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His wife died after childbirth. He’s now dedicated his life to helping Black mothers survive the avoidable crisis

Charles Johnson, founder of 4Kira4Moms, speaking at Fortune's Brainstorm Health conference in Marina del Rey, Calif.
Charles Johnson, founder of 4Kira4Moms, speaking at Fortune's Brainstorm Health conference in Marina del Rey, Calif.
Stuart Isett/Fortune

When Charles Johnson’s wife, Kira, died after bleeding internally for more than 10 hours following a routine C-section in April 2016, he assumed his situation was an anomaly. Unfortunately, he was wrong.

“I thought it was a freak occurrence. Here was a woman who was in exceptional health in 2016 in the United States at Cedars-Sinai of all places,” he shared at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference in Marina del Rey, Calif. Wednesday afternoon following a panel about the Black maternal mortality crisis. “But the more I started hearing about these horrific birthing experiences and women that have made the ultimate sacrifice, the more I started thinking something’s just not right.”

The tragedy inspired Johnson to research the maternal mortality crisis and launch 4Kira4Moms, a nonprofit on a mission to eradicate maternal mortality, a year later. Across the U.S., Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes compared to white women; yet, 84% of maternal deaths in the U.S. are classified as preventable.

“I felt like I owed it to Kira and I owed it to my boys [Charles, 8, and Langston, 7] to try to do something,” he said. “I didn’t know what I could do to be impactful. To be clear, there are women, particularly Black women, who have been screaming from mountaintops about this for decades and I have to recognize my privilege as a Black man in this space telling the story and sounding the alarm.”

Addressing Black maternal mortality

To help combat the Black maternal mortality rate, Johnson is focused on four pillars in his work with 4Kira4Moms: education, advocacy, legislation and innovation.

“Education, for us, looks like empowering the families and mothers with the tools and resources they need to not only survive, but thrive before, during and after childbirth,” he said. “Survival should not be the benchmark. It should be a fundamental human right in our society for mothers to give birth to healthy children and live to raise their children—regardless of how you arrived at pregnancy, regardless of your socioeconomic background, your face, class…any of those things.”

Additionally, Johnson is committed to providing implicit bias training to organizations through 4Kira4Moms, using his wife’s actual medical records to develop a curriculum to help medical professionals better understand racial sensitivity.

“We found that a lot of the training medical professionals are engaging in are theoretical and we’re coming with the experiential,” he said. “We’re not telling you what we think, we’re telling you what we know. Let me talk to you about what happens when you show up and there’s a compassion deficit…when you have the inability to view your patients in the same way you would your mother, your daughter and the people that you love.”

The organization also has a Maternal Mortality Response Team, which mobilizes to support families within 48 hours of the death of a birthing parent through childbirth. The program includes a full year of grief counseling and essential items such as diapers, formula, food and “any of the practical resources they need to raise that child and adjust to their new reality,” explained Johnson.

When it comes to legislation, Johnson has testified in front of Congress to support the Preventing Maternal Death Act of 2018; the Protecting Moms Who Served Act of 2021 and, most recently with the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2021, which would extend postpartum eligibility for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Woman, Infants, and Children (WIC) from six months to 24 months among other benefits.

As for innovation, Johnson said he is in the business of doing things that are “bold, radical and disruptive.” As an organization, he hopes 4Kira4Moms is able to eradicate the maternal mortality crisis within the next five years.

“Is that ambitious? Absolutely,” he admitted. “But the thing about this is we know we can fix this … Right now, it’s my job to stay out here and make people even more uncomfortable and force them to catch up. Because until you’ve rocked a child to sleep night after night that simply wants his mother to come home, until you’ve sat on the phone with a father who has lost his wife and now wants to take his own life because he feels that he failed his family, then you won’t understand.”

Throughout it all, Johnson remains optimistic that the tide is starting to turn and that change is possible.

“One of the reasons we fight so hard is because all women and especially Black women deserve joyful anticipation,” he said. “We have to turn the page toward what is possible. What is possible if Black women have the resources, the support and access to the birthing experience of their choice? That’s why we focus on reclaiming Black birthing joy.”

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