This spring, City Bureau reporters experimented with tools and products to get people involved in our work. Here’s what we learned.

By Sarah Conway

Amber Gates, 28, at home with her son. Caroline Olsen, City Bureau.

Amber Gates, 28, at home with her son. Caroline Olsen, City Bureau.

This spring, City Bureau tackled issues of racial inequity in maternal health in a special maternal health issue of Austin Weekly News that focused on community solutions and resilience.

We quickly learned in our initial interviews with Black mothers and birth workers that maternal mortality statistics can be grim and traumatizing — and they don’t tell the whole story. We knew that the U.S. is also the only developed nation in the world where the overall maternal mortality rate is on the rise. In Illinois, Black women are six times more likely to die of a pregnancy-related condition than white women no matter their educational background, and Black women are three times more likely to die within a year of pregnancy as women of any other race or ethnicity despite making up just 17 percent of births statewide, according to the Illinois Maternal Morbidity and Mortality Report released last October. In Chicago alone, 74 percent of maternal deaths were Black women, though Black Chicagoans make up 31 percent of Chicago’s population.

The stories for the Austin Weekly News Maternal Health issue were produced by City Bureau Civic Reporting Fellows: (Left to Right) Janaya Greene, Sarah Conway, Camille Powell, Emeline Posner and Caroline Olsen. Stories were edited by Bettina Chang (not pictured). Photo credit: Max Herman, City Bureau.

The stories for the Austin Weekly News Maternal Health issue were produced by City Bureau Civic Reporting Fellows: (Left to Right) Janaya Greene, Sarah Conway, Camille Powell, Emeline Posner and Caroline Olsen. Stories were edited by Bettina Chang (not pictured). Photo credit: Max Herman, City Bureau.

We couldn’t rely only on numbers. In order to do this project right, we needed to incorporate as many community voices as possible into our reporting and editorial direction in order to create content that fits the needs of Black women, birth workers, and the people that love them in our city. Community solutions and hope, we learned early on, needed to be a part of the story, too.

Below are some of our favorite engagement projects from the spring reporting cycle that helped us go deeper in our reporting. Here we will share our favorite aspects of each engagement activity, any challenges we faced, and its impact.

You can read our series of stories on maternal health in Chicago here.

WBEZ Morning Shift Black Maternal Health show guests (Upper left to right): Janaya Greene, Jenn White (WBEZ host), Lakieta Edwards, Tayo Mbande. Photo credit: WBEZ

WBEZ Morning Shift Black Maternal Health show guests (Upper left to right): Janaya Greene, Jenn White (WBEZ host), Lakieta Edwards, Tayo Mbande. Photo credit: WBEZ

WBEZ Morning Shift special call-in radio show for Mother’s Day

What was it: City Bureau and two birth workers (Tayo Mbande of Chicago Birthworks Collective and certified nurse midwife Lakieta Edwards) visited Morning Shift to discuss racial equity and maternal health in Chicago and to answer listener questions about Black maternal health.

How did it go:

“It felt challenging to plan and prepare for these engagement events while also ensuring I was on task with my story deadlines. A City Bureau colleague of mine even asked how my team planned these events, managed The Cord text line and reported on our stories at the same time. I later realized that holding these engagement events informed my reporting immensely because it was another opportunity to learn from the people who were a part of our stories.

“At the WBEZ radio show, I struggled with thinking of concise answers to questions I was asked. I often felt like there were either no definitive answers to why policy isn’t catching up with maternal health needs in Illinois, or I felt the answer was too complex for a 30-minute radio show. I resolved to share the information I thought was most important for listeners, in order to allow enough time for Lakeita and Tayo to share their experiences in birth work. One of the greatest accomplishments of the show was that Lakieta and Tayo were able to shift the conversation to finding solutions for maternal health issues in Chicago, instead of continuing the current trend of only talking about the devastating maternal death and complication rates. In this way, they caught a blind spot of many reporters reporting on the issue but not necessarily reporting on how communities are working to make change.” — Janaya Greene, City Bureau spring reporting fellow

  • You can listen to our Mother’s Day show here.

Dorothy Bowser and her daughter Phthalo at their #CoverMama photoshoot with City Bureau photo fellow Caroline Olsen. Photo credit: Caroline Olsen, City Bureau.

