Taking aim at racial disparities in infant mortality

Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Lab hosts first initiative event

René Morency Jr. speaks during the Social Innovation Pitch Day held on the Danforth Campus April 5. Two student teams presented their research findings at the event, aimed at tackling racial inequity in infant mortality in St. Louis. (Photo: Whitney Curtis/Washington University)

In the city of St. Louis, expectant parents often face a series of challenges. Primary among those challenges are transportation issues that can lead to missed prenatal visits and inadequate prenatal care. The result can truly be the difference between life and death: the infant mortality rate in two of St. Louis’ predominantly African-American zip codes, 63106 and 63107, is three times the national average.

It’s a challenge that governmental officials, nonprofits and community leaders have sought to tackle. Now, Washington University in St. Louis is working to lend its expertise and innovation in an effort to help solve the problem.

“We want to do our best to create a much more equitable city,” said Heather Cameron, the Michael B. Kaufman Professor of Practice in Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Brown School and a senior lecturer at Olin Business School. Cameron is the founding academic director of the Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Lab, a joint venture of Olin and the Brown School that launched in 2018.

This spring, two teams comprised of multidisciplinary graduate students from the Brown School, Olin and the School of Law took part in the first-ever Social Innovation Initiative.

First, the teams were paired with community partners already working on the issue, including Generate Health, through its FLOURISH STL initiative, and FOCUS Health Impact Fellows. After the student teams heard the full scope of the problem, they conducted research, applied lean startup methodology and then analyzed data, all in an effort to offer a fresh look at the issue of racial inequity in infant mortality rates due to transportation challenges.

“The reason we are focused on transportation is because the community has told us that this is an issue for expectant parents,” said Kendra Copanas, executive director of Generate Health. “Over and over again we’ve heard, ‘Transportation is too big, it isn’t our wheelhouse, we can’t do anything about it.’ And we said, ‘Wait. We need to try.’”

Heather Cameron, the Michael B. Kaufman Professor of Practice in Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Brown School and a senior lecturer at Olin Business School, addresses the crowd gathered at the first-ever Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Lab Pitch Day session. Cameron is the founding academic director of the SEI Lab. (Photo: Whitney Curtis/Washington University)

On April 5, the two Washington University teams presented their findings at the Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Lab Pitch Day in a room at the Danforth University Center packed with community leaders, nonprofit managers and government officials. During the two hours, the teams discussed their innovative approaches and how their data might be used to push through solutions.

One team focused on the safety and convenience of current public transit options in St. Louis. It found limited sidewalks, seating and shelters along key bus routes that serve the areas they studied — conditions that could impact pregnant mothers’ ability to use it and thereby prevent them from keeping prenatal visits.

The other team examined possible ride-share options, including Lyft and Uber, for expecting mothers in underserved areas. They studied both platforms, including suggested pickup maps for St. Louis drivers that didn’t include the two ZIP codes studied. The team also focused on rideshare programs for pregnant women already underway in other parts of the country.

While there are barriers in place, such as funding and implementation, the teams explained to their organization partners that their findings represented an important first step toward policy change.

“One of the goals of getting all these people in the room together today is to start to catalyze some of these conversations and asks in regard to funding and safety, and pushing those conversations forward,” said team member Theodore Floros.

Officials representing the organizations agreed.

“I’m sitting here getting goosebumps listening to all the discussions, the presentations and the data,” said Neelu Panth,  development director and entrepreneurship specialist of Better Family Life, an area nonprofit organization that offers a range of solutions to challenges that threaten vulnerable families, and a key administrative partner of the Brown School. “Transportation is a huge issue across the board,” she noted.

Missouri State Rep. Cora Faith Walker comments after two Washington University teams presented their research findings at the first-ever SEI Lab Pitch Day. Walker is a FOCUS St. Louis Impact Fellow; the two student teams worked with FOCUS St. Louis as they explored the role of transportation and how it effects racial inequity in infant mortality rates. (Photo: Whitney Curtis/Washington University)

“We needed to quantify what the residents have been telling us,” Copanas said. “How do we put the data behind it to move us to action? The work that has been presented here is a huge step forward for us, and we’re excited about being able to help to disseminate this data.”

When the presentations concluded, the organizations and community leaders present asked questions of the teams, discussed next steps and forged additional connections.

“We don’t want to build a cloud castle,” Cameron said. “We want to build a viable solution, and by looking at the specific pain points of the community as well as evidence-based practice, we will come up with different ideas. We’re collecting this data in a way that we can hand off directly to the Generate Health team, to support what they’re trying to do. We want to develop the social innovation initiative together with the community going forward.”

To get involved with and learn more about the Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Lab at Washington University, visit the lab’s website.

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