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On April 29 I was awarded the YWCA’s Pat Asch Fellowship for Social Justice, which provides support for a woman over 50 who is working for positive change in the Richmond Area. I am humbled and honored to be able to move Nurture’s mission forward through this opportunity. During the application process, I made a commitment to document my Fellowship experience. This is my first blog post in this series.

The very act of beginning to chronicle this journey is both thrilling and terrifying, which means I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. I know exciting territory ahead lies ahead, that the Fellowship experience will force me to grow and change.


I came to the nonprofit world in a roundabout fashion. A massage therapist since 1982, I began a subspecialty in prenatal and postpartum massage in 1994, trained as a doula in 1998, and began teaching prenatal yoga in 2001. Though I loved teaching prenatal yoga and childbirth education classes, I never felt at home in the small business world in which I was operating. Many of my students reported that they were struggling to access necessary resources. I noticed that those who could most benefit from the services I offered were often least able to afford them. I frequently had scholarship students in my programs. And I was working in isolation within a largely white, middle-class sector. It just didn’t feel right to me.

So in 2012 I took a year’s sabbatical and put out a call to my maternal health colleagues to explore the need for a nonprofit maternity resource center that could provide services to families at all income levels and serve as an umbrella to connect existing community resources. Several amazing people responded to that call, and together we created the foundation of the organization that became Nurture.

Over the next couple of years I participated in the Emerging Nonprofit Leaders Program and completed a Certificate in Nonprofit Management. I also started working part-time with Richmond Healthy Start Initiative coordinating a grant focused on improving the environment for breastfeeding mothers within the City of Richmond, with an emphasis on low-income African-American and Hispanic communities. I took workshops exploring systemic racism and the social determinants of health, and attended conferences that examined structural barriers to maternal and infant health.

My crooked path has brought me to a place where my love of direct service and my interest in social science are beginning to merge into a new form.

My crooked path has brought me to a place where my love of direct service and my interest in social science (I have a master’s degree in sociology with coursework in public health) – are beginning to merge into a new form. Though the path is not always clear, and sometimes strewn with rocks and mud, the new companions I have met on this journey feel like soul mates. They come from all walks of life and a variety of professional disciplines. They are working to change the world. A world with a much more diverse population. A world that feels like home.

Richmond is blessed with a burgeoning childbirth advocacy community, which is pushing our institutions toward more evidence-based practices, as exhibited by local hospitals’ adoption of midwifery practices in the last few years. We have a growing number of doulas, childbirth educators, and lactation support providers. However our independent birth professionals operate largely through an entrepreneurial, fee-for-service model. This model does not work within low-income communities, which lack both the resources to pay for these services and the practitioners to provide them. Richmond also has dedicated public health practitioners working with under-resourced families. Yet these two groups of practitioners work in isolation – parallel stakeholders working with diverse populations facing very similar issues, who aren’t learning from one another. As a result, our most vulnerable citizens fall through the cracks, and our capacity for addressing maternal health issues in an equitable, sustainable way is diminished.

The Fellowship Project:

My Fellowship project will bring together maternal health stakeholders from diverse backgrounds to explore how we can improve the local environment for ALL of Richmond’s emerging families. The project is a component of Nurture’s strategic plan for the coming year. The seeds of this project have already been planted: since its inception, Nurture has provided programs that bring diverse practitioners together to explore topics such as pregnancy loss, childbirth trauma, and breastfeeding support.

In July we will begin hosting a series of Cross-Sector Community Conversations for Maternal Health. Our goals include building inter-agency relationships, identifying barriers and opportunities to promote maternal health, and   establishing the partnerships necessary to create a sustainable Community Doula and/or Breastfeeding Peer Support program for low-income citizens. The Pat Asch Fellowship will enable me to support this project through participation in professional development programs in network development and facilitative leadership. I will also be visiting innovative maternal health models in other communities to bring successful ideas back to Richmond.

First up: in August I will be attending a weeklong practicum in The Circle Way, a model of facilitation that “puts a leader in every seat.” I have used The Circle Way principles in my prenatal yoga classes and teacher trainings for over a decade, but I have never had any formal training in the model.

I plan to write a blog post at least every other month as the Fellowship project unfolds. I invite you to accompany me on this journey. I am so excited to begin.

Leslie Lytle is the founder and Executive Director of Nurture.

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