Just 20 weeks into her pregnancy, Jessica Smith gave birth to twins — a boy and a girl — but due to complications of preterm birth, they did not survive. Smith was 29 years old at the time and the devastating loss shook her to the core.

“Even though that happened in 2015, it still hurts me to this day,” said Smith, a medical assistant from Fresno. “It was so hard, especially because I didn’t feel like I had a proper support system, even from my doctors.”

The heartbreaking story Smith shares is unique, but also similar to challenges other mothers in Fresno County face. In Fresno County, African American women experience the highest preterm birth rates in Fresno County at 16.5 percent — almost twice the rate of white women in the county at 9.4 percent. This disproportionately high rate of preterm birth is the leading cause of African American infant mortality in Fresno County.

The Fresno County Preterm Birth Initiative is working to find solutions through early education and advocacy with the African American Youth Leadership Academy for Women.

Recommended by the Preterm Birth Initiative’s West Fresno African American Advisory Committee, the academy was designed to give mothers and women a strong voice and a chance to empower themselves while gaining leadership development opportunities. Through the extensive 16-week program, participants learn about social justice issues, systemic racism, reproductive and mental health and civic engagement.

The first cohort of the academy wrapped up in May and brought together 18 women, ranging in ages from 18 to 51, from West Fresno and surrounding areas. The Fresno County Preterm Birth Initiative is recruiting community members to participate in its next academy, scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. on Sept. 6 at Legacy Commons (2255 S. Walnut Ave.).

Jessica Smith (R) and facilitator of AAYLA’s first cohort, Kristin Carraway. May 2018.

Smith, along with her mother, graduated from the first cohort. She said the experience brought a new perspective to an otherwise painful past.

“If I had been in the academy during my preterm birth experience, I would have been more informed and knew what to expect and how to talk to the doctors,” Smith said. “But more importantly, I would have had the support group to get through it.”

That is precisely the goal of the academy, said Sandra Flores, program director of the Fresno County Preterm Birth Initiative.

“We want to educate young African American mothers and women and help them tap into their power and sisterhood,” Flores said. “We recognize there is some readiness that is required to help communities advocate for their own health. This curriculum gives participants the tools and confidence to talk about the issues that impact them. This is a truly transformative experience.”

For Kolby Lovelace, 27, the academy brought her closer to her community through dialogue of social injustice.

“I learned a lot about the problems we face in the African American community and why we deal with these issues,” Lovelace said. “We are all from the same area and have all the same goals. If we want to make a change in our community, we have to come together. No one else is going to do it for us.”

For more information, contact Olga Nunez at 559.228.2161 or nunezo@csufresno.edu.

The AAYLA was a recommendation by the Fresno County Preterm Birth Initiative’s West Fresno African American Advisory Committee. Photo Credit: Fresno County PTBI

View original release on FresnoStateNews.com.