Choosing to Challenge

Pictured: Solaire, her mother and brother. Source: Solaire Spellen*

I was born and raised in the South Bronx.

My first memories were the eclectic sounds of Hip Hop, R&B, Reggae, Dancehall, Salsa and Bachata. I remember passing by intense games of dominoes and watching hairstylists in awe of their masterpieces from intricate cornrow patterns to Senegalese twists.

We ate curry chicken, roti, maduros, pastelitos, finished with tres leches cake. We had block parties, BBQs, the Puerto Rican Day parade and the West Indian Carnival. We celebrated and embraced our rich medley of bold and beautiful Caribbean, West African and African American cultures.

But the South Bronx also had a different side – poverty and disinvestment surrounded us along with so many other barriers to the things we’d need to thrive.  

Parade in the Bronx


Solaire's graduation cap

“Baby Mamas or in Jail”

I remember one of my guidance counselors in high school discouraging me from applying to a top university because he thought it would be a “waste of my time” and that I should focus my attention on safety schools like local community colleges.

At an assembly, our graduating class was told that many of us would end up like our parents, as “baby mamas or in jail.” It was not lost on me that this white man was speaking to an auditorium filled with young Black and Brown students who were at such a critical and impressionable point in our lives. I wondered if white kids attending schools in better-resourced neighborhoods were hearing the same messages.

Something Needed to Be Done

My mother was born in Jamaica. She made a million and one sacrifices to immigrate to the United States for a better life, but then upon arriving was immediately faced with intense racism and discrimination. She pushed me and helped me understand that what was happening to me, to us and the Black community was wrong and something needed to be done about it. Her investment in me as a young girl is what inspired my passion for pursuing my education and addressing the racism that today drives poor Black and Brown maternal and child health outcomes.

Solaire headshot


Success is the Best Revenge

Despite what my high school teachers told me, I did attend that university and today I’m blessed to be in a position working with my community to dismantle structural racism and disrupt narratives that continually tell us we can’t succeed.

This International Women’s Day I pay tribute to my mom and all the Black and Brown women that didn’t listen to the haters. They chose and continue to choose to challenge injustice and, in doing so, create meaningful change, paving the way for more of us to follow.

Solaire Spellen is the Associate Director of the UCSF California Preterm Birth Initiative. Learn more ways to choose to challenge at or share your thoughts on social media with #choosetochallenge.

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PTBi's New Associate Director, Solaire Spellen