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August 17, 2023 29 mins
This episode features maternal health advocate and March Of Dimes board member Tonya Lewis Lee and this conversation will help healthcare providers and mothers of color navigate the data and resources available as a solution to maternal healthcare deserts.
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Episode Transcript

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Me turnal done. First of all, for those of us who decide to
give birth and have children, havingbeing pregnant and giving birth is an amazing
right of passage. It is anamazing experience. As one of the midwives
in our film said to us,when a woman births a child, she's

not just birthing a child, She'sbirthing a mother. Welcome to Maternal Home
to access in information for mothers ofcolor. More women are struggling to access
care before, during, and aftertheir pregnancy journey, which can be attributed
to a four percent decrease in birthinghospitals in one year and overall three hundred
and one birthing unit closures in theUnited States since March of Dimes began reporting

them in twenty eighteen. This episodefeatures maternal health advocate in March of Dimes
board member Tanya Lewis Lee, andthis conversation will help healthcare providers and mothers
of color navigate the data and resourcesavailable as a solution to maternal healthcare deserts.
So I'm glad that you're back.Thank you. Does this means so

much to media? Continue to havethese conversations and you've been so busy,
and you've received some accolades for theHulu documentary, yes, for Aftershock.
Yeah, we were really excited.We received a Peabody Award, which you
know, was really meaningful to me, and we also received an Emmy nomination
just her. The Emmys are actuallybeing pushed back with the writers and actor

strikes, so we'll see when thathappens, but at least we got a
nomination, and it's so wonderful,I have to say. And on top
of that, I mean, wehad an amazing impact campaign. The film
has just been all over the country. It's played in front of all sorts
of kinds of people. Has beena great catalyst for conversation from the community

to hospitals, med schools, insurancecompanies, people using the film as conversations.
So it's been amazing that we've hadthe impact and also received the recognition
for the craft of the filmmaking thatwe engaged in. Definitely, And you're
working on another documentary, so let'stalk a little bit about that. I
am I'm I'm serving as an executiveproducer on a documentary about the Olympic sprinter

Alison Felix, who herself had someissues with her. I mean, you
know, Nike was her. Shewas a Nike athlete, and when she
got pregnant, they decided to cuther pay, and so she very publicly
spoke about it, and Nike ultimatelyhas changed their way of doing things,

but not for her. So sheleft Nike and she's started her own sneaker
company called Her So. Yeah,she's amazing. Alison Felix is amazing and
I can't wait for everyone to seeher in her film. I mean,
we're still early in those stages,so we've got a little at least a
year, maybe a year and ahalf before everyone sees the film. Well,

I'm excited to hear that and learnmore about her story. I was
reading that she had suffered from someprocluntia during her pregnet she did. I
mean, it's amazing. You know, you would think as an athlete,
she's so healthy, so strong,but she had pre clamshah and as as
as I think for most people,you don't necessarily know what the symptoms are,

the signs are, but she didhave the issue. But thankfully she
has a very healthy daughter and everythingworked out. But and I will say
she has other teammates who also Ithink we know about Tory Bowie, who
was a teammate of hers, whopassed away from childbirth complications so sadly and
tragically, and so you know,I mean again you see you know,

you're talking about Olympic athletes who arehaving these issues. Yeah, it's it's
hard. And I really applaud Allisonfor coming out and talking about the issues,
really being a front and center totry to improve the outcomes, talk
about her experience and make it betterfor for all of us. Yeah,

and the fact that this is stillcontinuing to happen is like pretty startling,
which we're going to talk about todaybecause we have the March of Dimes and
Maternal Health DOSERT report that was justreleased. Kind of wanted to get your
thoughts on that and were there anyinteresting findings that you thought really stood out
well. I think you know,when you realize that nearly five point six
million women have no maternal healthcare,I think that's that's devastating. Nearby they

