With National Minority Health Month quickly approaching, a local organization confronts the Black infant mortality rate–a decades old problem–by empowering one college-educated woman at a time.

On behalf of iDream for Racial Health Equity, a project of Community Partners, applications for the iDream Millennial Leadership Program are now open.

The program, which operates in collaboration with the USC Diversity in Healthcare Leadership Initiative, was created as a professional development opportunity for underrepresented and first-generation college students in need of learning how being in the African diaspora is affecting their health, specifically their pregnancies.

In 1992, the New England Journal of Medicine published a studying saying “in contrast to Black infants in the general population, Black infants born to college-educated parents have higher mortality rates than similar White infants.”

According to Healthy People 2020, in 2007, Asian or Pacific Islander mothers had the lowest infant mortality rate. The Black infant mortality rate was almost three times that rate. According to iDream, college-educated African American women continue to deliver premature and low-birthweight babies at a disproportionately higher rate because of their cultural background.

“This information isn’t new in being documented, but as an organization we are taking the bull by the horns. It’s 20 years later, and it’s still the worst,” said Wenonah Valentine, the executive director of iDream for Racial Health Equity. “Some say you don’t need any help because you’re not poor. This has nothing to do with social income. You may be a high-income woman but have poor health.”

Originally founded in 1996 as the Pasadena Birthing Project, the nonprofit organization provided a support network for pregnant African American women. The project helped expecting mothers plan for healthy birth outcomes through mentorship and risk-reduction programs. Several years later, the organization eventually created a new mission statement that only encompassed supporting birth outcomes in the African American community. The new model, now known as iDream, is a repurposed organization that is working to reverse the myths that only poor Black women have severe health issues and at-risk pregnancies.

“Our purpose naturally was to improve and focus in on the health disparities of African American women. We discovered that the elimination of health disparities is really a huge section of health. The problems do not begin and end with pregnant women during their nine months. We must look at the life course of mothers and babies,” Valentine said.

“I think iDream is unique because it speaks to a demographic that doesn’t take care of themselves,” said Rebecca Bernard, a member of both the Los Angeles and Pasadena Mocha Moms. “This demographic has been glossed over. You are college educated. You have the resources, even though the scientific report states that they are at a higher risk than dropout mothers. The general assumption is poor people, and people without healthcare, are the ones that suffer from these realities.”

According to iDream, the solution is to help Black women recognize why they have adverse birth outcomes. Black infant mortality rates among college-educated mothers have been strongly linked to the high-stress lifestyles these women lead.

“Self-care is something we don’t prioritize,” said Bernard. “As nurturers, we put ourselves second, third, or fourth. It’s really important to prioritize down time because if you don’t take care of yourself, nobody else will.”

“It really isn’t a mystery why Black women are prone to having pregnancy issues. The crisis is in our bodies,” Valentine said. “Stress takes its toll on the body. How we deal with stress is causing our babies to have a shorter gestation. It’s historic. We watch our mothers do it, then we do the same thing because that’s what works. Nobody tells us the trade-off, that weathering ages our body.”

Bernard explains that a level of invincibility is engrained in African American women early on.
“If we don’t tell the young, college-driven Black women you have to take your cape off sometimes, then they will end up like a lot of the women iDream mentors,” Bernard said.

Some African American women learn the hard way. Mika Williams, a local mother of two, was diagnosed with pre-eclampsia during her first pregnancy. Even though she did not understand the severity of this diagnosis, the doctor sent her to the hospital immediately.

Williams recalls the doctor saying “if we don’t get the baby out, you both are going to die.” As a result, she had an emergency C section while only seven and a half months pregnant. Williams’ son, Charles Williams II, was born weighing three pounds and six ounces.

“I was very surprised by my son being premature,” Williams said. “I often said, I did everything right. I took my folic acid six months before I conceived.”

Williams may have taken prenatal caution prior to conception, but she was weighed down by the number of things she had on her plate before and during pregnancy. Williams worked full-time while she was pursuing a master’s degree. She and her husband were trying to buy a home and these issues potentially resulted in her having a high-risk pregnancy.

“It never occurred to me I needed to slow down. Women don’t concern ourselves with the consequences of what happens with our body,” Williams said. “We are so used to carrying the load of stress, it doesn’t even seem like stress. It would take something above and beyond for us to realize. Typically, we know when we are stressed when we are hospitalized.”

Williams is the president of the Los Angeles chapter of Mocha Moms. This organization works closely with iDream in an effort reverse the myth that only poor, uneducated Black women have at-risk pregnancies.

“Mocha Moms are the exact target. We are the middle-class, college-educated women who have tremendous stress upon us as we take on the world,” Williams said. “Mocha Moms is like a support group for moms of color. We have a spa day. A day where we take care of ourselves and put mom first.”

“You don’t have to be Black to experience stress, but in our society stress is an issue. It’s something that can be rectified or mitigated,” said Bernard.

Through their leadership program and other efforts, iDream seeks to empower and challenge millenials to understand the ways in which societal and environmental issues are impacting their health outcomes.

With this knowledge, these women can go on to become a source of information in the health profession, as well as in their communities. The organization hopes to have a strong network of ambassadors equipped with this knowledge in the Los Angeles area by 2025. The deadline for the iDream Millennial Leadership Program is May 31.

The organization also asks that people log on to their website to nominate and show support for student mothers in their community. Nominations for the 1st annual S.M.A.R.T. Mom Award will begin March 25.

“There are different strategies, but we are dedicated to taking the leadership route,” said Valentine. “In our eyes, these are women who don’t know they are the face of the demographic. Now, they are positioned to be a part of the solution.”