SHANELL WILLIAMS

Director of Community Engagement, Organizer, Activist

UNTIL I HEAR FROM BLACK FAMILIES AND FOLKS THAT THEY ARE GETTING THE BEAUTIFUL BIRTHS THEY DESERVE, I WILL BE HERE ADVOCATING AND WORKING FOR CHANGE.
– Shanell

OVER TWO DECADES OF COMMUNITY ORGANIZING

I am a public advocate and organizer and have been for 22 years. During this time, I’ve had the opportunity to focus on many social justice issues in a number of roles. It’s important to first tell you where I’ve been. I got the opportunity to start my journey as a youth leader in San Francisco working on issues that really spoke to my personal experience as a Black, working-class, and system-involved teen. I worked with formerly incarcerated young women, some of them young mothers, mostly people of color, providing them direct service support such as case management and resource referrals. We also trained young women to advocate for change in the systems that directly impacted their lives. This has been really meaningful work for me over the years. As I got older, I focused on educational access. Working with community college system students  — a lot of them from the same background —  are people of color and Black and Brown folks who would otherwise not get access to traditional educational opportunities.

Shanell’s current roles include serving as:

  • Director of Community Engagement and Partnerships at California Preterm Birth Initiative,
  • Chair of the Our City, Our Home (Prop C) Oversight Committee, and
  • President of the Board of Trustees at City College of San Francisco.

A CURIOUS, YET FRUSTRATED YOUTH

I was raised in San Francisco, California in the Fillmore district, Fillmore/Western Addition. It’s a neighborhood that I just moved back to at the end of 2020. However, at the time, when I was growing up, there was a lot of drug use, violence, systemic racism such as over-policing, a lack of access to healthy food, and housing conditions that were not optimal. I got to see that firsthand and how that impacted not only my family but also other families in my community. 

As a young person, I would be like “Why is it like this?” I was a curious kid always asking why and always feeling deep frustration. Because I care about people, it felt like things didn’t have to be this way.

UNINTENDED OUTCOMES OF SYSTEMS NOT BUILT FOR US

As I went through my own journey and struggle as a young person who got into the system, I thought about this a lot. I was in the juvenile justice system for a good portion of my youth, kind of in and out, and I became a ward of the court and was in foster care. I experienced the family regulation system, as we like to call it. In all these systems and structures, I witnessed how they’re well-meaning and how they want to help but how harmful the unintended outcomes could be. If you simply don’t get the right counselor or the right mentor, you might not make it out of the system and you will be on that journey for the rest of your life. A lot of kids in the system end up in prison as adults or experience other difficulties throughout their lives.   

There’s a saying from Martin Luther King, Jr: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We have to work in coalition with each other and not work in siloes because that’s how the systems will divide us.

TRANSFORMING MY TRAUMA

Fortunately for me, I got the intervention and support from folks who were pretty amazing. They politicized me and woke me up to all these systemic factors that exist. Telling me, “You don’t want to play into this game and get trapped in the system as a Black woman” and asking, “How do we transform this frustration you feel and the trauma and the things you’ve been through and turn that into advocacy and organizing?”  And that’s how I got involved in the community at a young age.

After I transitioned out of the system, I was lucky enough to get several good internships and continue to receive mentorship. I’ve been on this journey of community work now for over 20 years.

MY MOM EXPERIENCED ANTI-BLACKNESS IN THE MEDICAL SYSTEM

I came to the California Preterm Birth Initiative (PTBi) in 2016 really because of a personal incident: My mom when she was 52 years old passed away. She passed away from a medical mistake. She was a single mom who raised me and my sister in San Francisco. I got to see firsthand while managing my mom’s care the injustices within the medical system and the lack of responsiveness to Black and Brown people, but most often Black women. Once she passed in 2015, I came to a point of understanding that I wanted to work on health equity issues related to Black women and was brought into PTBi. I started as the Community Engagement Specialist and am now the Director of Community Engagement and Partnerships.

Through that work, I have had the opportunity, the privilege, and the honor to work with our amazing Community Advisory Board (CAB). My first focus at PTBi was to develop the CAB from scratch and I was able to recruit a phenomenal cohort of doulas, midwives, direct service providers, and folks who work on the front lines, as well as, those with lived experience, to advise our research portfolio. The second big project I lead is our Benioff Community Innovators program, which identifies community advocates who are concerned with a number of social determinants of health and equips them with the ability to go out into their own communities, conduct community-based participatory research, and advocate for policy change.

