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One of Many: A Black Woman’s Birth Story

Black Maternal Health Week

By Tasha Chambers

Note: Mission Partners is honored to share this guest blog post by Mission Partners’ senior strategist Tasha Chambers, in recognition of Black Maternal Health Week.

There are moments in life you never forget—a graduation, a wedding, the death of a loved one, and the birth of a child. By the time I was 34 years old, I had experienced all of these moments but to me, there was nothing more momentous than having a baby.

After about a year of trying to conceive, my husband and I were blessed with that experience.  

This baby, which was baby number two for us, would be the experience that I didn’t have with baby number one—a natural childbirth.

A historical lens on Black midwives

Explaining to my husband that I wanted a natural birth was not the easiest.

“Dou who?” he asked. “And, how much did you say her services cost again?”

The lack of knowledge on midwives and doulas, in my own community, is easily a result of the erasure of Black midwives and the appropriation of midwifery as many of us know it today. Black midwives brought with them, to birthings, the traditions of the African diaspora – community, singing, music, food, herbs and physical touch. It was truly a sacred experience.

Years later, that same sacred experience would be largely erased from Black culture. Black midwives, acting as both midwife and doula, would be forced to get permission from licensed doctors to perform their services. Black midwives’ homes were inspected, and they were required to take trainings for a service that was inherently their own.

Enforcing these terms was yet another low moment in this country’s history in the way it devalues Black women’s experience and knowledge.   

Struggling to find a Black midwife, many Black mommas I trusted referred me to a non-Black midwife who came highly recommended. She was the only option at that time.

Unfortunately, I was not able to move forward with her: She specialized in home deliveries, which was ruled out for me because of my previous Cesarean section. So, I went with the next best thing—selecting a doula to be my natural birth advocate in a hospital.

Yes, I am magic. And, my pain is also real.

Exhausted from Google searches and referrals, I selected a doula, a person who was not Black, who seemed to have a huge following and years of experience. With my due date rapidly approaching, I felt like she was the best option.

On April 5, 2016, my birth experience began. After about 50 hours of labor, my husband and I made our trek to the hospital for our natural birth. (Take a lesson from me: A natural birth at a hospital is not an ideal birth environment.)

Baby number two had not dropped low enough into the birth canal for delivery, and my water had not broken. My doula suggested that I forcibly break my water to speed up the process. I agreed with her recommendation, and she jetted off to another client. She sent a surrogate doula, another person who was not Black to stay with me while I labored, a disconnect from our agreed-upon birth plan.

Fast forward a few eventful hours and baby number two was delivered via a second C-section. My birth plan was disregarded. As if things couldn’t get worse, my blood pressure fell drastically and I spent two hours in surgery to stabilize.

After my blood pressure normalized, I was rolled to my room. When I arrived, the nurse began pressing on my stomach, which is not uncommon after a C-section but should only feel slightly tender with anesthesia.

This time, the pain from the nurse pushing on my stomach was so bad that I felt like I had jumped out of my body. I grabbed her hand and pleaded with her to stop. My OB-GYN tried next, and I did the same with him. I questioned why they would keep pressing on my stomach when I alerted them that I was in excruciating pain. I nearly blacked out from the pain.

The anesthesiologist came in next. He whispered: “They authorized me to give you the cheap [medicine]. It wears off quickly. I’ll give you something stronger.”

This was one of those moments I have never forgotten.

Even as a Black woman with quality health insurance, my medical providers made decisions and assumptions for me. They assumed my pain could be tolerated. They made a decision that I couldn’t afford to be comforted like others.

My pain didn’t matter. My birth plan didn’t matter. My motherhood didn’t matter.

Fighting for our birthright

While my last and final birth experience was traumatic, I was one of the lucky ones. In the US, 4 in 10,000 Black women do not survive complications before, during, or after birth.  

Data reveals that the United States has one of the worst maternal mortality rates among developed countries. Additionally, black women die from pregnancy-related issues nearly four times more often than white women.

Learn More. Join Mission Partners on Monday, May 20 for Hear Her: A Call to Action on Maternal Mortality in the U.S.

Black midwifery is resurging in our community helping to change our narrative. It is a joy to see that Black women have the opportunity to go through a birth experience with a midwife or doula who shares lived experiences, an understanding of the Godly work of our ancestors, and who sees their humanity. Hopefully, it means that other Black mothers won’t have to endure an experience like mine.

