Responding to community voice for maternal, family well-being

Dalvery Blackwell often talks expectant mothers and their partners through their worries and expectations. As co-founder of the African American Breastfeeding Network, her work centers on providing a space of learning, understanding and community for parents-to-be and their families. 

Several years ago, when Blackwell began receiving phone calls from women explaining they no longer needed her services because they experienced a miscarriage or an infant death, she did what she always did and found a way to provide the much-needed support women experiencing loss require to stay emotionally healthy.

At the time, AABN was receiving funding from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation to cover, among other things, marketing costs, but Blackwell saw a different purpose for the funds. She contacted Jeannie Fenceroy, her program officer at the Foundation, and explained the situation. Fenceroy agreed, and Healing Waters, a program for families who experienced the loss of a pregnancy or an infant, came to fruition. 

“When Dalvery called and said, ‘This thing is happening within our community with the women we serve, would you be open to shifting some of the funding to doing Healing Waters?’ It was a no-brainer,” said Fenceroy, senior program manager of education and scholarships at the Foundation. “It fit into the whole theme of maternal health and wellness, including mental health.”

When listening becomes responding

Over the years, Fenceroy noted the Foundation has been more intentional in listening to and following community voice as part of its North Star of racial equity and inclusion and strategic mission. 

When communities know their voices are being listened to, it establishes trust and builds confidence. In the case of AABN, Blackwell felt further empowered to request funding from other organizations, thus strengthening the network’s bandwidth, advocacy and programming. It's currently in its 15th year.

While AABN always welcomed fathers to its community breastfeeding gatherings, it noticed that brothers and uncles were attending too and responded accordingly with paternal programming, where men could ask questions, express their concerns and learn more about pregnancy as a whole. 

A recent Foundation grant allowed AABN to hire a father engagement consultant, Brooks Griffin, who is encouraging paternal figures to participate in the Dad Doula program, where men learn how to work with a doula.

Doulas advocate on behalf of the pregnant individual and can be instrumental figures in ensuring their voices are heard and best practices are taking place before, during and after the birth.

“We’ve always had fathers involved,” Blackwell said. “We're really committed to lifting the voices of Black fathers so that they can also share like why ‘I want my child to be breastfed’ or ‘Why I'm afraid to even go into the hospital setting with my pregnant partner’ because of the history of being disrespected or not engaged.”

Addressing a growing disparity with community

Because of its ability to listen and pivot accordingly, AABN has been able to answer the call to address the rising mortality rate among Black mothers and infants in Milwaukee.

“I think being a Black-led, women-led nonprofit organization and having the autonomy to change when we see that we need to change direction, whether it's on our board of directors or programming partnerships, it can be very beneficial for an organization,” Blackwell said.

AABN is working to build a perinatal workforce by replicating HealthConnect One’s community-based doula model, which trains individuals in the community to be birth workers and doulas.

As part of its advocacy efforts, AABN hosted a community convening this spring with parents, providers, the Department of Health & Human Services and health maintenance organizations to discuss its pilot program. 

The convening took place at the Foundation’s office following the suggestion of Jaqueline Ward, who serves as a consultant for AABN through her business, Venus Consulting. Ward also serves as a Foundation Board member. 

“Dalvery is dogmatic about making sure that this mission, this goal that we are pushing forward, that people know about it,” Ward said. “She’s one of the few organizations, that works just as hard on behalf of doulas as she does for the parents and babies. It’s her passion, her commitment, she’s in it for the long haul.” 

As people and organizations like AABN continue to build the Milwaukee the community wants and needs, following community voice will remain a key component. 

“People have so many great ideas,” Fenceroy said. “And the people coming to us with the ideas, not only are they closest to the issues, but they're impacted by the issues. And so, it really behooves us as program officers to listen and hear them and help them figure out.” 

In August, AABN is intending to host its monthly Healing Water session and its ninth annual Lift Up Every Baby event. The ceremony honors all the babies that have passed away due to prematurity. For additional information visit the AABN website.