have to travel for hours and hoursto get healthcare, maternal healthcare. I
think that when you you know,I think and when you look at what's
happening right it's it's it's they haveno real healthcare to begin with, right,
So so then you add on thematernal healthcare. That's a problem as
we know, it's socioeconomics, sometimesenvironmental, and then people talk about that

a lot of these women also havechronic health conditions, but they have chronic
health conditions because they're in healthcare desertsin general, and don't have access to
great food, they don't have accessto the ability to get great exercise,
they don't have access and so it'sdevastating here in the United States. And
it really makes me angry honestly becauseI think about it from a historical point

of view, the fact that youknow, we once had midwives, right
that that traveled to women. Butthen the medical profession comes in, you
know, wipes that out and says, Okay, we're going to give you
hospitals because they can make the moneyand all of that. But then what
happens is when they realize there's nomoney in it, they shut the hospitals

down and pick up their backs andleave and leave these women with nothing.
So I think we really need tobe thinking about other models of care to
reach these women s, like travelingdoctors, like midwives who will travel to
them like telemedicine any New York whereI was reading like there was a three

point three increase in the number ofbirthing hospitals between twenty twenty and twenty nineteen,
which I guess is like we're kindof tipping the positive a little bit.
But like that doesn't seem like awhole lot compared to statistically what's going
on. Yeah, it's not solvingthe problem. Yeah, And again,
you know from the work that I'vedone, you know, hospitals are not

the only answer, right, Ithink, I think, and obstetricians are
not the only answer. They're importantfor sure, But I what I see
is that we're asking doctors to dosomething that they're not trained to do,
which is really to sit with women, talk with women. We talked about
Alison's situation, right. A midwife'sjob is to say, honey, let

me tell you, you know whatyou should be looking out for. Right
if your feet start swelling, youneed to go and get some care immediately.
A doctor may not be trained todo that. You know, they're
there to look specifically what's going onwith you and the pregnancy and the baby.
So you know, I always backto the fact that midwives integrated into
women's healthcare is an evidence based solution, and all other industrialized nations that have

better outcomes than the United States,people often don't really want to hear that
conversation. Yeah, and I'm justseeing here too, that over three hundred
and sixty four babies were born inmaternity care deserts. Which how does that
make you feel when you hear anumber like that? You know, I'm
just shaking my head because it's Imean, how can the United States of

America allow this to happen? Weneed to be doing better. And this
is why we do the report fromMarchodimes. Right, I am a board
member of Marchodimes. This is whyMarchodimes puts out this report because it's really
important that we understand what the issuesare, that we do the research.
We know there's an issue, weknow there are three hundred and sixty four
babies born in maternal healthcare deserts.And then let's talk about how we solve

the problem. Right, Let's advocatefor better healthcare options, for more doctors,
more midwives out there, maybe telehealththat's available. How do we reach
these women? Sure? Sure,I was just reading here, Like in
terms of key messaging, right,what insights or messaging would you want to
convey to others about the challenges facedby women of color in the realm of

pregnancy and birth. You know,it's funny because I don't I hate to
be so dire about it. Butrecently, I mean, like a couple
of weeks ago, the United NationsPopulation Fund put out a report, and
that report found that deaths among womenof African descent in North and South America,

right, So this is not justa United States problem. In North
and South America are having poorer outcomesand they're wider than their white counterparts because
of sexism and racism. That's whattheir data showed. And that sexism and
racism shows up in the form ofverbal and physical abuse from their healthcare providers,

from a denial of quality care,and from the refusal of pain medication.
So I bring that up to saythat, I, you know,
on the one hand, we asblack women need to find those healthcare providers
that are providing us the best carepossible. But it's a it's incumbent upon

the healthcare industry med schools, doctors, insurance companies to figure out how to
really incentivize and hold libel on accountablehealthcare providers that are perpetuating this sexism and
racism. And this is not we'renot talking about Yes, it is individual,

