A Positive Push for Black Californians’ Maternal Health

 
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Earlier this summer, a group of about 70 people from all over California convened in Sacramento to lobby for Senate Bill 464 (SB 464), the California Dignity in Pregnancy and Childbirth Act. The day was organized by Black Women for Wellness (BWW), a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that fights for Black women’s health and that is a co-sponsor on the bill - authored by Sen. Holly Mitchell. BWW brought groups from Los Angeles, Fresno, the Bay Area, and Sacramento to let lawmakers know that Black women deserve better. 

The day started with breakfast while Nourbese Flint of BWW provided advice and guidance for first-time lobbyists. There were some practical pieces of advice given - be polite, stick to the script, be aware of how much time you have with legislators and their staff. The last piece of advice Nourbese gave was to remember that we belong there in the halls of the state capitol and that the lawmakers we would be speaking to - work for and represent us! After gathering in groups of six or seven, using our phones to do last minute research on lawmakers, and planning what each person would say, we put on teal t-shirts with the words “BLACK WOMEN DESERVE BETTER PERIODT” and walked over to the state capitol to have our first meetings. 

As we entered the building wearing our bright teal t-shirts, we understood almost immediately why Nourbese reminded us that we belonged in the capitol. The level of power that the space evoked made it difficult to feel like we belonged there. Because the average community member is not in that space often (or ever), community members’ attending a single lobby day felt significant. Similar to voting and other forms of civic participation: by lobbying, we assure a much more representative democracy. 

Community focused lobbyists - are typically members of the community who, in some capacity, have been or will be affected by the issue at hand. Through their lived experiences and understandings, they act as representatives of those whose interests are typically not heard in these hallways that are brimming with power. Using their communication skills and/or legislative knowledge, lobbyists can inform government officials with information that they may not be familiar with - and potentially sway the opinions of those officials.

 
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Throughout the day we explained SB 464 to the lawmakers and their staff, giving them a quick primer on the various parts of the bill - better care for Black mothers, more detailed data collection surrounding maternal mortality, and required implicit bias training for healthcare professionals. Community members shared personal stories about how a lack of these things have impacted them and their loved ones. 

After the meetings with lawmakers and staff, our lobbying was not over yet: we observed the Assembly Health Committee meeting that afternoon. In the committee, a number of bills were introduced and voted on, including SB 464. During the committee meeting, community members were given a chance to express support for the bill by stepping up to a microphone, announcing their name, the organization that they represented, and giving a brief statement. 

As someone who had never lobbied or sat in on a committee hearing, this was the most powerful part of the day. Standing and listening as person after person - the large majority of them Black women - expressed their support for such a deeply necessary bill was truly inspiring. Due in part to the hard work of everyone at the lobby day and countless others, the bill passed unanimously (15-0) in the health committee and is on its way to Appropriations after which it will be voted on in the Assembly to then be sent to the Governor. 

 
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After the day was over, we were left with questions. How could we get other states to introduce bills like SB 464? How could we use lobbying as a tactic to build collective power and push forward the goals of movements for racial justice and health equity? Often times organizing is presented as not being aligned with government. However, this lobby day exemplified that - in order to make certain kinds of progress - lawmakers can be allies. We learned that lobby days, and lobbying more generally, are a useful tool for building community, networking with lawmakers, and advocating for the causes that are important to our movement. Lobbying can also be empowering, giving us the ability to demand that our representatives actually represent us. 

Working toward equitable legislation is difficult and can be very slow as bills have to go through committees and be amended before they become law. This can make lobbying very time-consuming, especially for grassroots organizations that do not have the capacity to plan and execute lobby days or have a constant presence in the Capitol like others can.

Despite the difficulties that exist in lobbying, though, there are meaningful benefits to advocating for equity through interacting with lawmakers and influencing legislation. This lobby day brought Black women and their allies together: creating a coalition of people who all rallied around Black women’s health and strengthening a base of people of various ages and from different parts of the state. Everything that was achieved on this day, was accomplished in a collective. From the teams we were in, to entering the hearing room as one large group - we acted as a unified force and were able to push for this instrumental change around Black women’s maternal health. Together, we harnessed community power in order to spur deeply necessary policy change. 

SB 464 and the lobbying that we did for it is just one step toward achieving health equity and reproductive justice. Now, with a strong base of people who understand the issue and want to fight for it, we can continue to fight to get Black women what they need and deserve.