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Boston Women’s Fund has never been afraid to be the first. Our founding mothers broke the mold in Boston 40 years ago when they created the first women’s fund in Massachusetts. We established ourselves to be a first-of-its-kind foundation — one run by and for diverse women and gender-expansive folks, bucking traditional philanthropic conventions in the name of propelling more equitable giving. While other foundations often find it too risky to be the first investor in a new organization, since day one, we’ve thought that the real risk lies in a reality where life-changing ideas never get the funding they deserve.

In 1984, a new organization called the Traditional Childbearing Group (TCBG), the first Black home birth nonprofit organization in the nation, was among BWF’s first group of grantee partners. Our grant was the first they’d ever received. TCBG’s co-founder, Shafia Monroe, from Roxbury, MA, went on to train thousands of doulas and midwives, and today is known as the Queen Mother of the Midwifery movement.

We had a chat with Shafia to learn more about how the Boston Women’s Fund’s early investment into Shafia’s first grassroots organization propelled her efforts to jumpstart the Black midwifery movement in Boston and beyond, the catalyst of what would become a legendary, nationally renowned career.

Boston Women’s Fund: You were co-founder of the Traditional Childbearing Group in Boston, a grassroots non-profit working “to reduce infant mortality through homebirth, training midwives, and prenatal education.” What inspired you to create this organization and get involved with midwifery?

Shafia Monroe: Back in the mid-70s, infant mortality was making the news, and Roxbury had one the highest mortality rates in the country. At the same time, natural birth as an option was being brought to light by the feminist movement. This sparked my interest because at the same time, I had just begun to learn about the contributions of Black midwives of the 20th century, who protected Black birthing women.

As I read about midwifery, I learned more about Black midwives in the South, who were to me, my sheroes. These women made themselves available to all who needed them, even if it meant walking through the woods at night — they were courageous. They knew African history, they were taking care of women, advocating for them, and being kind and loving amid the most abject poverty all through the Jim Crow South, and I thought, “Oh my God, I want to be like them.”

I was hearing about the trauma that Black families were experiencing to have a baby, and Majeeda Workneh and I wanted to create something in Boston to help Black families have a positive birth experience, emotional and physical, something that would protect them, empower them, and give them an option — and that option was to have home births with Black midwives. So, we were the home birth midwives for much of the Boston area. I went as far as Brockton one night to do a birth for a Black family. It was just a wonderful time, Black women coming together for self-determination, and not just women. The men were so excited to have a place for the women to be safe and for them to be respected. 

Did you witness something in your community that sparked this interest?

I will not share the names of the hospitals, but often hospitals were treating Black women badly and disrespecting Black men who accompanied their laboring partner to the emergency room. If a woman went in by ambulance, you couldn’t get in to be where she was. Unfortunately, like today, we had a lot of security officers acting negatively. We did a lot of policy work as well. Our organization was able to meet with the presidents of a few hospitals and they changed some of their policies.

The Traditional Childbearing Group was one of the very first organizations The Boston Women’s Fund funded back in 1984. Can you tell me more about receiving that grant? What impact did it have on your organization then?

It was the first grant we ever had! BWF was the first one to ever fund us. It was amazing because we had just been working out of our houses and using the Jeremiah E Burke High School cafeteria for meetings. With more funding, we were able to do childbirth classes for teenagers, offer snacks, and put gas in our cars to get to births. It made an enormous impact! We were encouraged.

The impact of BWF’s funding was critical. It allowed us to be true to our mission of empowering Black women to know their patient rights, to increase the number of Black homebirth midwives, and to celebrate Black culture. My experience has been that many funders did not support my proposals written from a strength-based approach. We said, “We’re trying to build Black pride and Black capacity. We want to honor the Black midwives.” We wanted Black people to be homebirth midwives. BWF appreciated that we wrote from a place of strength and historical pride. And they funded that. 

So, we do appreciate BWF letting us speak the truth that we are a powerful, wonderful group of people, doing important things, and we got this! If you can just fund us, we can fix this problem. And we did. It was so great to see premature births and infant mortality rates decline in the Black community and to be able to go into hospitals and advocate for pregnant Black women. 

We even created a breastfeeding group at Boston City Hospital (now known as Boston Medical Center). They let us go into the waiting room on the prenatal floor and set up a table to talk to Black women about the advantages of breastfeeding and give out brochures. We also created a breastfeeding 24-hour hotline to support Black women with their breastfeeding questions. It was a critical time to have funding.

BWF went on to fund the Traditional Childbearing Group three more times. What do you remember of your interactions with BWF back then? 

BWF opened the doors for us; we attended their events and that was beneficial. BWF was the catalyst. Once they started funding us, other people got interested.

Since that time, your involvement in the midwifery movement has broadened significantly and taken on many iterations. You’ve trained thousands of doulas. Looking back, how did your work with the Traditional Childbearing Group influence your career?

When I left Boston for Portland, OR, I wanted to keep the work going and broaden it. So, we decided to create the International Center for Traditional Childbearing (ICTC), and that went for another 21 years nationally, but it was a little different. The Traditional Childbearing Group (TCBG) was more about home birth and direct services in Boston and advocating for Black families. We knew that Black families were losing their babies, and suffering from higher rates of maternal mortality. Our work there was focused on policy, advocacy, empowerment, and direct services. We also ran a midwife school twice and graduated five Black midwives in Boston, which was a lot, in the 1980s.

ICTC was intended to build capacity to increase the number of Black midwives and doulas and create a national movement for Black Midwifery to work in collaboration and have a seat at the table to address the shortage of Black midwives in the US. ICTC became that — we became the voice for elevating the work of Black midwives, increasing their numbers, and challenging systemic racism in the institutions that had small numbers of Black midwives and minimal support for Black midwife students. There were not enough Black midwives tenured in the midwife schools. We wanted these institutions to be inclusive, and culturally competent, and include the history of Black midwifery in education by adding specific reading materials and documentaries.

We also put on a conference every year called the International Black Midwives and Healers Conference. We invited Erykah Badu, a four-time Grammy award winner, singer/writer, holistic healer, and doula, to be our national spokesperson. She accepted and was the keynote for three of our conferences. And then in 2017, after many years of doing this work, it was time for me to step down and let someone else do the work. I wanted to increase the number of Black doulas and doulas of color, improve postpartum care, and write, and mentor aspiring midwives and doulas. I have a book on postpartum care that will be released in 2025.

We still have a severe shortage of Black midwives. And that needs to be acknowledged. We need midwives as much as we need doulas. If we’re going to improve birth outcomes and maternal health, we need more Black midwives. And I want to see midwives and doulas working together to save mothers and babies. I’ve been teaching doulas since 2002. We were the first Black organization that I knew to develop a Black doula training curriculum, based on the legacy of the 20th-century African American midwife. My goal was to use the doula platform to make a difference and as an entry point for doulas to continue to become midwives. I can say that we have trained over 5,000 doulas since 2002, and at least one-third have gone on to become midwives. As SMC Full Circle Doulas, they understand the midwifery model of care and will refer their clients to midwives, and that’s how we’re going to see an improvement in maternal and infant outcomes.

Can you share a bit about how having more Black midwives in the field impacts health outcomes for Black birthing people and babies?

When you have a diverse workforce, we all benefit. I think we must remember that our diverse workforce in the early 20th century was Black midwives delivering white and Black babies. They kept the American public health system improving, and that’s documented. So Black midwives have always enhanced the workforce. But later they put Black midwives out and brought in only white midwives; we got pushed back. There were 5,000 Black midwives in Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia in 1913. In Alabama today there are probably three, in Mississippi, there are five, and in some states, there are no Black midwives. Big ups to BWF because we had eight Black midwives in Boston in my time. That’s a substantial number. We don’t think we have that many in Boston anymore. 

And we need more Black midwives because they provide the culturally competent health care that people of color thrive from. I want America to understand that when we diversify the workforce, it expands our worldview, offers a chance for us to get to know other people, and helps us work better with others who are different from ourselves. And the other part is that we have our hormones, our cortisol levels. When we feel fear, our adrenal glands kick out cortisol which is the flight, fight, or freeze mechanism. Either you run from fear, you fight back, or you’re like a deer, you try to be still. Black people are in the position of navigating our cortisol levels, which, when it’s high, is causing us to have premature births and long-term healthcare issues. 

I want the hormones activated that keep the baby inside. The leading cause of infant mortality for Black women is premature birth. Our babies have higher rates of being born before 37 weeks. Having more Black midwives is going to create more trust and reduce perinatal stress. Often, when a Black person has shared, “I feel like something’s wrong,” the medical personnel replies with “Oh it’s just stress,” and sends them home. Black providers are more likely to say, “You know what, let me check. Okay, you do have preeclampsia, you do have a heart problem. We need to take care of this.”

If you go to my website,, there’s a story of Shalon, a woman with a dual Ph.D., who worked for the CDC, her whole work was this kind of work, and she died from maternal mortality and it was preventable. She went back and forth to the hospital; her blood pressure was increasing. They kept telling her to go home and said that there was nothing wrong. Her mother found her dead at home, she had had a stroke. But there are so many stories like this. 

Mr. Johnson, who’s suing the state of California, said his wife said on the table in the hospital “I think something’s wrong.” He tells the nurse, and the nurse says, “She has to wait. We’re busy.” And his wife died in front of him.

They say to him, “Why didn’t you say something?” And he said, “I’m a Black man. If I say the wrong thing, they’re going to arrest me, and then I won’t be with my wife at all.” There’s all this trauma for Black birthing families.

That’s the biggest thing that we’re hearing about maternal mortality from The CDC — 60% of deaths are preventable and most deaths are because the medical system does not listen to Black women, who know their bodies.

This is a heavily complicated time for reproductive justice. Black women have the highest maternal mortality rate nationwide. When you think about what it might take to turn this tide and create some real change, what are a couple of things that give you hope in this moment?

I’ll be honest, what gives me hope is the next generation; they are pushing hard and creating systems in direct services and policies to make a difference. Even the building of a birth center in Boston spearheaded by a Black organization is a positive action. There are just so many organizations: Black Mamas Matter Alliance, and Sistersong. We have Black OBs talking about trauma and systemic racism and calling out that they were taught in medical school that Black people don’t feel pain, which means Black people weren’t getting appropriate pain medication in surgery. There’s much more awareness, and I am happy to see that there is policy change, even though it is slow. 

I do see some hospitals making changes to address why our women are not surviving. More institutions understand that cultural competency needs to be a part of the required education for healthcare providers, not an elective. It needs to be part of the system [to communicate] “You may be thinking with your privilege. Here’s what you’re doing without even realizing it, and here’s how it causes harm.” 

For the first time, the American College of Nurse-Midwives has its first Black president. I am also happy to see that we have so many Black midwife student scholarships. The Shafia Monroe Consulting Black Student Midwife Scholarship began in 2019. It is in honor of Ayana Ade, an amazing midwife who then became a nurse midwife. She was my mentor and she created Childbirth Providers of African Descent (CPAD); she brought Black midwives together, yearly. She died in 2013. It’s called the Ayanna Ade Black Student Midwife Scholarship Award, which we give out every year. 

Other good news— We now have the first National Black Midwives Alliance that came out of ICTC, that came from TCBG in Boston. We have a legacy, and we are so proud. It’s all connected. 

What are you most looking forward to about BWF’s Reproductive Justice Symposium this spring?

It’s nice to be able to go full circle. From a midwife's perspective, I'm going back to the womb. You all helped us grow and you nurtured us by giving us four years of funding. You gave us a foundation and validated our work. I’m excited to come back to thank you all, to be a part of it, to let people know that it’s important that we fund Black women’s organizations, and that we fund foundations that support Black people’s work. And that our legacy continues through our future generations who are doing this work. 

Thank you again for making space for us this morning! We appreciate it! 

Thank you! Have a great afternoon! 

See Shafia Monroe speak at our upcoming Reproductive Justice Symposium on April 22nd, featuring crucial grassroots perspectives, local policy and philanthropic leaders, and more! Sign up for early-bird updates here to be the first to know when registration opens.

Cambridge HEART team members after an outreach event centering youth. Summer 2023.

Cambridge HEART (Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team) is a community-led alternative safety program meeting public safety needs outside of policing systems. Grounded in transformative and disability justice principles, Cambridge HEART uses a peer-response model to respond to emergency calls prompted by the immediate needs of people in conflict or crisis, including those with mental illness and/or substance use disorders. Cambridge HEART also engages in conflict resolution processes, coordinates mutual aid to support material needs, and works to address the root causes of harm.