As a Black woman in America, my story is all too common. But in this year of 2019, it shouldn’t be. And it’s why I hope you’ll join me and the Mission Partners team on Monday, May 20 when we’ll bring maternal health experts, community leaders, and community members together, to help drive momentum towards creating change.

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Bring on Your Unsolvable Problems

by Carrie Fox

What happens when you put a mechanical engineer squarely in the center of a university’s department of obstetrics and gynecology? No, this is not the start of a joke.

In fact, it’s at the center of one of the most fascinating research projects aimed at making childbirth safer.

Dr. Joy-Sarah Vink runs the pre-term birth prevention center at Columbia University Medical Center.  As she said earlier this week on NPR, “rare diseases are being cured in this day and age, but we don’t know what triggers full term labor…when it comes to pregnancy, basic research stalled decades ago.” Most of our research about pregnancy comes from research performed in the 1940s.

But, as other parts of the medical field have evolved, it’s those gaps in knowledge that become issues of life and death.

So, Dr. Vink teamed up with an unlikely ally in Kristin Myers, a mechanics and design teacher who got her start in the automotive industry studying how rubber works under high heat. Together, they’re advancing a powerful new research study to understand what leads to the loss of a pregnancy right on the cusp of viability.

I found this story by NPR’s Alison Kodjak especially fascinating because it’s a perfect reminder that some of our most complicated problems are at the root of some of our most basic and shared experiences. 

But, that’s often where the opportunity lies.

There’s great beauty and power in bringing together unlikely allies in the pursuit of problem solving. It’s an approach I’ve championed since the very beginning of my career, working with the team at The X PRIZE Foundation—an organization that at its heart challenges how we take on some of the world’s grandest challenges.

The reality is that when most of us have a problem to solve, we zero in, take it apart, and focus on that one problem until we have it solved—or think we have it solved. But what if we’re thinking wrong about how to find the right answer?

Putting problems at the center of our thoughts shuts down our creative abilities, but when we start by thinking about the solution, visioneering our desired ending, as my colleagues at the X Prize used to say, we have a far greater success rate of developing that much desired breakthrough idea.

That concept is at the center of our Equity+Design Thinking Days at Mission Partners. Each quarter, we welcome up to 8 people in our Bethesda office to bring on their stickiest social impact or communications challenges for a day of guided Design Thinking exercises designed to provide fresh perspective to the problem.

Design Thinking is a human-oriented problem-solving technique that involves exploring and reframing complex challenges to generate fresh, new solutions. The process was first described by the late Nobel Prize Laureate Herbert A. Simon in his 1969 book Sciences of the Artificial, in which he outlined the core concept that designers have to first empathize with the people whose issues they are trying to address. Design thinkers, vs. traditional problem solvers place human needs at the core of their final product.

Since that time, Design Thinking has seeped its way into nearly every field and every industry. The human-centered approach has helped product engineers get in front of consumer needs and has turned social impact entrepreneurs into booming enterprises.

Given the emphasis we place on Design Thinking, in all of our work with social impact organizations, we decided to turn the process into a public workshop experience, embedding equity-building into the process as well.  Now, our quarterly Equity+Design Thinking Days help social impact professionals work in real time with a small group of unlikely peers to take on their challenges in an out-of-the-box, and most importantly out-of-their-office environment experience.

Through teamwork and project-based learning, participants are given fresh opportunities to see their challenges from a completely different perspective, and therefore gain fresh ideas on how to go about the solution.

No matter the industry or the discipline, whether you work on issues of healthcare or housing, to meaningfully take on the issues that lie ahead, there must be a willingness to go after problems in new ways, and to put people at the center of the solution. Most importantly, there must be a desire to take on the seemingly unsolvable. For when you do, you can experience solutions in powerful new ways.

So, bring on the unsolvable.  We’ve got just the day for you.

To learn more about Mission Partners’ upcoming Equity + Design Thinking Days, and to reserve your seat, visit MissionForward.us

 

 

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On Brave Actions and Bold Speak

By Carrie Fox

Above my youngest daughter’s bed hangs a framed sign that reads “Be Brave”.

My husband and I were intentional in hanging that sign, and we remain focused on instilling its message in our children: to stand up for what is right, to speak up when something feels wrong, and to use their voices and actions for good in this world.

