Rachel Zaslow, a Woman Redefining Global Health

November 14, 2017
Rachel Zaslow sitting with a child on her lap, surrounded by women.
Photo taken by Natalie Anna Jacobsen, originally published in C-Ville Weekly.

Do you know that feeling when someone starts talking, and you can immediately tell that they’re brilliant, and you’re instantly captivated? This feeling doesn’t happen very often, but it’s a wonderful surprise every time it does.

When I first heard Rachel Zaslow speak, I knew she had a point of view that was unlike anyone else I had ever met. She was quick-witted, intelligent, and had insight into issues many of us don’t think about on a day-to-day basis.

Rachel Zaslow was the lecturer for the 2017 Beverly Cobble Rodriguez Lectureship, a program put on by the Women’s Center. The goal for each annual lecture is to focus on women’s global leadership and education with an emphasis on healthcare, multinational business, and the liberal arts. Rachel was chosen for this lecture because of her position as Executive Director of Mother Health International, a nonprofit whose goal is to reduce the death of babies and mothers during childbirth and shortly afterward by creating birth centers and midwifery schools.

The morning before her lecture, Rachel came to talk to my Front Lines of Social Change class, and it was there that I learned just how cool she is.

After graduating college, Rachel worked at a midwifery school in Ghana and discovered that she wanted to become a midwife. Rachel told us that according to an old Ghana wives’ tale, if you have a dream of childbirth, you are destined to become a midwife. Rachel had one such dream, and her friend urged her to see that midwifery was her path.  After getting a midwifery degree from the UK, she got her PhD in feminist theory. Rachel has been running Mother Health International for twelve years, and living in Uganda for a good portion of those years. The model clinic she runs with over sixty local midwives trains midwives from all over.

Rachel Zaslow gives a speech on maternal mortality. Photo credit goes to Jieru Shi. Rachel spoke to our class about her emphasis on intersectionality and local organizations. She argued that to make the most good and to be the most help to people who are not from your country and do not have your privilege, you must understand their situation intimately; otherwise, you could end up creating more problems in the long run. That’s why her organization works closely with community-based organizations, which I found super cool. It’s a way to bring power to people, instead of acting like a white savior and doing more harm than good.

Rachel’s work isn’t just overseas, either. Mother Health International runs an organization in Charlottesville called Sisters Keeper Collective, which pairs trained black health professionals with pregnant black women to help them through the pregnancy and birth. Rachel argues that this addresses a huge issue in the US: black women are 2-3 times more likely to die in childbirth than white women, and that’s adjusting for socio-economic status.

Why is this? Well, I don’t know if you remember that study that was released from UVA a few years ago, showing the implicit bias that leads doctors and medical students to believe that black people handle pain better, or feel less of it, but that explains a lot of this issue. If doctors believe that black women feel less pain, then they’re not going to treat medical issues in the same way. And since African Americans are underrepresented in the medical field, this can lead to deaths. You can see why having another black woman on your side during the pregnancy process would be helpful, maybe even lifesaving!

After Rachel’s talk with us, I spent the rest of the day thinking about what she said. In a world where inequalities feel insurmountable, where social change feels like a mountain, towering above you, how do you actually make change? Where to even begin?

Rachel tells us to work local, to understand nuances and delicate intersections of identity that the structure of society oppresses in unique ways. She tells us to listen to diverse voices with important ideas that are often overlooked.

Sometimes you have to start small. Sometimes, it starts with a safe childbirth, whether it be in Charlottesville, Virginia or a midwifery school in Uganda, surrounded by women who care. Rachel’s path may not be for everyone, but I think if we all had just a little bit of Rachel’s spirit and her motivation to make positive change, the world would be a better place.

 

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