“All she wanted to do was be a mother:” New Jersey’s Black maternal mortality crisis

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"Listen to Black Mamas" platforms women at Rowan University to discuss the maternal mortality crisis. - Graphics Editor / Julia Quennessen

Saish Matthews’ dream was to become a mother, but shortly after the arrival of her firstborn, she slipped into a coma and died nearly a month after her son’s birth.

In relation to Black History Month, the Rowan-Virtua School of Osteopathic Medicine (Rowan-Virtua SOM) hosted “Listen to Black Mamas” on Feb. 23, educating attendees on the reality of maternal mortality rates among Black mothers in New Jersey. 

Premiering that night, “Listen to Black Mamas” is a documentary highlighting the difficulties Black mothers face receiving equitable healthcare while pregnant and post-delivery. 

The event included multiple guest speakers, the premiering of the documentary and a discussion panel. The goal of the event was to raise awareness about New Jersey’s maternal mortality crisis. 

The documentary’s permanent URL will be released later next week. 

In New Jersey, pregnancy-related mortality for Black women is 6.6% higher than for white women, according to the New Jersey Department of Health. 

Facts such as these were reiterated by guest speaker Dr. Marguerite Hall. Hall is the South Jersey chapter president of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women (NCBW), who co-sponsored the event. 

“Our mission [at NCBW] is to advocate on behalf of Black girls and women,” Hall said.  

According to Hall’s introduction, The South Jersey chapter of NCBW formed a task force in order to execute a project about Black maternal mortality. That project became “Listen to Black Mamas.” The hour-long documentary features two women: Jatesha “Jaye” Wilson, CEO of Melinated Moms, and Danica LaFortune, a community health worker supervisor and community doula.

Focused on their shared maternal struggles as Black women, the mothers opened up about their experiences with healthcare inequality specific to their pregnancies. In addition, the two women talked about their community and advocacy work in the documentary. 

“Everything you say can change the world… so if people have more mindfulness around how to speak with intention, they will absolutely see how powerful that statement is,” Wilson said in the documentary.

Besides being an informative and educational piece, the documentary is also made to inspire Black mothers and families to learn how to “find their roar.”

“Don’t be afraid of your message. It’s so powerful and you have no idea how many people you will change by just opening your mouth and speaking your truth,” Wilson said in the documentary. 

After the viewing of the documentary, the event moved into a panel discussion or “talk back” as Dr. Carla Clements called it. She is the creative consultant and producer of “Listen to Black Mamas.”

Dr. Clements described the importance of the “talk back” since it allotted extra time for the public to ask questions. Panel members were formally introduced and given time to talk about themselves and their work, and answer questions. 

One of the panel members was Rachanda Key, the cousin of the late Saish Matthews. Key briefed the crowd about her cousin, her story and her love for life and for children. 

“She got pregnant twice before [the birth of her son] and they both ended in miscarriages, but that did not stop her,” Key said. 

On the PowerPoint was a picture of the three sisters smiling and standing happily together. 

“[After giving birth] she kept saying that ‘something doesn’t feel right,’” Key said.

Being a first-time mom, Matthews wasn’t sure how she was supposed to feel, but she was sent home from the hospital just two days after having a C-section. 

Matthews died after being readmitted to the hospital shortly after she was first released.

Tanjika and Christyn Scurry, sisters of the late Saish Matthews, were unable to attend the event because they are still grieving the loss of their sister who passed away in November of 2022. 

“All she wanted to do was be a mother,” Clements said, restating what the Scurry sisters had told her prior to the event. “When I talked to the two sisters… they just emotionally couldn’t be here,”

Despite losing their beloved sister, Tanjika and Christyn honor her by loving her baby and keeping her memory alive in their hearts. 

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