Brown Mamas Speak Out on Pittsburgh’s Legacy of Racism

Brown Mamas, a collective of African-American women, gives voice to the persistent inequality that burdens Black women in Pittsburgh. 
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In the spring of 2010, Iyanna Bridges was looking for a new beginning. The 19-year-old had read articles on Pittsburgh being named America’s Most Livable City, so she packed up her belongings, her infant daughter, and left Brooklyn, N.Y., headed west to the Steel City. For a few years, she enjoyed the bubble of greener spaces, lower rent and the exuberance of starting over.

But Bridges struggled to find work that wasn’t minimum wage. She also noticed a pattern of racial microaggressions – store security following her or being ignored at store counters. It was troubling, but she mostly tried to dismiss it.

One April evening, two years ago, she was confronted with a racial hostility she could not ignore. Bridges, just off from work, was enjoying the warm Downtown weather. She had on a white dress and her hair in a white headwrap. As she crossed the street, a car pulled into the intersection. A young white man jumped from the vehicle and hurled the insult, “Aunt Jemima,” mocking the iconic image of an African-American woman who wears a headscarf.

“I couldn’t believe this was happening,” Bridges says. “This was in the middle of the street in broad daylight. I would never have experienced that kind of racism in New York.”

The ferocity of the encounter, Bridges says, was a painful personal symbol of the institutional and structural racial hurdles that confront Black women in Pittsburgh.

In September 2019, the severity of such hurdles was laid out in “Pittsburgh’s Inequality Across Gender and Race,” a report by the Gender Equity Commission, an initiative launched in 2016 to achieve equity for women and girls in the City of Pittsburgh.

The report — written by University of Pittsburgh researchers — found that compared to those in demographically similar cities, Black women in Pittsburgh face higher rates of maternal mortality and poverty along with lower rates of employment and college readiness.

About a month after the report, the Pittsburgh City Council passed a resolution recognizing the glaring and disparate health and economic outcomes as a public health crisis. A year later, Allegheny Council County, perhaps following the city’s lead, passed a similar, symbolic motion, calling the staggering inequities an issue that impacts “humanity.”

These stressful, life-and-death situations are an unfortunate stew of circumstances, says Junia Howell, a University of Pittsburgh sociologist who worked on the report. Automatically by just leaving Pittsburgh, she told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the life expectancy of Black women, “would go up, their income would go up, [and] their educational opportunities for their children would go up.”

Those who can’t leave – or decide not to – turn to other methods of coping. Bridges, who is now 30, lives in Duquesne and owns the Birthing Hut, an independent doula agency that subcontracts with the Allegheny County Jail and Healthy Start. About five years ago, she connected with Brown Mamas, a local collective of African-American women who support each other through meetings and online, share resources and provide a safe space to be their authentic selves. (

Those who are a part of this progressive collective say the report’s findings are no surprise. The evidence validates the persistent inequality they live with every day and, in many ways, foreshadowed the frustrations of why so many people took to the streets, peacefully demonstrating for social and economic justice after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

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The Brown Mamas called the report’s statistics sobering. But what troubled the group is that the report failed to query Pittsburgh’s most vulnerable Black women about their anchors and lifelines in the community or engage them in sharing the data. In fact, Cynthia Mendoza, Brown Mamas’ founder, says she learned about the report weeks after it was released. She stumbled on it while scrolling through Facebook. Without including human stories in this scholarly look at Black women’s lives in Pittsburgh, the group says, it made Black women even more invisible.

“But we aren’t invisible,” says Mendoza, 37, of Crafton, and sharing stories gives voice to the experiences that, they say, limit thousands of Black women in this region.

“Pittsburgh is supposed to be so advanced when it comes to medicine, and all of these places pride themselves on their reputations, but yet all these Black women are still dying in your hospitals.”

Iyanna Bridges

Four other Black women in the group – a community organizer for education equity from Brighton Heights, a Crafton founder of a youth and family empowerment nonprofit, a maternal and child health advocate from Homewood, and a community health worker on the North Side – also offer snapshots of what it’s like to live under such disparities.

