Breaking Down Barriers for Moms and Babies

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By Holly Schepisi Vice President of Vice Development, Holy Name Medical Center President, Holy Name Medical Center Foundation

New Jersey has long been a leader in healthcare delivery, except for maternal and infant health, particularly among African Americans.

The racial disparity in maternal and infant health is the widest in the nation as African American mothers and babies of all socioeconomic strata in New Jersey have higher mortality rates than their white counterparts. A statewide outreach and education campaign, Nurture NJ, is underway to reduce infant and maternal mortality and to ensure equitable maternal and infant care among women and children of all races and ethnicities.

At Holy Name Medical Center, we’re committed to the effort and proud to host a roundtable discussion at the medical center on Tuesday, October 1, that will look at some of the implicit biases and social factors behind the troubling statistics.

The forum is sponsored by First Candle, a leading national non-profit group dedicated to safe pregnancies and the survival of babies in the first years of life. The group recognizes that outreach to and partnership with minority communities are needed to dramatically reduce the rates of infant mortality by promoting breastfeeding and safe sleep.

Following the roundtable, NJ Acting Commissioner of Health Judith M. Persichilli, RN, MA, will accept an award on behalf of NJ First Lady Tammy Murphy for her work with Nurture NJ.

In addressing the problem, there needs to be a recognition and acknowledgement of some of the inherent biases and racism that have affected the African American community. We need to listen and learn about cultural barriers that may have stymied healthy practices and full access to the best care for mothers and children.

The event will bring together community leaders and organizations that have not always had a seat at the table to collaborate on the best ways to provide pre- and post-natal care to underserved communities. We will explore the most effective ways to convey information about safe sleeping and breastfeeding and the importance of getting treatment for chronic health conditions prior to and during pregnancies.

The keynote speech at our October 1 event will be presented by author and advocate Kimberly Seals Allers, a leading commentator nationally on birth, breastfeeding and motherhood and the intersection of race, policy, and culture.

Allers also is the author of The Mocha Manual series of books, published by HarperCollins, and founder of, an award-winning pregnancy and parenting destination for African Americans. 

Monica McLemore, PhD, MPH, RN, will appear via video from San Francisco, where she is an associate professor of family health care at the University of California. McLemore’s research focuses on understanding the factors that influence the health, well-being and livelihood of low-income women and women of color.

The day promises to be enlightening. In New Jersey, we can be leaders, not laggards, in maternal and infant care. 

In addition to her work at Holy Name Medical Center and its Foundation, Holy Schepisi is an Assemblywoman in the New Jersey Legislature, representing District 39 in Bergen County.