Birthing Change: Detroit Women Unite to Transform Maternal and Infant Health

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2021 Black women experienced a maternal mortality rate of 69.9 deaths per 100,000 live births, which was 2.6 times higher than the rate for white women (26.6). Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related issues than white women and Black babies are more than twice as likely to die before their first birthday.  The alarming statistic raised concerns among expectant mothers and their advocates, leading to a movement aimed at improving maternal and infant health outcomes while creating community and awareness. 

In the face of Detroit’s maternal health crisis, a recent analysis conducted by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services further emphasizes the urgency of the situation. The study reveals that an alarming 65 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Detroit were preventable. This means that with improved healthcare practices and targeted interventions, a significant number of lives could have been saved. It is a sobering reminder that every pregnancy-related death represents a profound loss, leaving families shattered and communities bereaved. 

In a groundbreaking initiative called “Hear Us! Our Voices, Our Births: Detroit Mothers Speak,” women from the Detroit area are sharing their birth stories to bring about positive change and prevent traumatic birthing experiences. Led by the Southeast Michigan Perinatal Quality Improvement Coalition (SEMPQIC), this project empowers Black and Brown women by amplifying their voices and fostering respect and value for their experiences. 

Founded by Merck for Mothers with funding from the Safer Childbirth Cities initiative, the program brings together a collaborative network of philanthropic partners to provide support to community-based organizations in U.S. cities facing significant challenges related to maternal mortality and morbidity. Their shared goal is to address these pressing issues and improve the well-being of mothers and infants by implementing targeted interventions and fostering sustainable change within these communities. 

SEMPQIC united a formidable team of four community partners to spearhead Project Detroit: Voices for Life. This collaborative effort includes the Detroit Health Department and its esteemed SisterFriends Detroit program, along with Henry Ford Health, the Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association (BMBFA) and Focus: HOPE. These carefully chosen partners were selected based on their extensive expertise and deep-rooted connections within the community. Together, they bring a wealth of experience and a shared commitment to improving maternal and infant health outcomes in Detroit. 

Alethia Carr, SEMPQIC health equity lead consultant stated, “The mission of Project Detroit: Voices for Life is to promote systems change and to innovate the analysis, translation and application of maternal health data that will promote maternal vitality for Black women. This includes going beyond the analysis of deaths in the traditional way by most state-level Maternal Mortality Review Committees and instead will include a committee of local partners, including women who have recent experiences with the perinatal system. This is an important reason we will be presenting our program at the Maternal Infant Health Summit in Lansing in June.” 

Each partner in this initiative plays a unique and crucial role. The Detroit Health Department leads the way with its pioneering approach through the Maternal Mortality and Vitality Review Team, aiming to identify necessary transformations in the perinatal system to protect the health and well-being of pregnant women and combat the alarming trend of pregnancy-related deaths. 

Henry Ford Health takes proactive measures to address unconscious bias, training over 250 maternal child health staff members and 50 healthcare professionals outside their organization through the Reducing Unconscious Bias – an Imperative (RUBI) series. They also prioritize diversity and inclusion by incorporating micro-sessions during OB-GYN grand rounds and developing comprehensive training resources. 

The Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association makes significant contributions by training and graduating doulas, providing essential support to expectant mothers in the metro Detroit area. Additionally, BMBFA actively advocates for doulas and mothers as a member of the Michigan Health and Human Services State Doula Advisory Committee. Together, these partners work tirelessly to improve maternal and infant health outcomes in Detroit. 

In 2021, Symone Wilkes, a Detroit mother, experienced a disheartening lack of advocacy and attentive care from her healthcare providers during her pregnancy. Despite expressing her concerns, her doctors ignored her symptoms and complaints of pain. As a result, Wilkes’ baby boy, Dy’Lan, was born four days after his due date and immediately faced health complications. 

Determined to understand what happened, Wilkes obtained her medical records from the hospital, revealing the bothersome truth about her son’s condition, Meconium aspiration syndrome. This condition is commonly observed in births when the fetus experiences stress during labor. 

Wilkes stands among a group of remarkable women engaged in the project. This compelling series of short videos showcases the stories of local mothers who have recently given birth, with the purpose of empowering Black and Brown women of Detroit. By providing a platform for their shared experiences and narratives, this initiative aims to foster respect, value and dignity for these women’s voices, ultimately striving for improved outcomes, the prevention of traumatic birthing experiences and pregnancy-related deaths. 

SEMPQIC’s Project Detroit: Voices for Life will release a report, accompanied by the unveiling of the “Hear Us! Our Voices, Our Births: Detroit Mothers Speak” video shorts, during a community event in the fall of 2023. To stay informed about SEMPQIC’s ongoing efforts to provide optimal care for mothers in Detroit throughout the entire pregnancy journey, visit their website at 

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