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The Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness, EQT by Design and Dane County Health Council are launching a public engagement campaign to combat low birth weights in African-American babies. 

For years, Dane County has suffered from sharp racial disparities in infant mortality.

There’s data tracking the problem, but the Dane County Health Council is taking a new tack to combat the infant health disparities: asking African-American women in-depth questions about their lived experiences and what data matters to them, treating them as the “primary experts and key informants.”

"This collaboration marks an important shift in the way the Health Council approaches health inequities — by engaging the voice of those most impacted," said Janel Heinrich, director of Public Health Madison & Dane County.

A nine-month community engagement campaign, led by the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness and EQT By Design, will hold focus groups and forums to gather input from African-American women, their partners and their communities.

The end goal: to find solutions to the frequency of babies born at low birth rates. In Dane County, African-American mothers are twice as likely to give birth to infants with low birth weights. That can lead to health problems later in life and put them at higher risk for infant mortality.

The Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness and EQT By Design responded to a Request For Proposals from the Dane County Health Council, seeking an organization to create and carry out the outreach campaign. The Council said they were eager to partner with the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness, citing their “deep and established roots in the community.”

The Council, formed almost 20 years ago, is a coalition with a mission to reduce health disparities and eliminate barriers to care. The coalition includes Access Community Health Centers, Group Health Cooperative, Madison Metropolitan School District, Public Health Madison & Dane County, SSM Health, United Way of Dane County, UnityPoint Health-Meriter and UW Health.

Wisconsin has the worst infant mortality rates for African-Americans in the U.S. According to a 2012 fetal infant mortality review of Dane County, a baby born to an African-American mother, compared to a white mother, is over twice as likely to die before turning 1 and four times as likely to be stillborn.

“We’re tired of Wisconsin being the worst in that regard,” said Lisa Peyton-Caire, founder and president of the Foundation for Black Women's Wellness.

The new effort will “empower African American women to identify the solutions,” said Dr. Jonathan Jaffery, Chief Population Health Officer at UW Health.

It will also zero in on one of the factors thought to contribute to poor infant and mother health: toxic stress.

Stress — which is often the result of social inequality and structural racism — can lead to poor health outcomes for African-American mothers and babies, Heinrich said.

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If you’re dealing with constant issues like unstable housing, food insecurity, abuse, racism, neglect or witnessing violence, your body will chronically release stress hormones, Dr. Dipesh Navsaria said in a Cap Times cover story on the topic. 

The public engagement campaign will explore the social determinants of health by asking women questions about their relationships, who they trust, the depth and breadth of their experiences with racism, and their relationships with the health care systems, said Annette Miller, CEO of EQT By Design, a diversity and inclusion strategic advising and planning company.

The public engagement campaign will focus on women 18 to 45 throughout Dane County, and will also partner with the Madison Metropolitan School District to gather the input of teen moms and dads.

Peyton-Caire said they’re still in the “heavy planning stage,” but will hold their first session on May 5, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., at the Urban League of Greater Madison, 2222 S. Park St. The engagement campaign will wrap up at the end of the year.

But the effort is meant to be a long-term partnership with the community, and will extend past the nine-month campaign, said Shiva Bidar, chief diversity officer for UW Health.

Peyton-Caire also took time to acknowledge “many efforts already underway” to support better mother and infant health, including Project Babies, Harambee Village, Today Not Tomorrow, and the African-American Breastfeeding Alliance. This public engagement effort is another piece of the puzzle, she said.