Marcela Howell

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Marcela Howell

Snapshot

Marcela Howell is president and CEO of In Our Own Voice: National Black Women's Reproductive Agenda, a national state partnership of eight Black women's reproductive justice organizations. She talked with PHP about how Black women disproportionately experience pregnancy related adverse health outcomes, what policies need to change, questioning bias, and how others can advocate for change.

What is In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Agenda and how did it come to be?

In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda was founded in the fall of 2014. Five Black women’s reproductive justice organizations that I was working with concluded that they wanted to have an entity that represented them at the federal level. Once it was launched, we added three more organizations. So, we consider In Our Own Voice a national state partnership with these eight Black women’s reproductive justice organizations. We do trainings around advocacy and media. We work on drafting joint op-ed pieces. We also grant money for different projects. We have one project that is called I Am A Voter, which is a program to actually get Black women to vote in their local and state elections.

What is the mission of In Our Own Voice?

Our mission is to lift up the voices of Black women leaders and specifically Black reproductive justice leaders at the federal, state, and regional levels. We seek to make sure that when issues are coming up that may impact Black women, femmes, gender expansive people, that those people who are going to be most impacted are the voices that you hear.

Most people think that reproductive justice is synonymous with family planning and abortion rights. It’s not. Reproductive justice is a very wide spectrum of issues. And it’s based on you having control over your environment. Not just your body, but also your work, your community, your family, your reproduction, your gender identity.

Black women are way more likely to experience adverse health outcomes during and after pregnancy. Can you talk about why that is?

Well, there are a number of reasons. One is racism within our medical profession. We know that medical students are told that Black women can tolerate more pain than White women can, that White women are more delicate. There’s a whole construct of how the medical profession approaches medicine based on race. And Black women have always suffered the brunt of that.

So that if you don’t have access to prenatal care, and if you distrust the medical profession because of some of the experiments that have been done on Black people, if you’re poor, if you have an hourly job and can’t take time off to go get prenatal care, all of those things factor into problems as you carry a pregnancy to term. And then you get to a hospital where you’re about to give birth and you have complications, and the medical professionals don’t pay attention to you.

And it doesn’t matter whether you’re poor or extremely wealthy. Black women still get treated differently. We saw that with Beyonce╠ü and Serena Williams, as they had to go through the same process that a poor Black woman would go through of basically pushing and saying, “I’m in pain. Do something about it. Find out why this is happening.” The difference is a lot of women who don’t have that clout get ignored. So, they have complications.

What needs to change at a policy level to stop this?

The first is we need to change how we train doctors in medical schools. We need to throw out books that delineate people’s health based on their race as opposed to their condition. We need to eliminate racial bias. Now that’s kind of hard when you have the people who are training them, having been trained with this same racial bias.

Our audience includes many public health students. Is there anything you’d like to share with them?

I think public health students should question what they hear. If they are being taught that somehow there is a difference in your health care based on your race, then you should question that. For instance, Black people suffer from a different type of breast cancer, which they get earlier. And yet mammograms are prescribed only after a certain age. Black women need to start getting their annual mammograms earlier. Public health students, especially in this day and age, should question every kind of bias.

How can we get involved with policy advocacy or with In Our Own Voice?

You can go on our website, which is www.blackrj.org, and you can sign up to get our alerts and our newsletters. And in those, we talk about what’s going on from a policy perspective and what you can do about it.

Photo provided

Howell will appear virtually on Oct. 24 at 1 p.m. as a part of Centering the Health of Mothers in the Public Health Agenda, a Public Health Conversation presented by the Boston University School of Public Health. Register or view a post-event recording here.

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