We had the good fortune of connecting with Nickie Tilsner and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Nickie, is there something that you feel is most responsible for your success?
I would say the most important factor behind both my personal success, and that of Cornerstone’s is our community. There’s no possible way that I would have been able to do this alone. Juli and I co-founded Cornerstone with the vision of creating something different and truly relevant in the doula community; filling in the gaps that we had experienced in our training. One of the things that makes our trainings so beautiful is that we work in collaboration with a large community of folks, positioning people with lived experience to the front to lead conversations that they are the experts in. I don’t know everything, and I would never want to posit myself in a way that leads our learners to believe that I do. It is within community that I learn, share, grow, am held accountable, and Cornerstone flourishes.
Can you give our readers an introduction to your business? Maybe you can share a bit about what you do and what sets you apart from others?
Cornerstone Birthwork Trainings is a full-spectrum, intersectional birthwork (doula), reproductive care work, advocacy, and childbirth educator training program that is rooted in community, inclusivity, and birth justice. Our organization was founded by the mother/daughter duo Nickie & Juli Tilsner in 2006. We co-founded Cornerstone after both having practiced as doulas for 6 years. Together, we were submerged in the work — attending births together as a mother/daughter doula team, undergoing midwifery apprenticeships in tandem and working as support staff at an out of hospital birth center, and we were both also teaching childbirth education courses to expecting parents. During this time, we identified huge gaps in available doula training programs, including the training that we received, which weren’t touching the subjects that we feel are absolutely necessary for birthworkers to understand from the beginning: Birth justice, birth activism, advocacy, antiracism, birth psychology, physiologic birth, sustainability, and the midwifery model of care. When you know something is needed, and it isn’t available – you create it!
It definitely wasn’t easy. We started with a mailing list of two. We taught classes in our living room in San Francisco, and for the first few years often had to cancel classes because we didn’t get enough students signed up to pay for our overhead. But, we knew what we had to offer was deeply needed, so we kept at it. We offered free talks at Whole Foods, local chiropractor offices, and cafes. We flyered all around town, and tried to show up wherever folks who needed what we had to offer might be. And, slowly, little by little, we grew. Today, we are internationally known, and our courses continuously fill to capacity. We’re also hosting our first annual virtual conference this Summer in June, and are just blown away by the amazing list of guests who are a part of it.
The bottom line is that we have done this all in transparency, vulnerability, authenticity, and in community. I don’t think our business could have grown in this way if we had done it any other way. Our learners know who we are. Cornerstone is connection, community, advocacy, and strength. We show up. We walk our talk. We’re on the ground with our learners, doing the work together. You don’t get that from most other birthwork and doula training programs.
Over the years, our understanding has grown and deepened, our lenses have widened, and we have firmly rooted ourselves in the mission of our work. Our mission is to advance birth justice by training birthworkers in the expansive, inclusive and multidisciplinary role of the full spectrum doula. By centering trauma informed care, harm reduction, equity and justice in all we do, Cornerstone birthworkers radically reimagine birthwork, rooting themselves in community care, and the deep understanding that true change will not occur without the collective.
We envision a liberated world free of trauma, violence and disparity. A world where mutual aid is the norm, transformative justice is the touchstone, and collectivism supersedes individualism. A world where compassion is everywhere, within all people and freely given to all.
Birthwork is political. Through this work, we destigmatize reproductive experiences, choices and outcomes. We interrupt injustice in healthcare spaces. We reconnect with the wisdom about self, community and planet that has been lost and stolen throughout the generations. Together, we are reclaiming human rights starting at the beginning: Birth.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Currently, I live in Portland, OR, but I grew up in San Francisco, so I want to walk you through a fun weekend day in SF, using my imagination that Covid wasn’t a consideration.
We’d start in the morning hiking at land’s end. We’d walk along the beach, up the hill to the trailhead, and then follow the trail along the coast line. From there, we’d head over to the Mission District and would have brunch at Puerto Allegre. From there, we’d see a movie at the Alamo Drafthouse, and spend the rest of our day walking around the city, stopping at local spots for little bites and sips.
*I’ve done this itinerary many times, and it never disappoints. It’s making me homesick, just thinking about it.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I want to dedicate this shoutout to Juli Tilsner – my mother, business partner, co-adventurer in life, mentor, and all around best friend. We grew up together, raised my child together, and built this amazing organization together. I am who I am because of her.