Creating Access through Representation and Advocacy at Planned Parenthood of NYC
Issue No. 4: Black Maternal Health
Words - Attia Taylor
Illustration - Singha Hon
Pascale Bernard is a dynamic leader with extensive government, non-profit, education and labor experience. She is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the Fordham University Graduate School of Social Services, and is currently the Vice President of Public Affairs Planned Parenthood of New York City (PPNYC).
Editor-In-Chief Attia Taylor met with Pascale Bernard to talk about her path to women’s health advocacy, the challenges Black women face in relation to their maternal health, and how Planned Parenthood is working to improve maternal health outcomes.
Attia: What led you to women’s health advocacy?
Pascale: I’m first generation Haitian American. Growing up, I would hear stories about the women in my family. My great grandmother had her first child in her early teens. My great aunt was pregnant several times and never carried to term. Another great aunt had her first and only child in her 40s. Stories about women’s health have floated around my life and have impacted me.
Attia: How have you been able to impact women who look like you or come from a similar walk of life?
Pascale: I think by being part of the conversation, I bring myself and my sister friends and my relatives into these spaces. Part of our legislative agenda was to support the implementation of the Maternal Mortality Review Board in New York State, and that specifically impacts people who look like me. I’m a mother of two, and my children are 8 and 10. I know the statistics; I could have been one of them.
Before working at PPNYC, I was a starving grad student. I went to Planned Parenthood and I was able to have my endometriosis treated and get birth control pills, and I didn’t have to pay an arm and a leg. This is why I’m so passionate about it. Because I am our patients walking through the door.
I’m here to push against people who are against reproductive health justice. I’m here to tell sisters, “Look, you can come here, you can find care no matter what.” When I do the work I do here at PPNYC, I’m fighting for policies that ensure sexual reproductive health and reproductive freedom. Women, and all people, need affordable, medically-correct health care and education.
Attia: It’s so important for Black women to see doctors that look like them but it’s also important for doctors of color to see patients that look like them. How does seeing people who look like you continue to shape the work that you’re doing?
Pascale: It’s important for women of color to be in these spaces, and to have these conversations. I want a little Black girl reading this to see this Black woman wearing her natural hair, all out, and be like, “Oh my gosh! She’s wearing her hair like me!” Yes, I am. Affirming people is important, and it’s important to have people that are empathetic and understanding.
We understand not everyone is going to come through the door, so we have Project Street Beat, a medical mobile unit that goes out in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and upper Manhattan and connects with low-income communities of color. Sometimes when people go into health facilities, providers don’t look at them with the empathy and dignity that they should. Here, we treat people with respect and give them the health care that they need. They pay based on our sliding scale. We help them get health insurance. That's the kind of work that we do.
Attia: How do you see education playing a role in creating better outcomes for Black women as it relates to maternal health, and what role does Planned Parenthood play?
Pascale: I think education plays a huge role, but the elephant in the room is that there is a lot of racism in our health care system. One of the reasons there is such disparity is because Black women are not believed. Serena Williams had to convince her doctors that she had a blood clot. Why should someone who has just given birth have to convince medical providers that something is wrong?
One of the bills we are supporting is a bill around comprehensive sexuality education from kindergarten all the way through high school. I can see some people now clutching their pearls, saying, “Oh my goodness, they want to talk to the babies about sex ed!” No. It's about consent, right? Teaching the five year old that if someone touches you and you don't want them to touch you, you say, “Please don’t touch me.” And if they continue, you tell someone. That's how education starts.
We also understand that there are people, like my mom who is in her seventies and lived her formative years in Haiti, who didn't have sex education. When you look at the rate of HIV/AIDS, particularly in the Black community, our seniors are heavily impacted. All of this is about education.
If we’re not teaching our children to listen to their bodies, when they go into the doctor’s office, even when they know that something is wrong, they’re not going to say anything. If we tell that child, “even if you don't feel good, you’re still going to school,” we’re teaching them to keep plowing through no matter what. So that child grows up, and gets pregnant, and something doesn't quite feel right, and they think, “Oh well, it’s okay.” No, it’s not.
As a community, we don’t like to talk about health and wellness. When I had my first child, I emailed members of my public service sorority, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc, and I was like, “I am forming a mom advisory council.” I would ask them all sorts of questions. I created this for myself because there was no guide for me.
When you look at the Black community, historically, we are a communal people. Indigenous people are a communal people, and so pregnancy would be celebrated by the entire village. I think here at PP we’re recreating that kind of village.
Attia: Community is so important in how we lift each other up and educate each other. How can we include voices and cross cultural barriers when sharing this information? How can people who aren’t Black women participate?
Pascale: We have to show up for folks, and be honest when we show up. I have a transgender son, I don't know anything about being transgender, so I told my son, “I don’t understand what you're going through, but I’m here.” We have to be willing to accept the fact that we don't know everything but that we are going to be there for each other as allies.
For example, it’s great to be an ally when marriage equality passes, but were you an ally on the hard road leading up to it? It’s important to be an ally when you see something happening. Allyship is when a white woman sees a Black woman being treated differently than her in a doctor’s office, and says something like, “I pride myself in coming to this office because of the great service and patient care but the way you just spoke to that woman wasn’t correct, I’m disappointed, and you owe her an apology.” That's how we show up for each other. Black women are not going to fix this by themselves. We need other people to show up. We need our partners to speak up, we need our allies. You can’t just love the way we dance and do our hair and take that. If you are going to be an ally, you have to stand in the trenches with us.
Attia: What advice would you give to Black women who are hopeful, yet fearful of becoming pregnant in the US? How can we protect and advocate for ourselves?
Pascale: Find a doctor that you actually like. Don’t let the first time you go to that doctor be when you’re pregnant. Don't just go to the doctor because someone else referred them and they like them. Find someone you really like and can work with. If we have a hairstylist, and we don't like how they style our hair, we are out! These are some of the most important relationships! Your hairstylist and your gynecologist. My doctor and I have been together over 15 years. We have such a trusting relationship. She delivered my second baby, and I was on that operating table, shaking because of an adverse reaction to the anesthesia, not once did I think that my child or I would not make it out of there. I knew this Black woman would do everything she could to make sure we were healthy. She was invested in my life, in the life of my child, and in making sure we came home.