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Maternal health: NJ innovation center starts to take shape


Murphy names members of authority that will oversee the center in Trenton

Credit: (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

Plans for the New Jersey’s maternal and infant health innovation center are beginning to take shape, with the appointment of six public board members to the new authority that will oversee it.  

Gov. Phil Murphy’s picks — announced earlier this month by first lady Tammy Murphy, who is running for U.S. Senate — include a Black obstetrician, several community health leaders and Rosalee Boyer, a social justice leader and the wife of a pastor who has occasionally criticized the Murphy administration’s work.  

All are women of color and at least four have close ties to Trenton, which will be the site of the center after being without a birthing facility for years.  

The new center will not only provide a birthing facility for the city but also house policy work, research, community programs and more. The state created the new authority to oversee the center’s creation and operation and sustain the Murphy administration’s broader efforts to improve birth outcomes and reduce racial disparities statewide. 

“I supported the legislation that enabled this Authority board to move forward, as I have spent years working on issues related to maternal health,” said Boyer, who co-founded the nonprofit Salvation and Social Justice with her husband Rev. Charles Boyer of Greater Mt. Zion AME Church in Trenton.  

“I am honored to be invited to the table and use my voice as a representative of the Black community, specifically the Black Maternal Health and Black Church community in order to make a significant impact,” said Boyer in the administration’s announcement.  

‘Enormous responsibility’ 

Tammy Murphy said the 15-member board, which also includes government officials, will have “the enormous responsibility” of overseeing the creation of the center “from concept to completion and beyond.”  

She also thanked the appointees for the work they’ve done to date. “Each individual as demonstrated by their dedicated body of work has inspired and impacted our Nurture NJ initiative, and I know firsthand they will continue to make valuable contributions to the task ahead,” she said.  

The first lady launched Nurture NJ in 2019 to combat New Jersey’s high maternal mortality rate, then among the worst in the nation. The state’s ranking has since improved some, but the rate continues to vary year to year and Black women remain nearly seven times more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth than white women.   

“I dream of a day where your maternal health outcomes are not heavily determined on your zip code,” said board appointee Dr. Damali Campbell-Oparaji, an OB/GYN and associate professor in reproductive health at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, in Newark.  

“The truth is that policy level change and dismantling systemic barriers will be needed and we have to start somewhere,” she said in the administration’s release. “This Board and this center are where we get started and how we navigate this massive task.” 

Community input 

An innovation center is a key part of the Nurture NJ initiative, and the state Economic Development Authority has been developing it for several years, fine-tuning the concept, seeking community input and looking for a site, which has yet to be named. Additional developments are likely to be announced in early 2024, Tammy Murphy has said. 

The state has identified at least $75 million for the project — a mix of state and federal dollars. The governor signed legislation last summer to create the new independent authority to oversee the center’s creation and operation, plus a host of related programs, and has appropriated an additional $2.2 million to set it up. 

While this work continues, the Greater Mt. Zion Trenton AME Church, a longtime pillar in the Black community, launched its own project to build a birthing center in a Pennington Avenue building owned by the church’s community development arm. 

The facility is designed with several birthing rooms, space for educational programs and more, elements of which are expected to open next year, according to those involved, who estimate it will cost between $4 million and $5 million, with just over $2 million provided by the state so far.  

Until recently Tammy Murphy had said little publicly about the Mt. Zion birthing center project, a point of frustration to some church leaders. In November the first lady said in a statement that the church’s facility “will complement our work” at the state-developed innovation center and that it “plays a critical role in building a more equitable maternal and infant health care system in our capital city,” when asked about the matter by NJ Spotlight News.  

When Boyer’s appointment to the  authority board was announced, Salvation and Social Justice released a statement highlighting her ongoing work to expand access to “restorative, culturally congruent” reproductive care — including midwives and doulas, who have a “history of resilience” in the Black community — plus childbirth education, lactation support, family wellness and other services.  

Boyer also pledged to donate the $20,000 annual salary that is available to public board members under the legislation, a controversial element of the program that supporters said was important to ensure diverse participation.   

“The entire salary will be donated, and a fund will be created to assist Black mothers in Trenton who require doula and midwifery services,” Boyer said in the Salvation and Social Justice release. It is not clear what other board members plan to do with their salaries.

Other appointees 

In addition to Boyer and Campbell-Oparaji, the board appointees include:  

  • Shakira Abdul-Ali, former director of the Trenton Department of Health and Human Services and the owner of Alchemy Consulting 

  • Dr. Barbara George Johnson, vice president of external affairs and urban policy at Kean University, who has led the EDA’s community outreach on the innovation center 

  • Andrea Martinez-Mejia, executive director of the Greater Newark Health Care Coalition 

  • Maritza Raimundi-Petroski, a vice president at Children’s Home Society of New Jersey, a nonprofit that provides maternal health, mental health, school-based services and more to low-income families.

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