The report points out that Black women’s poverty in Pittsburgh is higher than in 85 percent of other comparable cities; more Black children grow up in poverty here than in 85 percent of other cities. The Brown Mamas say the issue is not a new one. Persistent poverty menaced their mothers – low-paying jobs, life in segregated, under-resourced neighborhoods, health stress – and has stalked them across the generations, too. They described their mothers’ tumult in raising children, working two or three jobs, and trying to outrun the deprivation.

Mendoza grew up with two sisters. She attended at least six different schools as her mom changed neighborhoods seeking to find better housing for her daughters. But despite her hard work, their quality of life changed little, if at all. “I remember watching my mom do everything she could possibly do to get us out of poverty. It didn’t matter how many hours she worked, it didn’t matter how many jobs she picked up, it didn’t matter how little or how much she spent. It just never worked.”

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Nichole Sims, 46, is a retired human resources consultant who organizes for school equity. But as a young girl, she recalls her family’s fight against impoverishment. Her mother grew up in the Hill District, in a public housing community. Sims says there was love but also abuse in her mother’s family. Her mother, the eldest of five children, grew up having to care for her siblings while her parents worked.

“She was like a mom before she was a mom,” Sims says of her mother’s early introduction to a mountain of responsibility she never seemed to escape. She married young, at 19, and had Sims and three other children. After high school, she worked a low-paying health care job. And before long, she was divorced and had to tag on a second job and sometimes a third to try to make ends meet.

“My mother was always stressed. She felt judged by society, she’d always say ‘Don’t get upset, grin and bear it and have a smile on your face, because, if not, you’re going to be [called] the angry Black woman.”

Jessica Brown

Jessica Brown, 36, of Crafton, teaches her children at home and co-owns the nonprofit 5AElite, which offers family and youth programming. She says her mother also worked nights, sometimes taking on two or three jobs, and the family still had to pinch pennies. The struggle for their mothers, she says, was traumatizing. They were not only confronting poverty but also feeling the weight of being a Black woman in Pittsburgh. “My mother,” Brown says, “was always stressed. She felt judged by society, she’d always say ‘Don’t get upset, grin and bear it and have a smile on your face, because, if not, you’re going to be [called] the angry Black woman.”

If their mothers didn’t get angry, they did get tired. Sims remembers that her mother worked as a nurse’s aide during the day, and sometimes at a department store. By night, she tended bar. When she came home, Sims recalls, she would fall asleep on the couch, her tips tumbling from her pockets to the floor. The need for her mother to work so much, Sims says, too often robbed the family of its loving matriarch. “She was working more than she was parenting.”

The women say they continue to negotiate the legacy of the institutional and structural racism that tore at their mothers’ opportunities. “All of our mothers were overworked,” says Mendoza. “And, my question is: were they overworked because they were not talented or because they were overlooked?” She acknowledges the burden on Black women to be a lot to everyone at the same time and they’re still undervalued, and not paid enough.

“I think it just puts a lot of pressure on Black women in terms of health, in terms of economics, and in terms of the way we’re able to care for our children,” Mendoza says.

I don’t know if I’m fearful, but I am not excited about having to raise my sons here.”

Brandi Lee

It is easy for the women to look around and see themselves in their mothers: young and uncertain, living in neighborhoods where success is a struggle, and straining to get ahead. It can be tough to catapult beyond their mother’s lives. Mendoza did everything her mom told her to have a better life. She went to college, she married, she moved to a more solid neighborhood.

“And, still poverty is always knocking on my doorstep every two to three months. And that’s through the power of a two-parent household who both work,” Mendoza explains. “So, I feel like what [this report] shows is that Pittsburgh is a never-ending cycle of poverty for Black people.”

For these Brown Mamas, the most alarming aspect of the report is the disparity in health care. A concern that is more heightened now given reports on how the novel coronavirus strikes disproportionately at African-American lives.

“Pittsburgh is supposed to be so advanced when it comes to medicine, and all of these places pride themselves on their reputations, but yet all these Black women are still dying in your hospitals. So, that to me was shocking,” Bridges says.

Here’s what the Pittsburgh report found: Fetal deaths are two times more likely among the city’s Black women than White women, and the rate of Black fetal deaths is higher here than in 94 percent of similar cities.

