Catching Up with Ascenders

Last year’s Impact & Inspiration Report highlighted a number of different Ascend Fellows who were working on innovative solutions for children and families across the country. From shaping state policy to releasing impactful research, here’s how the work of five Fellows has grown in 2023.

Gov. Wes Moore | 2012 Ascend Fellow

Governor of Maryland

Last Year: We celebrated the groundbreaking election of Governor Moore, who is Maryland’s first Black governor and only the third Black governor in the history of the United States.

In 2023: Ascenders were on hand to commemorate Governor Moore’s historic inauguration in January. Standing at the memorial to Justice Thurgood Marshall in Annapolis, his speech made it clear that the well-being of children and families would be a priority for his administration. “We know it is unacceptable that while Maryland has the highest median income in the country, one in eight of our children lives in poverty,” said Governor Moore.

His first piece of legislation began to address this gap. On April 11, 2023, Governor Moore signed the Family Prosperity Act of 2023, which aims to “lift at least 34,000 Maryland children to the next rung on the economic ladder and combat the root causes of child poverty.” To do this, Governor Moore focused on extending the Earned Income Tax Credit and expanding the Child Tax Credit, which has the potential to benefit more than 40,000 taxpayers in Maryland.

To get off to such an impressive start to his tenure, Governor Moore included three leaders within the Ascend Network to serve on his transition team:

●  Ascend Fellow Joe Jones, President & CEO of Center for Urban Families

●  Patrice King Brickman, Ascend philanthropic partner and the Founder and Managing Director of Inspire Capital, LLC

●  Gustavo Torres, Executive Director of CASA of Maryland, an Ascend Network partner

Gov. Moore with 2021 Ascend Fellow Daria Willis, President of Howard Community College. Gov. Moore was HCC's 2023 commencement speaker.

Gov. Moore with 2021 Ascend Fellow Daria Willis, President of Howard Community College. Gov. Moore was HCC's 2023 commencement speaker.

Dr. Deana Around Him | 2022 Ascend Fellow

Research Scholar, Child Trends

Last Year: We highlighted how Deana is foregrounding research on Indigenous children and families.

In 2023: Deana has continued her vital research into how to support Indigenous children and families. Across seven publications in 2023, Deana and her collaborators at Child Trends have looked at the increase in relative foster care among American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) families, promoting educational equity by meeting the needs of student parents, and the importance of Pre-K for AIAN children.

Deana’s partnership with Ascend and her fellow Ascend Fellows has also grown over the past year. In July, Deana spoke at Aspen VisionXChange with her fellow Indigenous Ascend Fellows Dr. Joe Hobot and Dr. Jessica Sanigaq Ullrich, and together they asked, ‘How might early childhood and education be different if we were more connected to family, community, and culture?’

During that conversation, Deana pointed out the power of having three Native PhDs on stage together. Now, she’s taking steps to ensure cohesion among Native Ascend Fellows so that they build upon and appropriately leverage the momentum of their respective work. As part of the Ascend Fellowship Impact Fund, she is teaming with Ascend Fellow Jovanna Archuleta to convene past, present, and incoming Native American Ascend Fellows in a Peer-to-Peer Ascend Fellows Learning Network. Their goal is to identify policy, practice, and research opportunities that will continually impact and transform the systems that support Native American children, families, and communities.

Deana on stage at Aspen VisionXChange (Photo by Dan Bayer)

Deana on stage at Aspen VisionXChange (Photo by Dan Bayer)

Leseliey Welch | 2022 Ascend Fellow

Co-founder, Birth Detroit and Birth Center Equity

Last Year: We covered the launch of Birth Detroit’s $4 million capital campaign

In 2023: 2023 was a turning point for Leseliey and Birth Detroit. At a time when there was active disinvestment in maternal health and midwifery services by major Michigan healthcare providers, Leseliey spoke up. In February, she wrote an op-ed that argued that now is the time to be investing more in proven solutions. “At a time when preventing maternal mortality and eliminating disparities are at the forefront of local and national conversations, we should be seeing eager investment in midwifery care,” she wrote.

