, causing a vicious cycle of early labor, high levels of pre-term births, and, then, low birth weight babies. These babies not only have a much higher chance of dying in their first year; they also have a higher rate of birth defects and ongoing developmental challenges.

Recent studies show that the US overall has among the worse infant and maternal mortality rates among industrialized countries. Although we are canaries in the mine, this issue is on the doorstep of all Americans.

Five years ago, there were a number of excellent films and resulting outreach efforts to raise public awareness of America's and the black infant mortality crisis, including PBS's still compelling documentary Unnatural Causes. There is a crop of promising public health efforts, including California's Black Infant Health Program. Unfortunately, after making initial gains, many of these programs are in danger of cuts due to government budget shortfalls. And community action to address the high infant mortality rate has diminished in recent years, overshadowed by the recession's impact.

This issue is just too fundamental to our future for us to let it lie fallow. We need continuing education, outreach, coordinated services and policy change to ensure that we can reverse the trend. Afterall, if we are not able to produce the next generation, every effort we make to improve our communities' conditions will ultimately amount to very little.

In California, the African Women's Development Fund USA (AWDF USA), with a growing list of partners including KQED, Women and Girls Lead, Priority Africa Network, the African American Community Health Advisory Committee, the Bay Area Black Nurses Association and support from the East Bay Community Foundation and The California Endowment, has kicked off a national campaign called Saving Our Future: Pan-African Women in Action. Using groundbreaking PBS films highlighting the crisis and successful black leadership models, expert panels, and community townhall meetings, our hope is to increase public awareness of the challenge as well as highlight how Pan-African women can address this and other social issues here and in the Motherland.


Saving Our Future
is unique because it brings together both African-American and Africans, now the two communities with the US's highest infant mortality rates, and our allies of all backgrounds, to learn, exchange experiences, provide mutual support, promote collective action and change for healthy birth outcomes. We highlight innovators like Fartun Weli, founder and executive director of Isuroon, one of the nation's few Somali women's reproductive health nonprofits; Dr. Narisse Kendrick; an award-winning Bay Area physician; and the pioneering Dr. Vicki Alexander, among other largely unsung leaders, who make a difference for our community's maternal health everyday.

African-Americans, African immigrants, Afro-Latino and Afro-Caribbean people in the US share many problems in common. It's time for us to embrace the rich diversity that has always defined America's black experience and work across the silos that continue to divide us.

Whether you or your parents were born here in the US, Africa, the Caribbean, or Latin America, our communities' past and destinies are forever linked. AWDF USA is working to help us make the connections necessary to pool ideas, energies, resources and action to Save Our Future, for everyone.

For information about AWDF USA activities, including organizing a Saving Our Future forum in your community, our Mother Africa Program, Black Philanthropy Month and more, visit www.usawdf.org. You can also leave a message here at Huffington Post, call at 408-634-4837 or email me at info@usawdf.org.