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Legislature Passes Sen. Skinner’s SB 65, the California Momnibus Act

SB 65 is sponsored by Black Women for Wellness Action Project, Western Center on Law and Poverty, California Nurse Midwives Association, NARAL Pro-Choice California, and National Health Law Program and supported by a coalition of over 50 organizations

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Godmother & Goddaughter Celebrating At A Party, Photo courtesy of Andrae Ricketts via Unsplash

The California state Senate approved Sen. Nancy Skinner’s SB 65, the California Momnibus Act, on a 31-5 vote on SB 65, which is designed to improve maternal and infant outcomes, particularly in families of color. SB 65 won unanimous approval from the state Assembly on September 9 on a vote of 77-0.

SB 65, which will improve research and data collection on racial and socio-economic factors that contribute to higher rates of maternal and infant mortality, now goes to Gov. Gavin Newsom for consideration.

Earlier this year, key elements of SB 65 were included in the state budget, including reduced work requirements for pregnant mothers on CalWORKs and new doula services for Medi-Cal recipients. SB 65 will also establish an implementation workgroup to maximize the reach of these new benefits into communities where they are needed most.

“California is failing birthing moms and babies – particularly those of color. Infant and maternal mortality is higher in the U.S. than in all other high-income countries. These are preventable deaths and we can and must do better,” said Skinner, who is vice chair of the Legislative Women’s Caucus. “SB 65 will take a comprehensive approach to improving outcomes for birthing parents and babies and close racial disparities in maternal and infant deaths and health outcomes.”

Each year, an estimated two-thirds of the pregnancy-related deaths in the United States are considered preventable, according to a recent reportResearch points to structural racism and other socio-economic factors as playing key roles in causing racial and geographic disparities in birthing outcomes.

Although California’s infant mortality rate is lower than the national average, Black babies die at a rate more than double the state average. Mortality rates for Native American infants are also higher than the state norm. Death rates for Black pregnant and postpartum Californians are more than three times the state average.

SB 65 is part of a national effort to eliminate our country’s high maternal and infant mortality rates and complements two federal bills, the Black Maternal Momnibus Act of 2021 and The Kira Johnson Act, introduced by Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA). SB 65:

  • Codifies and expands California’s Pregnancy-Associated Mortality Review Committee to investigate maternal mortality and morbidity and make recommendations on best practices to reduce maternal and infant deaths.
  • Updates data collection and protocols for counties participating in the Fetal and Infant Mortality Review Process and requires counties meeting specified criteria to participate.
  • Clarifies that pregnant people are exempt from CalWORKs welfare-to-work requirements.
  • Builds the midwifery workforce by establishing a fund for midwife training programs that prioritize admitting underrepresented groups and those from underserved communities.
  • Establishes a stakeholder workgroup to aid in the implementation of the new Medi-Cal doula benefit set to start next year.

SB 65 is sponsored by Black Women for Wellness Action Project, Western Center on Law and Poverty, California Nurse Midwives Association, NARAL Pro-Choice California, and National Health Law Program and supported by a coalition of over 50 organizations.

Aspects of the California Momnibus Budget Act in the 2021-22 budget included:

  • Expanding eligibility for CalWORKs grants to pregnant people regardless of the requirement that they report which trimester their pregnancy is in.
  • Increasing the pregnancy basic needs payment for pregnant CalWORKs recipients to $100 per month (it was $47).
  • Adding Doula Care to eligible Medi-Cal Services.
  • Extending full scope of Medi-Cal to a birthing parent for 12 months postpartum.
  • Including pregnant people as a priority for the state’s Guaranteed Income Pilot funded in the budget.

Robert Gammon is the communications director/policy adviser in the Office of State Senator Nancy Skinner, District 9.

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Bay Area

Gus Newport: A Soldier for Justice

One year ago, on June 12, 2023, my husband of 35 years was picked up by a van at our house in Oakland. It was the last time I saw him alive. The van was owned by Owl Transport, a company used by the Department of Veterans Affairs. It was to take my husband to the San Francisco VA Medical Center to see about getting a new hearing aid. Within a half hour of leaving the house, a San Francisco Fire Department ambulance was called to 8th and Harrison streets because Gus was unconscious. When they arrived at San Francisco General Hospital, Gus’s cell phone, wheelchair and tote bag had all gone missing. An enterprising social worker Googled Gus and found a phone number for his daughter in Atlanta; she called her brother in Oakland, and he immediately called me.

