Buzz Meeting: How Do We Expand the Maternal Health Community Without Losing Focus?

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By: Janna Oberdorf, Director of Communications and Outreach, Women Deliver

At the end of the two and a half days of the MHTF Buzz meeting, my brain is certainly buzzing with ideas, thoughts, and more than anything – questions. The goal of the meeting was to bring up “5 Questions You Need to Ask About Maternal Health Right Now,” and to discuss and debate these tough questions. At first, I think it was really challenging for the group to think about asking tough questions without focusing on finding answers – something our community strives to do. But, looking back, I feel really privileged to have had the space to think about maternal health on a different scale – to see beyond “next steps” and “action plans” and to have the freedom to think big.

One thing that struck me was a key question that was addressed towards the end of the meeting: How do we expand the maternal health community without losing focus? The “askers” of this question were getting to the heart of inclusion and integration of other development issues like newborn health, child health, women’s health, women’s empowerment, etc. But, I think this question can make us go beyond the integration piece and think more critically about what does it mean to “expand” the community.

For the past two years, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and striving to get more young people involved in maternal health. I’ve talked about the need for new voices in the field, the need to ensure the future of the movement by investing in the leaders of tomorrow, and the need to pass on the lessons of the last 25 years of the “safe motherhood” initiative so we don’t lose what has already been learned. But, being at the buzz meeting, I came to realize that the need to expand the community goes so much farther than just a question of age. Countless times at this meeting, participants would qualify their statements and contributions by saying, “I’m not an expert in maternal health, but…” or “I’m on the outside of this issue, but…” I did it often myself in saying, “I know I’m new to this field, but…” What I came to realize is that we need to expand our community to include young people, for sure, but we also need to be better about letting our guard down to all people who are engaged and excited about working to improve maternal health – whether they are 18, 35, or 75.

We need to accept that everyone will come from a different perspective and will have a different set of skills, and it’s this diversity of interested actors that could potentially push the maternal health issue forward. We need more people to feel like they can be part of the solution.

At the same time, the maternal health community should work to pass down the history of the last 25 years in a way that excites and engages new players rather than builds barriers. I think that a major part of this is an immense need for better intergenerational dialogue – we need to ensure that the future leaders in the maternal health community inherit the wisdom and the knowledge of the past 25 years without inheriting the baggage. We need to learn from what the current leaders know, but feel freedom to challenge, try new things, and even re-try things in a new generation and new context.

Meetings like the MHTF Buzz are an important step in this process. It’s always more satisfying to answer questions than to ask questions, but both are so essential to move forward. “I know I’m new to this field, but…” I feel optimistic that we can and will make progress on maternal health. So let’s start bridging the knowledge gap not just in data and research, but look to bridging gaps between issues, between generations, and between people.