As Tonda Thompson left the retreat center in 2015 and boarded the bus back to Milwaukee, she realized she had left something behind. She had spent the past days sitting in a circle with 40 young people who had been strangers to her before starting the Public Allies AmeriCorps program just five months prior. This was their mid-year retreat, and the intention of the gathering was to strengthen bonds and build community.

Tonda had taken the opportunity to begin shedding something she’d held onto for two years. And it was this that wasn’t coming home with her: the burden of her grief from the death of her infant son in 2013.

Fast-forward to 2017, and Tonda has drawn national attention for her work in combating infant mortality in the black community, including being featured in a recent story in The Nation magazine. When Tonda discusses her thoughts and hopes around the issue, the passion is apparent in her eyes, the tone of her voice, and her body language; it’s an immense tenderness bolstered by a relentless will to make a difference.

“I’m fighting for black babies,” says Tonda, who knows the issue of infant mortality all too well. It was only four years ago that she lost her own son, Terrell. Since then, Tonda has taken her place on the forefront of addressing infant mortality, and she shows no signs of slowing down.

Before her pregnancy, Tonda didn’t spend much time thinking about infant mortality or other pressing issues facing our world. While she grew up in a household that encouraged political awareness, her mind was elsewhere. As a young adult, Tonda moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in modeling. After a couple of months under the bright lights, though, she wasn’t getting the business she had hoped for. When she and her then-husband learned they were expecting a child, it was an easy decision to return home to Milwaukee.

In preparing for motherhood, all else in Tonda’s life seemed to fall by the wayside. She was still passionate about modeling, but those dreams could wait. This was a time of battening down the hatches and devoting herself to her child. Tonda had mere hours to spend with Terrell before he died of complications. “I had to come to terms with leaving behind my mindset of motherhood,” she says, reflecting on what she felt after his death. “It felt empty.”

The pain of losing an infant is felt by more than 20,000 American mothers each year. Black mothers are twice as likely to experience that pain. Milwaukee ranks among the worst cities for infant mortality in the country, with black babies dying at three times the rate of white babies.

After losing Terrell, Tonda found herself in deep despair. A blindsiding divorce didn’t help matters. She knew that life must go on, though, and eventually started her own business, Vogue Dreams. “It was partly a photography business and partly a modeling business,” Tonda says. Her goal was to help young women enter into the modeling industry “the right way,” prioritizing self-respect and preparation for the curveballs the profession could throw at them. Yet, a fledgling business wasn’t paying the bills, so Tonda finally conceded to a friend’s pleas to check out a program called Public Allies.

Upon entering the program, Tonda said she was angry at the world and “didn’t want to hear anything from anyone.” Terrell’s death was weighing on her heart. Through Public Allies, Tonda served in a full-time apprenticeship at United Way’s Milwaukee Lifecourse Initiative for Healthy Families. At work, she was able to draw upon her own experience with infant mortality to help address the issue city-wide.

“My first year in Public Allies helped me heal,” says Tonda. “I was able to pour out my pain into the group and be met with love and understanding. By my second year, I had let go of the pain and was ready to grow as a leader. I found my voice and began to trust in my own power. In a real way, Public Allies saved my life. It brought me from the brink to where I am today.”

Now a prominent leader in Milwaukee’s movements for racial equality and healthy birth outcomes, Tonda’s main priority is to educate. “I want to close the racial gap in infant mortality. And I want folks from outside of Milwaukee to understand that black babies aren’t dying from neglect.” Why are they dying? “Racial discrimination,” answers Tonda, and the research backs her up. Chronic stress can lead to an increase of cortisol, a hormone that can trigger early labor. Stresses from racial discrimination can build up over one’s lifetime, leading to lasting health issues, including complications in giving birth.

What can we do to reduce infant mortality? Tonda believes that the solutions are both global and local. On the large scale, we need to address how racism impacts the environment in which black mothers and babies live. Not only do they need better access to healthcare, but they also deserve to live without the stress of racial profiling and discrimination. In our own communities, Tonda suggests getting involved in nonprofit organizations working to increase opportunity and positive birth outcomes for people of color.

In Milwaukee, Tonda is gearing up to organize and host the second year of a walk/run in the predominately-black Harambee neighborhood meant to honor her late son and promote healthy babies.

Happily, Tonda recently became a mother again. She gave birth to a healthy son, Jehlani. After Jehlani was born, Tonda wrote on Facebook, “The first 17 hours of his life was so scary! Only because his brother lived that long…but I’m so grateful that God saw it fit to allow me to experience motherhood.”

Tonda knows all too well the hardships that infant mortality causes families in Milwaukee and beyond. She stays motivated by a simple yet powerful mantra: “Strong babies create strong families, which will produce stronger communities.”

Read the story in The Nation that features Tonda.

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