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Kathryn Kasch and Gus Newport
Kathryn Kasch and Gus Newport

By Kathryn Kasch

One year ago, on June 12, 2023, my husband of 35 years was picked up by a van at our house in Oakland. It was the last time I saw him alive.

The van was owned by Owl Transport, a company used by the Department of Veterans Affairs. It was to take my husband to the San Francisco VA Medical Center to see about getting a new hearing aid.

Eugene “Gus” Newport was 88 years old and wheelchair-bound because he had lost a leg in 2021, but my husband remained as active as I had always known him, forever engaged in civil rights and community development work, just as he had been as mayor of Berkeley from 1979 to 1986.

Gus had a busy week ahead of him: on June 16 he was going to be interviewed for a film about his friendship with Malcolm X; on the following day he was scheduled to fly to Atlanta for a weekend board meeting.

Within a half hour of leaving the house, a San Francisco Fire Department ambulance was called to 8th and Harrison streets because Gus was unconscious. When they arrived at San Francisco General Hospital, Gus’s cell phone, wheelchair and tote bag had all gone missing. An enterprising social worker Googled Gus and found a phone number for his daughter in Atlanta; she called her brother in Oakland, and he immediately called me.

The next morning, I called Owl; they said they were investigating and had notified the VA, but the VA never called the family. I was able to reach Gus’s VA doctor, who works primarily at UCSF, and she told me to call the Patient Advocate number, but they never called me back.

The doctors at the hospital determined that Gus had suffered a severe neck and spinal injury and that if he ever regained consciousness, he would be a permanent quadriplegic.  On June 17, we decided to let him go. The VA doctor helped me convince the San Francisco Medical Examiner to carry out an autopsy, which was finally done on June 30, and it confirmed that Gus’s injuries were the result of somehow falling backward in the van.

Three weeks after the accident, someone finally called me from the Veterans Transportation Service office in San Francisco — but he would not tell me anything about what they thought happened in the van, though he said they were working to make sure this never happens again.  They had never looked for a second phone number to reach the family and continued to call Gus’s missing cell phone after he died.

In July 2023 the family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Owl in San Francisco Superior Court, and we are waiting for a trial date to be set. In December 2023, the Chronicle ran an investigative article about the poor billing system for the SFFD ambulances, and sure enough, when I asked our lawyers if they had seen a bill, they showed me an invoice “addressed” to “Eugene Doe, Homeless, San Francisco, CA 94107” — adding insult to injury, even though the driver had Gus’s name and address on his log sheet since he had just picked him up.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee made some inquiries to the VA on our behalf, and in February, eight months after the accident, an undersecretary of the VA called me — but only to offer me his condolences. He still said nothing about what their investigation had revealed. After I asked him some questions, he said they are still using Owl because they have not been able to find another company to serve the Oakland area — more discouraging news.

And in September 2023 our attorney filed a claim for wrongful death with the VA, but when he called the Office of the General Counsel in February, he learned that the claim had been received but had never been downloaded into their system, let alone assigned to a claim agent!

Gus was drafted into the Army in 1956 and was sent from his hometown of Rochester, N.Y., to Fort Knox, KY, giving him his first exposure to racist Jim Crow rules in Indiana and Kentucky. From there he was stationed in Heidelberg, Germany, where he worked in intelligence and logistics and played football for the base team, injuring his right knee — “playing football for my country,” he said. He also uncovered corruption among American officers who were skimming money from payments to German civilian workers. He threatened to go to the Stars and Stripes newspaper and was abruptly discharged and put on a plane back to the U.S.

Gus was a civil rights and peace activist all his life, starting with protesting police violence against Blacks in Rochester in the 1960s. He came to Berkeley in the 1970s and in the spring of 1979 was drafted by Berkeley Citizens Action to run for mayor. He won that election and was re-elected in 1982 by the biggest plurality in Berkeley history. He challenged unnecessary wars and budget priorities that consistently fund excessive Pentagon spending instead of our domestic needs and security. He supported sanctuary for refugees from Central America, divested from apartheid South Africa, and pioneered in providing domestic benefits for unwed partners.

