Dr. Joia Crear Perry with Ebony Roebuck, Director of Midwifery at the Community of Hope Family Health and Birth Center, Washington, D.C., on March 2, 2020.

8 Innovators Working for Real Changes to Maternal Health in America

Maternal mortality rates continue to soar across the nation, but these leaders and organizations are paving the way to improve access to quality care for our highest-risk mothers and families.

Byline Priscilla Blossom
Illustration by Yeji Kim

While bringing a baby into the world should be a joyous occasion, it can turn tragic when the needs of a mother aren't met. And that's the sad reality for many in the United States, a country where more women are dying from pregnancy-related complications than in any other developed nation.

Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began recording data on pregnancy-related deaths in 1987, there has been a significant rise in maternal deaths within the U.S.—especially among mothers of color. From about seven deaths for every 100,000 live births that year, the rate of maternal mortality now hovers around 17 deaths per 100,000. Black, Native American, and Alaska Native women are "two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women," reports the CDC.

These statistics have motivated individuals and organizations across the country to fight to reduce maternal mortality. Meet some of the innovators who are leading the way to change.

Black Mamas Matter Alliance

Black Mamas Matter Alliance membership
Courtesy of the Black Mamas Matter Alliance

The Black women-led group, Black Mamas Matter Alliance (BMMA), aims to change the narrative around maternal health in the community. Its approach involves introducing more holistic approaches to the health care of Black mothers, creating policies that improve their care, and conducting research to support these efforts. In partnership with the global legal advocacy organization Center for Reproductive Rights, BMMA has also created a comprehensive toolkit that compiles research about advancing maternal health as a human rights issue, dives into the statistics of maternal mortality and morbidity, and gives actionable steps toward, among other things, improving quality and access to health care for Black mothers. Anyone interested can also view BMMA's webinars showcasing a closer look at its work.

National Birth Equity Collaborative

Dr. Joia Crear Perry, photographed at the Community of Hope Family Health and Birth Center, Washington, D.C., on March 2, 2020.
Scott Suchman for Parents.com

The National Birth Equity Collaborative works with a variety of organizations and communities looking to ensure the well-being of Black mothers and babies by way of research, training, and advocacy. At the helm is Joia Adele Crear-Perry, M.D., FACOG, the founder and president, who has committed her life's work to health equity, and maternal and child health. Dr. Crear-Perry, an OB-GYN based in New Orleans, is bringing awareness to the way racism leads to health inequities like premature birth. Praised for her efforts to improve affordable health care for New Orleans residents after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Dr. Crear-Perry has also received the Congressional Black Caucus "Health Care Heroes" award and the Global Visionary award for commitment to advancing women's health from the Maternal Health Task Force at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She's also on the Steering Committee of the aforementioned Black Mamas Matter Alliance, and is running to become president-elect of the National Medical Association, a national organization representing African American physicians and their patients.

Dr. Joia Crear Perry with Ebony Roebuck, Director of Midwifery at the Community of Hope Family Health and Birth Center, Washington, D.C., on March 2, 2020.
Scott Suchman for Parents.com

Every Mother Counts

Christy Turlington Burns with her children
Courtesy of Christy Turlington Burns

Every Mother Counts (EMC) is on a mission "to make pregnancy and childbirth safe for everyone, everywhere." The organization is raising awareness on issues relating to maternal health around the globe and working to implement strategies with policymakers and individuals in highly-affected communities. Founded in 2010 by model-turned-activist and filmmaker Christy Turlington Burns, EMC notably provides grants to community-based programs helping underserved populations obtain quality maternal health care. It has raised more than $5 million to combat maternal mortality by way of funding indigenous midwives in Guatemala, mobile clinics in Haiti, birth attendants in Bangladesh, and addressing public policy in India, while also increasing birth education here in the United States.

Mississippi Perinatal Quality Collaborative

Mississippi has long been among the states with the highest rate of maternal mortality. Between 2013 and 2016, the state had about 22 deaths per 100,000 live births (1.2 percent higher than the national average), with the ratio increasing to an alarming 51.9 to 64.1 per 100,000 for Black births. As such, the Mississippi Perinatal Quality Collaborative, established in 2014, has been working on hospital and community-based initiatives to reduce maternal and infant morbidity and mortality and protect mothers across the state—especially Black mothers. Some projects it focuses on include the Obstetric Hemorrhage Initiative (aimed at standardizing hospital care using evidence-based methods that can reduce this common form of maternal injury), as well as the development of a toolkit to assist in managing severe maternal hypertension.

