After Personal Trauma, She was Driven to Speak up for Maternal Health in Women of Color.
Rachelle McKissick-Harris has a driving passion for helping families of young children and a catalog of work that would put her early childhood advocacy in the high-achiever category. Take for example the extra effort she gave a young mother trying to start a new life.
When McKissick-Harris, a West Michigan mom of three, was serving as manager of an infant/toddler program, a pilot for an Early Head Start program, she came across a mother desperate to keep her child’s attendance in good standing. But distance and travel between home and school were major impediments. Looking for rental housing close to school, the mom repeatedly ran up against landlords unwilling to give her a chance because of a prior felony. McKissick-Harris could have found another taker for the child care slot, but instead started searching until she found a property owner willing to help. “Her daughter’s attendance went back up, and you could tell that not having that stress made a world of difference,” McKissick-Harris said.
Think Babies Michigan is grateful to have McKissick-Harris as a parent leader with real-world experiences and compassion to help advance its statewide advocacy and policy initiatives.
Since 2004, McKissick-Harris has amassed a vast list of experiences focused on helping the state’s families of young children. She’s worked as an Early Head Start teacher, preschool teacher, and ran a YMCA-based center for 85 children until the pandemic hit. She currently works as a DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) specialist for the Christian Reform Church of North America, while maintaining a child care consulting business.
Today, McKissick-Harris serves as co-chair for the Think Babies Michigan Executive Committee, and is a former co-chair for the Early Head Start Policy Council in Kent County. She has also been a parent rep to the state’s breastfeeding Advisory Committee, a local Home Visiting leadership coordinator, and helped out with the Kent County Great Start Parent Coalition and a local play-and-learn group. She has been a parent leader with Feeding Michigan’s Families, an initiative affiliated with a University of Michigan study on the pandemic-related food crisis. During a recent Think Babies Michigan Capitol Day, McKissick-Harris traveled to Lansing to address local legislators about the child care workforce shortage, its impact on families, and the need for a dedicated funding source to fully fund a Michigan child care system based on a true cost of care. Fittingly, she recently served on a committee that recommended ways to amplify parent voice in the distribution of grants by the Pritzker Children’s Initiative.
“Working with children has always been my passion and my calling,” McKissick-Harris said. “Becoming a mom made such a difference for me and my perspective in parenting, the need for resources, and navigating systems.”
At home, she and her husband, Kason, are raising stepson Keondre, 11, and sons Jacob, 5, and K’Saan, 1.
A year and a half ago, a personal tragedy underscored the need to advocate for maternal health, especially among women of color like herself. Like in many states, there are serious disparities among pregnant women in Michigan, with Black women 2.4 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white counterparts, even though nearly 50 percent of these maternal deaths are preventable, according to the Michigan Association for Infant and Maternal Health.
As a woman in her mid-30s, McKissick-Harris’s pregnancy was considered high risk, and when she was pregnant with her second child in early 2021, she and her husband learned that their 14-week pregnancy was no longer viable. Devastated, the couple was told to go home from the routine ultrasound appointment, and wait for signs of a miscarriage. When she felt that time was upon them, they returned to the hospital and waited for nearly three hours for assistance. Greeted by a nurse practitioner with an indifferent attitude and cold demeanor, she felt shamed and traumatized as the nurse continued a series of repetitive questions that implied to McKissick-Harris that she didn’t know her own body. The nurse then told her the bleeding and contractions she was experiencing weren’t serious enough, and she should return home once again. She was instructed to take Ibuprofen for the growing pain, and return to the hospital when circumstances worsened even more. Another three hours past, and they returned for medical attention for a third time.
“I was traumatized,” McKissick-Harris said. “My body was expelling a baby on its own, and I was told to go home because I wasn’t far enough along. I was just another woman coming in, and losing a baby. It was horrific. I wanted the hospital to know, this is not okay.”
The callous treatment by a medical professional ignited a spark within her, and what evolved was a strong desire to help low-income families in similar circumstances, as well as enlighten those who have the power to make change. “I wanted to become a voice for the mothers and families that can’t speak, or feel that they can’t speak out. I want to help make change for our children, and all the children to come so that they have better opportunities to thrive.”
Besides fighting for improved maternal health, McKissick-Harris said there is plenty of work that inspires her within a group like Think Babies Michigan. Making wholesome foods available to children and their entire family is another needed change, she said. So is the need to fund child care in an equitable manner, making quality child care affordable to working families who don’t quality for income-based assistance, or at no charge for those with meager financial resources. Boosting child care professionals’ salaries to a comfortable living wage to keep experienced professionals in the field is also critical to her. “Having that peace of mind when you are leaving your child in child care can definitely relieve the stress for low-income families,” she said.
McKissick-Harris joined Think Babies Michigan in December 2021 when she was pregnant with her youngest son. K’Saan was born in February 2022. “I’ve always believed that everything has a purpose – whether to teach us something or show us that we’ve got more grit than we think we do. Advocating for women, and women of color, is a passion point for me.”
More than 950 Michigan families, advocates, researchers, government officials, service providers and parents convened to create the Think Babies Michigan 2020-2025 Policy Agenda. Michigan is the only state in this national movement to intentionally prioritize having parents co-lead and co-design our policy agenda-setting process. Click below to learn more and join the initiative.