Mocha Moms Visit the White House - Original, Long Version
An edited version of this 2 part series ran on Ebony.com.
On February 17th I grasped my son’s hand and stepped into the White House. I was there as part of a contingent of African American mothers from across the nation who are leaders in Mocha Moms, Inc. With over 100 chapters in 29 states, Mocha Moms is a support organization for Black mothers with a particular focus on professional women who have deviated from their career paths to accommodate motherhood. Some of our members shifted from full-time employment to part-time or flex-time work after their first child was born. Many stopped working altogether. Others, like me, work from home, making the money flow as best they can during naptime and after bedtime. A large number of Mochas 9 to 5 full-time but remain active in this organization that supports them. All of us are deeply committed to community service, to improving the lives of all babies – and to each other. So, when the White House invited the organization’s leaders to a historic Moms Summit as part of the nation’s Black History Month celebration, we jumped at the opportunity to learn about the policies, initiatives, and legislation directly impacting families.
We gathered and learned more about the Child Nutrition Law, which one speaker called “the most significant change in school lunch in over 15 years,” and the provision in the Affordable Health Care Act that enables young people to remain on their parents’ insurance plan until age 26, and the Health Care provision that allows screening for domestic violence to help protect the lives of women and the children who depend on them. We gathered to learn exactly how Obama policy impacts our health so that we could inform the people in our communities how to improve theirs.
The focus on wellness made sense, as Mocha Moms, Inc. partners with organizations like the United Nations Foundation Shot@Life Campaign, which enables dispossessed children in developing countries get the vaccinations they need for a healthier, longer life. Other partners include the National Marrow Donor Program’s Be the Match, Zero to Three (the nation’s leading resource on the first three years of life), and Black Women’s Health Imperative. And individual Mochas volunteer in local communities, like the South Fulton, Georgia chapter leader who told us how she works with an organization in her area that offers breastfeeding support to young mothers. “We teach them how to breastfeed, literally with our hands,” she said. So we also gathered to be inspired, renewed, affirmed. To hear Michael Strautmanis, Chief of Staff to Valerie Jarrett, pop in just to say, “keep doing what you’re doing… don’t let anyone tell you you have to change to help move America forward!”
Please use this summary of our historic Mocha Moms White House Summit to keep doing what you do – even better.
Keeping Black Babies Alive
Racial and ethnic health disparities begin even before our brown babies reach toddlerhood. Dr. Nadine Gracia, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Minority Health at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), told the Mocha leaders in attendance that one of the department’s goals is to “eliminate health disparities, or health gaps, in minority communities.” A pediatrician by training, she said the “statistics are troublesome” in the areas of preventable diseases like obesity, diabetes, cancer, and HIV. But health disparities begin at birth. We in the African American community suffer “twice the rate of babies dying in the first year of life,” she said. The Affordable Care Act contains several provisions to help eliminate startling health disparities like the rates of infant mortality in this country. To help women get the prenatal care they need, Obama’s plan mandates that insurance companies can no longer charge higher premiums for pre-existing conditions like pregnancy. Access to medical care is essential, but this problem of Black infant mortality demands many fresh, innovative approaches to maternal and infant health.
One new program HHS supports is Text4Baby. Women sign up during their pregnancies or during baby’s first year, and messages about what to do to achieve optimal pre-natal and post-natal health go straight to their phones. Mocha Moms National Director of Sponsorships and Partnerships, Shalaun Newton, is in communication with Text4Baby about a possible partnership with Mocha Moms. National President of Mocha Moms, Kuae Mattox says, “We are eager to find new and out of the box ways to share information with our mothers. Text4Baby sounds like a great opportunity to add another level of support for our mothers." Getting crucial updates about a woman’s stage of pregnancy or of baby’s early development on a mobile device appeals to women of all ages who are always on the go as well as younger moms who have come-of-age in a digital world.
Preconception Peer Educators
Another initiative aimed at younger women was developed through the HHS Office of Minority Health. A Healthy Baby Begins with You is a national campaign to raise awareness about infant mortality that focuses on the African American community. One forward-looking aspect of the campaign is a preconception health program for college students. Through the preconception health program, women who attend HBCUs like Spelman, Morgan State, Meharry, and Fisk receive training in African American health and infant mortality, HIV, STDs - even what a man should do to support the health of his partner and children.
