LOS ANGELES (WOMENSENEWS)--When April Beamon had her first child at age 18 in 1985, she did not have a clue about prenatal care, child development or even that the government-funded Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children existed.
It was not until 14 years later, when Beamon was pregnant with her fourth child and joined the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Healthy African American Families II that she learned of these free programs.
"I learned that I should drink more milk when I'm pregnant, take all my vitamins and take all my iron. That's why I'm clinging to them," she says, referring to staffers and other volunteers like herself at Healthy African American Families II. "I'm hooking my friends up to them because I'm sure they are going to learn something."
Beamon, a Los Angeles native, says African American women in her community need a stronger social support network.
Those battling maternal mortality in the black community agree.
African American women are 3.7 times more likely to die during pregnancy than their non-Hispanic white counterparts, according to a report last September by a commission of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies' Health Policy Institute, a Washington group launched in 2002 to ignite a "fair health" movement for people of color. Seventy-five percent of black women have access to prenatal care compared to 89 percent of white women.
While the risk factors for maternal mortality are diverse, they include chronic stress, which is where Dr. Michael Lu, an author of the September commission report, says social support comes in.
Lu, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of California, Los Angeles, says better community support--or more "social capital" as he puts it--can buffer black pregnant women against chronic stress in their daily lives.
Social Support Media Campaign
The staff at Healthy African American Families II in 2004 decided to try to bolster pregnant black women's social support with a media campaign that drew funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC Foundation, Kellogg Foundation and Charles R. Drew University.
Its "100 Intentional Acts of Kindness Toward a Pregnant Woman" campaign was designed by 55 pregnant women recruited from doctors' offices, churches and hair salons in South and Central Los Angeles.
In 10 focus group meetings, the women listed ways in which others could help make their pregnancies better.
The responses were compiled into the "100 Intentional Acts of Kindness" list, printed on paper fliers that could double as fans and distributed at community centers such as churches, health centers and barber shops.
The most common wish was for more emotional support from friends, family and colleagues. The women also had a clear list of "don'ts" for strangers, such as not touching their bellies without permission.
"They're also simple things friends, families and perfect strangers can do," says Loretta Jones, CEO of Healthy African American Families II. "It's a seat on the bus or a place in the grocery line. If I see a pregnant woman at the back of the line, I give them my spot."
The suggestions may seem like nothing more than common courtesies, but Beamon, who volunteered on the campaign when she herself was pregnant, says they need to be amplified.
"People don't have respect for pregnant women," she says. "Sometimes they may feel sorry for you, but most of the time their attitude is, 'If I got to stand here in line, you got to stand here too.' It happens all the time to women when they're pregnant."
In interviews doctors, state health officials and staffers in community clinics agreed that society does need these courtesy reminders.
The campaign joins a wave of media focused on mustering social support. In New York, for instance, billboards encourage passersby to help high school students at risk of dropping out by visiting a Web site, Boostup.org, where they can choose a specific student and send her or him a note of encouragement.
But while word about the 100 Intentional Acts of Kindness is slowly getting out, the campaign has yet to be formally duplicated in any concerted way.
Maxine Vance, deputy director of Baltimore City Healthy Start, a nonprofit established by the city's health department to improve maternal and infant health, says her group attained copies of the Acts of Kindness sheet and in 2005 passed them out to partner organizations and the members of their own community. But she says her office moved cities since then so she hasn't been able to conduct follow-up surveys "to see if people were treating women nicer."
Healthy Black Families II began in the early 1990s when the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control--acting on data about the negative health disparities suffered by African American women--began to expand its focus beyond infant mortality to maternal health as well.
"We wanted to help African American women understand the health risks associated with their pregnancies and to ask people in the communities to help address and reduce those risks," says epidemiologist Cynthia Ferre, who became project officer of the Healthy African American Families II project in 1992 shortly after she joined the CDC. "But we knew the change must originate with the women themselves."
That's because whether a baby has a low birth weight or a preterm delivery, the problem occurs at birth, Ferre said. "Anything that's going to change those rates is going to change before birth. It's the mother's health that's directly impacting the baby's health. There's nothing we can do to eradicate that occurrence of the low-birth-weight baby except to improve women's health and improve health during pregnancy."
After the "100 Intentional Acts" campaign Beamon, now 41, also worked on other media campaigns. In one, the group printed doorknob signs--"Bed rest means to get off of your feet" and "Please allow your partner, friends or family to get involved"--to remind pregnant women, along with their families and visitors, that they need special consideration.
They also photographed a pregnant mother surrounded by people who were helping her out--father, friend, sister, brother--and blew them up to billboard size and placed them around the city.
"They were all in football uniforms because they are a team," Beamon says.
Jacqueline Lee is a Los Angeles-based reporter with Women's eNews.
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Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies:
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