September is Infant Mortality Awareness Month.

What is classified as infant mortality?

According to the Center for Diseases Control, infant mortality is the death of a baby before his or her first birthday. The infant mortality rate is an estimate of the number of infant deaths for every 1,000 live births. This rate is often used as an indicator to measure the health and well being of a nation, because factors affecting the health of entire populations can also impact the mortality rate of infants.

Dr. Aletha Maybank, associate commissioner of the Department of Health’s Center for Health Equity, addresses participants in “First Steps Matter”

On Saturday, September 26, Healthy Start Brooklyn—a program of the NYC Department of Health—held “First Steps Matter,” a community gathering at the Gregory Jackson Center in Brownsville to talk about the problem of early infant death and how to prevent it in communities such as Brownsville and East New York, both of which have an infant mortality rate two times that of the city as a whole.

“There’s a gap, a tremendous gap. Black babies across the country are dying almost 2-3 times more than white babies, and it’s not right. It’s not just,” said Dr. Aletha Maybank, associate commissioner of the Department of Health’s Center for Health Equity, to crowd of women from the community who were either pregnant or had suffered a recent loss.

(l to r) Mary-Powel Thomas, director of Healthy Start Brooklyn; State Sen. Jesse Hamilton; Brandi Howard, director of The Community Action Network of Healthy Start Brooklyn

“The problem of infant mortality is that is often invisible, a lot of people do not know it exists. So how do we elevate this injustice so that we can bring more people to the table to figure how best to advocate and create solutions? “Let’s look at our environment; let’s look at our structures and institutions that create our neighborhoods. Also, at the Health Department, there’s a shift where we’re beginning to analyze what we’re doing on a policy level.”

State Senator Jesse Hamilton stopped in, and representatives from the Brooklyn Borough President’s office, the Sudden Infant and Child Death Resource Center and Brookdale Hospital also addressed the group of women.

The gathering concluded with a “healing circle,” led by Shawnée Renee Benton, founder and executive director of Spirit of a Woman. Benton, who is also an author and producer of the Mother Wit Conference, encouraged the attendees—whether they were parents or not— to open up and think about moments in their personal lives where they needed to forgive themselves, let go and move on.

“Losing a child before its first birthday is a detrimental event for any family to deal with,” said Brandi Howard, Community Action Network Director at Healthy Start Brooklyn. “And many families suffer in silence. It’s important we talk about how do we promote healthy pregnancies so that mothers are able to deliver and keep a child past their first birthday.”

What was most touching at the event was a poignant art display called the “Clothesline Exhibit” that hung in the outside window of the Jackson Center, holding paper replicas of newborn “onesies,” all of which listed the ages and race of all of the babies that had passed away early in Brooklyn over the past two years.

Interestingly, quite a few small groups of teens who happened to be walking by the Jackson Center after school stopped outside of the center’s window to look at the exhibit. Then, they decided to step inside.


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