But on this third Monday in January—Martin Luther King, Jr. Day—when the complexity of their young questions is mounting— about the world we live in, about the actions of those in power, and about the federal workers, small businesses owners and families hurting in this government shutdown— those two words “Be Brave” are far easier to speak than they can be to live.

This weekend’s protests at the Lincoln Memorial—including a now viral incident of young people hooting, hollering and mocking a Native American activist and Vietnam veteran—reinforce my sense of urgency as a parent, a business owner, a board member, a Girl Scout troop leader, and a white woman of privilege. I must be willing to do the hard work: to acknowledge and leverage my power, to bold speak when I witness injustice, and to own when I have allowed an injustice to occur if I am to raise racially-conscious, brave and bold girls. Professionally, I must expect just as much from myself if I am to build a racially-conscious business.

“Our lives begin to end when we become silent about things that matter.” 

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Frankly, it’s hard to know if I have the tools that this requires. And it’s hard to know how best to translate the same lessons I’m working to instill in my daughters to our work at Mission Partners. But I know one thing for sure: we learn to be brave by watching. We learn by what we see, and what we don’t see.

Remaining silent on issues of race and injustice at home or at work is the worst we can do. And so, just as we intentionally hung that sign above our daughter’s bed, and just as we’ll intentionally mark Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life this weekend in service, there are a few other intentional changes we’re making at Mission Partners this year that I hope will inspire other brave actions, as well.

  1. We’re strengthening our skills in bringing Race to the table. Last year, Mission Partners committed publicly to advance issues of equity in our work, but this year, we’re naming it. We started this year with a frank conversation on the themes in Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy, and we recently invested in Race and Identity training for all full-time employees. We hired Becky George, as our full time Director of Community Engagement, who will bring these same skills to our clients and network. And every Tuesday from here on out, we’ll feature a story on our weekly newsletter that sheds new light and understanding on issues of race in the workplace. Our personal commitment to addressing individual, interpersonal, institutional and structural racism will be a theme for this entire year and will extend into everything we do as a team.
  1. We’re creating new platforms to bold speak. Mission Partners last week hosted the first meeting of our Loyola University Social Impact Fellows, with 12 brave students who will journey this year together, identifying injustices around them, building the muscles to bravely explore solutions, and boldly speaking out for change. This group of undergraduate students across disciplines will work together over the course of the next 10 months to advance issues of social justice in communities where we live, learn, and work. If and when we don’t feel we have the tools, we will build them, together.
  1. We’re prepared to challenge injustices when we hear and see them. Throughout this year, Mission Partners will place a continued focus on questioning, challenging, and boldly speaking up about the systems around us. We will use every communications skill we have to advocate for social change and systems change in our communities. We’ll challenge clients when we hear words that reinforce negative stereotypes, and we’ll speak up when we see actions that reinforce racism, because we know, just as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “our lives begin to end when we become silent about things that matter.”

This is a moment in time to be brave and to bold speak, but it certainly won’t end at the close of this new year.  At Mission Partners, our way of working with one another and with our clients is steeped inside understanding, learning and applying a racial equity lens to all that we do- this year and every year moving forward.

If we’re lucky, our Congress will choose to be brave this year, too. But while we wait for necessary signs of progress there, it’s time right now to get to work here—to use the tools we have to bravely act and boldly speak in the name of justice.  Our kids and our future deserve no less.

 

 

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The 5.5 Million Women Protest in Kerala You Should Have Heard About

Vanitha Mathil - Womens Wall // Vincent Pulickal-EPS

By Becky George

On New Year’s Day,  our world experienced a beautiful display of women standing together in solidarity against gender inequity.  Reports state millions of people in Kerala, India stood together to create a literal 385 mile vanitha mathil or “women’s wall,” in contestation of  the Sabrimala Temple’s refusal to abide by a Supreme Court ruling that lifted a ban on women from entering the temple. My family hails from Kerala and for as long as I can remember, I have known that I am a descendant of fiercely powerful women. Malayalee women have an undeniable strength in their being. Perhaps it was the courage of my aunt who left her home in Kerala to create a better life for her children while paving the way for her sisters and cousins. Or the determination of my mother who somehow convinced my father to leave his comfortable home to put down roots across the world in Texas. Maybe it was the thoughtfulness of my family to ensure I always had a connection back to their birthplace. Possibly, it was the bravery of my cousin that led her to leave an abusive marriage to create a better life for herself and her daughter.  These stories of the women in my life, among many others, are the reason I work towards building a better world for future generations. With the support of my family, I have spent my entire adulthood fighting for women’s rights and justice here in the United States. It is also because of my family that my story will always be connected to Kerala.

