The Public Health Challenge of Normalizing Breastfeeding: A Report from the USBC’s Fifth National Breastfeeding Conference

In sixteen years as a family wellness activist there has been one core question that appears across all camps whether it be birth, nutritious food, or breastfeeding: How do we carry our message from meetings in parks where crucial human connection is made to board rooms where impactful public policy is created?

As an elected representative from the Virginia Breastfeeding Taskforce to this month’s United States Breastfeeding Committee’s Fifth National Breastfeeding Coalitions Conference, I  joined more than 340 attendees from 48 states, as well as several U.S. territories and Indian Tribal Organizations (ITOs), to discover how state and local coalitions are carrying their message and making change in public policy.  The conference’s strategy and title this year was Transforming Barriers into Bridges: Cultivate Your Community Leadership.

Why is the work of state and local coalitions crucial to the breastfeeding movement in America? Because, as the USBC conference co-chair and Kansas Breastfeeding Coalition representative, Brenda Bandy says, “Local communities are the only place any real change is made.”

“I am a big fan of driving all over this state and meeting these local champions face to face.  I find my local champions and then I connect resources to their efforts. This is what the United States Breastfeeding Committee is doing for the state coalitions at the conference.  We are doing this on a state level,” said Bandy, who is bringing together 18 local Kansas community coalitions next month.

It was in my own mother’s support group that I experienced the importance of a local vision.  In 1998, as a mom with a new baby, I remember the moment someone handed me a Virginia Breastfeeding Taskforce laminated, blue business card with the state code on one side defending my right to publicly breastfeed and the taskforce’s information on the other.

It was “just a card” but I was riveted!  “Wow, someone has my back!” I thought.

Inspired, I worked with my local support group of mothers to distribute the cards to more mothers who, like me, lit up at the shiny, “Get-Out-of-the-Public-Toilet-for-Free” card.  We then carried those cards into community businesses and asked owners to post the cards in prominent places to help spread the word.  One cafe owner said she pointed to the card on her community bulletin board if a patron complained.  While our activism didn’t change national public policy, we did educate and enlighten local attitudes toward breastfeeding mothers and babies.

 Sixteen years later, I now appreciate how much planning, financing and effort such a small card took by the women of the taskforce who were hoping that I would feel exactly as I did when I received it: empowered.  At the USBC conference, many women shared their stories of how they were empowered to continue breastfeeding in a culture that does not support breastfeeding. To swim in a sea of passion activists and visionary women moved me past my initial memory of empowerment and toward something more along the lines of bliss.  It was heaven. (See the State of the World’s Mother’s Report here for more on the lack of breastfeeding support in America.)

During and between conference sessions, that core question was considered in earnest with one takeaway: while the breastfeeding message is universal, individual communities are not. The task of turning barriers into bridges through local leadership is the answer to empowering women and babies, but how can and is this being done?

In an impromptu round table discussion, Tammy Lantz, the Colorado Breastfeeding Coalition representative noted, “Those aren’t just literal mountains separating communities in our state. They are figurative as well.  All of our communities are different and need to have their own local coalitions.”

The round table discussion was inspired by Bandy’s story of bringing together groups in her state through an official nonprofit structure and, alternatively, the American Samoa Breastfeeding Coalition’s representative, who shared her experience in advocating for breastfeeding in a traditional, village culture that offered support for her ideas of change, including educating ambulance drivers to help mothers and babies have skin-to-skin contact when they are transported from the fields to the hospital.  Clearly, no one but a perceptive member of the Samoan community could have identified and then worked easily to bring about such a significant change.

“So how do we do this?”  I asked Shannon Polk, a seasoned attorney who brings her professional skill set to the Michigan Breastfeeding Coalition through a successful, grant-winning nonprofit format. “Should we just go out there as on-fire, local activist moms or should we take the time to ‘grow up’ and learn the ins and outs of the formal nonprofit world?  It’s been my experience that founding and running a nonprofit isn’t cheap.  In fact, my own nonprofit stopped offering support groups years ago because it was going to cost them $1,700 each to come under our umbrella.  And don’t get me started on liability issues for mothering support groups.”

Julie Hamilton, the Nashville Breastfeeding Coalition rep who had presented her Beyond the Sticker poster campaign that morning, hollered (can can say that as a fellow Southerner) from the next table over, “I’m with you! Moms on fire!”  (You can see Julie’s very cool and professionally designed campaign on the NBC Facebook page.  She is interested in sharing the campaign with other coalitions.)

A part of me, the part that is weary from the restrictions of the nonprofit world, wondered aloud to Polk, is a formal structure necessary to achieve our goals?  Alternatively, how will local coalitions qualify for funding for projects without a 501c3 designation that could take years and thousands of dollars to secure? Who is going to hang in there that long to see that process through to the end?  Busy parents?

 “We’re now at the point of finding out how to be amazing activists and nonprofit leaders and effective with change. This question reminds me of the Ferguson thing. I don’t want to sit at another table and eat another chicken dinner or have another protest. I want change.  I am in my forties and I want change.  Effective change,” said Polk.  “The breastfeeding movement has to move to a more mature change in the lives of mothers and fathers as well as people who do not have children, because this is a public policy issue.  It is important that we resource the movement, that we provide resources and money.  We need institutional and structural change.”

“At some point you move to a place to realizing you are not an island and you have linked fates.  You may not share the same views as someone else, but you realize this is a working mom issue, and a fresh food issue and you link arms with everyone. Are you going to let me provide fresh first food to my baby when I am in here buying produce?  You begin to see the interconnectedness.  It is a public policy issue that involves everyone,” said Polk.

