This post was originally published on Defender Network

By Aswad Walker

The gruesome fact that Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related issue than white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has become well-known in our community. But what many don’t know is that maternal mortality not only speaks to the actual act of childbirth but extends to the entire year afterward.

The CDC states, “Each year in the United States, about 700 people die during pregnancy or in the year after. Another 50,000 women each year experience severe pregnancy complications that can cause serious consequences for a woman’s health.” And because of variations in quality healthcare, underlying chronic conditions, structural racism, and implicit bias, Black women die or suffer pregnancy complications way more than their white counterparts.

Kay Matthews

Enter the Shades of Blue Project. This organization, founded by activist Kay Matthews, is “dedicated to helping women before, during and after child-birth with community resources, mental health advocacy, treatment and support,” according to the organization’s mission statement. Shades of Blue envisions changing the way women, especially women of color, are currently being diagnosed and treated after giving birth and experiencing any adverse maternal mental health outcomes.

The Defender spoke with Matthews to learn more about the origins of Shades of Blue, and what exactly it does to bring its vision into reality.

DEFENDER: What’s the focus of Shades of Blue, and where are your services offered?

KAY MATTHEWS: We are based here in Houston. Our focus is bridging the gaps that exist between maternal health and maternal mental health for folks of color. Our primary focus is bringing awareness and also offering social support service. We’re not just doing it here in Houston. We work on a national and international level, as well.

DEFENDER: What was the impetus behind founding Shades of Blue?

KAY MATTHEWS: My own birthing experience. It resulted in a stillbirth. My interactions with doctors, hospital systems, and even any kind of care after that was so subpar, I felt no one deserved to not figure out what to do and how to move forward. As I worked through my own recovery and learning what life now would be going forward, I wanted to help others along the way. I took it, literally, like the recovery process, day by day, and I started to reach out to folks. I was already working in the community as an entrepreneur. I just took baby steps in creating a resource that would lead people back to getting what it is they need.

Shades of Blue Project participants at an event with founder Kay Matthews (center, green).

DEFENDER: What’s one of the biggest challenges you face in your work?

MATTHEWS: There’s no two birthing experiences that are alike. Similar, but not alike. So, bringing folks to the awareness of acknowledging that outcomes of birth are not the same for everyone. We don’t encounter the same things. Our experiences are not the same. One person can say my birth was beautiful. Another may have a horror story.

DEFENDER: What is it about you that allowed you to go through such an experience and then turn around and try to help other people?

KAY MATTHEWS: I am a sympathetic and empathetic type person. I know that something unthinkable happened to me, but then I’m like, “What about when it happens to someone else; will they have the strength?” Because it takes a lot of strength to move through your own thing, to help somebody else with that same thing, because you’ll be revisiting your pain, to be honest. You have to learn how to help someone but not hurt yourself in the process. If I keep talking about that I experienced a still birth, does that trigger something in me? So, I had to work on myself first before I could help someone else.

It’s about actually giving us the opportunity to be diagnosed. And then once we are… giving us some direction and guidance on where we go to get help.

Kay Matthews

DEFENDER: What needs to be changed about the way Black women are currently diagnosed and treated after giving birth?

MATTHEWS: We actually need to get diagnosed. That’s the thing; we’re so often overlooked. We have the superwoman strong complex, so we’re not even being asked questions like “Are you okay? How are you feeling? Is there anything that’s coming up that’s bothering you, that’s of concern?” We don’t often get asked those questions to give responses that would warrant someone helping.

So it’s about actually giving us the opportunity to be diagnosed. And then once we are, once this red flag goes off, then giving us a resource, giving us some direction and guidance on where we go to get help… so we’re not running around trying to figure out things on our own. And then we end up giving up and just be like, “I’ll deal with it when I deal with it.” And that’s so culturally embedded in us to just say, “We got it. We can do it. I’ll handle it.” But then mental health is pushed to the back… We try to equip folks with the tools to be okay with asking for help and then to be okay with receiving the very help that you ask for. It’s this process that we have to work through.

DEFENDER: Does Shades of Blue focus specifically on empowering women in the maternal experience?

MATTHEWS: That’s part of it. We also do work on policy and things like that. I work with hospital systems, training doctors and nurses through a training method that we created—the I.N.S.P.I.R.E. Method. The delivery care system has to change if we want to see better outcomes. It’s okay for us to advocate for ourselves, but we shouldn’t be forced. If you didn’t go to school to be a doctor, why do you have to come in there with a whole rundown of what your doctor should be giving to you and you’re giving it to your doctor? So, this is a twofold thing. For us, when we think about community, even from a community-based organization, hospital, clinic level, we should be building relationships. Folks who walk through our door are our clients. Those same clients are in a hospital system—the patients. We should have some type of working relationships so we are serving people wholeheartedly.

We have so many women and children, Black women and children, who die within the first year after giving birth. We have a bigger issue, that ties to mental health, than we are actually even talking about.

Kay Matthews

DEFENDER: What are the negative consequences of this current level of treatment or lack of treatment for women of color?