These college women then return to their home communities, Dr. Gracia says, where they share the information they’ve received with other young women who are not college students, creating a “pipeline of women who understand preconception health.” This Strong Start initiative should help reduce the numbers of pre-term births and C-section deliveries in the Black community. “We want to target those who are most at risk,” Dr. Gracia says. These Preconception Educators enable peer to peer knowledge-sharing and help elevate the discourse about women’s bodies in our communities.
Breast is Best
One topic that too few sisters champion when we talk about motherhood is breastfeeding. No factory-made formula ever concocted bests the nutritional perfection of mamma’s milk, but most Black women don’t breastfeed. We’re depriving our children of the best start to a healthy life when we reach for a bottle instead of our own bodies, though. Nursing a baby exclusively from birth to 6 months and continuing to breastfeed even as complimentary foods are introduced from 6 months to at least age 1 is scientifically proven to improve the health of both mother and child. Breastfed babies are less likely to develop asthma, allergies, ear infections, and respiratory illnesses. Breastfeeding even plays a role in the prevention of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and is believed to lower a baby’s risk of developing diabetes, obesity, and cancer while boosting baby’s IQ. Mothers who nurse their children are less likely to develop breast and ovarian cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. It’s easy and (bonus!) it’s free. Though more African American women are making the wise decision to nurse their babies when they are physically able to do so, Black women are still less likely to breastfeed than any other ethnic group in the nation.
The HHS Office of Minority Health has a great page that can help start thoughtful conversations about the benefits of breastfeeding. In addition, the HHS Office on Women’s Health provides online support for everything from getting started with breastfeeding to pumping and storage. According to Dr. Gracia, the Affordable Care Act contains provisions to offer breastfeeding support to all American women, which is good news given our country’s overall rate of childhood obesity.
According to Jocelyn Frye, Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of Policy and Special Projects for the First Lady, American children are the first generation of young people to have a shorter life span than the previous generation. Among African Americans and Latinos in particular, half of our young people are obese and struggle with weight-related conditions, like Type II Diabetes, that are historically present in adults. One reason? American children sit in front of some kind of object, like a computer, cell phone, video game, or television, for an average of 7 hours a day. Frye informed the Mocha Moms leadership that the White House is taking a four pronged approach to reverse the dismal health trends the past 20 years have produced, including nutrition in schools, physical activity, food access, and information to empower more Americans “to make healthy choices."
Perhaps the most publicized component of this four pronged approach is First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative. As Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff to the First Lady Tina Tchen told Mocha leaders, whether it’s doing a platypus dance with Disney characters or challenging a late-night television host to a potato sack race on national TV, “our First Lady will do anything to promote Let’s Move.”
The First Lady’s goal, according to Tchen, is to “end childhood obesity in a generation.” To help reach that goal, the HealthierUS School Challenge (HUSSC) encourages local schools to commit to better childhood health by meeting higher nutrition standards and providing daily recess and physical education to help students meet the minimum recommended 60 minutes of physical activity a day. The White House seeks to increase the number of participating HUSSC schools by 1,000 over the next two years.
Let’s Move Forward
We have made so many strides. Women and men of color at the highest levels of the federal government coming out to address a group of Black mothers confirms that. Certainly we have much more work left to do. The fact that for the first time ever HHS has made the elimination of health gaps a goal with the Action Plan to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities confirms that, too.
But I feel good. The summit took place on a Thursday, a day my son played with his cousins under the care of my loving in-laws. That Friday, we toured the White House with other Mocha families. I held him close as we entered the place “where Barack Obama lives,” as he said in his three-year-old voice. As we started the tour this Black History Month, I felt the weight and presence of a soul force anchoring me in the power of the moment. We turned and heard the North Carolina A&T choir sing in the Obama White House and I even wept, just a bit, for those souls. Let’s honor them by improving our bodies in ways that they were never able to improve, to even fully possess, their own.
At the Black History Month Mocha Moms White House Summit, Mocha leaders at the national, regional, state, and local chapter levels came from all over the country to learn more about the Obama Administration’s policies impacting families. And the Administration also wanted to connect with us. As Cecilia Munoz, Director of the Domestic Policy Council said, “It’s nice to cut through the noise of 24 hour TV news to listen to real people, real women, passionate about improving our nation and moving us all forward as a country.”
