To learn more about March of Dimes and its partners or to get involved, visit marchofdimes.org/wontstop.
One glance at Stacey Stewart’s childhood, and one might have predicted her future success. The Atlanta native’s father was a physician for nearly 50 years and her mother a pharmacist who later had a stint in local politics. It wasn’t the medical or political pursuits of her parents, however, that resonated most with Stewart during her adolescent years; it was their community involvement that struck a particular chord with the former Wall Street banker and United Way Foundation CEO who is now president of one of the nation’s most notable nonprofit organizations, March of Dimes.
“I was born in 1964, [the] same year the Civil Rights Act was signed,” says Stewart, 54. She adds, “My family was very focused on professional pursuits but also always focused on giving back and cared very much about civil rights and social justice.” Her father, who was president of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP during the 1960s, rallied with other local Black doctors for the integration of hospitals and health equity across the South.
Stewart is the second female and first Black president of March of Dimes. After serving on the board of the hospital at which her father fought to desegregate decades before, pursuing a career in finance and now leading one of the nation’s most notable health equity advocates, in this role, she’s seen her life come full circle: “My father was such an advocate and a fighter for health care, for people who were disenfranchised. In many ways, he would be so proud of the work that [March of Dimes is] doing now to give voice to people who need a voice. It was very clear to me that it wasn’t enough to just care about your professional life; it was always about giving back, too,” she expresses.
Her appointment to lead, March of Dimes is the third time Stewart has become the first Black person to head the national organization for which she’s worked. Although this may be impressive to some, the executive believes it speaks to the lack of diversity in C-suites throughout the non-profit sector “There seems to be a disconnect to not have them been led by people who look like me.” Stewart sees it as an opportunity for her and the historic organization she runs today.
It’s an opportunity the Georgetown University and University of Michigan alum welcomed in January 2017. Since joining March of Dimes, which is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, she’s analyzed and assessed why “we’re so important; why we exist. We reminded ourselves that we want every baby to have the opportunity to grow up to live the life they want to live. When babies are born prematurely, when they aren’t as healthy as they can be, it can limit their opportunity to grow up to change the world,” Stewart explains.
It’s this fact, she says, that served as the foundation of March of Dimes’ leadership spearheading a rebranding of the non-profit, allowing the organization to talk about its mission differently and acknowledge its role as the leader in the fight for the health of all moms and babies. “Today, what we know is that moms and babies face an urgent health crisis,” Stewart says. “Nearly half a million babies in the U.S. are born prematurely or with birth defects a year. One of the things that a lot of people don’t realize is that premature birth and its complications are the largest contributors to infant death.”
And while this issue isn’t exclusive to the Black community, research shows that women of color are up to 50 percent more likely to give birth prematurely and their children can face a 130 percent higher infant death rate than women of other ethnicities. These facts, among others, led March of Dimes to crusade for interventions that afford every mother and baby the help and support they need to be healthy. These statistics are alarming to the mother of two, who says, “In the wealthiest country in the world, why are mothers, especially Black mothers, so disproportionately impacted in terms of our health? Why are Black mothers and Black babies dying at disproportionately higher rates? As a country we need to immediately address this, and as an organization, March of Dimes believes this is an urgent health crisis.”
March of Dimes, along with a roster of influential partner organizations, such as the Future Business Leaders of America and Kiwanis International, has pledged to uncover the underlying causes of premature birth to combat these issues by advocating for policies that provide improved access to health care for all women at state and local levels. Many of these strategic partnerships date back decades. Together with March of Dimes, these partners share lifesaving information with the people these institutions seek to serve. “Our organization was founded to fight polio and protect the health of children and families, and our partnerships have served to strengthen our mission, then and now. Part of our ability to make sure African-Americans had access to the polio vaccine as early as possible—to make sure the polio vaccine was available in every community—stems from our partnership with these organizations.”
Many of these partners are familiar names within the Black community, resonating as pillars of service and leadership. Organizations such as Jack and Jill of America; Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.; Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc.; and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., have invested thousands of hours to initiate and implement programming and service opportunities in support of March of Dimes’ mission, standing as allies in the fight to ensure all moms and babies get the care, support and advocacy they need. “What’s happened over time is that these strong organizations have continued the amazing partnership with us to improve health education and to raise awareness of the issues facing moms and babies, including health disparities among women,” says Stewart, a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. whose affiliation with Jack and Jill of America spans back to the 1990s (she’s currently part of the Washington D.C. chapter).
The mission and work of March of Dimes doesn’t fall solely on the shoulders of the organization, its partners or those within the industry. According to its president, the organization empowers everyday people to help by advocating for policies that improve health care access for all via funding research to identify some of the underlying causes of premature birth and by educating themselves and others. “We need everyone at the table to help identify why these issues exist,” she says. “We need to uncover these challenges and address them so we can start to put in place some of the solutions.”
Stewart has just scratched the surface in her role at March of Dimes 15 months in, but she’s clear in her purpose and her commitment for the long haul. “I have a personal passion for this. Every step of the way toward this, I carry a responsibility for myself, for my family, for what my parents did for me. Because I have this opportunity, my children are in a far better position to have greater opportunities.”
With her husband and two teenage daughters serving as constant reminders, and a community of people looking up to her, Stewart wants the torch she carries to light the way for those who come after her: “I feel blessed and honored to be able to lead the fight for the health of moms and families and to take on the issue of premature birth with the legacy of success the March of Dimes has from combating polio. I know this organization will have a great influence on many families and many babies, and I hope that will improve birth outcomes for many children of all backgrounds. Together, we can ensure all our children grow up strong to change the world.”