In September of 2018, India’s Supreme Court voted 4 to 1 to confirm the ban on women or girls of menstruating age from entering the Sabrimala temple in Kerala was unconstitutional. “The golden-roofed temple, which is thought to be more than 800 years old, is considered the spiritual home of Lord Ayyappa, a Hindu god of growth. Nestled atop a steep mountain amid a lush green tiger reserve, it’s the site of one of the world’s largest annual pilgrimages, with millions of Hindu devotees making the journey each year. Sabarimala had previously been off limits to women of menstrual age on religious grounds, with proponents of the ban arguing that since Ayappa is considered celibate, allowing “impure” women into the shrine would be disrespectful. Others have maintained that women cannot complete the 41 days of penances, a condition required to undertake the pilgrimage.”[1] Since the protest, three women have managed to access the temple, sparking outrage and violence from opponents of the Supreme Court ruling. Many are calling this time period the “Kerala Renaissance.”

Kerala, known for its beautiful lush green landscape, stunning backwaters, and delicious food—Anthony Bourdain once raved about it—is also known for fostering a long history of women’s rights’ movements, holding the highest literacy rate and lowest sex-selective abortion rate in India. Kerala was the first state in the country to open a school for transgender students, which provided a safe space for learning and decreased dropout rates. In short, Kerala’s history of women’s empowerment and gender equity in India was the foundational support to this event. The demonstration was a collaboration of 176 social and political organizations with the support of the Kerala government. One of the protest organizers aptly said, “Social change doesn’t happen in a day. It needs time. But with these small steps, we’ve made it easier for the next generation to embrace it.” [2] Perhaps this will be the catalyst for systemic change in India beyond patriarchal ideas on menstruation and a move towards higher levels of girls receiving education, lower rates of female infanticide, and true equality for women in the country.

Starting the new year with this story from my motherland gives me such hope for the year. I am inspired to continue to fight inequities based in the systems of oppression of the United States. Here at Mission Partners, we work towards creating more equitable communities and are inspired by this moment in India. As we map out the strategy for the year, we are determined to dismantle the systems in place that prevent liberation and equity.  We stand with the women of Kerala and hope you will as well.

[1] “Sabarimala temple history – Tag – Konitono.” https://www.konitono.com/tag/sabarimala-temple-history/. Accessed 5 Jan. 2019.

[2] “Millions Of Women In India Fan Out For 385 Miles To Champion … – NPR.” 4 Jan. 2019, https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/01/04/681988452/millions-of-women-in-india-join-hands-to-form-a-385-mile-wall-of-protest. Accessed 5 Jan. 2019.

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Time to Begin Again

Another year has arrived and with it, millions of little moments to start anew. New routines. New commitments. New projects that will surely pull us in all sorts of directions. But isn’t that the beauty of new beginnings? We get a fresh start, each day a blank page, and each day an opportunity to move towards making our world a better place for everyone.

At Mission Partners, 2018 gave us a solid glimpse for what’s to come in this year ahead. As our nation continues to grapple with issues of justice and equality, our work was and will continue to be bound together by a commitment to build more equitable communities, and a fierce acknowledgement in the power of people to break down barriers and build connecting lines between even the most divisive of issues.

In 2018, we

  • developed bold new strategic plans for nonprofits, foundations, and socially responsible organizations who committed to increase their impact—and to challenge the status quo.
  • built fresh, new narratives that led with strength and simplicity—and that were based on insights gleaned through research—about housing, health, higher education, philanthropy, and public media.
  • led and facilitated board meetings and community convenings that challenged long-held ways of working, and identified new solutions to bring often unheard voices to the forefront.
  • hosted and facilitated community meals and working groups to drive changes in antiquated systems, including philanthropy and the workplace.
  • designed creative campaigns that presented the impact of established organizations in new ways, driving increased community impact and engagement.

