Honors Alumna Serves Low-Income Pregnant Women
by Heather Brown ('06)
My car is filled with baby products: pink Johnson’s baby lotion bottles, crocheted blue baby booties, miscellaneous diapers, binkies, and onesies. I’m 22 years old, unmarried, with no children. I rent a studio apartment in the Avenues, where somewhere in a closet my Westminster diploma and Honors degree are stored in their purple-and-gold display cover. A year ago, I was finishing up majors in English and psychology, uncomfortably suspended in the same position as many burgeoning Westminster graduates: 90% dedicated undergraduate student, 10% apprehensive adult on the hunt for a job with a tie to meaningful praxis. My journey tangentially—but not inexplicably—brought me to babies.
The threads that tie it all together take a little explaining. All originate in my experiences (scholarly, interdisciplinary, extracurricular, and service-oriented) at Westminster College. I will admit to becoming frustrated,
like so many other liberal arts students, when casual conversations led to the oft-repeated question, “So what are you going to do with your degree? Teach?” Vast vocational applications for any undergraduate major aside, I take a defensive approach to answering this question, particularly because it feels so at odds with my experience of the learning environment at Westminster.
For me, Westminster was not a vocational school. Although its classrooms turn out many well-qualified professionals, the thrust of a Westminster education is not so much to steer individuals towards landing this or that job, but rather to prepare critical thinkers—often conscientious, civically engaged critical thinkers—to make a difference with their minds and their drive, whatever their chosen forum may be.
My academic interests have always crossed disciplinary boundaries and are most accurately categorized as women’s and gender studies, encompassing a whole host of literary, psychological, philosophical, social, political, and cultural interconnections. What followed naturally from multidimensional, interdisciplinary learning was application to the world outside of texts, carrying passion outside the classroom with education, advocacy, and activism in the larger community. My senior projects in both the humanities and the social sciences reflected this, addressing the broad theme of treatments of the female body within specific social frameworks. On the one hand, I explored the themes of body politics in twentieth-century Italian women’s literature for my thesis; on the other, I surveyed female Westminster students for an empirical study of the influences on body dissatisfaction in twenty-first-century American college students. Both were motivated by general inquiries into the supposed justifications for and sources of “gender trouble,” as Judith Butler phrases it. The common link, as I saw it, was the physical site of difference, the body, endlessly playing its complex role as the source of discrimination as well as the site of social protest. The battleground of this protest, all the public and private battles waged upon and about the female body, proved to be a rich discourse for my scholarly and activist pursuits alike.
As I researched opportunities for work after graduation, I seized the chance to apply theory to advocacy and praxis. My one-and-only job application was for the opportunity to apply my interest in activism for social causes to a year of national service as an AmeriCorps Volunteer In Service to America (VISTA). Assigned full-time to the March of Dimes as, essentially, a “human grant,” my task has been to serve women in the Salt Lake valley by coordinating the organization’s prenatal incentive program. The program is designed to meet the needs of high-risk populations with limited financial resources, encouraging them to seek adequate, culturally appropriate prenatal care and providing them with the opportunity to earn incentives to take care of themselves and their babies. The women enrolled in the program often face not only economic barriers, but also language and cultural barriers, to meeting their basic needs effectively, including receiving adequate health care. As part of my year of service, I now work to alleviate the burdens of intergenerational poverty affecting clients, but also fight for progress on the fronts of social issues specifically facing women: lack of access to health-care coverage, racial and ethnic disparities in birth outcomes, and economic hardship from bearing children.
Part of the Economic Opportunity Act, the VISTA program was created in 1964 when US President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a “war on poverty.” The program is sometimes referred to as a “domestic Peace Corps,” building on John F. Kennedy’s idea of a volunteer program to combat poverty in developing countries. In the Clinton era, the VISTA program joined the umbrella of an expanded national effort on volunteerism, the AmeriCorps arm of the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Not surprisingly, the spirit of the 1960s remains alive and well amongst VISTA members who are drawn to the program by idealism and a commitment to social change. What is also not surprising is the natural niche that many Westminster grads might find among these kindred souls as they enter into their term of service as full-time volunteers. Already wide-eyed, innovative, civically minded critical thinkers, these grads would be encouraged by the VISTA program to get in there and get their hands dirty to solve tough problems.