Countless times in his life, Gus stepped up when his voice was needed. On April 5, 1977, his birthday, a group of protestors in San Francisco began the longest occupation of a federal building in U.S. history, and Gus showed up to support the dozens of disabled activists who were demanding their civil rights. Specifically, they called for implementation of Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which was designed to help returning Vietnam veterans and included language stipulating that no person should be discriminated against on the basis of disability in any program receiving federal assistance — from schools to transportation and public buildings. After 25 days the “504 occupation” succeeded.

When Gus was elected mayor, his administration created the Mayor’s Task Force on Persons with Disabilities, passed ordinances to ensure access to all public meetings and non-discrimination in City hiring and provided funding for programs serving people with disabilities.

Now we are still faced with the task of uncovering the truth of what happened to Gus in the Owl van and seeking justice for our loss. Unfortunately, except for the one doctor, the Veterans Administration has done nothing to answer our questions or help with our plight.

Years ago, I remember Gus’s granddaughter had just learned the Pledge of Allegiance in kindergarten. She was declaiming some of it in the back seat of our car — “with liberty and justice for all” — and she paused. She asked us, “What’s justice?”

Kathryn Kasch is a retired housing planner who was born and raised in Oakland.  For more information, go to gusnewport.com.

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Bay Area

Grieving & Growing: A Healing Garden in West Oakland Is Helping Bereaved Loved Ones Glow Again

As a natural order of the human condition, we cannot escape death. Akin to life and living, death and dying are a part of our journey as spiritual beings having a human experience here on Earth. One thing we know for certain is that we will all lose someone we love or someone who loves us. And, yet still, as natural as death is, the pain and sorrow we endure when losing loved ones is beyond compare and often ridden with heaviness, regret, despair, confusion, guilt, and self-blame.

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Courtesy of Chanae Pickett
Courtesy of Chanae Pickett

By Chanae Pickett

As a natural order of the human condition, we cannot escape death.

Akin to life and living, death and dying are a part of our journey as spiritual beings having a human experience here on Earth. One thing we know for certain is that we will all lose someone we love or someone who loves us. And, yet still, as natural as death is, the pain and sorrow we endure when losing loved ones is beyond compare and often ridden with heaviness, regret, despair, confusion, guilt, and self-blame.

And when our loved ones are taken from us before their predestined time as a result of excessive use of police force, gun violence, homicide, suicide, among other unanticipated traumatic encounters, our shock, bereavement, and grief reactions become compounded, exacerbated and challenging to weather.

Is it possible to heal from the suffering that comes with grief and loss, which often feels endless, cyclical, and labyrinthine? Is there a way out? A way through grief?

While serving as a Psychiatric and Psychological Care Specialist in the United States Air Force, I evaluated, counseled, and intervened with patients at the Travis Air Force Base who were deemed a danger to themselves and others. These experiences profoundly shaped my understanding of mental health.

Despite my background as a Mental Health Technician, the sudden loss of my younger brother to suicide following our father’s unjustified killing by police while unarmed with his hands up in a church parking lot left me with feelings of professional failure and personal shame. These tragedies forced me to reevaluate my priorities, leading me to focus more on making a genuine difference in grief processing, community building, and communal healing.

Driven by my brother Immanuel aka Apollo’s artistic legacy, ancestral guidance, and our shared grief, my family and I founded the Long Live Love Foundation in West Oakland’s “Ghost Town” on June 13, 2020, to honor our dearly departed.

For, the love we hold for our ancestors lives long and for all time. Using my brother’s music and message of love as guiding principles, our missions are to offer a safe supportive communal healing space for those coping with loss and to empower survivors through indigenous, holistic and alternative restorative tribal ministry practices and vital resources.

One of our cornerstone projects is our Long Live Love Healing Garden. A sanctuary for healing, this serene space hosts wellness weekends, drum circles, yoga, and various events, offering solace and respite for those navigating grief and celebrating life.

This year I’ll be the Master of Ceremonies for our much-anticipated 5th Annual Apollo Carter Legacy Weekend on June 8th and 9th in which performers and artists from all walks of life unite for a celebratory weekend overflowing with music, poetry, spoken word, song, dance, and other performing arts. Our Open Mic Stage is a magnet for talented artists eager to express themselves, their hearts, and their spirits, beckoning them to dazzle the community with their unique gifts.