but it's a systemic problem. Whenyou have med schools still teaching and
people still believing that black women's theirskin is thicker, so therefore they don't
have the same kind of pain.We've got to fix that. Yeah,
you know, it's amazing. Imean, it's crazy that in twenty twenty
three we are having these conversations wherelawmakers are talking about the fact that enslaved

people benefit it from slavery because theygot skills, like not understanding that we
brought those skills here, right,We didn't. You didn't teach us anything,
right, We taught you. That'show we That's how we grew all
the of the of the crops thatwe grew because we had that I mean
fishing, I mean, that's whatwe did. I mean, it is
it is outrageous to me that,I mean, look, we are we

are that there is an anti blackmovement, there's an anti women movement happening,
and it's a war, and we'vegot to just put on our armor
and keep fighting. It's crazy thatthere's even that perception in this day and
time that someone could flip the narrativelike that and make it okay, right,
I mean like even talk about itand try to make it sound like

it makes sense, like you know, oh, well, no, what
we're just saying is they got tobenefit because they worked on a skill.
I mean, are you crazy,Like really, yeah, well then why
don't we enslave you and see howthat works out for you? Right right?
Oh my gosh nuts. What's interestingtoo is the statistic that you just
read came from the United Nations,the United Nations, Yeah, which shows

me that there is like another levelof awareness that is starting to like trickle
through. So it gives me hope. Yeah, the world knows the United
States has some of the worst birthingwhat has the worst birthing outcomes in the
industrialized nations, and that's North Americaand South America. And the UN data
shows that race and sexism really isthe root of the cause, you know,

when it comes to the disparity withblack women. Now, what I
will say though, with this maternalhealthcare doesn't report what we do see and
what I've been saying is that blackwomen are the canaries in the coal mine.
So there are white women that we'retalking about out there in these rural
communities who do not have access tohealthcare because hospitals have picked up and left

them behind as well. So whathappens is black women are the most vulnerable.
We're telling you there's a problem,and that translates over to poor white
women, Latin women, I mean, and the Native American population. They're
they're basically on par with African Americans. But we are seeing how it trickles
down ultimately to all women, youknow. So again I often say,

if you fix it for black women, you fix it for everybody. Absolutely,
Yeah, totally. I kind ofwant to go through some of the
more of the findings that I sawhere because I noticed that New York was
a little bit more oppressed than alot of the other Yeah, isn't that
interesting? Yeah? Well, Imean, you know, when you think
about it, New York is avery segregated city, and we do have

some of the highest maternal mortality ratesin some regions. It's twelve times the
rate for Black women, it's twelvetimes the rate of white women. I
think I think we've seen a lotof hospital shut down and move out of
certain communities. And again I goback to our legislatures, our politicians.
We need to be holding them accountableand making sure that people have access to

healthcare who are in urban communities.I mean, you would think that in
an urban community it doesn't seem likeanyone's that far from a hospital. And
yet and still if you're in acommunity that does not have a hospital or
healthcare providers, and you don't havetransportation, and you have kids at home
and you have a job, tryingto move to get to a hospital,

you know, from the deep inBrooklyn all the way to Manhattan is not
feasible now and the risk goes up, and the risk goes up. Yeah,
so just looking at some of thetravel that you're mentioning, right,
So in New York, women travelfive point eight miles in twelve point three
minutes on average to their nearest birthinghospital. A lot can happen in twelve
minutes. A lot can happen.And again I argue that we need to

be able to have maybe for somewomen, healthcare providers that can travel to
them, which is why again peopletalk a lot about telehealth, but but
maybe thinking about how we help themand how we help women by going to
them. One of the things thatthe antidotes that I've often heard is,
again especially black women, black womenwithout resources. They go to a doctor's

appointment, They've got to take abus, a train, a bus to
get there. They've got two threelittle kids. They get finally get to
the the job, so they haveto take the day off of work.
They finally get to the doctor's appointment, they're late. The doctor looks down
at them and says, you're late. I can't see you today. Sorry,
And they've done all that, andthey've done all that to get there,
and then they're they're pushed away andthen they're accused of not going to

