Behind Michigan’s growing breastfeeding-friendly culture is the Michigan Breastfeeding Network (MIBFN), a state-wide collaborative spurring action for education, advocacy, and coalition support. And behind MIBFN is Operations Manager Gi’Anna Cheairs, a mathematician with a glowing passion for maternal health advocacy and healthy infant feeding, “the wizard behind the curtain,” as she puts it.
Cheairs recently completed the Lactation Counselor Training Course (LCTC) because she says she did not want to be limited to being the person behind the curtain.
“Doing the facts and figures, funding and budgeting, those things are all vitally important, but I wanted to be able to offer a service to the communities we are advocating for; I wanted to have that knowledge base,” Cheairs says. “It was just an amazing experience and a great training.”
Like so many maternal child health advocates, Cheairs’ inspiration to help others stems from her personal infant feeding story. Her intention to breastfeed her daughter for six months to a year was deflated by an uninformed pediatric care provider, ultimately cutting short their breastfeeding journey.
“It really had an effect on me, my mental health and my confidence,” Cheairs explains. “I felt like I was failing my daughter.”
Connected to MIBFN through a women’s leadership group several years later, Cheairs’ landed a part-time gig with the organization which quickly expanded to include all operations. It’s here where she channels her drive and fire to help others overcome the barriers to breastfeeding that have affected her so deeply.
Cheairs shares that she is proud to be a part of MIBFN because the organization allows her to be her authentic self. She reports that her work culture is supportive of her expression, making space for her feelings without being labeled “the Angry Black Woman”. Cheairs notes that this is an important celebration for BIPOC.
Working with MIBFN brings back all of the feelings Cheairs sifted through when her breastfeeding efforts were diminished, she says; now she’s determined to dismantle the disinformation for other families.
And as a mathematician, advocacy comes naturally.
“Being a person who has an affinity for math, I’m automatically inclined to be an analyst by nature,” she says. “I think and overthink all of the time…My mind is always going to look at the way systems are set up in this country. I can’t help but say, ‘This isn’t logical. This is wrong,’” Cheairs says of the oppressive, racist institutional systems in our country. “The activism comes in when you do something about it.”
In her role at MIBFN, Cheairs ensures that the mechanisms within and around MIBFN function smoothly and move forward.
MIBFN’s network model brings together coalitions and other organizations across the state that may not have otherwise been bridged. MIBFN partners provide vital health services to community members and MIBFN secures the funding so the organizations can operationalize.
One of the important effects of these relationships is setting up continuity of care within communities.
“It opens the door for individuals to know about these organizations that they might not otherwise have known about,” Cheairs explains.
She goes on to explain that medical providers don’t often refer out for lactation and breastfeeding concerns.
“They would refer to a cardiologist if you’re having a heart issue, but they won’t refer out for a breastfeeding problem.”
MIBFN fills in these gaps, especially in disenfranchised communities, providing funding for things like specialists, home visits and consults to make sure that care providers can expand their reach.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Cheairs reports that MIBFN did a good job of pivoting. She says that MIBFN staff was allowed space to adapt to new environments and new challenges. They’ve been working with funders in some situations to shift their approach too. In many cases, this means organizations changing over to virtual consultations and support groups and porch drop offs for supplies.
MIBFN now provides video conferencing platforms for their partners in order to keep their connections strong.
Recently, MIBFN hosted a virtual community conversation that brought in families as subject matter experts. Cheairs says it was an amazing experience for MIBFN staff and families alike and created a space for Black, Indigenous, Families of Color to have their experiences heard and validated.
“It was very, very powerful,” she says.
Cheairs notes that Governor Gretchen Whitmer recently declared the week of April 11 to 17 Black Maternal Health Week, placing state-wide value and priority on women’s health issues like breastfeeding and birth support. The week is intended “to deepen the national conversation about Black maternal health in the United States; amplify community-driven policy, research, and care solutions; elevate the voices of Black mothers, women, families, and stakeholders; provide a national platform for efforts to address maternal health, birth, and reproductive justice; and enhance community efforts toward addressing Black maternal health.”
For those interested in supporting MIBFN and its mission, Cheairs encourages us to sign up for their e-newsletter which keeps individuals up-to-date on the latest webinars offered, fundraisers and other events.