Supporting Local Coalitions

First of all, says Bandy, defining “What is a coalition?” is necessary. Coalitions are usually independent nonprofits, begun and maintained by on-fire mommas, and are not government organizations. The National Breastfeeding Coalitions Conference’s mission is to “focus on implementation of The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding through enhancement of breastfeeding coalitions’ capacity to impact policy, systems, and environmental change.”

Although the USBC conference historically has focused on state-level coalitions, the event name was also changed this year to reflect that its purpose and content are truly relevant to all types of breastfeeding coalitions. This includes community-level coalitions and “cultural coalitions,” as well as the organizations that are members of USBC as the national breastfeeding coalition.

“You get three people talking about breastfeeding you don’t have to call them a coalition,” said Bandy. “Again, we recognize that the work is only going to get done on the local level and the state function is to identify and empower the local leader.  We are a cleaning house of information and connection for local groups.  This is what the USBC does for the states and that is what we’re doing for local group.  What will sustain us is building these local leaders.”

As an attorney, Polk says state coalitions cannot bring local coalitions under their nonprofit umbrella unless they have filed and paid for a specific listing with the Internal Revenue Service.  And as I found working with the Nonprofit Risk Management Center over the last ten years, the liability issues with forming support groups can be daunting.

Polk says she supports local coalitions in Michigan by beginning to include them in grant proposals as partners with the coalition acting as a fiscal agent.

“We include them in grants and say they are going to help us with this project. So, we are going to pay them for their services.  W are starting in these communities, of Detroit  and Ann Arbor and Flint.  If it works in the larger communities, then we will move into the smaller communities,” said Polk.  “As opposed to being a fiscal coalition, they are a partner.  We will do a MOU with each other when we are awarded the grant.”

“The cliché phrase is, there is more than one way to skin the cat.  If we can’t go the route of becoming a 501c3 or be an affiliate, it could be making them partners that work together on a project. It is critical to look for ways to build trust and connection.”

Preserving History To Insure A Sustainable Movement

There is the message of breastfeeding and breastfeeding support, that Mobile Milk is texting to a thousand New York City moms in an exciting pilot campaign, and there’s the message of the breastfeeding movement, of organized and focused activists, to everyone in a community. Both messages are

The long-term success of breastfeeding in America depends upon passing down the wisdom and experiences of seasoned state and local coalition activists.

“We need to support people already doing the work in the community and then tell the story that is happening there,” said Polk. “Get those stories out. Then take this to the institutions and ask them to support this work.”

Bandy shares, “We need to have a history and storytelling of our projects in our coaltions.  In a practical way, e-newsletters can serve as a chronicling of the history of the organization as well as a communication tool in the moment.”

“USBC was thrilled to convene this unique event once again: the only breastfeeding conference focused on the power of engaging partnerships across all sectors of society to build a strong circle of breastfeeding support. This year’s theme—Transforming Barriers into Bridges: Cultivate Your Community Leadership—focused on developing coalitions’ capacity and commitment to equity and inclusion in breastfeeding support, a fundamental organizational priority for USBC,” said Megan Renner, Executive Director in an email exchange.

Hindsight, Insight and Headlights

The USBC conference is one of the most informative and inspirational events I have ever attended as an activist.  The passion and creativity driving mothers to share their precious energies to improve the lives of other families in their unique communities is the rocket-fuel of a maturing movement with a clear vision. Visit their expansive website for avenues to engage from right where you are, in your community and state, and let’s normalize breastfeeding together.


Related to this Post:

Can Breastfeeding Laws Change Anti-Breastfeeding Culture? Virginia Is About To Find Out, By Lisa Reagan, includes conference notes from the USBC’s 2016 conference.

Nursing Narratives: How Deep Listening, Safe-Sharing, and Truth-telling Support Systemic Change, By Lisa Reagan, notes from the USBC 2019 conference and Worklife Law Center Conference in San Francisco.




Kindred’s Equity-Diversity-Inclusion Resources

Kindred’s Black Mothers and Fathers Resources

The Evolved Nest.The Evolved Nest is a breakthrough concept that integrates findings across fields that bear on child development, child raising and adult behavior.  The Evolved Nest promotes optimal health and wellbeing, cooperation, and receptive and sociomoral intelligences. Societal moves away from providing the Evolved Nest have contributed to the ill being and dysregulation we see in one another and society. Learn how to nest your children and re-nest yourself.

Saving Tomorrow Today: An African American Breastfeeding Blueprint. A new report from Reaching Our Sisters Everywhere, ROSE.

Center for Worklife Law. The Center for WorkLife Law is a research and advocacy organization at UC Hastings College of the Law that seeks to advance gender and racial equity in the workplace and in higher education. WorkLife Law focuses on initiatives that can produce concrete social, legal, and institutional change within three to five years.

Our current major initiatives include programs for advancing women leaders, eliminating barriers for pregnant and breastfeeding workers and students, preventing Family Responsibilities Discrimination, and helping companies prevent or interrupt bias in the workplace and create more stable schedules for hourly workers.

United States Breastfeeding Committee.The United States Breastfeeding Committee (USBC) is an independent nonprofit organization that was formed in 1998* in response to the Innocenti Declaration of 1990, of which the United States Agency for International Development was a co-sponsor. Among other recommendations, the Innocenti Declaration calls on every nation to establish a multisectoral national breastfeeding committee comprised of representatives from relevant government departments, non-governmental organizations, and health professional associations to coordinate national breastfeeding initiatives. The USBC is now a coalition of more than 100 organizations that support its mission to drive collaborative efforts for policy and practices that create a landscape of breastfeeding support across the United States.

Center for Nonviolent Communication. See a list of human needs here. Learn deep-listening skills here as well!

Summary of Racial Identity Development. How far are you down your path?

Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture. See how closely related Toxic Masculinity, Patriarchy, Narcissism, and White Supremacy are on this website.

Dismantling Racism. An online workbook.

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