get prenatal care where doctors don't understandwhat the undertaking is to actually get to
their care. Yeah, you know, that's crazy, that's and it's startling
because it's like we do so muchand I feel like there's always some socioeconomic
barrier or something that we're we've alwaysdealt with right in our culture, right,

and it's like it's almost like wecan't catch a break. It's so
true. And look, I meanyou know, people talk about the chronic
health underlying chronic health conditions that womenhave, and you know that is real,
but it's also symptomatic of other thingsit's not, and I get so
frustrated. I often read the commentsin the New York Times whenever there's an

article about maternal health, and it'salways so fascinating because a lot of the
comments are always like, well,that's because they're obese. Oh, that's
because they don't eat. Well,that's it. They're lazy, they don't
exercise, And it's so hostile.Yeah, it's so hostile, you know,
without really understanding the situation that womenare living in that produce these chronic

healthcare issues. Yeah, for sure. So you're doing a lot of work
in this space, and you've donea lot of work in this space for
some time. Do you feel thatthings are starting to peek and show a
little bit. I am hopeful.I'm hopeful and optimistic. I will say.
I think what's great is that theconversation is happening, because it has

to happen for there to be changed. I think things like the the Marshaldimes
Maternal Healthcare Desert Report is powerful anduseful. I think things like the UN
report are powerful and useful, andlike I said with my film, it's
sparking conversation and people are looking andsaying we have to do something and thinking

about innovative ways in which we canmake for better outcomes for black and brown
women and ultimately all women. Soyou know, I think it takes a
long time to turnership. Yea,And that doesn't necessarily help the women who
are birthing today. But I willsay, and the last thing I want
is for women to be afraid togive birth. And I hope that in

these conversations that what's also happening isthat we're talking, we're shifting the conversation
about birthing. That first of all, for those of us who decide to
give birth and have children, havingbeing pregnant and giving birth is an amazing
right of passage. It is,it is an amazing experience. As one

of the midwives in our film saidto us, when a woman births a
child, she's not just birthing achild, she's birthing a mother and what
it means to become mother. Andso you may go through some pain,
and I mean actually the birthing pain, right, But when you go through

that, you know, and youget this baby here, you bring this
baby here to life, you knowyou can do anything to protect this baby
and your family. And so Ihope that for us, we are thinking
about what it means to be woman, what it means to be mother,
and the power of that, whichis why I do think the patriarchy is
intimidated, because we know if wereally understand that power, Like, I

think it's very scary to them,which is why I think doctors are like,
just lay back, let me dothe job, and and and then
they they've delivered. That's the thingthat drives me crazy when doctors are like,
you know, doctors coming, Oh, yes, I've delivered fifteen hundred
babies. No, no, youdidn't, right, those women delivered those
women birth birth babies, and youassisted in their birth. You did not

deliver r she birthed. Right,Let's give the power back to women,
and we should be celebrating that,you know. And I just think that
those conversations are happening too, andI think I think that's exciting, and
I think they're helping us understand likeour socioeconomic vulnerabilities, right, and how
to overcome those right, because theseconversations weren't very mainstream before and right now

it's at the forefront. So onceyou understand where you are in the scope
of things, that allows us toeducate ourselves better, tap into resources more,
and then get past those barriers.Are there, absolutely, And I
think for women who are in thesematernal healthcare deserts, I hope they understand,
we hear you, we know you'rethere, and we are trying to

figure it out from again, frombringing the resources to the legislative policies that
can be impactful, and you knowand that people are working on it.
Sure. I was going to askyou too, like, what do you
think the next level of advocate worklooks like? I do think that the
legislative policies are really important. Ido think public private partnerships are really important.