This year, Birth Detroit has seen that investment come to life. Under Leseliey’s leadership, the organization has nearly reached their $4 million capital goal. On August 7, Birth Detroit officially broke ground on their new facility, which will become the first Black-led birth center in Detroit.

“Black birthing people deserve the best care. Mere survival is not the goal — it is the least we should expect,” Leseliey said. “We want birth care in this country to reflect what is truly in the best interest of birthing people, babies, and families – so they can thrive.”

Through Birth Center Equity, Leseliey is ensuring that the progress in Detroit can spread throughout the country. In 2023, the Birth Center Equity Network grew to 40 community birth centers in 20 states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico. Last year also saw the launch of the first Birth Center Week, which celebrates and elevates the impact and potential of birth centers, with a focus on community birth centers that provide safe, culturally-reverent, midwifery-led health care for all.

Leseliey on stage at VisionXChange (Photo by Dan Bayer)

Leseliey on stage at VisionXChange (Photo by Dan Bayer)

Georgia Mjartan | 2018 Ascend Fellow

Executive Director of South Carolina First Steps and the Early Childhood Advisory Council

Last Year: We featured the exciting launch of the First Five SC website.

In 2023: When launched in 2022, it was a breakthrough for South Carolina residents, allowing families with young children (ages 0-5) to find information and check their eligibility for more than 40 programs. That first year saw more than 100,000 visitors to the site; more than 78% of users discovered that they were eligible for at least one program.

In 2023, the South Carolina Early Childhood Advisory Council and South Carolina First Steps, under the leadership of Ascend Fellow Georgia Mjartan, made it even easier to access those programs. After two years of development that included collaboration across 16 state agencies and public entities, the organization launched a common application on May 1, 2023. Now, the streamlined process allows South Carolina parents like Katie Hagan efficient access to resources and services.

“When our two-year-old daughter was diagnosed with an extremely rare syndrome that impacted her hearing, we didn’t know where to start,” said Katie Hagan, a parent in Columbia. “First Five SC connected us to the resources we needed and coached us through the application process.”

The launch of makes South Carolina the first state to create a digital resource where families can access information about the full spectrum of state- and federally-funded services available to young children, determine which ones they are eligible for, and apply for multiple programs at once.

Georgia at Aspen VisionXChange (Photo by Dan Bayer)

Georgia at Aspen VisionXChange (Photo by Dan Bayer)

Kimberly Seals Allers | 2022 Ascend Fellow

Founder, Irth App

Last Year: We spotlighted the Black Birthing Joy Line, one of the ways Kimberly’s work is changing hearts and minds to support Black birthing people.

In 2023: Kimberly’s work has made waves across the country, with nearly 1,000 different media mentions in 2023, more than doubling her already impressive 2022 total. From declaring that “we must leave no Black woman behind” on CNN to being a key expert in the Guardian’s examination of the Black maternal health crisis, Kimberly has become a go-to voice advocating for Black birthing people.

Part of that exposure is because Kimberly’s work continues to evolve in transformative ways. Through her nonprofit, Narrative Nation, Inc., Kimberly launched the National Irth Ambassador Program, an opportunity for doulas and other birth workers working with families to receive professional development support and access to a peer learning community. To access the opportunity, participants assist in completing reviews for the Irth app, which provides prenatal, birthing, postpartum, and pediatric reviews of care from other Black and brown parents.

With help from the Ascend Fellowship Impact Fund, Kimberly also launched a new partnership with fellow 2022 Ascend Fellow Dr. Emily Miller. Irth will complete an 18-month hospital pilot to create and execute a hospital improvement plan based on Irth app feedback from Black and Latinx patients in partnership with Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island (WIHRI), under the leadership of Ascend Fellow, Dr. Emily S. Miller, Division Director of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at WIHRI.

From L to R: Ascend Fellows Nathan Chomilo, Blythe Keeler Robinson, Kimberly Seals Allers, and Leseliey Welch at Aspen VisionXChange (Photo by Dan Bayer)

From L to R: Ascend Fellows Nathan Chomilo, Blythe Keeler Robinson, Kimberly Seals Allers, and Leseliey Welch at Aspen VisionXChange (Photo by Dan Bayer)