This Hollywood mama is determined to help U.S. babies live -- and thrive. Here is her story.
Tonya Lewis Lee is busy enough as a best-selling author, award-winning TV producer, wife of acclaimed director Spike Lee, and mother of two. For the past two years, she's added national spokesperson to her already full plate. She is the face of the "A Healthy Baby Starts With You" campaign, which is a service of the Office of Minority Health, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services dedicated to reducing infant mortality rates in the U.S.
Momlogic: You're an attorney, author of the best-selling novel "Gotham Diaries," co-author of the children's favorite "Please, Baby, Please," a mother, and wife of a high-profile husband. Phew! Why did you choose to take on this campaign and cause?
Tonya Lewis Lee: When I realized that the World Health Organization ranked the United States 29th in the world in infant mortality, I had to become involved. American children are dying at the rate of third world countries. It's a shame, and it doesn't have to be that way if we educate the public on the problem and begin to work on eradicating some of the causes. The infant mortality rate is a marker for the health of a nation. And I know that all of those babies lost to infant mortality are important resources lost to us all.
ML: The mission seems so daunting. What are some of the program's short-term goals?
TLL: It is my hope that in the next three to five years, we will begin to find that the health disparity gap is closing, and that we help fuel researchers to give us more insight into why we have this problem. We also want to figure out who can help develop the tools to eradicate it.
ML: What are some of the initiatives of the campaign? What work will you be doing?
TLL: Well, the Healthy Baby campaign began as an awareness-building campaign to get the word out to women that all African-American women are at risk of losing their child before its first birthday, regardless of their level of education or income. We travel the country -- encouraging women to make informed choices about diet, exercise, and their general health care. We also have a program for college students, whom we call our "preconception peer educators." In the fall of 2008, we piloted the program at Spelman College, Fisk University, Morgan State University, Lane College, LeMoyne Owen University, and the University of Pennsylvania Nursing School. The peer educators produced health fairs for their local communities and traveled to high schools to talk to young people about how to create and maintain a healthy lifestyle. We have also just finished a documentary film about our program and the issue of infant mortality.
ML: Wow! That is very impressive. What's next?
TLL: We are expanding to more colleges and universities this year. Having the federal government work with local government, and then with college students who go to school or live in the community is a great approach that seems to be working well. It's important that our students take a leadership role in their communities. When they do, people listen.
ML: What can all women and mothers do to help reduce infant mortality rates?
TLL: First and foremost, they can become informed about the issue of infant mortality in the U.S. Don't take having a healthy baby for granted. They should think about their overall health and work towards making healthy choices for themselves and their families.