COMMUNITY MEMBERS NEED TO BE THE TABLE

Community engagement is extremely important, not only for Black families experiencing preterm birth but for social change across the board. We have that saying, “Nothing about us without us.” For me, having lived experience and being able to be at the decision-making table as a youth was a transformative experience — not only transformative for me, but also for folks who sometimes don’t see us, those who don’t live and work and play with the people that they’re trying to impact and yet make decisions. 

Policymakers often think abstractly, and they might go “Hey, this is a great policy.…” and feel that they are being well-meaning. But once that policy actually gets implemented, there are all these other unintended outcomes — outcomes which often times community can point to and be ahead of. That’s why if we are going to make any movement, we need people on the front lines at the decision-making table. Being active in those conversations, whether that’d be with policymakers, hospital administrators, researchers, or nonprofit leaders so that those who are directly impacted can truly share how the issue at hand has impacted them, their family, and their community.

HAVE I BEEN AFFECTED BY PRETERM BIRTH?

I haven’t personally had a preterm birth and I have not given birth, but I would love to become a mom in the future. In the past, I have had to terminate pregnancies because it just wasn’t the right time for me. The person who comes to mind is my first cousin. She was born preterm and they named her Preema because of it. It was interesting because our community sort of normalized it at the time when she was born. It was the ‘80s. Because she was born preterm, she has faced significant struggles throughout her life. Seeing her go through that makes the work we do real for me. I want to tell my family and community, “We don’t have to have our babies preterm. We can have healthy full-term babies — and that should be normal.”

Preterm birth is normalized and it shouldn’t be. Where are the hospital providers and other folks making noise about this issue? It shouldn’t come down to the birthing people to have that happen to them.

UNAPOLOGETIC ABOUT MY STORY

Seeing Black women in the “ivory tower,” a.k.a. this traditional academic space, kicking butt and taking names taught me to be bold and more unapologetic about my work, my background, and my story.

Being at PTBi has transformed my thinking about what birth research is — particularly working with Dr. Brittany Chambers, Dr. Monica McLemore, and all these phenomenal Black researchers. They bring this vital information to a space that wasn’t originally created for us and are able to lift up the issues that need the most attention. I had not previously collaborated with such an amazing cadre of Black women researchers. Together with these women, I’ve had the opportunity to bring community organizers and young people into the work through the CAB and the Benioff Community Innovators program.

 

CHANGING BLACK BIRTH OUTCOMES IS URGENT

Black people are experiencing adverse birth outcomes in real-time — every day. Until I hear from Black families and folks that they are getting the beautiful births they deserve, I will be here advocating and working for change. 

We just completed the Road to Black Birth Justice report where we conducted focus groups and interviews this year with folks who shared stories of being discriminated against and experiencing the worst outcomes because of it — including infant mortality. This is happening in 2022. It motivates me to try as many avenues as possible so that we can finally see some reduction in the preterm birth rates among Black people. We need to start to see some changes because folks are struggling with this and the urgency is just not there.   

I was very happy to see Rage Against The Machine have at one of their concerts a big screen display the stats about the disparity between Black and white birthing people. It was just so awesome to see this band talking about it. As much as we can, we need to raise our voices and sound the alarm.  

REPRODUCTIVE JUSTICE TOUCHES ALL ASPECTS OF OUR LIVES

Even though we’ve had Vice President Kamala Harris come out to UCSF to talk about this, and many influential folks talk about this like Serena Williams and Beyonce, there is still a lack of urgency. We are still seeing high rates of preterm birth and disrespectful care. 

The issue of reproductive justice touches all aspects of our social, political fabric. If you don’t have economic justice, it’s hard to have reproductive justice. If you don’t have healing justice, it’s hard to have reproductive justice. There are so many connections between this work. In public health, we talk about the social determinants of health. What this looks like in practice is that there are policies that can have a major difference and affect so many health outcomes that it isn’t just one policy to one health outcome. 

For instance, we’ve been pushing for Medi-Cal expansion to cover doula services and postpartum care up to one year after birth. It’s important for parents who have a preterm birth to not have to return to work as soon as they would normally have to because many spend time in the NICU and take longer to get their babies home. All policies that are being created can make a difference — covering pregnancy, birth, and postpartum — having support in these times can set a family and a child up for a better future.