Open Letter Response Statement
Dear MAWS community,
We recently received an open letter from one of the founding members, Suzy Myers, expressing valid concerns for the Board's decision to open all Board positions. After thoughtful discussion and careful consideration, the Board has drafted a response that we wish to share with community members. We are aware that the open letter has been shared on social media as well, so we intend to address this transparently and with sincerity.
Thanks to the tireless and altruistic work for decades from midwives like Suzy, MAWS is no longer a small ship. It has grown to a large organization, with a big membership, that aspires to be bigger and more representative of midwives in the state. We acknowledge that while not every midwife in the state is a MAWS member, our legislative work in particular impacts every Washington midwife. As you mentioned, MAWS interfaces with the Department of Health Midwifery Program, the Midwifery Advisory Committee, the JUA, the Health Care Authority, the Washington State Perinatal Collaborative, the Foundation for Health Care Quality and various other state and national midwifery organizations. MAWS has outgrown its current leadership structure. The administrative burden to communicate effectively and on an ongoing basis with these stakeholders in addition to our own highly functioning committees and our membership is unprecedented for the organization and beyond the capabilities of a volunteer run, working midwife staffed organization. It’s simply unsustainable.
The reality of non-profit organizational leadership has shifted. It’s become clear that the numbers of midwives in our community who want or are able to volunteer, especially on this sort of scale, are dwindling dramatically. The days of volunteer run boards are almost over. At some point very soon, we will need to pay our board members for their time.
The decision by the board to step aside to allow the community the opportunity for the membership to replace us if it was their wish was primarily driven by direct requests made by BIPOC and LGBTQAI+ communities for historical members and leaders of MAWS to get out of the way before they would consider being involved, as there had been harm perpetuated. There is now ample evidence that volunteer board structures perpetuate white supremacy and marginalize historically excluded and underrepresented communities. MAWS is and has been no different in this respect and we’ve been trying to acknowledge and change that.
Prior to this decision, the Board has repeatedly extended calls to the membership at AGMs and continuing education (CE) events attempting to recruit new voices and perspectives to the Board. We provided two years’ notice of the end of terms for the Executive Committee (EC) without intention to run again, in an effort to mentor a new EC with time to spare. We shifted to a co-presidency leadership model to try to alleviate the administrative burden and increase the number of voices in the executive, all while discussing the potential of less patriarchal, hierarchical leadership structures. In 2021 MAWS hired a consultant to create a training for new speakers and Board members, which we have now implemented. We created and earmarked funds for a community consultancy group to advise the Board on how to proceed with diversity, equity and inclusion work and Board restructuring which was advertised widely in both e-news and social media, at the AGM, and at CE events. No one showed up. The conversation of how to reimagine MAWS’ structure for greater representation and sustainability has been ongoing for at least four years, at nearly every open public board meeting. It became clear to this current board that organizational evolution was imperative as we watched our nominations numbers drop year after year. Coupled with the fact that our community outreach revealed a desire by marginalized communities for space to be made, for the work to be done without the current iteration of the board, and it would have been not only ill-advised but downright unethical to continue to operate as we have.
Succession planning has been a challenge for MAWS for at least the last decade. This coincides not incidentally with the sharp increases in the cost of living, lack of increases in insurance reimbursement and the current realities of home and birth center midwifery practice. The days of midwives making livable incomes working part time in group practices are over. In order to make a living today, one must maintain a sufficient volume of clients to make adequate income; given the nearly unchanged structure of reimbursement (outside of the monumental achievement of past MAWS boards to increase Medicaid reimbursement for birth centers) and the exponential increase in cost-of-living, a “sufficient volume of clients” is so significant that many midwives are unable to sustain practicing beyond 5-7 years. Add now impressive student loans to that and there are far fewer volunteer hours to go around. Our growing and evolving colleagues are justifiably not ones to work without pay. Students were once used as free labor, and thanks to the courage of students, historical and current, to challenge that structure, that’s no longer acceptable (as it wasn’t before either). But the student population that used to desire involvement in boards is also shrinking, in no small part because their educational and cost-of-living burden is outpacing their earning potential and the hours they have to dedicate unpaid to midwifery. Our unpaid students in MAWS and within the community are earning no income but, like their income-earning counterparts, are still paying $5+/gallon for gas. Asking them to further extend themselves to take on volunteer work of a monumental and growing midwifery organization is simply untenable. We cannot ask any of our colleagues, students or peers to work another unpaid job on our behalf for nothing or make them feel bad for not doing so.
Financially, MAWS is strong, having weathered the pandemic fairly well thanks to a deft pivot to webinar CE offerings, fundraising, and direct Board member contributions. Ultimately though, the future will require significant financial restructuring as well. To that end we plan the addition of a 501(c)3 structure to the organization next year, in order to continue to maintain MAWS' strong financial footing and to pursue our other significant organizational goals. This will also be an expensive and time-consuming endeavor. We look forward to any support that can be provided as we fundraise for this effort.
We do not claim to have all the answers. We don’t have a “clear road map” but we’re pretty sure that most iterations of MAWS didn’t either. We empathize and honor that our predecessors were doing and did their very best for midwifery with the information they had at any given time; we hope the same trust and grace can be offered to this board. Our goals are evolving, as they have always been. Organizations, like all living things, grow and evolve; they have to, or they die. The bits that work continue on, and the bits that don’t fall or get cut away. There is still a place for volunteerism in this organization, but it will be smaller, more strategic, and less burdensome on the community as a whole and to the small cadre of committed folks who, despite themselves, just keep showing up. The last two years have shown us that MAWS is capable of phenomenal achievement with a very small board, and as we hoped, our gesture of opening space resulted in a small handful of fantastic new candidates raising their hands. At least two of our current board members plan on submitting their names as candidates for re-election to the board in this next open election cycle. If not, these folks, along with several others, intend to remain on as they promised in a continuing advisory capacity. These wonderful humans, in concert with our hard working and highly functioning committees and our Executive Director will move MAWS forward into 2023. MAWS will not die. We all love it too much and have worked too hard for too long to let that happen. It’s ailing though; we’re pruning it, so it can grow back healthier and stronger. Dismantling systems that do not work for historically marginalized people, people lacking privilege, and to serve the new generation is not just wise, it's our responsibility. We are midwives. We get out of the way to let new things be born.
With these words and our hope for the future of MAWS, we hope that our community can continue to support us as we build on top of the strong foundations that past and present Board members have laid.
Your MAWS Board, 2022
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Banner photo used with permission.