meet the woman fighting black infant mortality in memphis

February 12, 2018
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By Katie Mitchell* / WearYourVoice Mag, AFROPUNK contributor

In many ways Memphis, Tennessee embodies all of the vaulting summits and desolate valleys of the Black American experience. The city has a large blues scene, a rich civil rights history, and an impressive Black culinary tradition. But simultaneously, it is a city marred by racial inequality, discrimination, and unadorned white supremacy.

Last month the statue of the Confederate soldier and staunch white supremacist, Nathan Bedford Forrest, was finally removed from the city’s park grounds. And while some celebrate the slow withdrawal of the essence of white supremacy in public, the substance of racism in Memphis nevertheless persists. And perhaps nowhere does the city’s legacy of racial inequality loom larger than it does over the city’s health care disparities.

According to Tennessee government documents, the state has had a long history of racial inequality when it comes to health with African Americans having higher rates of injury, premature death, infant mortality, and health risks like obesity and insufficient access to healthy foods. A longitudinal study investigating Memphis found the city suffered from a particularly serious problem with infant mortality.

“Sixty percent of the births are to African-American women in Shelby County, but nearly 80 percent of the infant deaths are among African-Americans,” the researchers wrote. ”Although there are some counties in Tennessee with higher infant mortality rates among African-Americans, an African-American baby born in Shelby County does have a relatively disadvantaged first year of life.”

The roots of the environmental racism and the racial health disparities that plague Memphis can be traced in part back to the segregation of the mid-twentieth century. During the Great Depression and in the subsequent New Deal, cities like Memphis were redlined, and Black neighborhoods were prevented from getting access to federal government loans. The practice ultimately created concentrated racialized poverty through the home mortgage system, and the practice of discriminatory lending continued deep into the 20th century and beyond. As seen in the wake of the Great Recession, large banks like Wells Fargo targeted the Black communities in Memphis with subprime loansthat harmm these neighborhoods.

The past and present housing discrimination effectively drain the opportunities from wealth from these communities that ultimately have serious consequences on the health of Black communities and Memphis as a whole. The compounded divestment means the predominantly Black neighborhoods in Memphis have fewer grocery stores and more fast food restaurants. It’s the type of disparities that mean Black children have to grow up in food deserts, or what some experts are calling food swamps.

Moreover, without the generational wealth from homes, and under continued housing discrimination, Black residents in Memphis disproportionately make less money, have inferior jobs, and thereby have a more difficult time finding the resources to navigate the expensive and bureaucratic American healthcare system. And as officials from the Department of Health in Tennessee wrote, “Income is highly correlated with health status” and “the median household income is lowest for the African-American population.”

But even in the face of all these obstacles, one resident Deana Taylor, having had long personal experience with these problems, feels confident that she can make a change.

“Year after year, I’ve seen the city in which I live continually come in as lacking any improvement in health statistics. In 2011 I started Finally Fit Memphis with a mission to overcome unhealthy lifestyles through education and inspiration,” Taylor tells WYV.

“Finally Fit Memphis began as a single individual seeking change especially within the African American community in which access to fresh fruits, vegetables, non-GMO foods, and fitness facilities is unavailable within a 10-15 mile radius,” she continues.

Over the last seven years, Taylor’s journey has taken her into elementary schools, summer camps, farms, gyms, and beyond to create a holistic curriculum the targets every area of Memphis with fitness classes and nutrition workshops for individuals in the community of all ages.

In Shelby County, Finally Fit Memphis has made a big difference and is part of a growing generation of nonprofits. Research is starting to show nonprofits like Taylor’s create safer, healthier communities. For her efforts, Taylor has been nominated three years in a row (2015, 2016, 2017) by the Tri-State Defender in the Best in Black awards as the “Best Personal Trainer” in Memphis. Though the obstacles remain steep, Taylor and Finally Fit personify what a more racially equitable Memphis could look like if it were to scale the solutions necessary to address the long legacy of inequality.

Investing in the health of Black babies and women can help bring about the goals that Taylor has fought for over the last several years and that every resident of Memphis deserves.

This post is in partnership with WearYourVoice Mag.

*Katie is a public health professional and freelance writer for hire. Her public health focus is health communication and programming; while, her writing focuses on race, social justice, and (of course) public health. She enjoys reading, devouring chocolate chip cookies, and pretending to be from Atlanta.