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Pitt Medical student Tierra Bender knows the importance of constructive community-driven dialogue. As someone who identifies as a queer Black woman, she has found herself too often in the role of teacher for those who are unfamiliar with the unique barriers she and others face.

She explains that many times when faculty members try to facilitate difficult conversations, hurtful statements may go unchallenged to avoid defensive dialogue. “That can harm people,” says Bender.

Fostering healthy communication is just one of the reasons that the University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences (SHRS) created a safe space for the community to come together in honest conversation at the Black Maternal Health Forum hosted by the SHRS Wellness Pavilion.

Originally inspired over a year ago by conversations between a Pitt Physician Assistant Studies (PAS) student and Wellness Pavilion Director Channing Moreland, the Forum became the facility’s first in-person community event after 19 months of virtual programming. With support from the University and community partners, the event was a tremendous success, bringing in a full house. Community members, students, faculty and local experts came together to discuss the pressing themes of Black maternal health.

“I'm so grateful that there was such a wonderful turnout,” says Moreland. “We have some amazing partners and sponsors so I just couldn't be happier about this.”

The one-hour forum was bookended by a community health fair attended by local organizations, UPMC and various academic programs and departments from Pitt Health Sciences schools, including Occupational Therapy, Nutrition, Nursing and Pharmacy.

“It's important to have events like this for engagement so that everyone has the opportunity to gain access to care methods,” says Wellness Pavilion Community Engagement Fellow and Sports Medicine student Sasha Tolliver. “The Wellness Pavilion is here to meet the needs of the community.”

Moreland is excited to bring these types of University resources to the residents of Homewood and their neighbors.

“We know that health disparities exist within communities of color and we know that we have a huge university just blocks away from these communities that we want to support,” she says, “So I really felt like we were in a very unique position to leverage Pitt’s resources.”

Physician Assistant Studies Assistant Professor Kathryn Reed, who also serves as the PAS Department’s vice chair for Equity, Inclusion and Community Engagement, helped coordinate the event and served on the panel.

“We have to be here listening to the community and answering their questions,” she says, “because if we're not, we're not doing our job. Our calling is to work with our neighbors and community partners to ensure that we're showing up in the best way we can for our patients and for our communities.”

Having these open conversations is imperative.

“[In class], we're discussing the communities that we're treating and that we're helping, however, this forum gives community members the option to share their lived experiences so that we may learn directly from them,” says Bender. “It also breaks down any barriers because oftentimes it feels like we're in that ivory tower. We need to bring down those barriers and make ourselves more accessible to the persons that we're aiming to help.”

Amber Edmunds, program director and doula coordinator for the Maya Organization and one of the panelists, also expressed the importance of hosting these kinds of events to discuss crucial and complex themes like mother and infant morbidity, mortality rates and the dangers of unnecessary procedures.

“The conversations need to happen,” says Edmunds. She also notes that historically so much progress has come at the cost of Black mothers and babies, so connecting existing resources with this type of solutions-oriented dialogue is one small step universities can make towards creating a more equitable world.

Reed echoed the urgency of matching resources to solutions. “The people that really have the money, the access and the ability to make changes are here to listen to the voices in need. That doesn't always come in boardrooms; that's typically found by being in the community.”

True to the Wellness Pavilion’s mission to “offer person-centered inter-professional services and programs which aim to improve, maintain and promote the health and wellness of Homewood residents and surrounding communities, across the lifespan,” the Forum marks the start of an ambitious slate of in-person events and programs that will have an impact in Pittsburgh, Western Pennsylvania and beyond.

The panel was moderated by Healthy Start Inc. CEO Jada Shirrel and featured Betty Braxtor, PhD, CNM, RN, Pitt School of Nursing; Kathryn Reed, MS, PA-C, EMT-P, RYT, Pitt School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences; Amanda Casagrande, MD, Primary Care Health Services Inc., Alma Illery; and Amber Edmunds, lead doula and mentor, Maya Organization.