From Our Executive Director: On Being Three Years Young

October 17, 2018 11:28 am Published by

Dear friends, partners, and community,

This summer, I passed an important milestone; I marked my third year as executive director of Open Arms. It’s hard to convey how much I have changed, and how much Open Arms has changed, during this time.

Three years ago, I was a first-time ED trying to fill some very big shoes and, while Open Arms was very clear on its identity and strengths, many people wondered what the future would bring for the organization.

Three years later, Open Arms has tripled its staff, and we are serving more families than ever. In fact, we served 32% more clients in 2017 than in 2016, and we anticipate 2018 will be our biggest year yet.

We are helping to nurture and work together with other community-based organizations ready to share the mantle of advocating for excellent community-based birth services by and for people of color.

Rather than constantly knocking on the doors of power, we are being asked to sit at the table. While the New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, and others draw attention to the challenges of women seeking health care, and especially pregnant, birthing, and parenting women of color, community-based birth support is being celebrated as an intervention that works. National, state, and local policymakers are taking notice and taking concrete action to support our work. Recently, several people have asked if I’m surprised at the magnitude of the recent interest in addressing the incredible disparities in infant and maternal mortality. My response is that the magnitude has to be significant, because it took over 20 years for it to happen. And our families simply cannot wait any longer.

The past three years have been challenging. I’ve had my moments of railing at spreadsheets as I tried to figure out how to sustain excellence in the face of growing demand, with only minimal general operating support. We learned to hold the families we serve even closer than we thought possible. When I read stories of young children being held in cages and emerging with blank stares, the mental health advocate in me screamed, and as a mother I sobbed privately, because that little girl in the pink shirt watching her mother getting arrested looked just like my own little one at that age.

Every day that I come to work, I look up at a sign that says that my building is a sanctuary site, and I say a silent prayer of thanks for those that built the halo that surrounds El Centro de La Raza and our offices. In spite of the climate outside, in our offices you always feel warmth, laughter, and hope. There are babies passed around at staff meetings, and toddlers who like to draw on our chalkboards or hide crayons under the carpets. If you ever wished you could journey to Wakanda, just for a moment, well then you should come to one of our staff meetings. We and our clients come from communities that have fled war, been banned, impoverished, intentionally excluded, overly disciplined and wrongfully incarcerated. We are very used to being underestimated; we have never let that stop us. We are strong because we know we are in this struggle for those that came before us, and those who will come after us.

In the next few weeks, you will learn about how that endurance is being recognized. You will hear just how we are growing and expanding through significant new or expanded partnerships with Best Starts for Kids, the City of Seattle, Pacific Hospital Preservation & Development Authority, and Amerigroup. We continue our partnership to provide home visiting through the Department of Children Youth & Family Services. We are actively helping allies in other counties to consider how to replicate our model. We are advocating for expansion of Medicaid to include coverage for doula services and home visiting. We are honored that other private funders are investing in Open Arms because they know what the future will bring. And we thank every individual who donates or volunteers for us, because you’ve always known it’s the right thing to do.

Open Arms still needs the support from the grassroots doula who has served her community for years, or the midwife or OB/GYN who stood by us and made sure our doulas were in the room, the policymaker that advocated for investments based on equity, and the donor who is compelled to help new moms and their babies. We need you.

I recently heard Senator Manka Dhingra say that, as one of the only women of color in the state legislature, she knows that when women of color are let into rooms of power, they leave room at the table and the door open so that others can follow. That perfectly describes where Open Arms is now. You help us support and advocate for clients whose very rights to access health care and basic services are threatened. You help us remain the scrappy nonprofit that turns down partnerships that conflict with our values. You help us speak bravely and eloquently, even when we are the only people of color at the table… for now. So, thank you for staying engaged and with us just as Open Arms hits her stride.

And as for me, just like any other three-year-old, I plan to stay as stubborn as hell.

With love and gratitude,

Dila Perera