Perhaps most importantly, we committed ourselves even further to the work of equity, inclusion, and identity in our practice with clients and in our own organization. We expanded our leadership team with Becky George as Director of Community Engagement, which will allow us to scale our Mission Forward trainings, workshops, and convenings in the year ahead, and we elevated Bridget Pooley to Director of Client Services to ensure that our work and impact is consistently strong across all projects and teams. We introduced a new series of Equity + Design Thinking Workshops, and we’ll soon begin offering a new workshop series focused on deepening conversations around Race + Identity.

We believe that communications and collaboration can change the world. In this new year, we plan on challenging ourselves to be the best we can be for ourselves and our community. We look forward to building a better future with you in the year ahead.

With gratitude in our hearts and fervor in our souls,

Carrie Fox

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Do I Belong Here?

Last month, NBC News’ Generation Latino blog published the story of 18-year old Jason Mero, who headed off to Brown University this fall, “proudly staking claim to his Latinx heritage, but mindful that the sacrifices his immigrant parents made for him.”

Born in Queens, New York, to parents who emigrated from Ecuador 30 years ago, Mero would ruminate with his family growing up about the challenges facing an American with Hispanic roots: how to deal with a more hostile environment against Latinos, and how to assert his U.S. citizenship, his birthright, while staying connected to his community.

What stuck with me about Jason’s story is how, in a country built in part on immigrants, so many people across ethnic and minority groups are actively questioning if they belong here. And how, in this divided America, we ever get beyond that feeling.

Competing Narratives

There are so many “competing narratives” about the American experience. The New York Times’ David Brooks has argued that there are four, to be exact.  As said in this column, “Different groups see themselves living out different national stories and often feel they are living in different nations.”

A Pew Research Center: Hispanic Trends study from a few years ago found that most young Latinos are “satisfied with their lives, optimistic about their futures, and place a high value on education, hard work, and career success. Yet they are much more likely than other American youths to drop out of school and to become teenage parents. They are more likely than white and Asian youths to live in poverty. And they have high levels of exposure to gangs.”

As Pew stated in its report, “these are attitudes and behaviors that, through history, have often been associated with the immigrant experience. But most Latino youths are not immigrants.”

Like Jason, two-thirds of Latino youths were born in the United States, many of them descendants of the big, ongoing wave of Latin American immigrants who began arriving in this country around 1965. According to Mark Hugo López, director of global migration and demography research at the Pew Research Center, one million Hispanic-Americans will turn 18 this year and every year for at least the next two decades.

Sitting here in Washington in the lead up to this year’s midterm elections, one particularly loud narrative is the role that Hispanic and Latino voters will, or will not, play in determining the outcomes of the election. But, there’s far more at stake beyond this midterm election, if we don’t find ways to come together. If we don’t challenge ourselves—and by extension, our businesses, our governments, our faith communities, and our families—to listen to and learn from the massive wave of Hispanic Americans who will play a significant role in the future of our country, we are setting ourselves up for failure.

Elevating Important Voices

At Mission Partners, we live by person-first communications. We listen beyond the loudest voices in any conversation to the voices often struggling to be heard. We listen to challenge assumptions, and to close gaps in our understanding of issues. And it’s a philosophy that extends to every issue we take on. Whether we’re tackling equity in education, women’s issues, public health or affordable housing, we believe that every voice in our community matters, but there are far too many voices that aren’t being listened to in meaningful ways.

On Thursday, November 15, Montgomery County-based Identity, Inc. will release a new report on Latino youth in partnership with the Pew Research Center called the Promise and Potential of Latino Youth. Mark Hugo Lopez, referenced above, will be on site to share his findings and elevate trends that nonprofit, government, and philanthropic decision makers must be aware of and acting upon.  It will be an important conversation and one that I look forward to attending.

The next day, Mission Partners will gather community members, business, academic and social sector leaders, entrepreneurs, and students at AFI Silver Theatre & Cultural Center to take the conversation one level deeper. Most importantly, at Mission Forward: Narrative Change, we’ll hear from Hispanic and Latino youth living in Montgomery County who will bring Identity’s research report to life, through a conversation with Emmy-award winning reporter and Montgomery County resident Armando Trull. We’ll also hear from award-winning freelance journalist Valeria Fernandez who covers the intersection of migration and politics, and the people in between. And we’ll look at the issue through a post-midterm election lens with American University Professor and CBS News Political Analyst Leonard Steinhorn, and MacArthur Genius Award Winner Mauricio Miller, who will give new perspective to the dangers of competing narratives.

