August 3, 2023

Catherine Sullivan, MPH, RDN, LDN, IBCLC, RLC, FAND, has made it her life-long mission to advocate for families. For the past decade at the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute (CGBI), she has focused on supporting breastfeeding-friendly health care, child care, communities and training the next generation of lactation practitioners, applying principles of inclusive excellence throughout her work.

Catherine Sullivan

Catherine Sullivan

In August 2013, Catherine was one of a handful of staff members when she joined founder Dr. Miriam Labbok at CGBI in the Department of Maternal and Child Health in the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC Chapel Hill. After Dr. Labbok retired in 2016, Catherine took over the role of CGBI director.

Leading a team of more than 15 faculty and staff today, Catherine serves as principal investigator for The Duke Endowment’s ENRICH Carolinas project, co-principal investigator on the leadership team of CDC’s EMPower Best Practices initiative, and as principal investigator for the RISE: Lactation Training Model project, funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation . In addition, she teaches future IBCLCs in the Mary Rose Tully Training Initiative, a CAAHEP accredited Pathway 2 lactation training program.

What brought you to CGBI 10 years ago?
A combination of factors. I have never actively pursued positions. The best opportunities in my career came together organically. I loved my position at NC DHHS in the Nutrition Services Branch as the State Breastfeeding Coordinator. I enjoyed working on policy and doing programmatic work, but I missed teaching. I had previously been on the ECU Brody School of Medicine’s family medicine faculty. Beyond providing frontline nutrition and lactation care, that position allowed me to interact with and educate health care professionals (medical students, resident physicians and dietetic interns) on a variety of life course topics related to my fields. I collaborated with Dr. Miriam Labbok on a few projects in my former role. She talked with me about returning to Carolina to a faculty position and shared her vision for the position with me. I completed my MPH-RD in 2000 while working full-time as a public health nutritionist at the local level, so I was very familiar with Gillings. I knew the time was right to return to Carolina and merge my favorite work areas into one role.

What did you learn from CGBI’s founder, the late Miriam Labbok?
Miriam taught all of us so much, it is hard to focus on just one area. She did teach me to be tenacious in advancing CGBI and to always focus on the rights of families. We still laugh today about “what Miriam would do” in any given situation. She had a raw passion for the work itself and showed compassion for everyone around her. We lovingly referred to her as Mama Bear, even when she was being feisty. She was one of the most dedicated and hard-working individuals who I have known, yet she also knew how to balance her life with the things she really enjoyed outside of work. I have tried to carry that forward.

What do you consider CGBI’s role in protecting, promoting and supporting breastfeeding?
While we don’t provide direct patient care, we are in the background building and advocating for structures of support for all families. We provide technical assistance and training to decision makers, leaders, educators and clinicians. We work with domestic and global organizations to provide evidence-based guidance and messaging on a variety of maternal, child and family health issues throughout the reproductive continuum, with a major emphasis on lactation. And we are training the future workforce of tomorrow.

What are some of the challenges carrying out CGBI’s role?
I like to think of challenges as opportunities. Knowing when we should lead an effort and when we should follow (and support) another organization to lead requires continuous and thoughtful reflection. This is particularly challenging when funding for and sustainability of CGBI are considered. Building trusting collaborative relationships with organizations and community partners has been essential in navigating where to focus our efforts.

What do you most hope that CGBI’s MRT-TI students take away from their experience?
In public health we often focus on population levels goals, but in direct care to families we must apply principles of good listening, providing evidence-based education and care, and respecting the goals of  the families we serve. I hope they leave, leading by example, and I hope that the program models the principles stated.

Where do you find inspiration?
The team…AKA the CGBI family. I am blessed to work alongside some of the most talented and skilled changemakers in the field of lactation, along with other support team members who fully believe in our vision. I am in awe of their creativity and energy, which has driven the success of the Institute. They are highly thoughtful in how they approach their work, centering the longer-term impacts that they can make individually and collectively. They are not only my inspiration but one of my “whys.” They are why after almost 27 years I am still working in the public health space. I see the future through them.

Earlier this year, the CGBI team created new vision and mission statements. Why was that so important now?
Before last November, our team was holding on to the vision/mission and strategic plan we had worked on together in 2015, before Dr. Labbok retired. Her subsequent passing was devastating to our team. Changing the vision/mission seemed taboo for a long time even as things were changing all around us.

Our team has grown significantly since that time. We have experienced changes in personnel, and we have been on a journey to find our strengths and address failures through our lessons learned. Navigating through the pandemic brought additional challenges that we wanted to turn into opportunities. While honoring Miriam’s legacy, we also wanted to make sure that CGBI was changing and adapting to the current environment and needs of our stakeholders. Each team member is a contributor to our work, and they have an investment in the vision/mission. They have poured themselves into the organization. This past November, we participated in a retreat to start our next strategic plan. Ground zero was to reimagine our vision and mission statements with the institute’s collective team driving the change.

What kind of impact do you think the recently passed PUMP Act will have?
The PUMP Act has the potential to be a real game changer for working families. Extending the protections to the vast majority of the workforce closes the unintentional gaps we have seen in previous policies. The PUMP Act allows for recourse when not implemented properly.

After 10 years, what are you most proud of?
We have not only been able to sustain CGBI, but we are a thriving institution that is making impactful and mindful change through research, service and training. I am most proud of the team that has been assembled—they will carry forward the legacy of CGBI, regardless of who is at the helm.

Robert A. Poarch

Phone: (919) 966-3774
Fax: (919) 966-0458
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Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute
Department of Maternal and Child Health
135 Dauer Drive
422 Rosenau Hall, CB #7445
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-7445