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Meet Rachel Abramson of HealthConnect One in West Loop

Today we’d like to introduce you to Rachel Abramson.

Rachel, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I never expected that I would spend 30 years leading a maternal and child health organization, much less one that is a leader for birth equity. In the mid-1980’s, I had an experience that changed my point of view and opened my perspectives about health, equity, and the role I could play in supporting mothers and babies.

I was a 32-year old postpartum (mother-baby) nurse, and I was a breastfeeding mother. I was amazed by the importance of breastfeeding, in my own life and for the health and well-being of the families, I was caring for. I was determined to help other mothers decide to breastfeed their babies, even though in that time, few women in their communities may have been making that decision.

I was also a feminist and believed that I had a connection with women everywhere. I had been trained as a nurse that if I had the right information, the right strategy, and cared enough about my patients, that they would take my advice. The implication was that if they didn’t take my advice, they were not compliant, or didn’t care about their own health.

I can see it as clearly as the day it happened. I was standing in the largest room on the postpartum floor, with five African-American women who had just birthed their babies. I was trying my hardest to convince one of the women to try breastfeeding. I could see her face harden and her eyes shift away from me, and I could feel the sweat dripping down my sides. It felt as if there was an invisible wall between us.

It didn’t matter how hard I tried, or how I shared my own experience, or how much I tried to connect with her. I was a white, middle-class nurse with a husband and a job and a mortgage, and she could not see herself in my eyes. I was not the right messenger to convince her that she could breastfeed her baby, that she could be successful, that she would feel happy and proud for trying. I was not the right messenger to share with her the health benefits of breastfeeding.

We were different, and that difference mattered. This experience altered the course of my life. This woman taught me the limits of my role as a health professional in such an intimate area of health decision making. She also taught me a respect for the power of race, ethnicity, and difference in every interaction. Slowly, my own limitations as a white health care provider began opening my eyes to the power of real peer-to-peer support.

HealthConnect One was founded on this principle – on the power of peer support, and the community health worker model, to care for families during pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, and early parenting. The easy, close connection that is possible with someone who looks like you, shares your experience, and understands your assumptions, is a powerful force for health and change.

Now, I work with others to integrate breastfeeding peer counselors, community-based doulas, and other community health workers into sustainable programs and into the health care team — and to value their work with a full-time, living wage. I have had the great fortune to know and partner with so many community health workers during my thirty years of work with HC One.

They are some of the smartest, most courageous, most talented, and most committed people I’ve ever met. They are absolutely the right messengers for promoting breastfeeding, healthy births, and responsive parenting in low-income communities and communities of color. I have seen the astounding health outcomes that they have achieved in tremendously difficult circumstances. This community-based approach to birth equity is the driving force behind my work.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
What energizes me is that our work is driven by the strengths, relationships, and dedication of communities. But no, nonprofit work is never smooth, and you never feel like you’ve arrived at your destination.

It’s challenging work. The most difficult struggle I have as an Executive Director is to bridge the gap between the realities on the ground in communities and the expectations and strategies of funders. It is painful to see communities who are ready to build a birthing support program or a birth equity initiative and just need the resources and support to make it happen — at a time when the priorities of a funder have shifted to other issues. But it is exhilarating to bridge the understanding of the time and effort it takes to make real change for families and communities.

Challenges spur growth, learning, and creativity, which is the wonderful thing about this work. Building toward a common vision, and developing new strategies for the current environment alongside community health workers, leaders, and advocates who will not, who refuse to give up, make this kind of effort tremendously satisfying.

So, as you know, we’re impressed with HealthConnect One – tell our readers more, for example what you’re most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from others.
HealthConnect One transforms how babies are born and cared for in their first months of life. We train, mentor, consult, collaborate — and facilitate the development of community-led programs to support moms, babies, and families. We advocate to change the racial and social inequities that are the barriers to achieving optimal births for all people. In part, we do this by highlighting strengths and amplifying voices of Black, Latinx, Native, immigrant, poor and disenfranchised peoples, and by promoting pay equity among people who have been traditionally underpaid.

Practically speaking, we partner with low-income communities and communities of color across the country to co-design programs and initiatives that effectively support parents and babies in every part of their lives – because we understand that community members are the best experts on their families and neighborhoods. Our collaborative work puts people in touch with their own strengths, their own skills, and both personal and collective power.

We do this because every baby, mother, and family has the right to live into their highest potential – including parents and families from every race, income, and background.

For 30 years – across more than 50 communities in 20 states – HealthConnect One’s community collaborations have resulted in healthier babies born with fewer C-sections, increased breastfeeding rates, and mothers and families receiving expanded support in the crucial first months of a child’s life.

So, what’s next? Any big plans?
I have been with HC One for 30 years now. I’ve decided that the organization and I have reached a transition point – a moment of significant growth and change. It’s the right moment for me to set a retirement date. I’ll be stepping down from my role on July 1, 2018.

Over the past year, we have accomplished deep work to build a leaderful organization on every level, and I believe we’ve reached a point where HealthConnect One can really soar. The organization has tremendous potential and opportunity for national expansion, and I think that our amazing team and a new Executive Director will bring us to the next level of exciting development and sustainability.

HealthConnect One has developed a Search Committee, which includes Board, staff, Associate Board, and community representation. Led by our Board President, the Committee will conduct a search for a new Executive Director. During this transition period, it is our priority to find the best individual to lead us into the future, while we continue to develop our important and innovative programs. The job announcement will be shared in early February.

I am tremendously proud of HC One, its staff and Board, and partners, and of the significant change, we have been able to both lead and be a part of. I’m excited about the future, and very grateful that we are able to enter this transition in a structured, planful, and strategic way. I will continue to support HC One in any way I can.

The organization is strong and has the support of stakeholders across the country. Together, we will continue to meet change without fear, and continue to fight so that every mother, baby, and family can thrive in a healthy community.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:

Flynt Chaney, Liz Chilsen, Cindy Ogrin, Judy Fidkowski

Getting in touch: VoyageChicago is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

1 Comment

  1. BobD

    January 11, 2018 at 8:07 am

    Fascinating insight to a field that while I don’t work directly in I have both sympathies and friends who do. As I’m approaching retirement I’m thinking of giving back and volunteering and reading article like this gives me great perspectives to help deciding where to focus where I can be most effective.

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