Interview: Kathryn Hall-Trujillo on taking risks to fight infant mortality
In our Risk-taking series, Tulane University and Ashoka U students Katie Smalley and Laura White shed light on the value of risk-taking. By interviewing social innovators about bold steps they’ve taken, they reveal that behavior that appears risky may be the most dependable way to produce innovation, ultimately leading to better solutions to social problems.
Kathryn Hall-Trujillo, a former California Health Services advisor, did not fully appreciate the reality of infant mortality until she held a 10-day old baby boy named DeAndre shortly after his life slipped away. Infant mortality was about “counting dead babies,” she saw. DeAndre’s short life became the impetus for the Birthing Project USA, an organization Hall-Trujillo founded 20 years ago. The Birthing Project gives women practical support during pregnancy and for one year after the child’s birth, improving birth outcomes. By educating and involving community members, the Birthing Project has helped ensure safe births for over 10,000 babies. Here, Hall-Trujillo describes the risks she faced building an “underground railroad for new life.”
Dowser: What is the biggest risk you took with Birthing Project USA that paid off?
Hall-Trujillo: When we decided to have our own clinic, our colleagues and everyone else thought we were crazy and arrogant and ungrateful. Grassroots women of color do not conceive of and manage their own clinics! So we were alienated from our usual supporters, a significant risk to success, because they thought we were stepping outside of our area of expertise. However, we thought that this bold move would attract enough new supporters and funders. We were right, and our clinic now attracts visitors from all over the world and is still operating almost 20 years later.
What is the biggest risk you took that did not pay off?
We definitely learned the hard way that government contracts don’t work for us. Our strength is our ability to be flexible, to build the boat as we are sailing it, and to let our patients/clients determine what their needs and solutions are. We knew this was a core value of our organization, but we wanted to prove our credibility and professionalism and increase our revenue by contracting with the local health department. The health department contract required us to hire additional ‘professional’ staff, reduce our service options and ended up costing us over $70,000. Needless to say, we did not renew the contract nor risk our principles for recognition or money after that experience.
What do you think is the most important factor in taking intelligent risks?
I try to think through every perspective and every thing that could go wrong, and then decide if I can live with that outcome before I step outside the safe area. This includes putting a face on all the other people impacted by my decision. Sometimes the possibility of creating dignity, hope and opportunity outweighs the loss of money, inclusion and safety.
This interview was edited and condensed.
Photo: Birthing Project