As I travel the country in my consulting work, I’m always asking everyone and anyone if they knew of any African American IBCLC's. Sometimes I use my intrepid journalism skills and other times I must use more grapevine and Underground Railroad-like pathways. In some cities, there are stories and urban legends of black IBCLC's but few could actually name any names. At one point, I wondered if I was searching for black IBCLCs or Big Foot.
If we are to bridge the racial divide in breastfeeding rates, we need more experienced lactation professionals who can work directly with our population. The higher rates of preterm babies and other high risk births among black women often result in situations that require the medical expertise and specialized care of a certified lactation consultant. It is clear that they are an important piece of the puzzle. We also need more black lactation professionals at different levels of engagement and certification. As we embark on innovative and more community-focused approaches to closing the breastfeeding gap, we need more black and brown faces to lead outreach into our communities.
"You cannot send ‘Susan’ to the back-to-school jam at the church to talk about breastfeeding," as one black IBCLC put it. "It is not going to work."
It’s definitely not working in many areas. My recent community assessment of New Orleans, Jackson, Miss and Birmingham, Alabama found that the lack of African American lactation consultants was a key common factor leading to the ultra-low breastfeeding rates in these areas. This is just one of the factors leading to far too many “first food deserts”—that is, communities where it is virtually impossible to access breastfeeding support and resources. The conditions were so striking I launched a petition demanding that the governors of these states meet immediately to discuss action steps for improving support for mothers and infant health (please take 30 seconds to sign the petition now!)
Somehow we have to do better. In the past I’ve asked ILCA (International Lactation Consultants Association) to do better: Better than a handful of exam scholarships; better than a few waived registration fees (what about traveling costs?); better than relegating African American issues to off hours, side rooms, and pre-conference status. I’ve also asked the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners to do better. The leadership of the lactation counselors and consultant industry needs to actively seek and pursue new ways to encourage diversity—perhaps recruiting peer counselors from the federal Women Infants and Children nutrition program—and finding and supporting other black lactation supporters who aspire to some type of certified status. This is important. If the industry is truly committed to changing the breastfeeding landscape (not just maintaining the status quo), then they need to better mirror the real America and address the inequities in its membership so it can truly address inequities among breastfeeding mothers.
But most importantly, we have to save ourselves. When I meet a black woman who has had a positive breastfeeding experience, I tell her about avenues to help other women do the same and what that means for decreasing infant mortality and improving infant health in our community.
Our history is one of triumph over adversities and irrepressible spirits. That’s what we celebrate this month. And we can channel that same energy to save our babies. We need to shout from the rooftops in our own neighborhoods the importance of reclaiming our community responsibility for the health of our infants. We can use our own collective voice to demand that all mothers be allowed to truly “choose” their child’s first food without being subject to the marketing interests of pharmaceutical companies. We can transform our communities into First Food Friendly environments. We can change our breastfeeding narrative at a time when the collective health of our community needs now more than ever.
We can because I know we can.