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  • Writer's pictureAyanna Robinson

Celebrating the Next Generation of Black Women Researchers - Alexis Woods Barr, Ph.D., MS

For the last week of Black History Month, we are celebrating the next generation of Black women researchers in breastfeeding and Black maternal health. We believe that Black women have the skills, expertise, and perspectives to address the disparities experienced in our community. We hope you enjoy learning about the incredible contributions of these researchers.

My name is Alexis Woods Barr. I am a wife, a mother and a first-generation Ph.D. graduate. I have an underlying passion to better understand and reduce breastfeeding disparities and health disparities among the African American community, because far too many African American women, infants and children suffer disproportionately from preventable diseases and even death, which can be improved with breastfeeding practices. Therefore, focusing my efforts on maternal and child health provides an opportunity to end these preventable issues and improve the health and well-being of my community.

I attribute the largest part of my own enthusiasm for maternal and child health to my maternal grandmother. While she may only have a third-grade education, she is highly respected in our community. She would often tell me about her life as a Black person in the Jim Crow South and the reproductive injustices that Black women faced as a result. From my grandmother, I have learned to not be afraid to ask questions as it gives one clarity to be effective, and that there is beauty in empowering yourself while also empowering others.

In December of 2019, I graduated from the University of South Florida (USF) College of Public Health with my doctoral degree. During my doctoral career, I was a Centers of Excellence in Maternal and Child Health Education, Science, and Practice Fellow and a Florida Education Fund’s McKnight Doctoral Fellow. These fellowships provided me with the opportunity to take on leadership roles in local community-based organizations, apply the strengths of a multi-disciplinary approach to problem solving, and utilize central competence and social justice concepts, community partnership development and ethical standards in practice. And as a doctoral student, I worked on several research projects, collaborating with distinguished faculty in the public health field. One of my research streams was a collaborative project with the Florida Department of Health, the USF College of Public Health, USF Social Marketing Group, REACHUP, Inc and InterMixx. This project addressed how African American men and women, of child-bearing age, received messages about healthy baby practices. This project was closely aligned with my own research interests which broadly included infant feeding practices among women. However, my specific research focus area was breastfeeding behaviors among African American women. My dissertation work was guided by Black Feminist Thought and Symbolic Interactionism and I used an asset-based approach to explore the shared intergenerational infant feeding communication among 2 and 3 generations of African American female family members. Additionally, I wanted to understand the meaning/value each generation ascribed to that communication, as well as their perceptions on the extent that the conversations influenced the youngest generation’s infant feeding behaviors.

I am currently a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute (CGBI) in the Department of Maternal and Child Health at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health. In my current work, I use a social justice and intersectionality lens to center the lived experiences of African American families concerning their intergenerational infant feeding communication across the reproductive life cycle. I want to better understand how communication functions to influence breastfeeding outcomes in this community from preconception to postpartum. At CGBI, I have the opportunity to provide research expertise for multiple programs that are aimed to improve healthcare quality for the mother-infant dyad. Additionally, I support the evaluation of a hospital-based quality improvement initiative focused on maternity practices leading to Baby-Friendly designation based on the Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding. And I also support a W.K. Kellogg grant that aims to develop lactation consultant training programs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities to increase representation of people of color in professional lactation services.

Ultimately, I plan to contribute to the knowledge set of maternal and child health by developing culturally specific breastfeeding intervention programs that aim to support, protect, promote, and re-normalize breastfeeding, while also empowering marginalized communities. As the political climate in this country is ever-changing, public health leaders need to find innovative, timely, and real-world solutions for the myriad of problems facing women and families. And I am so grateful to have learned interdisciplinary approaches to address these critical issues facing underserved families and communities over the course of my doctoral and postdoctoral journey. As a public health scholar and health equity advocate, I am excited to be a leader in public health and continue to learn how to better address public health concerns from a social justice and intersectionality perspective.

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