EAST MADISON COMMUNITY CENTER

Tia Murray, with the Harambe Village Doulas, speaks during a press conference last June at the Today Not Tomorrow Family Resource Center at the East Madison Community Center.

As a doula, part of Tia Murray's job is to serve as an advocate and source of support as women give birth. She's also a witness.

She knows African-American women don't always get the same treatment as white women in medical settings. That can manifest in many ways, but too often the African-American women are not given the information or support they need to breastfeed their babies, she said. They sometimes even have to argue for it.

That’s alarming, especially in light of the many medical racial disparities African-American women and children face, Murray said.

“When we know that breastmilk can be liquid gold, and when we know that African-American babies are already at a higher risk, we should be supporting that mother to breastfeed,” she said. “It should not be a fight. And I’ve only seen that with the women of color that I work with or the women who may be on Badgercare.”

Wednesday, several partners of the Today Not Tomorrow Family Resource Center will host a press conference, kicking off a breastfeeding awareness campaign.

“We’re tired of hearing about it and we want to do something about it,” Murray said Monday.

Last June, the Today Not Tomorrow Family Resource Center opened in the East Madison Community Center, near Madison College in the Truax neighborhood, to create a safe place for kids and their caregivers to play and learn, build stronger families and improve birth outcomes. The group, located at 8 Straubel Court, includes Project Babies, the African-American Breastfeeding Alliance, Integrated Fitness, Neighborhood Connectors and Harambee Village: Pregnancy, Birth and Breastfeeding Care.

On Wednesday, Project Babies, Harambee Village and the African-American Breastfeeding Alliance will launch the breastfeeding awareness campaign with a 1:30 p.m. press conference at the Atrium Community Room in The Village on Park Street, at 2300 S. Park St.

Harambee Village is focused on decreasing disparities in birth outcomes and infant mortality by providing emotional and social support for women throughout and after their pregnancies. Dane County and Wisconsin have large racial disparities in infant mortality rates.

Wisconsin also has racial disparities in breastfeeding rates. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding, which lowers the risk of infections, chronic diseases and mortality for infants, according to the Lifecourse Initiative for Healthy Families.

Murray said in her work, she’s seen too many situations where doula clients were not allowed to make an informed choice “or had to fight extra to exclusively give their baby breastmilk."

Murray worked with a mother who had a baby that developed jaundice and was sent to the hospital's NICU (neonatal intensive care unit). Staff told the mother the babies with jaundice are always supplemented with formula, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says newborns with jaundice can usually continue breastfeeding.

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“I reached an ethical point ... that enough is enough. We all have to be on the same page. The doulas can’t do it all, and we can’t put all that responsibility on the patient to fight to give her baby breast milk,” she said.

The two-phase campaign will first push community-level awareness. Individuals need to recognize that they have power as the consumer and be educated on the “amazing benefits of breastfeeding,” Murray said. The second phase will advocate at an institutional level, calling out hospitals and clinics to look at their policies and practices.

Promoting breastfeeding is just one component of Harambee Village work. Since opening, the eight doulas have supported over 40 mothers, almost all of them women of color. None of those mothers have experienced a pre-term birth (a leading driver of infant mortality) and almost all of them started breastfeeding.

“Anecdotally, we’re seeing our impact,” she said. “I don’t want to necessarily draw conclusions, because that’s such a small subset that we’re looking at.”

But there are plenty of other initiatives Harambee can point to. The for-profit venture recently received a $12,500 award from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation's statewide “Force for Positive Change” competition. They’ve started partnerships with many area organizations like a four-year service contract with Common Wealth Development, which may eventually lead them to expand to the Meadowood area, she said.

They’ve also started a fatherhood initiative with monthly meetings to makes sure dads feel included in the process. They host monthly “Dinner with the Doulas” community dinners with an education component, like learning mindfulness and stress-reducing techniques. They give presentations at UW-Madison and Edgewood nursing students about their work and racial disparities in health.

“Every piece of what we do touches the social determinants of health. It’s more than just the birthwork. We’re really trying to be more comprehensive,” she said.