Reclaiming Our Tradition: AANHPI Breastfeeding Week 2021

A conversation with To-wen Tseng, from the San Diego County Breastfeeding Coalition and Asian Pacific Islander Breastfeeding Task Force, and Nikia Sankofa, from the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee.

Nikia: As the Executive Director of the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee (USBC), I am grateful to have connected with many stakeholders over the past year and a half. With each interaction, I am learning about the unique work of individual organizations, and it is growing and stretching my understanding of what we can do together. Our membership is working at many levels to advance policies and shape practices to create a lactation landscape that supports diverse families and communities across the nation. We have a bold mission, but our vision, Thriving Families and Communities, is even more robust.

While, on the surface, this vision deeply unites us, I see the criticality of open and respectful dialogues to discover what it means to thrive in the context of different communities. Today, it is my pleasure to connect with and learn from To-wen Tseng, co-founder of the Asian Pacific Islander Breastfeeding Task Force of Southern California. She is also a 2019 recipient of USBC's Emerging Leader Award, which recognizes the contributions lactation advocates with five or fewer years of experience in the field.

To-wen, what do you think of this vision, especially as many people and communities, including Asian American and Pacific Islander (API) communities, are facing an astounding increase in racism and violence?

To-wen:  Thank you for asking that question, Nikia. The truth is, ever since the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, anti-Asian racism has never stopped. We've seen the Japanese internment during WWII. We've been called the "model minority" while facing microaggressions in everyday life. The pandemic has heightened tensions but also brought opportunity. I've never seen so many people talking about the racist oppression against Asians like we're doing right now. Conversation is a good thing, and I really believe change will happen.

To keep the momentum going, it is important to honor the heritage, culture, and experience of the people and communities. That is why I am happy to be talking to you during API Heritage Month. The month of May is a special time to honor and recognize the contributions and influence of API people to the history, culture, and achievements of the United States. Also, May 20 is National Breastfeeding Day in China. In 1990, the Chinese government picked the date to promote breastfeeding because May 20 in the Chinese language is "wu-er-ling"—sounds like "wo-ai-ni," which means "I love you."

So, this feels like the perfect time to announce that the third week of August 2021 will be the very first national Asian American Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Breastfeeding Week. Last year, a group of mothers of Asian descent proclaimed the third week of August API Breastfeeding Week, and, BreastfeedLA and the API Breastfeeding Task Force worked together and got approval from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to secure official proclamations of this designation.

This year, with help from the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee, we will make it a national event! Our theme for Asian American Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Breastfeeding Week, which begins on August 15, will be Reclaiming Our Tradition.

Nikia: As I said, I learn so much through these conversations. Thank you, To-wen, for contextualizing the legacy of anti-Asian violence. USBC firmly aligns with the movement to Stop Asian Hate, and I appreciate you centering that in your discussion. Hate and violence perpetuated against any community hurts every community. I agree that honoring the heritage and unique cultures of those we support is a critical step toward transforming the lactation landscape and ensuring that families and communities thrive. It is especially vital as we move forward our efforts to advance equity.

I am super excited about AANHPI Breastfeeding Week! That is a huge deal. To my knowledge API breastfeeding rates are among the highest in the nation. Tell me a little about why your coalition is moving this initiative forward?

To-wen: While breastfeeding is traditionally a common practice in most Asian countries, Asian American women have been shown to introduce foods other than mother's milk to their infants earlier than any other ethnic group, according to a 2016 study.

Lack of appropriate language and culturally humble lactation support, as well as aggressive infant formula marketing, are the two biggest barriers to breastfeeding in AANHPI communities. According to a 2020 WHO report, the incessant promotion of breastmilk substitutes is especially harmful to Pacific Islander families.

AANHPI breastfeeding families are also one of the most underserved groups in the United States. Nationwide, there are only four cultural breastfeeding coalitions currently serving API communities: (1) API Breastfeeding Task Force of Southern California, (2) ASAP! of North California, (3) Hawaii Indigenous Breastfeeding Collaborative, and (4) Hmong Breastfeeding Coalition of Minnesota. In Los Angeles County—the largest home to Asian people outside of Asia— only 6% of lactation professionals speak an Asian language.

Nikia: Representation is critical. Thank you so much for this background. You are part of a small but strong and resilient community of lactation advocates. What or who has inspired you in this work?

To-wen: The stories from my colleagues remind me why this work is so important.

Hannah Halliwell, a Los Angeles based IBCLC of Vietnam descent, observed the same stories over and over again: Asian family members breastfed in their countries of origin, but the members moved to the States decided to formula feed due to social pressure, concern, and miseducation, often in the name of "trying to be American."

Celine Malanum, a second-generation immigrant from the Philippines and mom of three, echoed Halliwell, "My grandma breastfed for so long that her friends lovingly called her a baby goat…I was born in America and my mom was sent home with a prescription for formula with a handwritten note to feed me diluted Karo syrup as an acceptable alternative."

Malanum is the only child who did not get any breast milk in her family. When she became a mother, she breastfed her first child for six years and continues to breastfeed her now three-year-old. She is breastfeeding for all the lost generations.

Their stories powerfully demonstrate precisely what we are calling for this AANHPI Breastfeeding Week: Reclaiming our tradition!

Nikia: To-wen, I loved talking with you. Thank you for sharing with our network a little of what we can look forward to in the third week of August. USBC is excited to promote and amplify your AANHPI Breastfeeding Week efforts. How can people learn more about AANHPI Breastfeeding Week?

To-wen: People can learn more about AANPHI Breastfeeding Week by listening to the final presentation of USBC's National Breastfeeding Conference and Convening (NBCC) on Friday, June 11. Along with Wendy Ting Fung of PHFE WIC, I will join with the founders of World Breastfeeding Week, Native Breastfeeding Week, and Black Breastfeeding Week to share what we have planned for August 2021. 

Nikia: Again, thank you, To-wen. I hope everyone remembers to register for NBCC to be a part of this epic closing plenary session. Also, it is a great time to become a USBC member. Our membership network includes more than 100 organizations partnering to drive collaborative efforts to create a landscape of breastfeeding support across the United States; however, organizations that represent API communities are underrepresented. We are eager to support and amplify the work of our API colleagues and partner organizations, and we need you at the membership table to move that forward!!!

Learn more about the member application process, membership categories, and the benefits your organization can receive as a part of the USBC membership network by joining our interactive info session on Friday, June 25, at 12 p.m. ET / 9 a.m. PT.

As we round out this month of celebrating and recognizing the culture and contributions of API people to the history, culture, and achievements of the United States, please visit USBC's Monthly Observance page, where we share many AANHPI resources.

Happy National AANHPI Heritage Month,

Nikia Sankofa of USBC with To-wen Tseng of SDCBC and API Task Force

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