By Jenna Novy
Vital Village Networks, Community Mobilization Coordinator, AmeriCorps VISTA
As the winter months creep towards us, I have been reflecting back on the warmth of the summer and my first few months working as an AmeriCorps VISTA at Vital Village Networks. One of the highlights of my experience so far has been the celebration-filled week of virtual events in honor of Black Breastfeeding Week (BBW) at the end of August. If any of you are like me, you may have never heard of Black Breastfeeding Week, or even National Breastfeeding Month. I am the youngest sibling in my family and have a long way to go before starting a family of my own. I had very little knowledge of breastfeeding, and was joining the BBW train long after it left the station; months of planning were already in the committee’s rear-view. But I jumped onboard with an eager and open-mind and was welcomed by a committee of community leaders brimming with wisdom, experience, ideas, and warmth.
These leaders embody the goal of BBW everyday and elevate Black breastfeeding in their communities. They advocate for reduced racial disparities in breastfeeding rates, normalize Black breastfeeding to combat negative stereotypes, and celebrate the joys of breastfeeding. Learning and engaging with the BBW committee was such a positive experience for me, I am happy to have the chance to share reflections from the week and a glimpse at what is coming for BBW 2021.
Camelia Garrick, a fellow AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer, and I were able to speak with six of our BBW committee members that are also integral members of our Breastfeeding Coalition. Shenell Ford, Dominique Bellegarde, and Keyla Kelley are all lactation counselors and mothers that champion breastfeeding support in their communities. Jenny Weaver is also a long-time lactation counselor and helps mentor many of our incoming breastfeeding scholars. Lisa White and Brandy Watts advocate for maternal and child health equity through their work in the Child Adolescent and Family Health (CAFH) Bureau’s office at Boston Public Health Commission, and Lisa also serves as a doula.
For all of those that are as new to the importance of Black breastfeeding as I was, I first want to share some responses from BBW committee members about “What does Black breastfeeding mean to you?”
A recurring theme that seemed to pop-up in every interview we conducted was love. Shenell beautifully stated: “[Breastfeeding is] a beautiful expression of love in so many ways. The connection, the bond, not just between you and your baby, but encompassing the whole experience for the family.” Dominique had a similar thought and responded that breastfeeding was “the best start for baby” and a way to show “unconditional love to next generations”.
Remarking on the significance of Black breastfeeding, Lisa and Dominique mentioned that it was “empowerment” and “an example to my nation of people”. Shenell and Jenny responded that Black breastfeeding is “healing and joy” and “a time to uplift and highlight the joy around breastfeeding in Black families and communities.”
It was very inspiring to see a group of women dedicate their spare time and energy to a cause that has had such a profound impact on them and their families. The events that were planned throughout the week exemplified the feelings of joy and love through celebration and advocacy. I asked committee members “What was an event during Black Breastfeeding Week that stood out to you and why?”
Committee members decided to embrace creativity and artistic expression throughout Black Breastfeeding Week to emulate this year’s theme of “Revive. Restore. Reclaim!” Dominique championed the month-long family Paint Night series, and she worked to “use local artists that are members in the Vital Village Network to celebrate children in the community and their work and stories,” and engaged a young adult artist as the lead instructor. Our week finished with a drumming circle celebration led by the local Jah Jah Drummers group. Keyla and her children joined in the virtual fun with pots and pans, and she told us that “It was great to see children who have been breastfed be a part of the celebration. It highlighted for me that we are raising the next generation of advocates.”
With this year’s Black Breastfeeding Week only a few months behind them, the committee is already brainstorming ideas for next year. It was exciting to hear the purpose and passion in each committee members’ voice when we asked, “What goals do you have for the next Black Breastfeeding Week?”
Lisa’s dream summed up world-wide sentiments when she said “a COVID- free celebration!” and she elaborated with her hope to get “more awareness throughout the community and agencies.” Brandy intends to increase inclusion as well, by “reaching a greater number of black people and a more diverse diaspora, with other languages being included.”
Keyla, Shenell, and Dominique all agreed that they would like to incorporate more live music, photos, and black breastfeeding imagery. With this intent in mind, many committee members realized the need to start planning early and seek out more grants and funding to build the capacity of their events. For Shenell, her goal extends far beyond just Black Breastfeeding Week. She already made impressive strides in Springfield by obtaining an official Mayoral Proclamation. Her goal is, “To show that breastfeeding is weaved throughout everything and have breastfeeding be the connector and the core.”
With the planning process for Black Breastfeeding Week 2021 already underway, I am honored to be working with such caring and motivated community leaders. They are inspiring future generations of breastfeeding advocates and advancing racial equity in their communities. Save the date for next year, and let us know if you would like to be involved!
Daily Milk hosts articles, posts and ideas from various members of our breastfeeding coalition!