Musings on unity beyond National Breastfeeding Month

This year’s National Breastfeeding Month (NBM) celebration has come to an end, but our momentum as maternal child health advocates– striving for equitable care for all– powers on. 

The 2020 NBM theme, Many Voices United, called on us to come together to identify and implement the policy and system changes that are needed to ensure that all families have the support and resources they need in order to feed their babies healthily. 

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
Colorful Hands 1 of 3 / George Fox students Annabelle Wombacher, Jared Mar, Sierra Ratcliff and Benjamin Cahoon collaborated on the mural. / Article: https://www.orartswatch.org/painting-the-town-in-newberg/

Achieving this shared goal requires daily self-work and individual introspection so that our collective can be as effective as ever. No matter how socially-conscious, open-minded, anti-racist, (insert adjective), we think we may be, we still have learned biases and prejudices that require near constant attention. Much like I remind my children to brush their teeth every morning and every night, as a white, binary woman, I must remind myself to examine my biases and my privilege daily.  

With NBM’s theme of unity in mind, this Upworthy video features an art installation that demonstrates our society’s interconnectedness. With a piece of string, the installation shows an intricate, densely-woven web created by individuals wrapping thread around 32 poles with identifiers arranged in a circle. 

“You can see that even though we all have different experiences and we all identify in different ways…We are really one,” the project’s creator says in the video. 

The sentiment and the product are truly beautiful and fascinating. While appreciating the beauty of unity, it’s important to keep our critical thinking and progressive attitude sharp, refraining from slipping into too comfortable a space where change cannot happen.  

Recently, I’ve seen a few statements on unity circulating social media that I’d like to embrace with a “Yes!” Instead, I find myself reacting, “Yes! But…” 

My worry is that these well-intentioned mantras we live by– much like some might argue certain microaggressions are well-intentioned– are also dismissive. 

  1. We all bleed the same blood. 
  1. Children are not born racist.
  1. I will teach my child to love your child. Period. 

Let’s break those down starting with “We all bleed the same blood.”  Some things to consider:

First, Ashley May for The Thirbly writes,

“Black breasts do not exist separate from Black bodies and the situated existence we navigate in this world nor the racialized experience of motherhood. Racism and classism intertwine to act as a containment, working to make some of us feel as if we are walking in quicksand. Add to this the complexities of new motherhood and the needs of the postpartum body and now we have a cocktail for failure. Literal milk plugs. So, although her precious body may be able to produce milk, her situation prevents her and her baby from receiving it. Even the intention to breastfeed cannot save the milk of the mother who cannot find time for pump breaks as she works the night shift as a security guard. Or, perhaps she cannot figure out why pumping is not working, but she doesn’t have the time to seek the educational or financial resources to help her problem solve.” (underline added by OMW) 

Racism affects People of Color (POC) at a cellular level. Studies show that the experience of racial discrimination accelerates the shortening of telomeres (the repetitive sequences of DNA at the ends of chromosomes that protect the cell) and ultimately contributes to an increase in people’s risks of developing diseases. 

It’s epigenetics; the environments POC of are growing in affect their biology.  

Children are not born racist, but white children are born into a racist society that they will benefit from. 

From the very beginning, white children have a better chance of survival than Children of Color; African Americans have 2.3 times the infant mortality rate as non-Hispanic whites

What’s more, Black children are three times more likely to die when cared for by white doctors, while the mortality rate for white babies is largely unaffected by the doctor’s race, a recent study found. 

White children are born into being part of the problem and just the same, can be part of equitable solutions. 

I will teach my child to love your child. Period. 

Love is action, and even if it’s easier said than done, there are so many ways to teach our children about race, inequities and injustice. Afterall, “If Black children are ‘old enough’ to experience racism then white children are ‘old enough’ to learn about it.” – Blair Amadeus Imani

  • Be careful what you say. As a young girl on my way to ballet class one day, my mom, while locking the car doors,  pointed out the barred doors and boarded windows in the neighborhood we rolled through. 

“That’s how you know this is not a safe neighborhood,” my mom warned me. 

