Erin Tenney's Weekend with Kitty

By: Erin Tenney

When Frontier Nursing University student Erin Tenney won the “Weekend with Kitty” contest she had no idea what was in store for her. As winners of the contest, Erin and her friend were able to spend a weekend in Kitty Ernst’s home, where FNU began in the “coop” in Perkiomenville. The following blog includes an excerpt of Erin’s reflections of the weekend. Our team at Frontier is proud to have students like Erin!


We talked a lot about leadership with Kitty Ernst, and how to affect change. I really wanted to learn from her, how she managed to do so much important work in her lifetime that has made such an impact. I guess I was expecting a more complicated response, but the bottom line is that we simply have to respond the needs we see and be diligent in our efforts.


She said, "Only politicians seek leadership". Others become leaders simply by doing the work and having some success. Eventually others notice and more opportunities arise. When I asked her how she did it all, she said emphatically, "I did not do it. I inspired others to do it. That's leadership". She also said that "leadership is 90% inspiration" and that the three R's are the key: resilience, relationships and reflection. We kept coming back to those and each one was apparent in the many stories she told of all the amazing midwives, leaders and friends she has worked with over the years.


It was remarkable and humbling to hear so many stories of key moments in the history of nurse-midwifery in the U.S., such as when Kitty moved the budding nurse-midwifery training program into what was her chicken coops (and where her house stands now) and started the first CNEP program with a brave group of first students (including Susan Stone, our current FNU President and how when Hattie Hemschemeyer (in her blue suit, with her hand on her hip and cigarette hanging out of her mouth) appointed Kitty to be the next president of the early ACNM organization.


Kitty's stories are vivid, and priceless. I have always felt akin to the mission and vision of Frontier, and to be so close to the early years was incredible. It solidified my sense of pride and fierce commitment to what has always been the mission and vision of Frontier, “to educate nurses to become competent, entrepreneurial, ethical and compassionate nurse-midwives and nurse practitioners who are leaders in the primary care of women and families with an emphasis on underserved and rural populations.”  


How to do that? It turns out it's pretty simple. According to Kitty, "make the cause and get good at it". Work hard. Be diligent and "do your homework". She said a turning a point in her career is when she "decided to stop fighting to be a midwife, and started fighting for midwifery". That resonated with me as I complete my doctoral project, focusing on finding successful pathways for integrating midwifery in tribal communities in the U.S. Like Kitty, my work is to support the success of midwifery for ALL women and families, but I am specifically interested in supporting midwifery in Native communities. Indian Health Services has integrated nurse-midwives into their maternity care systems since the 1960s and currently, more than half of AI/AN babies are delivered by nurse-midwives (as opposed to less than 10% in the U.S. overall)!


I’ve been learning about how this model has been and continues to be so successful in Indian Health Services, and yet, for a number of reasons, many AI/AN women and families still do not have access to midwifery care. One of the important solutions to this problem is that we need more AI/AN women to become nurse-midwives.


My friend who attended the weekend with me, Angela, is one of the strong and eager young women who is ready to take up this responsibility, and work toward her dream of starting a birth center on her reservation. She desires to provide her community with the opportunity to birth safely and with autonomy on their land, and truly in accordance with their cultural life ways.


Honestly, the most inspiring part of the whole weekend for me was just before we were getting ready to go, and after Kitty and Angela were talking about leadership, affecting change, tribal sovereignty and the power of women. Angela stood up and with utter conviction (like the most powerful sermon) declared that she would take up a leadership role in her community, because when women take back control over birth, that is a starting point for sovereignty and healing, and THAT is what is going to make a positive difference among tribal communities. It’s not the commodity foods or the grant funded programs, it’s the ability to be self-sustaining and to resume control of key life experiences, such as birth.


I could never say it like she did, and that powerful, emotional moment has passed, but there’s plenty more where that came from! In fact just yesterday, several days after getting back, I visited Angela at the coffee shop where she works, and she had just been telling her co-worker all about birth and sovereignty. She has been enthusiastically supporting and teaching others about birth and breastfeeding for years and is only getting started. She starts nursing school next fall, and plans to attend FNU to become a nurse midwife.


While I could never summarize all of the key takeaways we gained from Kitty, I would say the biggest was a sense of empowerment, because there’s no magic, it just takes vision, persistence and hard work. I’m filled with inspiration from the generations of leaders: Mary Breckinridge, Kitty, Angela and so many others who have done, and will do so much amazing work for women, babies and families. And finally, I gained an even greater sense of clarity and determination to keep the mission and legacy of Frontier moving forward. Kitty gave us valuable context, guidance and tools to guide and encourage our work as we move ahead. There’s no stopping us now!


I woke up today at 4:30 am to write this piece and get to work on advancing midwifery. I hope that like Kitty, when I am 90 years old, that I’m doing the same thing.


Thank you to Frontier for sending us on this adventure. We promise to put our lessons learned to good use!

Watch Erin Tenney’s Video Contest Entry here.

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