Healing the deep wounds of racism, starting with our Black mothers and babies
© iStock, The Hill photo illustration

This week, Black Maternal Health Week, we have heard powerful national voices speak out against the single scourge of our maternal health crisis: centuries of institutional and systemic racism. On Tuesday, President BidenJoe BidenWarren calls for US to support ceasefire between Israel and Hamas UN secretary general 'deeply disturbed' by Israeli strike on high rise that housed media outlets Nation's largest nurses union condemns new CDC guidance on masks MORE announced that his administration is taking action to address our nation’s Black maternal health crisis. This announcement came on the heels of Rochelle WalenskyRochelle WalenskyNation's largest nurses union condemns new CDC guidance on masks Sunday shows preview: House GOP removes Cheney from leadership position; CDC issues new guidance for fully vaccinated Americans New mask guidance puts onus on businesses MORE, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, naming racism as a serious public health threat. In New Jersey, we have been working for three years to not only raise awareness of this issue, but to also transform our state into the safest and most equitable place in the nation to deliver and raise a baby. And, I am proud to say that we are ready to lead our country in this effort.

First, the landscape: Our nation, for all its wealth and advancements in health care, is ranked 55th in the world in maternal deaths. Out of all 50 states, New Jersey is ranked 47th. And, as disturbing as that reality is, it gets worse.

Those deaths do not affect all mothers equally. In New Jersey, a Black mother is seven times more likely than a white mother to die from pregnancy-related complications. A Black baby is over three times more likely than a white baby to die before his or her first birthday.

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This disturbing reality is a result of nothing other than institutional inequity and racism. This racism is insidious. And, it requires sweeping change to a system that has long failed women and babies of color.

For this reason, we brought together the nation’s leading maternal health experts to develop Nurture NJ’s Maternal and Infant Health Statewide Strategic Plan, a plan designed to completely reinvent the way we care for pregnant women, particularly women of color. The plan is necessarily broad in scope, but keeps at its core the specific needs of women of childbearing age in the places where they live, work, worship, play and love. The plan increases pre-natal care and support for women of color, creates a maternal health research and innovation center, and, it makes broad reforms aimed at dismantling the structures that, for generations, have prevented women of color from living in environments that provide the opportunity to simply be healthy.

It is a massive undertaking that requires collaboration, cooperation and communication across government agencies, health care providers, community organizations, academia and even the private sector.

This work asks much of us all. Indeed, there is a role to play for everyone — and the best place to start is in your own community. During Black Maternal Health Awareness Week and beyond, I urge you to speak to the mothers in your families and communities. Only by closely listening and lifting up these stories can we begin to understand the depth of this crisis and how each of us can help solve it.

The time has come for our nation to heal the deep wounds of racism that have led us here. And, in New Jersey, we are starting with our mothers and babies.

Tammy Murphy is the first lady of New Jersey and spearheads Nurture NJ, which aims to make New Jersey the safest and most equitable place in the nation to deliver and raise a baby. Follow her on Twitter at @FirstLadyNJ.