Dorothy Bowser and her daughter Phthalo at their #CoverMama photoshoot with City Bureau photo fellow Caroline Olsen. Photo credit: Caroline Olsen, City Bureau.

#CoverMama photo contest

What was it: City Bureau and Austin Weekly News co-hosted a social media campaign called the #CoverMama photo contest where Black moms in Chicago tagged City Bureau in their favorite photos that captured Black motherhood for a chance to win a maternity photo shoot and to become our cover model. Our winner was Dorothy Bowser of East Garfield Park, who posed with her baby girl after winning the #CoverMama contest.

How did it go:

“I loved how throughout the cycle this team tried to think of ways to engage the community we were covering in order to best serve them. The cover mama contest was particularly fun for me because I got to work with someone who was super excited about the shoot, and we had the chance to create and execute a shared vision outside of any particular goal or story. I had so much fun collaborating with Dorothy, and I’m grateful that I was trusted to capture the connection between her and her daughter.” — Caroline Olsen, City Bureau spring photojournalism fellow

  • You can read a special note from Dorothy Bowser, our Austin Weekly News #CoverMama, here.

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The Cord: resources for modern mamas

What was it: The Cord is a free news and information text service for pregnant women, mothers and any other person looking to gain resources on healthy pregnancies, postpartum tips, maternal and baby news and thoughts on pregnancy and motherhood in Chicago. Subscribers asked City Bureau fellows questions about maternal health and wellness, and advised us about what expectant parents should know. Starting soon, we are proud to be handing over control of this text-message service to Tayo Mbande, a doula and cofounder of Chicago Birthworks Collective, a group of birthworkers, healers, and wellness practitioners serving Black families across Chicago.

How did it go:

“One of my favorite engagement activities this cycle was The Cord. We sent links to articles, information, videos about birthing practices, TV series on doulas and birth worker-led events in the Chicago area. It was a two-way service: not only could we send out the resources we came across during our reporting, but text subscribers could reach out to ask questions and offer feedback. This two-way channel resulted in us looking into a variety of real-life questions (insurance for newborn babies, for one) that we might not have otherwise, and it provided a point of contact between our team and the people we were trying to reach.

“Along with the positives, we experienced some challenges with The Cord. We learned that users must have a smartphone or a connection to the internet to sign up for the service, for one. Another challenge is that there’s no way for us to look at who our subscriber base is, and whether we’re doing a good job reaching our target audience. Despite the challenges, I think The Cord has served as a great way to inform individuals about and connect them with the birth work community in Chicago — as well as to learn about more birth workers and birth options in the Chicago region ourselves. I look forward to seeing it continue to be used toward that end.” — Emeline Posner, City Bureau spring reporting fellow

  • You can learn more about The Cord here.

A booth at the “Ask a Maternal Health Expert Anything!” Public Newsroom held at New Moms in Austin. Photo credit: Caroline Olsen, City Bureau.

A booth at the “Ask a Maternal Health Expert Anything!” Public Newsroom held at New Moms in Austin. Photo credit: Caroline Olsen, City Bureau.

Public Newsroom 108: “Ask a Maternal Health Expert Anything!”

What was it: On May 16, City Bureau held a Public Newsroom to bring together women and local maternal health experts at New Moms in Austin. These doulas, midwives and other birth workers served as “open books” — where attendees could sit down and ask them any questions or use a question guide to get the conversation started. Our teammate Camille Powell suggested the format based on an “open book” event in Chicago she’d participated in before. We wanted to highlight community-generated, Black-led solutions to the maternal health crisis in Chicago.

How did it go:

“The Public Newsroom was a great opportunity for birth workers and attendees to have meaningful conversations around childbirth, maternal care and community. The birth workers were ‘books’ and the attendees were ‘readers,’ which created a safe space to ask questions and share experiences. Each station had its own expertise, which allowed people to prioritize where they wanted to glean information. By the end of the event, we had hosted a full-group discussion, attendees had talked to one to six other people, and we collected audio stories of people’s first-hand experiences of childbirth.

“What I really liked about the Public Newsroom was that the attendees were settled to a table of their choice with ease, and the engagements were pretty immediate. And, amongst the birth workers, I heard them mention that it was nice to match a face to a name, since many were only virtually connected before.” — Camille Powell, City Bureau spring reporting fellow

  • You can read a comic on the “Ask a Maternal Health Expert Anything!” Public Newsroom by City Bureau’s Ellie Mejía here.


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