Exploring the connectedness of health in our communities and imagining a better future
Feb. 22, 2022 | Issue #21
The historic, and current, health disparities experienced by the Black community are a grievous injustice that cause tremendous harm. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared racism a serious threat to public health
just last year. This Black History Month and year-round, Blue Shield of California Foundation is investing in the people and systems working to end these disparities and achieve health equity. We invite you to enjoy, share, and add your own to this month’s stories of perseverance, perspicacity, and power-building. Today, we salute and support those making tomorrow’s history.
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Director of Communications & Public Affairs
Focus on improving Black birth outcomes
For too many Black Californians, health inequity begins with pregnancy. Increasing awareness of the racial gaps in birth outcomes is spurring the fight against them, at the state and national levels.
Data show that maternal mortality fell in California between 2008 and 2016, even as it was rising nationally, but that encouraging news from the state health department came with a glaring caveat: “racial/ethnic disparities in pregnancy-related mortality ratios appear to be worsening, particularly among Black women.”
As our partners at California Health Report noted recently, midwives and doulas are doing their part to serve more Black Californians and address the disparities and discrimination they face in giving birth. Meanwhile at the White House, Vice President Kamala Harris marked Maternal Health Day of Action in December by promoting a legislative agenda designed to, among other things, include more doulas and midwives in hospital care.
With that full “Momnibus” package pending in Washington, D.C., California passed its own version, Senate Bill 65, last October. While celebrating that milestone with a 7-week-old baby, Nourbese Flint, executive director of the Black Women for Wellness Action Project, noted that “in some ways, we have even greater disparities now than we did 20 years ago.” It is a health equity issue as fundamental as life itself.
Black philanthropy: it’s not new
Far from being a “new” or “emerging” demographic in charitable giving, African Americans have participated in philanthropy for hundreds of years. And over the past decade, African American families have — more than any other racial group — contributed the most significant portion of their wealth to charity.
That’s according to Tyrone McKinley Freeman, professor of philanthropic studies at Indiana University, who discussed Black philanthropy with Stanford Social Innovation Review for the podcast, “African American Philanthropy: A Culture of Generosity.”
“When you think about African American philanthropy, it goes back to traditions of giving, caring, and sharing that were a part of West African cultures before colonialism,” Freeman said. “The ways in which enslaved people looked after each other as their families were dispersed to many different plantations and they sometimes never saw them again, those around them became family. And so they would frequently look after each other and extend these same types of generosities to help each other survive and deal with the horrors of their enslavement.”
Freeman brings his historical perspective through to the present in the full podcast with transcript.
Building power in Black-led organizations
The California Black Freedom Fund’s latest round of grantmaking has awarded nearly $9 million to 74 Black-led partners across California as part of its commitment to resource, connect, and strengthen Black-led power-building organizations.
The first of its kind, launched in February 2021 with support from Blue Shield of California Foundation, the California Black Freedom Fund aims to effect the culture, policy, and systems changes necessary to realize equity and justice in the state.
Brisa Johnson is one of the recent grantees of the fund who shared some of their insights from the work they are doing on the ground. The lead coordinator at the San Diego Black Worker Center, Johnson said an important aspect of Black power building is taking power away from broken systems and using it to create the changes you want to see in communities. “Once you start to accept that reality wholeheartedly,” she said, “then you start to take that power back and realize that you are fully in control of your agenda.”
To date, $50 million has been invested in the California Black Freedom Fund, with $15 million in grants awarded so far across the state.
Righting an historic wrong
In 1951, a Black woman named Henrietta Lacks — a wife and mother of five — was diagnosed with a cervical cancer that would claim her life at the age of 31. Cells retrieved from a biopsy of her tumor stunned researchers at Johns Hopkins Hospital by doubling every 24 hours. They became the first human cells to be successfully cloned. It was a true medical breakthrough.
Reproduced infinitely, Lacks’ cells, known as HeLa cells, have become a cornerstone of modern medicine. HeLa cells have enabled countless scientific discoveries and innovations, including the polio and HPV vaccines and figuring out how the COVID-19 virus enters human cells. HeLa cells have contributed to more than 17,000 patents and have generated billions of dollars in profit for the patent holders.
But neither Lacks nor her family ever gave consent to have the tissue removed in the segregated hospital ward in Baltimore where she was treated. For decades, Lacks’ family didn’t know the cells existed, let alone that they were a research phenomenon.
“While HeLa cells were making a global impact, Henrietta’s family was not informed,” said her grandson Alfred Carter in 2021. “It was not until 20 years after her death that we would learn how science retrieved her cells and our grandmother’s enormous contribution to medicine and humanity.”
In a lawsuit the Lacks family has since filed, lawyers wrote, “The exploitation of Henrietta Lacks represents the unfortunately common struggle experienced by Black people throughout history. Black suffering has fueled innumerable medical progress and profit, without just compensation or recognition. Various studies, both documented and undocumented, have thrived off the dehumanization of Black people.”
“What happened to Henrietta was wrong,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), in honoring Lacks’ legacy last year. While Lacks would surely be glad to know how many lives her cells have saved, he said, “the end doesn’t justify the means.”
This month at Blue Shield of California Foundation
- Inside Philanthropy’s new report on violence prevention shows that while it gets a lot of attention, it is still alarmingly underfunded. But the field is growing, with a new focus on creating safe communities, research and data collection, restorative justice, healing from trauma, and survivor-focused initiatives. Inside Philanthropy highlights the Foundation’s role in building partnerships that leverage more funding and in moving from crisis intervention to healing that breaks the cycle of domestic violence.
- We’re joining Gov. Gavin Newsom and fellow philanthropic partners to support uptake of the state and federal earned income tax credit and child tax credit programs, by investing in education and outreach through community-based organizations.
- Our partners at Health Affairs, who just published a racism and health issue, are now calling for submissions to an upcoming cluster of papers on “the relationship between income, economic, and work supports and the health of individuals and families during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.”
- Fifty-two percent of student parents leave college in six years without being able to complete their degree. On Feb. 24, join us for a webinar to learn more about the challenges student parents face and what we can do to help them succeed.
- Foundation Board Chair and Executive Director of First 5 LA Kim Belshé makes the case for investing in services that promote child development, maternal health and family stability in a CalMatters commentary on California’s state budget surplus.