Black Maternal Health

Part: 7

Tonya Lewis Lee Aims to Save Nation's Babies

Monday, January 18, 2010

Tonya Lewis Lee, an award-winning TV producer, released the documentary "Crisis in the Crib" last year after learning of the high infant mortality rates among African Americans. She's also launched a grassroots program to encourage healthy living.

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Shocked by Death Rates

An outspoken and respected voice on the issues of women and race, Lee says she was shocked to learn of the high maternal and infant mortality rates in the United States. She was even more distressed to see the even higher rates in the African American community and to learn that education and class do not protect women from this epidemic.

"When I realized that the World Health Organization ranked the United States 29th in the world in infant mortality I had to become involved," said Lee. "American children are dying at the rate of third world countries. It's a shame and it doesn't have to be that way if we educate the public on the problem and begin to work on eradicating some of the causes."

To start changing things in Memphis and across the country, Lee has created a program where college students work at the community grassroots level, sharing everyday healthy living messages with male and female peers well before they think about pregnancy.

Called the Preconception Peer Educator Program, its members visit high schools and colleges and host community health fairs to raise awareness and get people talking about practical and political solutions.

Beyond Eating Right and Exercise

"This is beyond just telling people to eat right and exercise," said Lee. "It's about us advocating for safe places so that they can actually exercise. It's about us teaching others to advocate for fresh fruits and vegetables in neighborhoods that don't have them."

The students, mostly from nursing or public health concentrations, are trained in a 10-hour preconception curriculum and produce a health fair. Then they are placed in Healthy Start programs, state or city health departments, state Offices of Minority Health or community-based organizations for placement in summer internships, volunteer or paid work opportunities.

The documentary features peer educators canvassing door-to-door in Memphis, talking to residents and sharing information about infant mortality. The students come from Spelman College in Atlanta; Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn.; Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn.; Morgan State University in Baltimore; the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing in Philadelphia; and LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis, Tenn.

Beyond their health-related activities, the film also follows the students on a moving visit to the civil rights museum and the site of King's murder in the Lorraine Hotel.

"It was important for me to make that connection with them that what they are doing is part of a movement," said Lee. "The message of a healthier lifestyle is our generation's civil rights movement."

Kimberly Seals Allers is the editorial director of the Black Maternal Health Project and founder of, an online magazine for African American parents. An award-winning business journalist and former senior editor at Essence, she is also the author of "The Mocha Manual to a Fabulous Pregnancy" and two other Mocha Manual books. Check out Kimberly's SisterSpace at

For more information:

Crisis in the Crib

Office of Minority Health

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Series Overview

Black Maternal Health: A Legacy and a Future

Part: 19

U.S. Health Bills Show C-Sections Cut Two Ways

Part: 18

California Moms Live in Breastfeeding Haven

Part: 17

Lactation Breaks, Always Commendable, Are Now Law

Part: 16

Dr. Lu Puts 'M' Back in Maternal, Child Care

Part: 15

NYC Targets Black Women for Breastfeeding

Part: 14

Michelle Obama Urged to Speak Out for Breastfeeding

Part: 13

Tonya Lewis Lee Aims to Save Nation's Babies

Part: 12

Black Infant Mortality Points to Moms' Crying Need

Part: 11

Lawmakers Join Push to Close Maternal Health Gaps

Part: 10

Industry, Feds Entice Black Mothers to Bottle Feed

Part: 9

Midwives Fight AMA to Provide Black Maternal Care

Part: 7

Breastfeeding Not for You? Sisters, Listen Up

Part: 6

U.S. Black Maternal Hazards Tied to Social Stress

Part: 5

Black Fathers Opening Up About All That Love

Part: 4

Pregnant? Your Job Is To Take Care of Yourself

Part: 3

Maternity Center Showcases Full-Service Approach

Part: 2

Kindness RX Offered to Pregnant Black Women

Part: 1

Studies Plumb Depths of Black Maternal Health Woes