In America, the country with the highest infant mortality rate of the industrialized world, black babies are more than twice as likely as white babies to die before their first birthday. Kathryn Hall-Trujillo is changing that. As Founder and Director of the Birthing Project USA, she is building a social support system that will allow black women to support each other for healthier babies and healthier lives.

A Designated CNN Hero, Hall-Trujillo is creating a new social support role for black women in America. She has recognized that the moment of pregnancy—a time when even women engaging in the riskiest behaviors may be open to change—is a prime opportunity to pair the most vulnerable young black women with a decision-making partner. To this end, the Birthing Project mobilizes African American women to assume this partnership role, taking responsibility for the future of an at-risk pregnant woman and her baby through, at minimum, the baby’s first birthday. Kathryn notes that there is a “magic” of sorts in this “SisterFriend” relationship, an emotional connection that opens women to change, which emerges when women come together to support each other. But the origins of this effect are no mystery. Kathryn has carefully engineered a series of activities and encounters designed to encourage empathy and openness between sisters.

Together, “SisterFriends” take on the health care monolith and the “little sisters” personal situations, doing whatever it takes—from drug rehab and regular doctor’s visits to planning and problem solving—to ensure a healthy baby and a mother prepared for stable motherhood. This partnership goes beyond the practical aspects of healthier newborns.

The “big sister” role is designed to help a young, pregnant woman take action towards protecting her baby’s health and future. The process of birth then becomes a moment of hope and pride for women who have had much more experience with failure. As a result, Kathryn’s work gives children the chance to be born to, and to grow up with, mothers committed to their health and well-being. And it positions black women across the country to speak for their sisters—women with no voice in their own health care system.

Hall-Trujillo co-teaches SISE 4560, the internship class where students complete 70 hours of service-learning with an organization of their choice and meet once a week to discuss the experience as a group.