In March 2022, MFF partnered with the United Way Dane County to fund two new initiatives based in the Madison, Wisconsin area: the 3rd Space Initiative led by Infamous Mothers and the Saving Our Babies Initiative led by the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness.
The initiatives caught our attention for a number of reasons. First, they are innovative and multifaceted – both address Black women’s well-being from new angles. Second, both organizations are led by Black women who live in the Madison area. Who better to address the challenges local Black women face? And, third, these initiatives come at a time when Black women’s health, career, and education continue to be sorely underserved.
While Black women and children across the country experience more negative health outcomes than their white counterparts, the disparities are particularly acute in Wisconsin.
According to the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness, Wisconsin ranks among the top states in the nation for Black infant mortality – babies born to Black mothers in the state are three times more likely to die before their first birthday than babies born to white mothers. Black mothers are three times more likely to die as a result of childbirth than white mothers.
In fact, says FFBWW CEO Lisa Peyton-Caire, Black women in Wisconsin of every age, income and education level, from a GED to a PhD, are more likely than women of other races to live with and die from treatable and preventable illnesses like heart disease, diabetes and cancer. In Dane County, the average age of death of Black women is 60 years old.
At the same time, and despite similar levels of employment to other races, Black women in Wisconsin are more likely to be uninsured or underinsured and to lack access to quality and affordable healthcare.
The need for change, and to better serve these women, is abundantly clear.
Addressing these issues begins with conversations that break down stigmas.
“You can talk about ‘bad girls.’ You can talk about ‘badass women’. But the minute you talk about ‘bad moms,’ it isn’t well received. The minute you associate any flaw, shortcoming or struggle with mothering, you are condemned for it,” said Sagashus Levingston, the CEO of Infamous Mothers. She wanted to build an organization that helped break that stigma while simultaneously providing the support and tools mothers need to be healthier and more authentic parents.
“We inspire athletes and executives; we inspire people at church on Sunday morning,” Sagashus continued, “But we don’t think about the importance of inspiring moms. There are no rallies for moms. Moms are always the ones who give the pep talks.”
The idea for the organization originally came from Sagashus’ research for her PhD but developed into something much more. Today, Infamous Mothers creates media, technology and programming that remove barriers for mothers, invite them to grow and stand at their full height and help create a world that sees the value of supporting their expansion.
For too many of these mothers, the isolation and upheaval of the pandemic years was just a continuation of the status quo. All have caregiving responsibilities. Some may be stigmatized for teen pregnancies or single motherhood; others were victims of human trafficking or substance abuse. Their backgrounds and life experiences are diverse but what they all have in common is a desire for community and the opportunity to reach their personal goals and potential while caring for their children and families.
In order to build wealth alongside health, Infamous Mothers recognized the need to alleviate workplace stress for Black mothers, promoting their health and wellbeing while also giving them a safe space to work.
And so, the idea for the 3rd Space Initiative was born. It addresses both health and economic inequities by providing Black-led wellness and entrepreneurial programming designed specifically for marginalized Black women who are both mothers and caregivers as well as workers and entrepreneurs.
The coworking space created by the 3rd Space Initiative is virtual by design. Infamous Mothers found that mothers reported missing out on networking and professional development opportunities because of family and caretaking responsibilities. Infamous Mothers’ yearly convenings went virtual in 2018, preparing for a post-pandemic world ahead of schedule.
The organization knows how to make the most of virtual spaces and that’s reflected in the new initiative. It’s more than just joining a Zoom call.
Through wellness and entrepreneurial programming, the 3rd Space Initiative offers Black women members a sense of community and place via customizable offices, meeting rooms, “outdoor” relaxation areas, water-cooler talk, the ability to “knock” on colleagues’ doors for spontaneous questions and a strong sense of community. Membership comes with a library of audiobooks on business and mothering and provides other amenities including access to Canva, Adobe, Microsoft365 and Zoom.