Sure. I think again, asyou said, the conversation is happening
in a broader, more mainstream way, and I think we need to keep
the drum beat going. I mean, we all need to talk about these
issues because we we all come througha womb. It affects us all,
it does, right, So manor woman, you know you want to
have the best and and birthing andis the and maternal health is the crux

of the health of our society.It is you know you in order to
have healthy children, you need healthy, strong mothers who are able to birth
and safe ways. So I thinkall of us need to be having this
conversation. I love that Amari Maynardand Bruce McIntyre, who we featured in
Aftershock, are out there talking.They are part of a fatherhood coalition that

are out there talking about these issues. And we need these men to be
a part of the conversation as well, because it's not just a woman's issue,
which is a family issue, yeah, yeah. And I love that
they're giving the perspective from a fatherhoodright, So because it's just sometimes we
don't understand where men fit into thespectrum of all of this, but because

their lives were so impacted by whathappened to their partners, right, I
just think that it's an interesting justdialogue and it's a it's an interesting lens
on how this affects fatherhood and whatmen are dealing with overall. Absolutely,
And look and these two these twomen, even before their partners passed away,
I mean, they were going tothe prenatal visits. They were in

lockstep with these women so excited.And you know, the statistics show that
black men are more involved with theirwith their children and partners and pregnancy than
than others. But like, theywere there the whole way. It didn't
just happen after they passed away,right, And I think that's something that

we need to you know, wheneverI'm in the airport and I see these
fathers, these black fathers with theirkids going through the airport, it's just
that it's just such a beautiful thingto see because I'm in airport's a lot
lately, so like I see thata lot, and it's just it's beautiful
to see black fatherhood. I thinkthere's often been a narrative that black men
were not present for their children,and that is not what I see me

either, right, And I'm fortunate, you know, we have our two
children who are grown now and oncethrough college, and we have another one
that's about to go off, andI'm like, you know, the black
family structure, right is still intact. Right. We just need to preserve
that for our community, and it'sso vital and this is a big important
piece to that, that reservation absolutelyand luck again, going back to this

conversation about enslavement, when our familieswere so broken, intentionally right, sold
off from one another, intentionally keepingdisconnected from family. But at the core
of our culture is this connection tofamily, right, and it's a beautiful
thing which keeps us strong, absolutelydriving. I mean, the best way

to conquer anything is when you createdivision exactly. So I mean what's important
for us is to take what weknow is going on and not allow that
to happen. Yes, so you'reyou're working on all these wonderful things.
What is next for you and anythingcoming up? With March of Dimes that
we should well again, the report, I think what people should do.
It's a it's a collection of reportsthat cover the fifty States, DC and

Puerto Rico. So I would saycheck it out, check out the report.
You can go to a March ofDimes dot org, backslash mc DR
and and get the report and seewhat's happening in your community. And again,
as we say, you know,keep the conversation going, see what's
going on in your community, andfigure out how you can get involved to

improve outcomes. I know here inNew York City, the Mayor's office is
interested. I mean he has hehas said that he wants to make changes.
I've heard from some of his deputymayors that they really are trying to
make changes. And I think thingsare going to be coming down the pike
here in New York City under themayor's leadership. And you hope to you

know, if you're if your community, if your state, if your city
is not good, embarrass your leadership, shame them if you must into making
making for change. So yeah,so I think people can check out the
March of Times report, you know, and look, I continue the conversation,
as you know, I also havemy vitamin supplement company or Vita Organics,

which is really a way for meto continue my conversation, right,
Like I believe, I believe peerto peer conversation about how to achieve a
healthy lifestyle and and be your healthiestuh is really important. Like I have
good friends around me, you knowwho were like, you know, when
I gain a little weight, They'relike, girl, you need to you
know, get that weight off.You know, did you go to the
gym? You know? How areyou eat? And they're straight win And