We’ll close the conversation with best-selling author Anand Giridharadas. His new book “Winners Take All” challenges us to consider whether we are inadvertently perpetuating the social problems we seek to solve.

But it won’t end there. This November’s Mission Forward event will launch a series of community meals and conversations, hosted in the DC region and across the country, during which we will listen and learn from voices that often go unheard. We hope you’ll join us for the first of many conversations, and that you’ll be part of this wave of change.

If you’d like to be part of the conversation, please register to join us today.

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Why Sabbaticals Matter at Mission Partners

Children Play in Haiti

By Hannah Lee

 

 “It’s not the answer that enlightens, but the question” –Eugene Ionesco

As a communications professional, an important part of my job entails developing and delivering clear messages—researching, structuring arguments, writing concisely. Like many of my peers, I am laser focused on execution and solutions, and I often forget (or don’t find I have the time) to step back and critically think about the questions I am asking, or the answers I’m being given.

But earlier this summer, I was given a special opportunity to do just that.

In July, I had the privilege to truly step back—to take a sabbatical. At Mission Partners, we believe in the value of giving back to local communities through volunteerism, and we realize the impact of volunteerism on our day to day work. After the one-year mark with Mission Partners, each full-time employee earns sabbatical days—a unique and special model for a small firm like ours.  In my case, I had the privilege of spending my sabbatical in Bercy, Haiti. Located 40 minutes outside of the Haitian capital, Port-Au-Price, Bercy is where Mission of Hope operates.

Mission of Hope brings life transformation for every man, women, and child in Haiti—including those who volunteer. The organization takes a comprehensive approach to building and strengthening communities by creating jobs, providing food and clean water, educating kids and adults, teaching agricultural skills, and caring for the sick and elderly. While volunteering, the phrase “we believe Haitians will rebuild Haiti” was constantly said throughout every activity, empowering Haitians to the leaders of their own success.

Through this experience, I learned much more than I will ever be able to give. Most importantly, my sabbatical reinvigorated my joy in asking questions, and listening intently to the answers.

On the first day, right after arriving at the airport, I was greeted by a Haitian staff member at the organization. He asked me what team I was rooting for in the World Cup. Before I could even answer, he stated that it better be Brazil. Immediately, I felt connected to him. In that conversation, I had learned my first lesson.

With a simple, intentional question, you can relate to anyone—even those who appear most different.

In that conversation, I was reminded that thoughtful questions can lead to connection. That was a powerful moment to start my sabbatical. Each day during the week, our group of 40 volunteers traveled to a partner village to collect survey data. The data collected was used to better serve families in the community. This information is vital to meet critical needs in the community like clean drinking water, health care services, food, and shelter. Each day we were assigned up to six homes, some made of brick and some still composed of blue tarp—a reminder that Haitian communities are still feeling the effects of the 2011 earthquake. At each home, we built new connections. We made new friends.  We washed and then dried clothes on cacti while others played tag with kids. By the end of the week, survey data collection was our favorite thing to do.

But, it didn’t come easy.

To collect the data the organization needed, we received a list of survey questions. Right away, at our first house visit, we started asking “do you have access to clean drinking water?” and “when’s the last time you visited the dentist?” without even getting to know the people in front of us. We just dove into these personal and somewhat intrusive questions without thinking to step back. Without thinking to first build a connection with the single mom of two kids. My group fumbled through those thirty minutes, relying only on the awkwardly worded survey questions. Walking away, I felt disappointed. At the next house, we ditched the formulated questions and asked simple, intentional questions.

That changed everything.

Suddenly, the formatted questions were coming up naturally. Our conversations were full of mutual laughter, joy, and prayers for one another. I often pride myself on asking good questions, however in an unfamiliar place, I learned I have room to grow.  And that was my second lesson of the week.

Asking intentional questions takes practice.

After a week of practicing asking intentional questions, it was time to head home to the U.S. Although I was sad to leave such an incredible place, I was ready to return home. As we were boarding the bus to the airport at 4:30 am, our flight was canceled. But not just our flight. For the next 72 hours, all flights in and out of Haiti were canceled due to political protests.