MATTHEWS: We see it every day. Our suicides are increasing. We see the child neglect cases are increasing. We are seeing the effects of these things. When we see the news and we see that a parent has treated their child bad or something that’s happen in that sense, we’re like, “Oh, it’s the parent.” We don’t go any further to be like, “What was the parent going through?” Not to make an excuse, but there’s this bigger picture. We are in a mental health crisis. We were in it before the pandemic, and the pandemic just heightened it. And now post-pandemic, you are seeing it every day, more and more suicides. We have a mortality morbidity issue here in Harris County. Our rates are atrocious. A successful birth in Harris County actually is considered on day 366. It’s a year, because we have so many women and children, Black women and children who die within the first year after giving birth. So, we have a bigger issue, that ties to mental health, than we are actually even talking about.

DEFENDER: What’s behind the name Shades of Blue?

MATTHEWS: When we think about mental health, normally we think something dark. When it’s gray outside, it can affect my feelings. What I wanted to do is show that there are so many shades of blue that can be tied to our emotions. When the sky is blue, we’re all happy. That’s another feeling. That’s another emotion. Our emotions don’t always have to be so dark inside. It doesn’t have to be a sunny day for you to be happy. It could be a bright blue, cloudy day and you’re happy. So, it’s this range of emotions that the color blue can offer you. And you can also look at your mental health in that way,

 

Sierra McClain Henry, Pregnancy and Post-Partum Support Group Leader.

DEFENDER: What are the specific services Shades of Blue provides?

MATTHEWS: Our social support services include free diapers and wipes. We service not just the women, but also their families. What we know for sure is women will not worry about anything if things at home are not centered. So, we do diapers, wipes, clothing. We have folks that come to us who maybe got a new apartment, but don’t have anything. If we have those things on hand, we give it to them. They get six times a year to come to us, no questions asked. Any other time outside of the six times, we just ask them to volunteer and help us within our storage or at an event. We also offer support groups. Our support groups are online. You don’t have to come in, you can log into one of our support groups. We currently have nine of those. We even have two general mental health groups led by a licensed clinical social worker and a psychiatrist.

 

Jasmine Boudah, Infact Loss Support Group Leader.

So, you’re, you’re getting this type of care from us free. It’s a resource. I feel like support groups are a resource. We have those social support services, but we also have a stronghold on the mental health support services. And all of our services are free of charged. We also just opened a wellness center that offers different free testing services in partnership with Avenue 360. We are really opening up our center to be able to offer folks really quality service. Just because it’s free doesn’t mean it should be half-***ed. We want to give you quality service. We want you to walk into a place that you feel comfortable with. And then you also feel comfortable with telling somebody else that’s in need that this is a place that you can actually come to, to get help.

DEFENDER: So, with free services, that means y’all need folk to support you financially, right?

MATTHEWS: That is very true. We have to have funding to keep these doors open and operating on the daily. So yes, we are always accepting donations.

We’re working to equip those who walk through our door, giving them some power. Because a lot of women feel powerless.

Kay Matthews

DEFENDER: What are the positive outcomes for women who are part of the Shades of Blue family?

MATTHEWS: Our folks do learn to ask questions, even if they’re scared. We’ve created two cards, one for maternal health and one for maternal mental health. The maternal health card, actually asks a question. The person hands it to their doctor. The card says, “I have been notified that I am a candidate as a Black woman for these top five things [and the card lists them]. Can we have a conversation about this?” One of the top ones on the top five is preeclampsia. A lot of Black women are affected by preeclampsia and have never heard of it. So, getting the conversation started, you don’t have to know all the words. Just hand the little card to your doctor and they can take it from there.

 

Terhea Harris, Teen/Young Adult Support Group Leader.

And then when we think about mental health, we give like a feeling of one to 10 in women’s own words. Now all of these card and creations have been based on our client feedback. So, we create things that can be useful to them. Having those type of tangible things that they can pull out and say, “Hey, can you help me with this?” it empowers them. But it also gives them this control of “Oh, I do have a say so in the type of care that I receive or the interaction that I have.” Because if you’re giving one of our cards, they already know you’re working with someone.

Unfortunately, it’s just a way that it is. It’s like you have to be working with someone or know someone to get the type of care you deserve. We want to change all of that. But for now, we’re working to equip those who walk through our door, giving them some power. Because a lot of women feel powerless. It’s like, “Oh, I have to have my baby this way. I have to do all of these things. And I don’t have any say so.” So, it’s really like giving them back the power that they should already feel like they have, but they don’t. It’s kind of like this renewing energy. And then it leads to better birth outcomes, just being educated and knowing what to ask, how to ask and what to do.

SOCIAL MEDIA

ABOUT FOUNDER: KAY MATTHEWS

Matthews, founder of the Shades of Blue Project, graduated with a 2-year degree in Early Childhood Development from North Harris College, and furthered her education in the mental health field by becoming a licensed community health worker. She has also received numerous awards from both her community and her peers, and sits on the boards of several national organizations. Additionally, Matthews is the author of best-selling self-help journal, “365 Days to Recovery: Finding Your Way Out of The Darkness.”