I really appreciate that having a communityof people around me who are supporting me
to be the healthiest I can be. So that not not because you know,
I want to look good, althoughI do, but not because I
want to look good, but becauseI want to feel good. Because I
want to think about my longevity,right, I think about you know,

when I'm in my eighties, LikeI want to be working in some way,
honestly, I want to be workingin some way up until my nineties,
right, good for you. Andso I'm trying to take care of
my mind, body and spirit toget me to that place, you know,
so that I don't have to haveother people taking care of me either.
Yeah, because I don't want otherpeople to have to take care of
me. I want to be ableto take care of myself. And it's

a struggle. It is not easyno matter who you are. It is
hard work day and day out.I know, you know, I look
at you. I can see I'mjust trying to maintain and eat well and
supplement right and like do the basicthings so that I'm not falling apart internally
exactly. And you can't do thework if you're not taking care of yourself

and you're holding everybody else up too. Yeah, so you can't hold everybody
else up if you're not holding yourselfup. So it's real, it's it's
it's a real thing. And soyeah, so I'm just about peer to
Pierre, just trying to have thisconversation to keep it going. Yeah,
and everything ties together for you.I feel like it's a very holistic approach

with what you're doing with your work, you're being an advocate, and what
you're doing with your supplement line andyou're wellness company. Like it's just all
full circle for sure. I youknow, it's it is and like the
storytelling, the storytelling around health andwellness, you know, providing products for
women to sort of help in alongthat way. I really do think of

myself in that way. And I'vebeen thinking about what other kinds of products
that I could that are not necessarilysupplements, but what other kinds of products
or innovations or technology can assist womenas we're trying to figure this all out
because we're we're you know again,I am we're up against capitalism, right,
which drives us in certain ways,right, the poor food that has

driven to us and then the medicationthat's driven up to us to take care
of what has happened to our bodiesbecause we eat poor food, you know,
to all of it. So itis hard to unpack it and undo
it all exactly, but we can. We absolutely can. And and I
do think that there is a commercialcapitalistic way in which one can make money

and be healthy and do good.It doesn't all have to be just you
know, you know, take people'smoney and leave them high and dry and
unwell. I think there's a wayto be well. Uh, and that
capitalism can work too, Yeah,and teaching people how to do that exactly
right. So I love and Iadmire what you're doing in that space.

You know, wellness is important tous having a healthy community and just being
healthy beings. So and it startswith food, maternal healthcare and all those
things. Absolutely. Look, Iwas just talking to someone the other day.
Food is medicine. Food is medicine. Either you can eat food that
that helps you heal, or youcan eat food that you know feeds disease.

So you really have to learn aboutthat and think about it. That's
good stuff. So where can peoplefind you and connect with you? Well,
I'm on Instagram at Tanya lewis Lee. I know, I'm working on
my Instagram. I'm terrible social media, but I'm getting better. It's all
good. I'm getting this young kidsin there to do it for us exactly.
That's what I'm doing. That's whatI'm doing. But yeah, Tanya
Lewis Lee on Instagram and you cancheck us out at Movido Organics too.

You can find me there. Awesome, awesome, Well, thank you for
coming back to Maternal. We appreciateyou. Thank you. You will continue
to come by and continue to helpus have these conversations because we appreciate your
knowledge and your insight and your work. Thank you. Well, look,
I appreciate you too. I lovewhat you're doing here at Maternal. So
thank you Kenya so much for havingme. Thank you, and you're listening
to Meternal on iHeartRadio. I amKenya Gibson and until next time. Since

twenty eighteen, hospitals in nearly onein ten counties across the United States have
lost obstetric services, adding to anoverall decrease in maternity care access. This
episode addresses the seventy additional counties thathave been classified as maternity care deserts due
to a loss of obstetric providers andobstetric services since twenty eighteen, and it

will help women gain better access tobirthing options and achieve a better standard of
care based on the information and resourcesthat are available. Visit meternal dot info
to learn how iHeart Radio and Marchof Dimes have partnered to empower mothers of
color with resources and information
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