The initiative’s goals include improving Black mothers’ health by reducing stress, anxiety and increasing a sense of safety; promoting empowerment; and building strong, quality networks of peers, mentors and sponsors.
The ultimate impact 3rd space plans to have on its community is simple but profound: that Black women participants will report improved health and wellness outcomes (such as weight loss, increased mental health, reduced stress and anxiety, increased trust and relationships with financial institutions, and a shift in mindset); as well as increased economic security and stability by receiving the skills and support needed to start their own businesses and create jobs.
The second initiative MFF is helping to fund in Dane County is spearheaded by the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness (FFBWW) as part of an unprecedented cross-sector partnership with local health systems to improve the birth outcomes of Black women and babies.
Established in 2012, FFBWW supports Black women to transform their lives and health through education, advocacy and powerful partnerships. The organization’s work is broad and multifaceted, devoted both to supporting women to improve their physical, mental, and financial health, while leading community and systems-level health equity change efforts. Through their outreach and direct services, the Foundation engages and serves over 7,000 women per year, ranging in age from 13- to 80-years-old and with 80 percent categorized as low income.
“Saving Our Babies is a powerful example of the work we believe is most necessary to shift the needle forward in combatting Wisconsin’s long-standing racial birth disparities,” says FFBWW CEO and Founder Lisa Peyton-Caire. “The project demonstrates how systems, Black women, and community partners can and must come together to creatively advance new strategies and solutions that make real and measurable impacts on Black birth outcomes.”
The Saving Our Babies Initiative, which started in 2018 in partnership with the Dane County Health Council, is a continuation of FFBWW’s work to eliminate health disparities and other barriers impacting Black women, their families and communities. The initiative began with a 9-month community assessment in which more than 300 Black women, men, youth, and local agency service and healthcare providers participated. Their findings and recommendations, published in the Saving Our Babies Report, continue to shape next steps and strategies for sustainability.
MFF’s funding will help them achieve those next steps. In 2022, the Saving Our Babies Initiative plans to hire, train, and support a neighborhood-based cohort of culturally sensitive community health workers and doulas; provide direct service education and navigation support to pregnant and new mothers; and to support leadership and advocacy efforts of the Black Maternal & Child Health Alliance, a body conceived and created by the Foundation and its partner EQT By Design.
The initiative will also continue existing efforts that include designing and launching, ConnectRX Wisconsin, Dane County’s first universal risk screener for social determinants of health and training the community-based workforce on using the screener with Black women and their families; creating a centralized system of care that responds to Black family needs; and leading ongoing community engagement efforts with Black families to center their voices and experiences in the design and implementation of programs and services across the health and social service industry.
As with the 3rd Space Initiative, the ultimate impact will be immense. FFBWW and their partners are addressing the root causes of health and birth disparities and connecting Black families to culturally responsive supports.
By preventing low birthweight for Black infants and improving Black maternal health, they will prevent costly chronic health conditions and chronic health conditions for children (e.g. diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure). They will promote health equity and increase economic stability, not only in Dane County, but potentially across the state and around the world as a model of partnership that can be scaled and replicated in diverse communities.
Sagashus shared some advice she received when building Infamous Mothers, “If you want to build something, sit at the table with people and listen to what they want and what’s important to them, and then figure out how you can build something together. That became the model I used as we built the infamous Mothers brand. It is rooted in listening, communication and addressing gaps so that we can complement work in the community as opposed to compete with it.”
In a similar vein, Peyton-Caire echoes the importance of centering Black women and communities as the solution to achieving progress and sustainable change in racial disparities. “From day one, our commitment has been to position Black women as the experts and creators of the solutions we need to achieve a thriving existence for ourselves and our families. This is the surest path to moving from disparity to thriving wellness in our communities.”
While FFBWW and Infamous Mothers are building and executing two separate initiatives, they complement each other in so many ways. The collaborative approach will build a Dane County where Black women not only experience improved health outcomes for themselves, their children and their communities but are also empowered to build a better and brighter future on their own terms.