The Haitian government had raised fuel prices by 51%, making it nearly impossible for many Haitians to continue traveling to work, school, church, or really anywhere. In response, Haitians created blockades along the road in protest. As they awaited a response from the Haitian government, they continued to protest.

And we waited.

As Americans, we are used to quick answers, but in this situation, we couldn’t find the answer on our phones. And no question we asked could have given us a solid answer.  We were safe, but as we waited, we grew anxious, tired, and confused. When would we go home? Would we have enough food? Would we be able to leave before the impending tropical storm hits? All good questions, but when volunteers asked, they knew there was a slim chance of having an answer. Which led me to my next lesson…

In times of uncertainty, too many questions may not always be the answer. Sometimes all you can be is present.

Returning home, I didn’t immediately take the time to process the last part of the trip. I felt overwhelmed and flustered. Even as friends asked, “how was your trip to Haiti?”, I went blank.

And then someone asked, “tell me about someone who inspired you” and I found words again. By drawing on a specific moment where I was present in relationship with someone, I could bring to life my experience instead swirling in the final 72 hours of uncertainty.  And there was my final, and perhaps most important lesson.

It’s the thoughtful questions, not always the perfect answers, that enlighten.

This sabbatical pushed me to be a better version of myself, to come back to work with a new energy, and most importantly, to step back, reflect, and ask better questions.  It’s just the answer I had needed.

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Changing the Narrative

By Carrie Fox

I was 16 and working my earliest job in public relations when I first experienced the power of narrative change.

It was coming on Christmas and I had been tasked with telling the story of another 16-year old girl living with a severe case of juvenile arthritis. The condition limited her ability to walk but this young woman was determined to run a local road race to support the Arthritis Foundation. She was determined to change the narrative that she believed others had set for her.

I pitched her story to the New Jersey Star Ledger, and one Sunday soon after, it landed on the front page. It seemed that her story resonated with far more people than just me. I remember her parents’ gratitude for sharing her story, and the boost of confidence they believe it gave her to continue challenging the perceived limitations of her condition. I also remember how that story changed my own attitude and response to persons living with disabilities.

She was my first agent of change. She was an expert-by-experience who showed me the power of positive storytelling to shift perceptions. Telling her story cemented my desire to pursue a field in storytelling, and to pursue a certain kind of storytelling—the kind that could challenge people to look, and then look again at the issues.

I placed that story in the New Jersey Star Ledger almost 25 years ago. Since then, I—and later, my team—have had the blessing of supporting hundreds of people to tell their stories, in their own words, to close gaps in understanding on issues as varied as foster care, homelessness, economic mobility, access to education, and the environment. To many, narrative change is just another jargon term that gets tossed around in politics and philanthropy. To us, it’s a powerful tool to shift how people interpret and understand the world around them, with the goal of making the space between us as humans smaller.

This November, Mission Partners will host its next Mission Forward® convening, and, you guessed it, we’ll take on narrative change. We’ll open the doors wide to our community, and we’ll create an experience that allows every participant to hear and examine the stories behind the issues. We’ll be joined by award-winning national journalists who will retrace their steps on how they’ve told stories on issues of immigration, criminal justice, public health, and education, and we’ll spotlight community members who have experienced those issues first hand.

I invite you to join me in this journey, and to dig deeper in your own understanding of the issues. You might be surprised by what you discover.

Mission Forward: Narrative Change will be hosted on Friday, November 16th at AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, MD. If you’re interested in attending, please email bayonia@mission.partners to be added to the invitation list.

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Out of Office

Carrie Fox

“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”

Anne Lamott

If you know me even a bit, this next line won’t surprise you.

I work a lot.

It’s not a bad thing, on most days.  I like to think it is quite the opposite.  I feel completely blessed that I get to enter every day at Mission Partners enthralled and excited by the purpose of our work, and the potential of the day ahead. Especially amid the weighty issues we take on, I realize the place of privilege in which I sit.  I am full of gratitude for the people in this with me, and the assignments I am invited to take on, in support of causes that matter deeply to us. The only challenge, for me, is turning it off.

But this week, I will.

This week, I’ll be up in the mountains of Colorado, taking in never-ending views and star-filled skies with my husband and our growing-too-fast little girls.  I’ll be riding horses with my newly minted five-year-old, who wants to be a cowgirl when she grows up, and paddle boating with my eight-year-old, who I am certain is far more coordinated than I ever will be at such activities.  Without the buzz of technology, and the pressures of this day’s deadlines, I hope to sink back into a slower pace, knowing that this trip is just as much for my good as it is for my family, and my business.

