Bishop Colette Matthews-Carter Advocates The Importance of Maternal Health Awareness

Organizations and individuals from around the world are leading efforts to raise awareness about maternal mental health through a collective push. One of those inspirational individuals advocating for maternal mental health is Bishop Colette Matthews-Carter.

A community advocate and civic leader, Bishop Carter is the immediate past president of the Syracuse/Onondaga NAACP. She is a graduate of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, earning a degree in Political Science. She completed graduate work at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, NY. Matthews-Carter has served in the pastorate for 25 years. She was the first woman licensed and ordained through the Northeastern District Baptist Association. She is the pastor emeritus of the Zion Hill World Harvest Baptist Church and prelate of the Covenant Fellowship of Churches Inc. She also serves as the Chaplain for NYSAC (New York State Association of Counties).

Bishop Carter is the recipient of numerous leadership awards and commendations including the; New York State Senate “Woman of Distinction”, the Delta Sigma Theta “Marjorie Dowdell Fortitude Award”, and the Omega Psi Phi “Citizen of the Year Award.” Additionally, she is the recipient of The Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse “2021 Leadership Award” and the 2022 “President’s Award” given by The Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. In 2021, City and State publication listed her among the “Upstate New York Power 100.” Bishop Carter has served on several boards and currently serves on the YMCA CNY; CNY Arts; Leadership Greater Syracuse, and the Rosamond Gifford Zoo. She strives to embody the ideals of Dr. King’s “Beloved Community.”

Your advocacy for Maternal Health Awareness is very personal to you being that your birth mother passed away after childbirth. What are you comfortable with sharing with our readers about your birth mom and why it has become a passion for you to address this important topic?

Bishop Colette: Yes. Maternal health awareness, especially for Black women is extremely personal to me. My birth mother passed away after having me in part due to poor maternal health. She was a young black girl living in poverty, and attempting to navigate the healthcare system essentially alone. It’s been hard getting all the facts and even now after all these years I still only have fragments. One thing I know for sure is that the healthcare system is complex and the voice of women of color is often overlooked by medical professionals. Even Black women with resources have shared the horror stories of giving birth and needing to advocate for themselves relentlessly in order to receive the care that they’ve needed. I can only imagine what my birth mother had to endure with no voice, few advocates, no money, and very little support.

Black maternal health is still of critical importance. In 2023, maternal mortality is three to four times higher for Black women than it is for White women, and Black women are more likely to experience complications during and after pregnancy. This issue is obviously personal to me and so I’m using my voice to amplify this issue.

We understand that you were adopted. What can you tell us about your experience being raised by your late beloved adopted parents?

Bishop Colette: The one bright spot to my life were my parents Edith and James Matthews. My Mom and Dad were the most loving, intentional, and ever-doting parents. They loved me unconditionally. It’s amazing how close and strong our bond was. My mom once said that it felt like she actually gave birth to me — that’s how much she loved me. My dad and I had an exceptional bond — he was the best father. I miss them so much. I think of them every day. As I am writing this, the tears flow because I was blessed with such good parents. They gave me their hearts and raised me to be whole despite my broken past. They were definitely my shelter from the storms of life.

My parents met me when I was just a few weeks old. I was initially placed in the care of a loving foster family. Interestingly, my foster family was close friends with my mom and dad. My dad once told me that upon seeing me as an infant they fell in love with me. I love that story because they chose me and the rest was history. My parents begin the process for adoption almost immediately. By the time I was two years old the adoption was finalized. I was so young and the only memory I have of my childhood is that of my parents. I was blessed because the system worked for me. I’m aware that some children are not so fortunate.

How did you come to learn about your birthmother?

Bishop Colette: My parents told me. They never tried to hide my history from me. Being adopted was somewhat of a taboo in the era I grew up in. However, my parents were prepared to have the conversation with me when the time was right. My dad in particular shared the identifying information that he was given. I’ve always appreciated their openness and honesty. The information that my parents shared with me was enough to give me a starting point to discover the rest of my story. It took me many years to put some of the pieces together. Without the information that my parents shared I would not have had a place to begin.

What do you hope our readers take away from your story?

Bishop Colette: Your past does not determine your destiny. This was spoken into my spirit many years ago. I did not fully understand it at the time. Nevertheless, over the years I’ve come to understand that regardless of how you start in life — all that matters is how you end. We all have the capacity to dig deeper, grow and be healed. The choice is ours. I’ve used my story to lean into my purpose, despite the pain. My story used to be a point of shame but now I’m free enough to talk about it. No more stigmas and no more shame. Being adopted by loving parents is as important to my story as what happened to my birth mother. I encourage all who read this to embrace their stories.

Has being a poet helped you heal from personal experiences? If so, in what ways?

Bishop Colette: Absolutely, writing poetry is therapeutic. It takes some of the ugliest things in life and puts them into a poetic rhyme and rhythm. As a writer, poetry has helped me process things that I do not fully understand. I have found healing in poetry.

Are there any poems you have dedicated to your family or life journey? If so, are you able to share one with us? 

Bishop Colette: Yes, I’d like to share

Do you see me?

Disdain of the earth

But I am Mother Earth

I AM that I AM sent me

From birth to jubilee

Do you see my legacy?

Even the cotton field

Could not hold me down

My story is breaking

My heart is aching

My babies are breech

But they’re coming with me

Black as the blue night

Red as the stormy sunlight

Pure as the whitest eye

Clear as the morning sky

I am a Black woman

Do you see me?

I am a Black woman

My soul shall speak

I am a Black woman

Let the preacher preach

She’s a Black woman

She’s walked through hell

She’s a Black woman

Her breeched babies are whole

Baal nor Jezebel

Conquered their souls

She prayed at the Nile

With sweat like blood

She’s gathered the tribes

All safe from the flood

Her babies glisten

Like diamonds in the mud

Do you see her?

In addition to being a poet, what other endeavors are you working on as of late?

Bishop Colette: Writing takes up a lot of my free time, but I’m also working on wellness and empowerment events for women. Stay tuned for one coming up this summer. Women from all walks of life need encouragement to see themselves as worthy of living their best lives. I’ve always created space for women to support and encourage each other. The sense of urgency is greater because of the many stressors that women face in this post-pandemic world.

Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years and what steps are you taking to get there?

Bishop Colette: In the next five years I would like to be published and performing poetry in various venues. I am a life-long learner so I’m doing all I can to develop my craft. Additionally, I like to continue to share my story as a way to encourage the hearts of women struggling to make sense of difficult situations. I want them to know that there is always hope.

What words of advice or encouragement would you like to leave with our readers as an advocate for maternal health awareness?

Bishop Colette: As it relates to maternal health, education and empowerment are key. Women must be equipped to make informed decisions regarding their health care. Women also need stronger support systems along with strategies of advocating for themselves with medical professionals. Black maternal health is an issue that needs amplification within our community. My experience has given me the desire to use my voice. Lives are at stake.

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