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Shocked by numbers on Black maternal mortality, anti-abortion activist starts South Dallas nonprofit

This story, originally published in The Dallas Morning News, is reprinted as part of a collaborative partnership between The Dallas Morning News and Texas Metro News. The partnership seeks to boost coverage of Dallas’ communities of color, particularly in southern Dallas.

Guided by her faith, Cessilye Smith opened the Abide birth center to offer prenatal and postnatal care and save lives
Cessilye R. Smith
Cessilye R. Smith, founder and CEO of Abide Women’s Health Services, poses for a portrait in the clinic on November 9, 2021. Smith founded Abide Women’s Health Services in 2018 in South Dallas.(Shelby Tauber / Special Contributor)

By BeLynn Hollers and Sriya Reddy

Cessilye Smith once asked her friends on Facebook what it would be like to have a birth center in “the hood.”

She had long been involved in anti-abortion activism when she had a moment that changed the course of her life and work.

She remembers holding her baby girl at a conference when she learned about the United States maternal mortality rate, and more specifically how it was higher for Black women.

“And in that moment, it gutted me,” Smith said. “It shocked me, I had no idea. At the time, I was a very green doula, you know, just fresh out the gate. And it changed how I advocated for women. It changed it completely, I’ll never look back.”

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This led to the beginning of Abide, a non-profit in South Dallas that provides prenatal and postnatal health services to pregnant women among other vital resources. Smith founded Abide in 2018, and in 2020 the organization was able to open a health center.

In 2020 alone, she and her team have served 608 people, teaching 82 lactation classes and while doubling the team to over 60 between staff members, interns, volunteers, and board members.

Abide not only advocates for women’s health, but also addresses environmental issues that may affect their clients needs.

“The moment that I started to realize the systemic issues that face Black women and people of color, I started to see that there were flaws in how I advocated for women, and that it could be improved significantly,” Smith said.

For Smith, her faith life moved her to participate in anti-abortion activism.

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“And that’s all fine and dandy, but activism for a child in the womb without understanding the systemic issues that even cause people to even consider abortion is ridiculous. And I think that, at a time that I was facing a lot of ignorance, you know, in my activism,” she said.

Though Smith is anti-abortion, Abide doesn’t directly engage in the abortion debate, and she describes the organization as the space where opponents and proponents to abortion can both do tangible work. She says Abide has both perspectives working at their center in South Dallas.

The need

Abide was born from Smith’s passion to provide resources that would prevent maternal mortality for Black women and those in the South Dallas community. Her research led her wanting to learn more.

“It caused me to start digging into why things are the way that they are here in South Dallas, as opposed to things that are north of 30,” Smith said.

Smith cites issues such as red-lining, food deserts and food insecurity as major factors that lead to more women and babies dying in the Black community.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control, Black mothers are three times more likely to die of complications from pregnancy than white women because of these social determinants of health.

But, maternal mortality is not the only concern for Smith.

According to The University of Texas System Population Health, for every 1,000 births in Abide’s neighborhood there are 13 infant deaths.

Meanwhile, Texas has one of the highest teen birth rates in the country. The zip code in South Dallas where Abide is located has a teen pregnancy rate of 96-120 per 1,000 women aged 15-19, one of the highest in the county, according to the 2016 Dallas County Community Health Needs Assessment.

The work

Abide operates as an easy access clinic and exists to improve birth outcomes for a community that receives the lowest level of care. They provide donation based prenatal care, provide postnatal care, childhood education and lactation classes, among other services, connecting their patients with resources around the community.

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Paige Jackson, the clinic director says that when their patients come in, their visit is not much different than an OB office.

“So when they come in, we take vitals, blood pressure pulls, draw any lab work that may be needed for that appointment, any blood work,” she said.

But Abide also uses the midwifery model that emphasizes touch.

“Midwives use their hands a lot to kind of be able to see what’s going on inside of the body. ” Jackson said.

Jackson said she’s been a “birth geek” her whole life, growing up around a lot of births. Her great-great grandmother was a midwife, so it was no surprise that she ended up going to school to become one as well.

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Jackson is aware of how her work impacts South Dallas mothers. Her own story plays a role into why she is passionate about what she does.

“My daughter was a statistic as well, she passed away due to prematurity,” she said.

She said that the kind of services that Abide provides might have helped her as she struggled to deal with a difficult pregnancy.