Meanwhile, Black infant mortality — regardless of the infant’s sex — soars above any other racial category of infant mortality in Pittsburgh, at a rate of 13 of every 1,000 Black babies born.

When compared to other cities, deaths among Black female babies are higher here than in 70 percent of other locales, according to the report.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto described those rates of infant mortality as “third world.”

What is happening in Pittsburgh is happening to Black women nationally. A crushing environment of societal and systemic racism creates levels of toxic physiological stress, resulting in conditions — including hypertension and pre-eclampsia — that lead directly to higher rates of infant and maternal death. The toxic racism is exacerbated by longstanding racial bias in health care — devaluing and not listening to legitimate concerns and symptoms — that can lead to poor birth outcomes among Black women.

Alysia Davis, 31, is a maternal and child advocate and founder of Best4Baby, created in 2017 to connect pregnant women to local and affordable doulas. Davis, who lives in Homewood, was in her early 20s when a change in jobs forced her to change her healthcare provider. As someone who had worked on community initiatives focusing on women’s health, she understood the value of having a relationship with a personal care physician. But the new insurance meant that she couldn’t see her woman physician. She felt uncared for and unheard by the new providers, which made it hard to build rapport and trust. Struggling with a stomach ailment, it took her multiple tries, visiting different providers to finally receive clarity on how to deal with the condition. It was extremely frustrating. There were days she didn’t enter the healthcare system because she felt “unwelcomed,” like she was invisible, unseen and unheard.

Davis later received a master’s degree in public health with special emphasis on maternal and child health and health equity. With her knowledge of medicine and health, she knew that if she couldn’t stop the disparities and mistreatment from happening to her, it was surely happening to other Black women. To make a difference, in 2015, Davis began working as a doula, providing emotional, educational and physical aid to women during the birth process.

What has long troubled Davis is that, given the advances in medical research, information and treatment, it seems inconceivable to her that Black women in Pittsburgh face a present that looks so much like the past.

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“Yet, here we are,” Davis says.

There’s this ideology, she says, that if you’re educated, your outcomes are going to be better, and that’s not true. “It doesn’t matter if you have a Ph.D. in Pittsburgh, you still, because of the racism in our systems, could have a worse health outcome for you and your baby.”

As a doula, Davis spends a lot of time in spaces with women about giving birth. She observes how women, in particular Black women, are treated. “They’re not listened to and often there’s no one there to advocate on their behalf. It’s a lot to reflect on, but I had to think about whether to start a family and give birth in Pittsburgh.”

Despite the challenges, the women say they must be resilient to move toward a better future. This is necessary, especially considering that inequality based on race and gender has origins that can show up early in their kids’ education.

Black girls in Pittsburgh are less likely to pass Advanced Placement courses compared to Black girls in 98 percent of similar cities, the report shows. In Pittsburgh, only 3 percent of Black students are enrolled in algebra, considered a gateway course to other college preparatory classes. And, across all grades, students of color are much more likely to be held back than their white classmates. Disparities in school discipline are no different. “Pittsburgh refers more Black girls to the police than 99 percent of similar cities,” according to the report’s findings.

In their own way, the women of Brown Mamas are trying to address these disparities: some home-school, one works with a local group that monitors school equality, another created a nonprofit that promotes self-awareness and race pride.

Brandi Lee, 31, lives on the North Side and is a UPMC community health worker. She sends her two sons, ages 11 and 6, to a charter school, where she is involved in its school/community council.

The council also serves as a platform for Lee to give voice to the needs of working-class parents like herself. She wants school officials to better understand the challenges of some low-income families, including ways to accommodate non-traditional work schedules so that they can attend important parent-teacher meetings or their need for schools to also be a community resource.

Like the other women, Lee is anxious about her children’s future in Pittsburgh. “I don’t know if I’m fearful, but I am not excited about having to raise my sons here,” she says.

The women say they all carry the burden of that dilemma. It’s the hardest part of accepting the reality of such dire statistics. “I’m always considering that question,” Mendoza says. “Do I want to stay close to the people I love or do I want to move somewhere else where I can better care for my family?”

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