What appeals to me most about the job is the chance to commit full-time to a cause, using my own resources to leverage the resources of others. In coordinating a program to serve low-income pregnant women and the unique struggles they face medically, economically, and socially as child bearers, my academic interests have come full circle. My time is generally spent on the various activities needed to rally community support and create sustainability in the program: recruiting and coordinating the efforts of volunteers, soliciting monetary and in-kind donations from community members, and channeling these resources towards a practical benefit for the clients. Shuttling carloads of diapers and baby blankets from place to place is merely the nuts and bolts of the gig. I may grease the gears of the whole operation, but it moves forward by the effort of the community. After all, it takes a village to raise a baby.
My favorite moments as a VISTA have been worlds away from academia. I spent time at senior centers over the holidays thanking seniors for the donations, most of them handmade, collected through service projects called “community baby showers.” These dedicated crafters and sewers had made beautiful quilts, hats, booties, and blankets; purchased care products and clothing; and gathered together to celebrate the giving season by giving to the March of Dimes. Most of these donors were parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents; and they were thrilled to be able to support the younger generation in bringing about the healthy birth of the next generation. The women who received the donations, coming from some of Utah’s poorest communities, would at least be able to bring their infants home in warm blankets, exchange soiled shirts for new ones, and keep a fresh stock of diapers on hand. More importantly, if the program reaches its aims, these mothers might be able to prevent a slew of pregnancy complications—premature labor, birth defects, and infant mortality—that would cause even more emotional and economic hardship for their families.
The connection to this cause for me comes in the statistics. Coincidentally, another role I play in my VISTA position is rudimentary statistician. I keep tabs on the program’s numbers (clients served, incentives distributed) and compare satisfaction and success rates of program participants to those of their non-participating cohorts. I use these stats to write grant requests convincing nonprofit foundations and corporate giving programs that this is a program that matters.
For you, the connection might come in the form of your own newborn baby, a grandbaby, a neighbor’s baby, or a friend’s. Chances are, you won’t have to look very far to find one. Consider the numbers: Utah has the highest birth rate in the nation and has also experienced the highest increase in the rate of prematurity in the past decade. In an average week in Utah, 911 babies are born. Of these, 137 are born to women who receive inadequate prenatal care, 95 are born preterm, 80 are born to teen mothers, 60 are born with a low birth weight, and 5 die before their first birthday. Now consider this. About one in four teen (ages 15–17) and Native American mothers and almost one in five African American and Hispanic mothers receive inadequate prenatal care during their pregnancies. Non-white women, Hispanic women, women with an annual household income less than $15,000, and women with no insurance prior to conception are all at high risk for not receiving adequate prenatal care. Lower income women, regardless of age and race, are particularly at risk for inadequate prenatal care and unhealthy birth outcomes, including higher rates of infant deaths.
These are statistics that matter and that draw volunteers like me to the VISTA program to do something about them. Every day, I volunteer in partnership with agencies serving recent immigrants, the homeless, and teen moms. Clients are referred to the program through community resources already serving the target population, including Communidades Unidas, Holy Cross Ministries, the Indian Walk-In Center, WIC offices, and community health centers throughout the valley. About 200 women earn incentives each month; in six months, 6,200 baby items were distributed.
The same principles of community and social responsibility guide the March of Dimes and the VISTA program. Both believe that volunteers, working together, pooling their resources, can tackle huge societal problems. The former organization began with a successful mission to stomp out polio. The current campaigns to eradicate prematurity and poverty continue to fight the good fight in the same manner, hoping to meet the same success.
Working at VISTA, my living allowance—my only source of income—is set at the poverty level to approximate the conditions of the low-income community I serve. Yet my budget, priorities, and goals hardly differ from those familiar to me as a self-supporting, full-time student at Westminster. I remember my more idealistic professors actually pleading with students, who widely nodded assent, “Please, please make a difference. Take your degree and do something.” I know that many, many Westminster alums have made a difference as doctors, lawyers, activists, advocates, policymakers, business executives, artists, scholars, and volunteers—whether or not those titles were directly linked in a career guide for their undergraduate major. This, for now, is how I prefer to gauge success.