Angela Doyinsola Aina has a history of doing the work. The co-founder and Executive Director of Black Mamas Matter Alliance (BMMA) has been on the frontlines of Black feminist advocacy for most of her 14 years of service in public health. But it is her work amplifying the voices of Black women impacted disproportionately by an unjust and inequitable health system that has put Aina and BMMA at the forefront of the fight for maternal health rights and reproductive justice.
In 2018, BMMA launched the inaugural Black Maternal Health Week to amplify its initiatives to raise awareness for the Black maternal health crisis. But even Aina says she could not have imagined that three years following the launch, those initiatives would become a national focal point culminating in a Proclamation from the White House officially recognizing Black Maternal Health Week. In his Proclamation President Biden called for “all Americans to raise awareness of the state of Black maternal health in the United States” and commit to “building a world in which Black women do not have to fear for their safety, their wellbeing, their dignity, and their lives before, during, and after pregnancy.” Arguably, there could be no better amplifier of BMMA’s mission message than the White House.
Still, Aina believes that Black women must be afforded the space to lead from the front. Especially given the often forgotten contribution of Black women to maternal health care. Aina says “there is a long legacy of Black women doing the work of maternity care, being caretakers and being on the frontlines of reproductive justice.” From the gynecological advances made possible at the expense of Black women’s bodies to the Black Grand midwives who helped shape maternal health care.
But like most advocacy work, the voices of those most affected often get drowned out. This is especially concerning given that the crux of Black womens’ problems with health care systems stems from the fact that they aren’t listened to. This is why Aina wants to shift the narrative from one that blames Black women for their health conditions and outcomes, and instead, exposes how structural oppression shows up in healthcare systems.
BMMA’s work relies heavily on underscoring the evidence. And the evidence is telling. Black women are disproportionately affected by maternal mortality rates, regardless of economic or education. The most recent statistics from the National Center for Health Statistics revealed that Black women are dying at rates more than twice that of white women. The statistics further underscore the need for immediate change to the ways in which Black women can access maternal and reproductive health care.
As the national debate around reproductive rights heats up, Aina points out that anti-abortion legislation affects more than just the right to have children, but the right to bodily autonomy. A right, she says, that has been “constantly chipped away from Black and Brown people.” Any further infringement of those rights would further gravely disadvantage Black women already being failed by health systems.
Aina also highlights that abortion care is essential to maternal health. It is a salient detail given how abortion rights and maternal rights are often addressed as separate issues. But Aina says, “work surrounding reproductive justice can’t be siloed.” She adds that there is more than just a need for care that is culturally competent, but cogent. This is why BMMA is advocating for maternal health and reproductive care that is holistic and “inclusive of family, spiritual and well-being tenets.”
As BMMA continues to push for a shift in maternal care and reproductive rights and justice, Aina notes that the past two years, post-George Floyd and with a global pandemic exacerbating health inequities, there has been an uptick of donor support. There have also been advances in legislation for maternal equity, most notably in the passing of the Preventing Maternal Deaths Act in 2018, and the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act in 2020. But there is still work to do.
Aina says would-be allies can support that work by pouring resources into organizations that support Black and Black women-led models of maternal health care, like BMMA. She notes, “there are a lot of mainstream entities claiming Black maternal health work, but are just identifying without actually listening to Black women at the forefront.” In 2020, Johnson & Johnson referred to Black maternal health care as a “market” worth $59 billion. A prime example of corporate co-optation of Black advocacy.
Aina is resolute that Black women must be afforded the space to steer the discourse about their maternal health and reproductive rights. She says BMMA’s mission will continue to hold “intentional space for Black maternal health and create opportunities for Black women to get their issues heard.” She says Black women on the frontlines of maternal care is not new. “We have always had the know-how.” BMMA is amplifying that know-how by leaning into research. Aina says pointedly, “data is important.”
Ahead for BMMA is the rollout of this year’s Black Maternal Health Week, April 11-17, the focus of which will be a national call for liberating Black systems of care. And later in the year, BMMA will host a conference aimed at creating space where Black women can network, share resources, and collaborate as they push forward in the fight for reproductive justice.
When asked about how she holds space for self-care, Aina acknowledges that, like most Black women, she’s used to juggling. But she recognizes that even amidst the critical work she does, holding space for joy and rest is a quiet revolution.
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