No questions asked, I noted the building facades, and then I noted the Black people. Because there wasn’t any further conversation, I made the connection that Black people must be “not safe” and ultimately, that there must be something wrong with Black people if they’re confined to neighborhoods “like this.” 

Imagine the impact we could make if we showed our children that there is nothing inherently wrong with Black people that ending racism can’t solve.

As a nation we are apathetic, made apparent by a recent poll. The survey shows that only 30 percent of white people have taken concrete action to better understand racial issues after George Floyd’s killing. 

The poll also shows that White Americans are also the least likely to support the Black Lives Matter movement, with 47 percent expressing support.

Is it because we don’t claim it as our problem? Is it because we misunderstand the problem? Is it because it’s easier to point fingers at others than ourselves? 

I’d like to leave you with this video of writer Kimberly Jones where she provides a brief history of the American economy told through an analogy using the board game Monopoly. I urge you to watch it, and then watch it again, and again, and again. 

There is no time for complacency within these truly abhorrent systems. When we start to lose sight of that, envision the tangle of yarn from the aforementioned unity art installation and remember that vastly different experiences are networked together.

No single solution nor single source of the problem

There’s a recent TED Talk soundbite that goes like this:

“…In a world as complex and interconnected as the one we live in, the idea that one person has the answer is ludicrous. It’s not only ineffective, it’s dangerous because it leads us to believe that it’s been solved by that hero, and we have no role. We don’t need heroes. We need radical interdependence, which is just another way of saying we need each other.” 

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

It’s a similar lesson Kimberly Seals Allers spoke to during a Milkshake Mondays Facebook Live session where she comments on the New York Times piece Climate Change Tied to Pregnancy Risks, Affecting Black Mothers Most and a laboratory creation intended to replicate human milk which just raised $3.5 million from Bill Gates’ investment firm.

In reference to the despicable maternal child health outcomes for birthing and lactating Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC), Seals Allers implores us to stop having “this very individualized conversation about what is happening to Black women.”

“There is so much involved,” she says. “There is no single solution, and there never was a single source of the problem.” 

The ideas of interconnectedness and multi-dimensional challenges apply perfectly to this year’s World Breastfeeding Week’s (WBW) theme Support Breastfeeding for a Healthier Planet. Environmental and human health are intricately intertwined.  

It’s a tangle that calls for more than reduction, reusing and recycling.

Through an equity lens, Seals Allers uses Bruce Bekkar’s, MD, et al research to ask questions like “Why are there factories mostly in Black and Brown neighborhoods? Why were Black and Brown people driven to heavily populated urban areas?”

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

The association between air pollution and heat exposure with preterm birth, low birth weight, and stillbirth in the U.S., demonstrated in Bekkar’s research, is heavily influenced by systemic racism.

“Compounding the added risks from warming and pollution, Dr. Basu said, research has shown that minority communities tend to have less access to medical help and that minority patients tend not to receive equal levels of treatment,” Christopher Flavelle writes in the NYT piece. 

Flavelle goes on, “Adrienne Hollis, senior climate justice and health scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the problems could not be tackled in isolation.  ‘We need to look at policies that provide equitable opportunities for communities of color,’ Dr. Hollis said. ‘If you address structural racism, I think you’re going to start getting at some of these issues.’”

Seals Allers echoes: “Stop problematizing Black women; look at the systemic solutions.” 

Unsurprisingly, the “solutions” we tend to generate include pouring millions of dollars into synthetic milk instead of investing in breastfeeding and lactating people themselves. 

“It’s very disturbing,” Seals Allers comments in her Facebook stream. “The solution is not around empowering women, it’s not about getting women breastfeeding, it’s about finding synthetic solutions. [There’s ] such a disconnect.” 

Equally concerning in this case, is that the investment into a proposed solution for poor health outcomes related to not breastfeeding, comes from a climate change investment fund. Human milk is arguably the most sustainable food on our planet; why are sub-optimal, artificial substitutes getting so much funding instead of promoting policies and programs that support direct breastfeeding or pasteurized donor human milk

 Source: United States Breastfeeding Committee.