Mocha Moms provides opportunities for African American mothers to discuss issues related to everything from breastfeeding to running their home-based small businesses at each chapter’s weekly support meeting. This historic summit enabled us to dialogue with White House policymakers who administer initiatives that support issues related to parenting. Munoz, who worked for LaRaza for 20 years before joining Obama’s team, told us, “We really need you.” Every voice, every pair of hands, she said, counts. She asked us to be a “voice for the values that we’re trying to move forward.”
One of the most important values Mocha Moms shares with the White House is the value of education. Our organization partners with PBS Kids, among others, and one Mocha Moms initiative is “Boys Booked on Barbershops,” a program that creates reading nooks for young people in our communities.
Race to the Top
Munoz touted Obama’s Race to the Top Program, which she said “has spurred reforms in 40 states… the most important of which is that we have the right accountability measures in place.” A Department of Education program funded through the American Reform and Recovery Act of 2009, Race to the Top awards points to local schools that, when accumulated, provide competitive grants for innovation in education. Calling George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind “deeply flawed,” Munoz said Race to the Top uses measures like peer reviews and performance videos, and “not just tests,” to assess teacher performance.
Support Our Teachers
Military spouses who are also teachers face specific challenges that the second lady, Dr. Jill Biden, a military mom and former teacher with an Ed.D., is working to eliminate. According to Tina Tchen, Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff to the First Lady, 1/3 of military wives hold licensed positions like nurse, broker, lawyer - and teacher. When these professionals, most of whom are women, move from state to state to meet the demands of their partners’ military careers, they struggle to qualify for employment because each state has different licensing requirements. Eleven states have laws to help facilitate relicensing for military spouses, according to Tchen, and First Lady Michelle Obama and Second Lady Jill Biden have issued a national goal for all 50 states to address the licensing issue for military spouses by 2014.
It is significant that nurses and teachers, professionals that traditionally are women, be listed with brokers and lawyers, professionals that traditionally are men. Tyra Mariani, Deputy Chief of Staff in the Department of Education, also addressed the Mochas in attendance and said, “We understand teachers are nation builders.” In order to induce more Americans to consider teaching a desirable profession worthy of pursuit, like engineering and accounting, she said compensation for educators must increase. The key question for her?: “How do we transform [the teaching profession]?”
Support Our Schools
In addition to the mission to elevate the status of teachers in American society, Mariani also talked about the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, an initiative focusing on the first five years – the most crucial years in human brain development. This challenge includes a $500 million commitment from the federal government to help states build early learning systems and improve early learning centers.
Innovations at all levels of learning are essential to nourish the cognitive potential in all our children. When asked by a South Prince Georges County, Maryland Mocha leader about moving away from what she called “the factory model” in public schooling, Mariani said the Department of Education is encouraging states and districts to promote different kinds of schools, like Mandarin immersion schools. This was good news to a Mocha from North Fulton, Georgia, who talked openly about her high-achieving school-age children who attend public school in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Georgia. Her children, she said, compete with students from all over the world, who “come into kindergarten speaking 2-3 languages. I love my kids,” she laughed, “but they don’t speak 2 to 3 languages.” She wanted information on international benchmarks in learning. Mariani encouraged her to see the nation’s Common Core Standards to get a clear sense of what students should be learning – and when they should be learning it – in America’s schools.
Of course, clear standards at the primary and secondary level mean less if American learners are unable to complete their formal education at the university level. Economic barriers to college graduation are on the rise, as tuition costs, even at state schools, steadily increase to levels that could render the nation’s system of higher education unaffordable within the next quarter century. Mariani said that, under Obama, Pell Grants are up 60%, from 3 million to 9 million student recipients. She also acknowledged that part of the problem in rising college costs is state aid to colleges, and Pell Grants don’t stop the increase in college tuition costs. She talked about “personalizing learning at the college level” and advocated for greater transparency so that families can use accurate information to think about what colleges deliver to students in terms of future earnings and better calculate the value of the schools they are considering for their college-bound children.
Excellence for All
Mocha Moms are like most American mothers. We are balancing so much in our everyday lives, and we could laugh along with Tchen when she said, “I was raised by a Tiger Mom but don’t have the energy to be one.” Many Mochas had heard Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, at the Mocha Moms 2011 National Conference, where she talked about strategies for raising successful children.
We seek excellence for our children. We want a rigorous curriculum in a caring, nurturing learning environment. We care about developing the whole child and want our children to learn morals as they learn Mandarin. We want them to learn ethics as they learn arithmetic. We want them to become thoughtful citizens, fulfilled in their future careers, loving and loved in their personal lives. Schooling at every level should support those goals.