“I was on Medicaid at the time,” Jackson said. “And so my OB really didn’t have the time to communicate.”

Jackson wants the women Abide sees to have a different sort of experience than she had.

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“It makes me want to help give voice to women who didn’t have what we needed during that time,” she said.

The services

Beyond prenatal and postnatal care, Abide has partnered with Delighted to Doula, a non-profit postpartum doula service which runs out of Abide.

The partnership provides mothers with free postpartum doula support services, or just postpartum services, said Prinscilla Moore, the founder of the non-profit.

After a baby is born, the doulas go into the home and provide support to the mother. They can do a range of things for the mother from helping do laundry to keeping an eye out for health risks.

Moore explained that the service is focused on the mother’s recovery, not only the baby’s health. The doulas look out for blood pressure and hemorrhaging,and educate mothers on what is normal and what needs extra attention by a healthcare professional.

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“We’re fighting maternal mortality,” Moore said. “So it’s very important that we get there. As soon as the baby is born, we want to be there on day one or two when they go home.”

Moore said the program gives each mother a year of doula services. In the first few months, the doulas go out multiple times a week and as time progresses the less they go.

Delighted to Doula and Abide have a partnership agreement which provides five scholarships for women in South Dallas to become doulas, sending them back out in their community to help mothers.

Moore said her passion for being a doula came from her own experiences with postpartum depression. When she had her first child at 23, her mother had already passed away.

“I had all my girls without a mom. And so just to know that you have somebody to talk to and somebody there supporting you,” she said as tears flowed down her face. “There’s a whole community that is suffering. They don’t have access. They don’t have resources.”

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Part of Abide’s mission is to also connect their patients with other resources in the community such as maternity homes, clothing, food, counseling, or anything a new mom or family might need.

Tiara Rivers, the community resource manager, who started as an intern at Abide, does outreach to provide more resources to the clients.

Rivers said Abide offers care and attention that some doctors’ offices don’t.

For her that might look like going out and bringing meals to a patient before she leaves, or making a list of items the mom or baby might need and going out and finding them. On one recent day, when a patient couldn’t find the Abide offices, Rivers didn’t just tell her to reschedule, she went out looking for her.

Rivers works closely with the client resource specialist Contessa Fowler whose job it is to speak with clients about their particular needs.

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“The client may bring up something such as food insecurity, or job insecurity or whatever it may be, or resources needed. And so I’m connecting them to those resources, and making referrals,” she said.

Fowler is also the lead educator at Abide. She holds classes on nutrition and answers questions about what women might expect during pregnancy. Her motivation to work at Abide comes from her own history with infertility and the way other women’s health professionals dismissed her concerns as a Black woman when she tried to educate herself and advocate for herself about treatments.

“I’ve had those things where I have stood up for myself, and then was excused from a doctor’s office, which was the only place that I could actually get help for the service that I needed,” she said.

Despite going to the best medical professionals in the area, Fowler said that she still felt unheard. It took her years to find ones that took her seriously. Abide lets her advocate for women.

“It’s not lost on me to trauma that happens within maternal health care because I’ve experienced it myself,” she said.

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The future and beyond

Abide plans on expanding, opening up their donation based care to offer women wellness checks starting in February 2022 Jackson said.

“It’s kind of revolutionary, because there’s really not very many people who are providing well woman care services on a scale that we will be providing at a low cost donation base,” Jackson said.

In May, the organization launched its capital campaign with a goal of a million dollars to build its own birth collective care center. The theme of its campaign is “rest, resist, restore.” So far it has raised just over $300,000.

Smith says she isn’t afraid to dream big.

“The amount of freedom that we’ve created here has provided a safe place for us to dream big. And to not be fearful of that, so 2023 is my hope that we acquire our building and open our birth center,” she said.

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As for the future, Smith wants to open another center in Fort Worth, with bigger dreams of going national.

Although Abide is not a faith-based organization, Smith says the name comes from John 15:7.

“If you abide in me and my word abides in you, then you shall ask what you will and it shall be given,” Smith said.

Smith says the core values of her organization have truths from Scripture embedded.

“I can’t separate my faith from the work that I do, and so when I think ‘Abide,’ I think of a space, a place of refuge, a place where women of all faith walks, gender identities can come together and feel safe,” she said.

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