By Gabrielle McLean and Eden Desta, Digital Communications Interns, Association of Maternal & Child Health Programs (AMCHP)
“As public health practitioners, we must always remember to keep things in perspective for history is not as far as it seems, to respect the lives of the marginalized for what we do today affects the conditions of the generations that follow, and to live with compassion and lead with righteousness.”
Keerthana S. Rajagopal, State of California Title V Program Specialist
The 2022 AMCHP Annual Conference Sharing Your Why plenary session was an essential opportunity for open dialogue among leaders and thinkers in the maternal and child health (MCH) field. It was a space to understand each other’s stories on how to push the needle forward. From the perspective of two students who are very early in their public health and MCH careers, it was powerful to hear such insight during the plenary from several speakers, who are accomplished MCH practitioners, about what makes their work worthwhile. It was also motivating to hear about the journey of individuals who did not have a traditional pathway into public health. Rather, they pursued interests in other areas, which provided a vital perspective to advance approaches to tackle the plethora of issues in the MCH field.
Building off the energy of the first plenary, Reflecting on our Past, many of the Sharing Your Why plenary speakers emphasized how important it is to connect with each other and strive to create equitable solutions for all people. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, has amplified the effects of existing systems that are insufficient to support communities of color, restricting access to vital resources such as affordable medical care and mental health support. During the Shaping Our Future plenary session, United States Assistant Secretary for Health Admiral Rachel Levine noted that “COVID has taken more than one million lives in our country alone. This experience has reminded us of a fundamental truth that we truly need each other. Our happiness and our very survival depend on our connections to one another and to our community… and it is what we need now more than ever as we seek to bring this pandemic to an end.” As one multifaceted, diverse community, we have a responsibility to work together to eliminate the systems that continue to oppress one another.
Despite the many challenges they face, countless public health and MCH professionals continue to persevere because they are dedicated to understanding and combating the way systems create and perpetuate inequities—the Sharing Your Why submissions AMCHP received can attest to that. Throughout the Sharing Your Why plenary, speakers demonstrated their compassion and dedication to the communities they support, which often stems from their current and past personal and family experiences.
Becky Burns, the statewide coordinator for Wisconsin Children and Youth with Special Health Care Needs, said, “Often parents express that they wished they had heard about our program years earlier. And I am keenly aware that there are even more families, from communities of color or those living in poverty, that we are not hearing from at all. This means our work is not yet done.” Marginalized communities receiving inadequate—if any—access to health care is a common experience and one that transcends our country’s border, as Keerthana Rajagopal spoke about in the plenary. Rajagopal compared her grandmother’s experiences giving birth in India to her own experiences in the United States, noting that social and economic conditions, more than disease, resulted in the early deaths of half of her grandmother’s children. Consistent with the messages we heard throughout the conference, she emphasized that “we, as public health professionals, need to redefine and reinforce our core values and align our actions at the systems-level regardless of race, gender, color, ability, or sexual identity.”
Sedona A. Moreno-Castelan spoke of her experiences working as a youth advisor at the Denver Department of Public Health, noting how often those who make decisions about youth’s health do not consult with young people. Given that the future will be driven by the youth of today, Moreno-Castelan’s passion for uplifting youth voices resonated with us both. Overcoming adversity and participating in activism led Moreno-Castelan to the field of MCH, and she now works as a health program specialist at the Public Health Institute at Denver Public Health. “I do this work because I want to eliminate the barriers and social determinants of health that put young people in dangerous, harmful situations. I want all youth to have the resources, connections, and opportunities to thrive rather than survive.” (Sedona Moreno-Castelan).
Advocating for others and investing in the future are recurring themes that Jacqueline Johnson, section chief of the Tennessee Department of Health Children and Youth with Special Health Care Needs, captured perfectly by saying, “One of the primary reasons for working in MCH for me is because it’s my way of giving back, my way of effecting change, and my way of empowering individuals to reach their greatest potential as well as their [best] outcomes…My why continues to live on in those that we serve day to day.”
Each of the plenary testimonials left us with a deeper understanding of the ongoing work in the MCH field and has invoked a new perspective on what we must improve upon to create a better future for all.
As leaders in MCH, we must ask ourselves, what is our role in shaping the future? Specifically, we must think about how we can continue to better support our communities, individuals in the Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) community; the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, asexual, ally (LGBTQQIAA+) community; children with special health care needs; those who are disabled; low-income families; and all other marginalized communities in this country.
What next steps do we need to take after experiencing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, tragic mass shootings across the nation, severe shortages of infant formula, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and workforce burnout of epic proportions? What community assets can we rely on and build on to mitigate these situations?
As you ponder and process these questions, consider jotting down responses in a journal, having a conversation with a trusted friend or colleague about steps you can take, or creating art or media that reflects your current and aspired emotional states.
We also would like to encourage you to tune into the MCH Bridges podcast Episode 5; Rest is Infinite: Shifting Our Mindsets on Rest & Productivity, to hear from Marissa McKool of McKool Coaching to expand your understanding of strategies to minimize burnout.
As Melissa Jackson, parent consultant to the Ohio Department of Health, keenly noted during the Sharing Your Why plenary that “just because you may be able to carry the burden, does not mean it is not heavy.” This is yet another reminder that we need to not only take care of others but also lean on each other to take care of ourselves. “Liberated relationships are one of the ways we actually create abundant justice. The understanding that there is enough attention, care, resource, and connection for all of us to access belonging, to be in our dignity, and to be safe in community.” (adrienne maree brown)