The conundrum goes beyond the years of milk feeding onto complementary foods which offer corporations new opportunities to target families with Ultraprocessed Foods (UPF). Like artificial milk substitutes,  UPFs pose environmental threats: processing takes natural resources and generates waste. Moreover, UPFs are often heavily marketed in underserved communities, so poor health outcomes continue to be compounded.   

Healthy Children Project’s Cindy Turner Maffei recently attended a webinar sponsored by the Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India  (BPNI) and the Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest (NAPI) on UPFs and their relation to obesity, diabetes, and other health dangers. 

“Presenters from India, Brazil, and Australia shared insights on the health impacts of UPFs, about the market and social forces at play, and also what we can do to advocate reduction in use of these engineered foods,” Turner-Maffei reports. “Brazil in specific has incorporated decreasing UPFs into their dietary guidelines and restricted use of government funds to purchase these foods for school food programs.” 

BPNI and NAPI offer their document on UPFs here

BPNI has also created a WBW action folder.  The document contains information on the carbon footprint of breastmilk substitutes and offers interventions required to support breastfeeding at four levels: policy makers, civil society and breastfeeding advocates, hospitals and doctors and parents. 

Nothing is relevant if we don’t have a hospitable planet. Breastfeeding and appropriate, unprocessed complementary feeding are the roots of a healthy ecosystem that all humans benefit from. 

For more on interconnectedness read Breastfeeding and parallel advocacy. Explore more on infant feeding and our environment here and here.

Accessing the Milky Way scholarship opportunity

Recently, Healthy Children Project put out a statement about our stance on the current events. “These are incredibly trying and painful times. As we negotiate the very current multiple impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, recent events remind us that systemic racism and social injustice are longstanding national plagues…For too long families of Black and Brown babies have lived in fear for their children, themselves and their loved ones. The Healthy Children Project and the Center for Breastfeeding will not tolerate injustice, hate, bigotry and racism in any form.”

We expressed our solidarity with birthing families, our staff, our participants, our families, our communities, and our friends and hold Black, Indigenous , Mothers of Color in our hearts, our mission and our vision and reiterated that we will not tolerate injustice, hate, bigotry and racism in any form. We especially remember the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”

Our mission and focus is all about supporting mothers and their breastfeeding journeys. We know that Black women experience maternal mortality and morbidity at three to four times the rates of white women and infant mortality is twice as high for babies born to Black mothers when compared to babies born to white mothers. We also know that breastfeeding can help mitigate both of these unacceptable disparities. 

We are taking steps to help Black mothers and Black communities while staying focused on what we do best; train people to assist with breastfeeding. 

Healthy Children Project and the Center for Breastfeeding has always been committed to making lactation care community diverse and equitable. We have worked to make the Lactation Counselor Training Course (LCTC) accessible by giving scholarships each year to organizations such as ROSE and HealthConnect One.

But we realized that we could do even more. Towards that end, we announce that we have started an initiative called Accessing the Milky Way. This initiative will send Black, Indigenous , People of Color to the online LCTC by offering scholarships that range from partial to full. 

The first phase of this initiative will provide full tuition for the online LCTC on full scholarship for 25 BIPOC. This Accessing the Milky Way scholarship will pay the entire tuition for the course. 

In addition, we have started a fund to pay for the required text book and the testing fee for each of the 25 recipients to further eliminate barriers to becoming a Certified Lactation Counselor. 

We invite you to nominate a person that you know who wants and deserves the opportunity to take the LCTC in order to better serve and support the mothers in their community. We will be accepting nominations now through July 10, 2020. If you would like to nominate an individual, please send an email to info@centerforbreastfeeding.org and include the nominee’s name, phone number, email address, city and state, and a short description of the work they are doing and the benefit to their community by them becoming a Certified Lactation Counselor. Self-nominations are welcome. 

There are two fixed costs that cannot be covered by the scholarship. The cost of the text book is $75.75 and the fee to take the exam after the class (administered by the Academy of Lactation Policy and Practice) is $120.  This additional $195.95 is another barrier to BIPOC getting training that will support the families in their communities. Healthy Children Project faculty is working to raise a total of $4900 which would cover these fixed costs for all 25 recipients of the scholarship. Those interested in growing this fund may visit the GoFundMe page here.