RonKat Spearman of Parliament Funkadelic will be blessing our stage on Sunday, June 9th, as well as other local bands. We’ll be spreading the joy further by gifting the community with fresh, organic fruits and vegetables courtesy of Oasis Community Farm. It’s a celebration of talent, community, and wholesome goodness! To buy a ticket, sign up to perform, donate, join us in our mission, and learn more about our work and how you can support our cause, visit us at longlivelovefoundation.com.

About the Author

Chanae Pickett is co-founder of the Long Live Love Foundation in West Oakland.

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California Black Media

Banning Menthol Cigarettes: California-Based Advocacy Group Joins Suit Against Federal Govt.

A California based non-governmental organization, The African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council (AATCLC), has joined two other public health advocacy groups in a second lawsuit against the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the agency’s inaction on issuing a final rule banning menthol cigarettes.

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“Menthol cigarettes have had a devastating and disproportionate impact on the health of Black Americans,” said Yolanda Lawson, President of the NMA. “Smoking related diseases are the number one cause of death in the Black community.”
“Menthol cigarettes have had a devastating and disproportionate impact on the health of Black Americans,” said Yolanda Lawson, President of the NMA. “Smoking related diseases are the number one cause of death in the Black community.”

By Edward Henderson, California Black Media  

A California based non-governmental organization, The African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council (AATCLC), has joined two other public health advocacy groups in a second lawsuit against the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the agency’s inaction on issuing a final rule banning menthol cigarettes.

The suit, filed by Christopher Leung of Leung Law, PLLC on behalf of the AATCLC, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) and the National Medical Association (NMA) comes more than seven months after the FDA’s established date for finalizing a new rule against menthol cigarettes.

“We are a group of Californians, although we have expanded now. We were formed in 2008 to inform and direct the activities of commercial tobacco control and prevention as they affect African Americans and African immigrants in this country,” said Carol McGruder, co-chair of the AATCLC.

McGruder was speaking during a press briefing April 2 organized to announce the lawsuit. with representatives from the ASH, NMA and other organizations.

“Menthol cigarettes have had a devastating and disproportionate impact on the health of Black Americans,” said Yolanda Lawson, President of the NMA. “Smoking related diseases are the number one cause of death in the Black community.”

The lawsuit also follows the FDA’s 15-year delay in creating national policy that would ban cigarettes made with compound menthol, a minty substance that cigarette makers infuse into their tobacco products, making them more addictive and harmful.

Despite significant reductions in overall smoking rates in the US, smoking among poor, less educated and marginalized groups remains high. Every year, 45,000 Black Americans prematurely die from tobacco-caused diseases. An estimated 85% of them smoked menthol cigarettes.

“This disproportionate use of menthol cigarettes among Black Americans is not a coincidence,” Dr. Yerger continued. “I was one of the first tobacco documents researchers out of UCSF who exposed the tobacco industry’s systematic, predatory marketing schemes to dump highly concentrated menthol cigarette marketing into urban inner-city areas.”

In 2011, the FDA’s own scientific advisory committee concluded that the “Removal of menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would benefit public health in the United States.”

If the sale of menthol-flavored cigarettes is indeed banned, the FDA projects a 15.1% drop in smoking within 40 years, which would help save between 324,000 to 654,000 lives.

As a result of the Plaintiffs’ first lawsuit, the FDA made the landmark determination to add menthol to the list of banned characterizing flavors in cigarettes.

On the contrary, tobacco-aligned groups in the past have argued that banning menthol cigarettes would be impact federal and state budgets with the loss of nearly $6.6 billion in cigarette sales taxes. Menthol cigarettes account for over one-third of the U.S. cigarette market.

Other arguments from tobacco-backed groups include unintended consequences of a ban such as increased policing in Black and Brown communities due to contraband cigarettes. However, health advocates have dismissed this claim stating the ban would apply to companies that make or sell menthol cigarettes, not individual smokers.

By law, the United States has two months to respond to the lawsuit. The feds can respond to it or file a motion to dismiss.

If the suit is successful, the FDA would have 90 days to make a final ruling.

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