We had the good fortune of connecting with Cessilye R. Smith and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Cessilye R., what role has risk played in your life or career?
To be Black in America is a risk. A risk stamped on us from conception until death. So what role has risk-taking played in my life/career? Everything. Over eighteen months ago I took a risk by providing programs to the community of South Dallas through Abide Women’s Health Services. I did this without the funding, without the support, without having firm guidelines in place, and without a well thought out and detailed plan. I took a risk just in merely existing as a Black woman that is unapologetically anti-racist. I risked losing support from more conservative followers and risked rubbing people the wrong way. I risked not being taken seriously because I am no practitioner. I’ve placed a great deal of sweat equity into my work from the start, which came with much sacrifice from my family…I risked it all blowing up in my face. Risk-taking is something that is in my DNA. After gaining more insight into my lineage, I’ve come to realize that part of my cultural narrative derives from the Kru tribe. The Kru people were known for their act of resistance to colonization. They would rather end their own lives than be enslaved. They were also excellent navigators of the sea. Risk-taking along with navigating various systems is something that I now know makes sense. I was born with it.
Can you give our readers an introduction to your business? Maybe you can share a bit about what you do and what sets you apart from others?
I lead a maternal justice organization called Abide Women’s Health Services. “We exist to improve birth outcomes in communities with the lowest quality of care by offering healthcare and complimentary services that are easily accessible, holistic, evidence-based and free from judgment”. Abide is located in the heart of Sunny South Dallas near the intersections of MLK Jr. Blvd and Malcolm X. After recognizing the reality of the devastating birth outcomes not only nationally, but right down to the community of South Dallas and quite frankly, the entire southern sector of Dallas. It became clear that something must be done. You see, Black women, die from childbirth-related causes at 3-4x the rate of white women and Black babies die at 2-3x the rate of white babies before they reach their first birthday. According to the 2016 Dallas County Health Assessment, South Dallas has the highest deaths in diabetes, heart disease, and stroke and we lead in low birth weight babies and pre-term birth. Leading normally implies a good thing but in this case, it is not. We have heard story upon story of great issues of environmental racism in the southern sector of Dallas and its contribution to cancer rates among already marginalized communities. There is something insidious going on in Dallas and its name is Racism. Michelle Obama said something that rings true. “Communities and countries and ultimately the world are only as strong as the health of their women.” So we aren’t here to change everything, that’s an impossible task, but we are here to care for women, birthing people and their children. We are here to center the lived experiences of BIPOC unapologetically. We believe that our role in the resistance starts first with ourselves and then with the mother. And our hope is that we create an environment that gives birth to justice. What set’s us apart from any other justice organization or clinic is our ability to navigate various systems that are bent on the destruction of the Black body, while simultaneously creating our own. Our commitment to rest, resistance and restoration is embedding into the framework of our daily lives. This places the humanity of our staff at the center and it bleeds out into how we treat our neighbor. Abide values equity, intrinsic human value, anti-racism, racial conciliation, redemptive justice, reparations, inventive systems and posture of heart. These values are what compel us to reach our goals of reducing infant and maternal mortality, low birth-weight babies, pre-term birth, increase breastfeeding rates and increase the number of Black midwives and birth workers of color. Our rock-solid values and commitment to introspection are what sets us apart. Abide WHS makes no sense. All I can say is #butGod. I was a mother and part-time doula when we started this organization, I currently have four children ranging from 1-9 and I have no college degree. Abide has grown into a movement that will one day be national. This road has not been easy, but it has taken risks and a great leap of faith to just do what God said to do with the faith to believe that if I ever were to fall, I’d be picked right back up.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I would definitely take a friend to Klyde Warren Park. After that, I would take a stroll over to Bishop Arts but I think the most fun we would have would be hanging in a backyard with a group of friends that I highly respect and talk about how we intend to change the world.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
Without the support from the board of directors of Abide Women’s Health Services, I’m unsure of where I would be right now. I have never felt more trusted, empowered and supported than I do right now. To have a group of leaders who are essentially strangers stand beside me as I lay out the vision of Abide is something that most non-profit leaders only dream of. I will call them by name. Roselle Tenorio(President), Sharifa Stevens(VP), Esther Villareal(Secretary), Savohna Brown(Treasurer), Rhyan Brown, and Smitha Caroline-Dante are the phenomenal leaders behind the scenes working hard to make history in South Dallas. Additionally, the women that sit on our advisory board have provided counsel and mentorship that one cannot place a price on. Thank you to Lenita Dunlap, Roxanne Anderson, Quintrilla Ard and Cherilyn Holloway.
Personal Image by Laquita Brazile @midwifelaquitabrazile All additional images by Brianna Davila – Earthside Birth Dallas Instagram @earthside.birth.dallas