Shades of Blue Project

Kay Matthews hosting a Shades of Blue Project community group session using their INSPIRE Method to address solutions around black maternal mental health in our community.
Courtesy of Shades of Blue

Addressing the mental health aspect of maternal health (especially within the minority community) is the Shades of Blue Project. It aims to "break the stigma surrounding seeking treatment in the minority community when experiencing complications after childbirth." Founded by Kat Matthews, a licensed community health worker, the organization uses social media as well as training sessions to educate the public on how to provide better mental health care for women of color. Individuals can also sign up for its quarterly journal support group—an idea that spawned out of Matthews' own need for a diverse support group after experiencing a loss. This year, the Shades of Blue Project plans to host the Black Maternal Health Summit in July 2020 for health professionals to learn more about how they can provide compassionate care to pregnant people in marginalized communities.

Jennie Joseph

Jennie Johnson, founder, Clinical Director and Executive Director for Commonsense Childbirth Incorporated, uses a vascular doppler on her patient, Marie Jean Denis, to listen to the baby's heartbeat at her clinic for disadvantaged pregnant women, in Orlando, Florida, on February 13, 2017.
Zack Wittman/The New York Times/Redux

Jennie Joseph is a licensed midwife doing grassroots work to reduce maternal mortality and ensure the safety and well-being of mothers and babies. Joseph has spearheaded a number of initiatives to address the struggles of low-income and uninsured women. In 1998, Joseph founded Commonsense Childbirth Inc., a non-profit that seeks to improve maternal-child health care and offers training programs (in-person and online) that teach individuals to become certified childbirth educators, community health workers, doulas, and midwives. Joseph has also developed an effective, proven model for patient-centered care known as the JJ Way, wherein pregnant people are given more freedom, tools, and support to improve their birth outcomes. Additionally, Joseph runs her own private birth center in Florida called The Birth Place, as well as an Easy Access Prenatal Clinic aiming to help support the needs of low-income patients.

Safer Childbirth Cities

(From left to right) Kim Boller, Chief Strategy and Evaluation Officer at The Nicholson Foundation; Lisa Asare, Assistant Commissioner at NJ Department of Health; Carmen Villar, VP Social Business Innovation at Merck; Mary-Ann Etiebet, Lead and Executive Director at Merck for Mothers; Keri Logosso-Misurell, Executive Director at The Greater Newark Healthcare Coalition; Kathleen Noonan, Chief Executive Officer at Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers; Tammy Murphy, first lady of NJ; Aasta Mehta, Women's Health Policy Advisor at Philadelphia Department of Public Health; Atiya Weiss, Executive Director at the Burke Foundation; Jacquelyn Caglia, Director of Global Communications & U.S. Programs at Merck for Mothers
Courtesy of Merck for Mothers

Merck for Mothers launched the Safer Childbirth Cities initiative in 2018 to support maternal health care in locations around the country with high maternal mortality rates. The initiative offers grants to community-based organizations in select cities to be used to increase health education, access to care, and ensure regular pre- and perinatal care for high-risk women who are expecting. In Jackson, Mississippi, for example, the organization is working with the Mississippi Public Health Institute to reduce unnecessary C-sections and provide community-based support to pregnant and postpartum individuals. While in Columbus, Ohio, it's partnered with Restoring Our Own Through Transformation (ROOTT) to develop community-based perinatal doula care to support Black women and others who may be under or uninsured.

March of Dimes

March from Babies Walk
Courtesy of March of Dimes

March of Dimes, founded by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938, is leading the fight to prevent birth defects, infant mortality, and premature birth through research, education, programs, and advocacy. The nonprofit has raised millions to fund programs protecting maternal health and has even influenced legislation; it helped pass the Preventing Maternal Deaths Act in 2018, which aims to improve health care quality and outcomes for mothers and eliminate disparities. This spring, March of Dimes will continue to put maternal health care at the forefront via It Starts With Mom. The campaign will bring awareness to the country's maternal health crisis while also offering moms and moms-to-be access to maternal health and well-being resources during the pre-pregnancy, pregnancy, and postpartum stages. The initiative will also link women to specialized programs, including Supportive Pregnancy Care, which provides individual prenatal visits and supportive group prenatal education classes. The hope is to empower moms and ensure they are healthy in order to improve birth outcomes for them and their babies. In the midst of COVID-19, March of Dimes will also provide virtual prenatal education and social support for moms.

Parents.com investigates the nation's maternal health crisis and what can be done to lower the risk for thousands of expecting mothers. Read more here.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles