In honor of Black History Month, we're spotlighting Black women who are making a lasting impact on the health and safety of children and families.

Marian Wright Edelman

Photo Courtesy of Johnson Publishing Co.

First up is Marian Wright Edelman—lawyer, civil rights activist and children's rights advocate. She attended Spelman College where she graduated as valedictorian and twenty years later, she would become the first Black person and second female to chair the board of trustees of the college. She then went on to Yale Law school and became a staff attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York City. A year later, she opened an office for the organization in Jackson, Mississippi and would become the first Black woman to pass the bar in the state. After testifying for the Senate and Robert F. Kennedy on the condition of poor families in crisis in Mississippi, she moved to Washington D.C. to serve as counsel for the Poor People's March that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began organizing in the months before his assassination. In the 5 years following her move to D.C., she served as Director of Harvard's Center for Law and Education, became the first woman ever elected to the Yale University Corporation, and founded the Children's Defense Fund.

The importance of the Children's Defense Fund cannot be overstated—among many other accomplishments it has pushed legislation such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (which ensures students with a disability are provided free public education tailored to their needs) and has pushed to increase Medicaid funding for children, increase tax credits for families with children, and increase funding for programs like Head Start (which provides comprehensive early education, health and nutrition services to low-income children and families).

Marian has received over 100 honorary degrees and awards, among them the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Robert F. Kennedy lifetime achievement award.

"Service is the rent we pay for being. It is the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time." 

Dr. Natalie Tanner Cain

Photo courtesy of Black Women MDs Archive (left) and AAP News (right)

Next up is Dr. Natalia Tanner Cain—physician, professor, and trailblazer in the field of pediatrics.

A second-generation Black physician (which was pretty much unheard of at that time), she was a woman of many firsts—first African American accepted into the University of Chicago’s residency program, first African American fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, first African American board-certified pediatrician in Detroit, first African American on the Children’s Hospital of Michigan staff, and first woman and first African American president of the Michigan Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Throughout her medical career, she faced racial discrimination and sexism, and yet she continually created a seat for herself at the table and advocated for herself and others. One notable example is when the Detroit Pediatric Society conveniently ‘misplaced’ her application, and she stood up at a meeting to challenge the members to recognize her, declaring “I am not an applicant. I am a full fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and I am a transfer member from the Illinois Chapter.”

Dr. Tanner has received countless awards throughout her career, including the Detroit Urban League’s “Distinguished Warrior” Award for “outstanding work and dedication toward educational excellence, equality and cultural diversity.”

And, in addition to her groundbreaking accomplishments in medicine and pediatrics, she was a dedicated and loving mother. She married Dr. Waldo Cain after they both graduated from medical school and they had two daughters, Sheila and Anita. Anita Cain described her mom as “Super Mom” and the type of mom who would pack them into the station wagon for a weekend adventure and be up before sunrise on school days to cook them a “lumberjack breakfast” before they would hop on the school bus. 

Latham Thomas

Photo courtesy of @glowmaven 

Up next is Latham Thomas— founder of Mama Glow, author, wellness leader, birth doula, and maternity lifestyle guru. She is a Columbia University graduate and attended The Institute for Integrative Nutrition.

Latham began her work to revolutionize maternal care after giving birth to her son, Fulano, in 2003. She saw a need in the birth space for mothers to advocate for themselves and have the support of advocates by their sides. To make this vision a reality, she founded Mama Glow—a holistic maternity lifestyle brand supporting women during fertility, pregnancy, after birth, and new motherhood. MamaGlow offers a doula program to educate trainees around the world to serve on the frontlines and help combat the maternal mortality rate, which disproportionately affects Black women.

Latham also teaches at universities and hospitals around the country, educating their staff to improve patients’ labor and delivery experience. She is working to help foster a generation of physicians that will support Black mothers in everything from fertility to breastfeeding—spaces that Black women have often been excluded from because of a long history of racist practices, including the fact that Black women were forced to serve as wet nurses.

Latham is the author of bestselling books Mama Glow: A Hip Guide to a Fabulous and Abundant Pregnancy and OWN YOUR GLOW: A Soulful Guide to Luminous Living and Crowning the Queen Within and was named one of Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul 100.

“I felt really compelled by the vision of Harriet Tubman and carrying people to safe passage. This is what we do: We carry mothers to safe passage through darkness and we help navigate a really uncharted territory for most people. It’s their first time—or one of very few times in their life that they’ll do something like this. And being a doula is like bearing witness to that, but also being this very powerful person of support that helps them get through.” 

Kimberly Sears Allers

Photo Courtesy of @iamksealsallers 

Next up is Kimberly Seals Allers—journalist, author, maternal & infant health strategist, founder of Irth, and co-founder of Black Breastfeeding Week. She has journalism degrees from NYU and Columbia and is a former senior editor at ESSENCE and writer at FORTUNE magazine.

Kimberly began her work advocating for maternal and infant health equity after giving birth to her first child and witnessing firsthand the unfair treatment Black women receive during childbirth. She gave birth at one of the best-ranked hospitals in New York City per the recommendations of many of her white friends, only to leave feeling disrespected and traumatized. “I had a C-section I still can’t fully explain, my baby was given infant formula despite my explicit direction that I was breastfeeding, I had to fight and cry to have my baby with me in my room.”

In 2013, Kimberly co-founded Black Breastfeeding Week to address the disproportionately high Black infant mortality rate, lack of diversity in the lactation space, food apartheid in Black communities, and many other barriers Black women face.

Her latest brainchild is Irth—as in Birth but without the B for bias—an app to help achieve equity in the birth space. It allows moms of color to share their care experiences so expecting and new parents can find a hospital or doctor based on these reviews. On the backend, the app holds doctors and hospitals accountable through data collection, which will help identify trends to work directly with providers.

Kimberly has written 5 books including her latest, The Big Letdown: How Medicine, Big Business, and Feminism Undermine Breastfeeding, and she received the Rita Henley Jensen Investigative Journalism Award (pictured above).

“Everyone deserves an empowered birth experience where they are honored and respected for who they are, not treated differently or inadequately because of who they are.”

Kimberly Durdin

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Coursey-Rugh

Last but certainly not least is Kimberly Durdin, a lactation consultant, midwife, doula, childbirth educator and co-founder of Kindred Space—a birth, lactation and education space located in Los Angeles. Over the past 26 years, Kimberly has been dedicated to providing support to new families in many forms, whether its lactation support, childbirth education, labor support or her most recent undertaking, Kindred Space. 

At Kindred Space, she and co-founder Allegra Hill are providing classes and support for new and expecting parents as well as birth workers. And, in addition to Kindred Space, they founded the Birthing People Foundation, a non-profit created to train more birth workers of color while also working towards opening a birthing center in South LA to further their goal of making community midwifery care available to all. You can make a donation to the KSLA Birth Center Fund here.

Kimberly was awarded Best Lactation Professional of 2015 by Doulas of Southern California and received the Student Future Leader Dr Paul Fleiss Award from The Association for Wholistic Maternal Newborn Health & Human Rights in Childbirth in 2016. Learn more about Kimberly and her ongoing work.

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