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Other Cities Are Tackling Maternal Deaths Among Black Women. Austin Can, Too.

Julia Reihs
A panel discusses racial inequalities in maternal deaths during the Time to Show Up for Black Women summit at Huston-Tillotson University on Tuesday.

Travis County doesn’t have to wait to address racial disparities in maternal mortality, a group of mothers, health care professionals, policymakers and community leaders said yesterday during a summit at Huston-Tillotson University.

In Texas, black women account for a small fraction of women who give birth, but make up about a third of the maternal deaths.

Credit Julia Reihs / KUT
Marsha Jones, co-founder of The Afiya Center, says years of systemic racism has stacked the deck against black women.

Marsha Jones, the co-founder and executive director of the reproductive health group The Afiya Center, says black women are dying regardless of their social status. She says years of institutional racism and personal prejudice has stacked the deck against black women seeking medical care when they're pregnant.

“My education and even my social circle won’t buy me out of this,” she said. “It won’t get me out of this.”

Jones told the crowd at the "Time to Show Up for Black Mothers" summit that big changes are needed because racial disparities are rooted in very old problems.

“It’s systemic,” she said. “It’s not going to fixed black woman to black women or black man to black man. It’s not going to be fixed that way. We have to literally deconstruct the system that's been put up."

During the event, there was a large discussion about the scope of the problem facing black mothers. But there was also talk about some of the things that could be done at a local level.

“There’s actually a movement toward that,” said Dr. Joia Crear-Perry, who has worked with cities looking to tackle this issue. “I am working with the New York City health department, and they have put together a maternal mortality task force. ... And they started with just counting the data.”

Credit Julia Reihs / KUT
Dr. Joia Crear-Perry says there is momentum in Austin for tackling the high rate of deaths among black women during pregnancy or shortly after giving birth.

Crear-Perry says the city collected data from local hospitals, asking for information about women who died during childbirth, as well as instances where women almost died. The information helps health officials come up with a game plan. She says cities like Philadelphia and Houston have also taken data collection into their own hands.

Crear-Perry says it’s easier to mobilize smaller communities than a giant state like Texas. And, she says, Austin is in a good position for taking this on.

“You have motivated individuals and motivated systems here who want to see improvement and want to see work happen,” she said. “So it’s now just building on that momentum and getting it going.”

Crear-Perry also says a local approach would ensure the city is addressing problems specific to this area.

Aphrica Farrow, a counselor with Austin Public Health, pointed out, for example, that many members of the black community in Austin have been displaced and are now farther away from some of the bigger health care providers.

She says an approach to tackling racial disparities in maternal health outcomes should take into account that many black mothers in this area are moving to more rural areas.

Ashley Lopez covers politics and health care. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AshLopezRadio.
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