Birthing Project USA – A Breakthrough Initiative Addressing Infant Mortality in the African American Community
Written by Heather Burke Tuesday, July 10 2012
Snapshot: Kathryn Hall-Trujillo, Founder, Birthing Project USA
Kathryn Hall-Trujillo, M.P.H., is the founding director of the nonprofit Birthing Project USA (BPUSA): The Underground Railroad for New Life – a breakthrough initiative that fosters better birth outcomes, stronger support networks and increased opportunity for African American women and their babies. Hall-Trujillo, who has over 30 years of experience as a public health administrator, community health educator and advocate in the pubic and private sector, founded BPUSA to address the high infant mortality rate of babies born to African American women in the U.S. Black babies are more than twice as likely to die before their first birthday than their white counterparts.
From the U.S. to Africa, BPUSA has delivered over 10,000 healthy babies in over 100 communities through an innovative model that relies on dedicated networks of “sisterfriends.” These mentors advocate and serve as vital resources for at-risk teens and women throughout their pregnancy and during the first year of their child’s life.
Hall-Trujillo is an Ashoka Fellow, a CNN Hero and has received many awards for her work, including Women’s E-News 21 Women of the 21st Century Award, The United States Public Health Service's Women's Health Leadership Award, Essence National Community Service Award and Woman of the Year by the California State Legislature.
Womenetics: What has been the most important lesson you’ve learned from starting and running your own social enterprise?
Kathryn Hall-Trujillo: I am reminded often that we are never given a vision without the resources to actualize it. The challenge is having the vision to recognize help when it comes and the courage to embrace it.
Womenetics: You have been featured as a CNN Hero and are profiled in the upcoming book, “Everyday Heroes.” How does this kind of recognition impact your organization and shape your own understanding of the work you do?
Hall-Trujillo: I love my story because it gives ordinary village women like myself a chance to see our selves as most powerful when we work with and support each other. Each time the Birthing Project story is told, it is a call to action for those women who identify with it, whether because of their circumstances or their empathy to become a part of our Birthing Project family. This kind of recognition helps us see the universal concepts of our work and enables us to be more trusting of the allies and supporters outside of our immediate and familiar communities. It also “legitimizes” and brings credibility to our model of social support.
Womenetics: Your organization has reached over 100 communities with its Birthing Project model. What has been most critical to the growth and scaling of your programs?
Hall-Trujillo: In addition to being effective in saving lives and money, the grassroots simplicity of our model gets to the heart of the problem of providing a vehicle for social intelligence – or our need to be empathetic, engaged, and empowered beyond policy, procedure and process. It is critical for our sustainability to authentically brand ourselves as system changers and internalize that we are social entrepreneurs.
Womenetics: When you started Birthing Project USA in 1998, what major problem did you identify, and what was your vision for the future?
Hall-Trujillo: In 1998, I was simply trying to reduce the amount of money spent on taking care of sick babies while working as a public health administrator. One of those little babies who died, brought me in his short life a vision of babies surviving if we provided social support, guidance and education to their mothers.
Womenetics: We don’t often hear about the period of time between an entrepreneur’s aha moment and when they get their idea off the ground. What was this process like for you personally?
Hall-Trujillo: The period of time between my first aha moment and my realization that I was doing it was magical. After DeAndrea's death, (the little boy who only lived 10 days) I felt stunned. For months I was silent, just concentrating on my work with the California State Department of Health and the Birthing Project.
One early morning as I left the hospital after a birth, I said to myself, "I wish I could do this as my job." About a year later, I was leaving the same hospital after a birth and I realized, "This is my job!"
During that year, I had abandoned, then resigned my job with the State, used my retirement money to buy a small house for myself and the babies that I had somehow become a foster mother to, and officially started the Birthing Project. If I had thought about what I was doing, I would not have done it but it seemed as natural as breathing.
The last 24 years have been full of wonder and as much joy as my heart can hold. It has also been terrifying. I am 64 years-old. I do not have retirement or a mainstream job. I spend a lot of time, like all entrepreneurs, looking for investors and money to pay the phone bill and bookkeeper. What sustains me is that I fully believe that the idea I birthed is catching fire, and I have lived long enough to see it reflected back to me in so many beautiful ways, including one of our New Orleans babies who just showed me her pre-school graduation picture.
Womenetics: How do you measure success in your organization?
Hall-Trujillo: When a woman says “my sisterfriend;” when she smiles with her eyes; when she says, “You can hold my baby;” when she shares her dreams for herself and her family - I know we have gotten to the core of poor birth outcomes.
Success is also measured by the professional standards of gestation age, birth weight, well baby and well woman care. Most importantly, we’ve been around long enough to compare a young woman at age 18 who was born into the project with her mother when she entered the project. Our goal is for the next generation to be healthier: physically, emotionally and spiritually than their mothers when they decide to become or not become mothers.
Womenetics: What are some of the greatest obstacles to positive birth outcomes that African American women and families face in the U.S.? Hall-Trujillo: In the U.S. the lack of access to acceptable care due to systemic, programmatic, and personal barriers is compounded by our pre-pregnancy health, stress and the realities of being black in America.
Womenetics: Tell us about some of the ways that Birthing Project USA addresses the systemic causes of poor birthing outcomes among women of color.
- Social Support: BPUSA provides social support for mothers to find and use health care and other critical resources they need. We also provide a sense of belonging and the knowledge that someone is there with and for you – no matter what!
- Policy: We involve ourselves with the professional maternal and child health community and policy makers to address the barriers to optimum use of the existing heath and human service system.
- Next Generation: We are actively involved in the education of the next generation of professionals – from partnering with U.S. students studying medicine in Cuba to Ashoka U and the Ashoka Young Champions of Maternal Health.
Womenetics: Many of Birthing Project USA’s slogans derive from the anti-slavery movement in the United States. What is the connection between Birthing Project’s movement, notions of freedom and the abolitionist movement in the U.S.?
Hall-Trujillo: Our collective memory uses Ms. Harriet Tubman and her bold determination to create a path to freedom as a model of the possible. BPUSA uses “sisterfriend conductors” to assist mothers in becoming empowered to protect and nurture themselves and their family as they find their way to health and well-being. Not doing so – staying in slavery – is not an option.
Womenetics: The cultivation of sisterhood and strong communities are essential elements of Birthing Project USA’s model and success rate. Why are these processes so important to achieve positive birth outcomes?
Hall-Trujillo: The impact of friendship and social support for women and place based socio-economics on birth outcomes have been well documented. Institutionalizing sisterhood and calling the community to action renders mothers visible and protected and also acknowledges the value of women and community in solving this critical problem.
Womenetics: What is the greatest piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Hall-Trujillo: During the long, long nights I hear my mother saying, “There has never been a night that was not followed by day.”
Womenetics: What does the future of Birthing Project USA look like?
Hall-Trujillo: A global collaboration linking communities, colleges, entrepreneurs, and other stakeholders to share and apply knowledge and wisdom to improve birth outcomes globally by improving the lives of women before, during and after pregnancy.
Womenetics: What inspires you most about your work?
Hall-Trujillo: The next generation of leaders, including the young community of maternal and child health organizers, the mothers and the children I am watching grow up in the project, and my amazing students bring me great joy and inspiration.
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Heather Burke has more than eight years experience working with partners in the public and private sectors to promote women’s empowerment and develop innovative investment strategies for community development. She has worked in 12 countries on initiatives spanning women's and girls’ leadership, education, income generation, social entrepreneurship, public health, food security, political participation, and environmental conservation. She is a social venture consultant based outside of Washington, D.C.