Cambridge HEART is a recipient of BWF's 2023 Momentum grant. Corinne Espinoza, Co-Director at Cambridge HEART, spoke with us about what their work looks like in practice, how the organization is supporting the safety of women, girls, and gender-expansive individuals in their community and the upcoming launch of their new peer-to-peer support line. 

What led you to create this organization or take this leadership role? Can you tell us more about your connection to the work and the specific need you saw?

Cambridge Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team (Cambridge HEART) was created in 2021 by The Black Response (TBR) as an alternative to policing. TBR did powerful advocacy work to push the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to invest in alternatives. Faced with inaction by the City, TBR decided to build something with the community. TBR did Participatory Action Research, and, with that guidance from the community, designed and built Cambridge HEART. We are grateful to the community and to the Black women who founded and built HEART including Stephanie Guirand, Queen-Cheyenne Wade, Dara Bayer, and many others. We are grateful to the hundreds of volunteers and donors who supported those early efforts and who still form such an important part of our organization today. 

We knew that the community expressed a need to receive help from an unarmed person when in crisis. We knew that people wanted to be able to ask for help without being worried that the help itself would cause harm. Community members’ words guide us: “What if, when you called for help, you received help? What if a call for help didn’t make things worse?”

Can you share more about how Cambridge HEART’s work is fostering greater safety for women, girls, and gender-expansive individuals in the communities you serve? 

Cambridge HEART’s work fosters greater safety for women, girls, and gender-expansive individuals in our communities by offering support aligned with our values of care, healing, transformative accountability, self-determination, and community. 

To share an example, if a gender-expansive person experiences harm in an intimate relationship, they may not feel comfortable talking to police or other systems about that situation due to transphobia and other systemic discrimination. A gender-expansive person who dares to confide in a Cambridge HEART responder about harm in a relationship is met with respect, kindness, and love. We center their autonomy and offer to accompany them on the journey they want to take. They may want to stay in the relationship. We can offer a person to talk to, safety planning, and harm reduction. We can also offer support around the other stressors in the person’s life. Often people are facing multiple challenges at the same time, and addressing one issue only is not sufficient. Sometimes, people do not feel they have a choice about leaving a relationship if the relationship is the only way other needs (like housing, health, and food security) are met. Addressing the holistic situation opens up true options to a person as they consider what they might want for their life. 

Another example of how Cambridge HEART supports safety for women and girls is related to our approach to mandated reporting. Currently, if a woman or girl tells certain people that she is having thoughts of hurting herself, teachers, doctors, or therapists may be required to take certain actions. These actions can result in unwanted outcomes like DCF involvement with any children in the home, forced hospitalization, and more.  With a Cambridge HEART peer responder, the person will be met with care. We focus on what the person needs to make it through the day and pay attention to root causes that are a part of the stressful situation. If a woman is feeling like she can’t make it any longer — if her fridge is empty and she has an eviction notice on the door — Cambridge HEART would connect her to longer-term resources and mutual aid as well as provide emotional support. Supporting a person’s stable housing and food security is an integral part of their mental health — they are all intertwined. 

What’s one thing people might not know about your organization?

One logistics detail: People have been surprised to learn how much of our funding comes from individual donors. Some government agencies and foundations are still nervous when it comes to innovative projects like ours. Some funding sources feel nervous about abolition and ideas for projects that support our community in the ways we do. We are so grateful that individual donors have stepped up in a major way to support us. More than 50% of our funding comes from individual donors!

One programmatic thing: People may not know that everyone at Cambridge HEART is deeply rooted in our community and deeply rooted in lived experience. Our team has lived experience with: incarceration, mental health diagnoses, disabilities, growing up in domestic violence homes, navigating relationships where someone used violence against us, financial difficulties like food insecurity, housing insecurity, and more. These experiences help us connect with our community and deeply understand the context in which their crisis is unfolding.

What’s next for you? What project or goal is Cambridge HEART working on right now?

Cambridge HEART is entering a new stage of our work. We have been working hard to get to this point, where we can serve people in the moment. We plan to launch our “warm” line soon, and two months after that, we will launch our mobile crisis response.  

For the warm line, a person who needs someone to talk to will be able to call us and get peer-to-peer support over the telephone in the moment. They will also be offered the opportunity for follow-up support and care if they are interested. With mobile crisis response, we can travel to the person to support their needs and offer follow-up support if the community member would like that.