I don’t share any of this to flaunt a family vacation. In fact, the whole idea of this post feels very uncomfortable. I share it because I have, for far too long, lived by a self-imposed rule that I not be disconnected during the week.  I commit to be always on, and always ready….which means always juggling and always walking faster than I should. Generally, it works. Surprisingly, it often works very well.

But this week, I need a different focus.

I realize that life at its best, is happening right in front of me.  But, its not on this screen, and it’s going by way too fast. There are two little girls and one very sweet man who deserve far better than a multi-tasking, marathon-working mom.

So, give me a few extra days to get back to your last email, and hopefully next week we can pick right back up where we left off.

This week, I’m happy to say, I’m booked.

Was it Your Mail I Opened?

By Carrie Fox

Given my line of work, I receive a significant amount of mail from social good organizations. That means I’m on the receiving end of a lot of fundraising appeals, annual reports, and marketing materials—some very well-produced and others less so. But, I look at them all very carefully, and most follow a similar formula:

  • Start with a story
  • Describe what the individual or family needed
  • Show how the organization helped
  • Ask for money

The words aim to say one thing, but the way in which most of the stories are told say something else.

Over the last couple of years, especially, something hasn’t sat well with me about this formula. It clicked last month when I received a solicitation from one well-intended social services nonprofit organization.

For people working to create change in communities, there are a few terms that get tossed around regularly. Terms like promise, social capital, equity, initiatives, injustice. We talk about investing in initiatives that help build community, and we work to build equity in the communities we serve. We recognize injustice and we see the importance of social capital for communities to thrive.

But, where is the humanity in those words? If we believe that building equity and investing in community is key, why do we very rarely hear from community members in their own words, not through the filtered lens and carefully crafted voice of an organization? 

There’s a curious line between what we say and do when it comes to building equity.

Since the inception of Mission Partners, we have been on an intentional journey toward the practice of inclusive marketing. We believe it is our responsibility, as designers of messages and marketing materials, to ensure that the words and images we use do not reinforce negative, false, or misleading stereotypes. On the contrary, they must build a better understanding of the human experience. We believe communications has the power to change the world—if that communication can be used to bring people together, not to push us apart. That means being intentional and aware about how stories are told in marketing materials: who is telling those stories, who is being included in the creative process, and who is being overlooked.

Earlier this year I wrote an article on building equity and breaking bias in storytelling in which I wrote that “as writers, we inherently believe that we’re telling our best stories. If asked, we’ll say we conducted multiple interviews and sought out several sources, but the reality of implicit bias is that we bring it to the table without realizing it is there.”

As I continue to add to my own knowledge on this topic, I wanted to share a few more thoughts for consideration before you hit send on your next fundraising appeal:

  • If you have featured even one individual or family in any one of your publications in the past year, how often have you compensated them for sharing their story, given the way you use their story to drive resources to your organization’s bottom line? And perhaps the bigger question is: what is your organization’s policy for compensating talent? Do you have an equitable definition for even defining the term “talent”?
  • Are the people in your fundraising appeals given an opportunity to review and edit their stories? How many people have you asked to fact check their success story? How might the story look different if you had? And again, perhaps the bigger question is: What is your organization’s policy for reviewing materials before they are published? Who gets to hold that red pen?
  • Rather than feeling tied to the frame set out above, what do you think might happen if you flipped the narrative to be from a different perspective? What voice other than the carefully crafted executive director or beneficiary could you consider that delivers your message in a compelling way?
  • When is the last time you authentically connected with your community? Not on your terms, but on theirs. We all make assumptions based on who we believe our community is, and what they need. To reduce those assumptions, how often are you authentically connecting with your community; asking them to share their own narrative, in their own way? And how often are you asking your community if they feel adequately and factually represented in your marketing materials?

These are tough questions, and not standard for most nonprofit organizations. But, if you believe that equity and inclusion are important to your organizational culture, the actions you take to the above questions are ways to prove your commitment.

Like what you read? Want to learn more. Join me next Tuesday, July 17th at the American Marketing Association’s Nonprofit Marketing Conference, or join us for our next Equity + Design Thinking Day on September 6.