What does liberation look like to you?

No one is free until everyone is free, so it looks like fighting for and imagining liberation until every single person is free. To me, liberation is true peace and self-determination. Liberation looks like the freedom to bring your body where it wants to be (regardless of borders and other colonial constructs), to be able to exist in peace in the world, to be able to connect with others, or to have solitude. 

Liberation looks like everyone’s belly being full, and everyone, especially children, being surrounded by love and joy and playfulness. It looks like people’s needs being met whether or not they are able to participate in the workforce. It looks like a safe roof over everyone’s head, a warm place to sleep. It looks like having a true choice to pursue as much education as a person wants (without debt or cost). It looks like having a true voice in our policies and laws. Liberation to me would be a return to our ancestral ways of caring for each other, community, love, generosity, and responsibility toward the earth, other beings, and each other. 

A group of 14 mothers of color sitting around a table at Tet Cafe, some with their infants during a support group  gathering.
A support group hosted by Melanin Mass Moms

Melanin Mass Moms is a network of moms of color working to bridge the gap between community resources and health disparities for mothers of color as they navigate all stages of motherhood. The organization provides mental health resources, postpartum support, and avenues for advocacy aimed to increase access to community-wide resources.

Melanin Mass Moms is a recipient of our Movement Building Grant. We sat down with Julia Lotin, Executive Director, to learn more about how her postpartum experience inspired her to create the organization that today connects thousands of mothers across the state and what’s next for Melanin Mass Moms.

What led you to create this organization or take this leadership role? Can you tell us more about your connection to the work and the specific need you saw?

Six years ago, as a new mom, lost in the trenches of the fourth trimester, I found myself yearning for community and connection. I was excited to find new mom support groups in my area, which were great — but I quickly realized that my needs and experiences as a mom of color were not shared in those spaces as I was the only person of color in most cases. This experience sparked my interest to create Melanin Mass Moms (MMM) the social network. My vision for MMM was to become a hub of resources for moms of color to connect and feel validated in their experiences throughout the different stages of motherhood. There was a need for open conversations about the joys of melanin motherhood but also the scary and real experiences we go through as moms of color. There was a huge need for community, a safe space for diversity in dialogue and connection; that’s where MMM comes in.

Can you share more about how Melanin Mass Moms’ work is improving or supporting the health of women, girls, and gender-expansive individuals in the communities you serve?

Through the expansion of MMM from the social network to now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, our team of admins and board of directors saw this as an amazing opportunity to support our community of moms through their motherhood journey. Part of our goal was to build a collective where moms can provide peer support. As we continued to expand in the mental health and maternal health sectors, we learned about the extreme maternal health crisis impacting moms of color. Melanin Mass Moms supports the mental health of our community by providing monthly support groups where we can normalize the postpartum experience, support moms in all stages of motherhood, and connect them to resources such as mental health clinicians, doulas, etc. Our maternal health campaign has allowed us to shed light on this crisis through presentations with community leaders and providers who are doing the work to eliminate maternal mortality and providing access to doula care as an additional resource during labor and delivery.

What’s one thing people might not know about your organization?

Melanin Mass Moms is a unique organization, as we reach black and brown moms statewide through our online network. Over the past five years, word of mouth has grown our network to over 5,000 moms! The support and solidarity seen in our online community truly make this work rewarding. Our team of admins works hard to ensure this remains a space for us, by us.

What’s next for you? What project or goal is Melanin Mass Moms working on right now?

Melanin Mass Moms is thrilled to announce our 501(c)(3) Spring 2024 Doula Scholarship, designed to make a significant impact on the lives of four expectant mothers giving birth between March and August 2024. Our organization is committed to addressing health disparities and bridging the gap in available resources to mothers of color as they navigate the complex journey of motherhood.

Our mission is rooted in providing comprehensive support, encompassing mental health resources, postpartum assistance, and advocating for equitable access to community-wide resources for mothers of color. With this scholarship initiative, we aim to centralize the importance of doula care in addressing healthcare disparities, particularly during the crucial period of pregnancy and childbirth.

What does liberation look like to you?

Liberation for black and brown moms would be nothing short of safe birthing experiences, supportive and accessible mental health and wellness services, and existing in spaces of empowerment. Liberation looks like motherhood in bloom rooted in joy and safety. 

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