Six years ago, when she was pregnant with her son, Shajuan Hayes felt as if she were “alone the whole time.”
“The doctor had to hold my hand when they stuck the needle in my back,” she recalls.
So when the single mother found out earlier this year that she was expecting again, she felt overwhelmed. She wanted resources but didn’t know where to go to find support.
A call to United Way of Greater Kansas City led her to Uzazi Village, a nonprofit that works to improve maternal and infant health outcomes in Kansas City’s urban core. Through Uzazi, Hayes was paired with a doula, who has served as Hayes’ pregnancy navigator since mid-July.
The doula encouraged Hayes to think about her vision for her delivery.
“I’m supposedly getting a C-section,” Hayes says. “Right after they do the C-section I want the baby to immediately be put on my chest, to have that skin-to-skin contact.”
Hayes’ birth plan also includes delaying the cutting of the umbilical cord for a few minutes, to enable the baby to receive all of its blood. That decision resulted from Hayes’ own research — something her doula, Justice, applauds.
“I was so happy she had done the research and asked me about it,” explains Justice, who asked that she be identified only by her first name because of safety concerns. “Let them get their blood, it’s so important for babies. Let this natural process be.”
This time in the delivery room Hayes will have by her side her doula, mother and a friend. She’s having another boy, and while the baby’s father won’t be there, she’s OK with that. She is already a much more confident mother.
Launching a village
Named after the Swahili word for birth, Uzazi Village was launched in 2012 by Sherry Payne, Mariah Chrans, Rebecca Liberty and LaTasha Reed.
The women wanted to help African-American mothers and babies beat the odds.
According to 2010-2014 data compiled by the Missouri Department of Health & Senior Services and the Kansas City Health Department, the black infant mortality rate in Kansas City stands at 10.7 deaths per 1,000 live births. That’s nearly double the white rate of 5.6 deaths per 1,000 live births.
And the disparity extends beyond childbirth. Payne, executive director of Uzazi Village, says African-American infants are more likely to die before their first birthdays because of complications from prematurity and low birth weight.
In her former career as a labor and delivery nurse, Payne saw that black mothers face their own challenges.
“They were subject to a system that didn’t really see them but made assumptions about them, and most of those assumptions were going to be negative,” Payne says.
Sarah Martin-Anderson, a Uzazi Village board member and Kansas City Health Department division manager for community engagement, policy and accountability, says Uzazi aims to give mothers “really good prenatal holistic care. Not just medical care but emotional care, social care, the full palette of care.”
One of Uzazi Village’s services is its sister doula program.
Doulas (the word is derived from Greek for “woman who serves”) work with women throughout their pregnancies, Payne explains. “They do home visits, they go to doctors’ appointments with them. And of course they’re there for labor and delivery.”
Doulas also continue to visit for a short time after delivery.
It is typically an out-of-pocket expense, but Uzazi Village contracts with Medicaid-managed care organizations to pay for its doula services.
“The biggest obstacle was getting the first contract,” Payne said. “It took us about nine months of courting the insurance company before they finally took a chance on us. After we got the first one it became easier. Now we have a second, and we’re talking to a third and a fourth. There are only six here in the Kansas City area, so our goal is to get all six on board with providing our sister doula services.”
Uzazi Village currently fields 10 doulas. Justice, who took on Shajuan Hayes as her first client, was motivated to become one because of what she went through herself.
“I have a 16-year-old son, and when I was pregnant with him I was battered,” she says. “I went through that horrible experience, but I met a whole lot of women who were in the same predicament. I felt like I needed more education, more skills and more training to be able to assist a pregnant woman.”
Justice attended an event at Uzazi Village in April and signed up for a doula class.
“I learned so much,” she recalls. “I couldn’t get enough. I would leave class, which was a full day, and go home and exhaust myself with research.”
Uzazi Village offers its doula class twice a year. One class runs eight hours a day for eight straight days, and the other one is held for eight consecutive Saturdays. Doulas also take an additional 100 hours of training at Uzazi Village to obtain a community health worker certification from Metropolitan Community College.
“We the doulas are taking ownership of our culture, beliefs and practices,” Justice said at the doula graduation ceremony in July. “We have a sad history of racism in this country that has permeated every aspect of human life. From the births and deliveries of babies to the art of baby wearing, our stories, methods and practices were copied and claimed by others who would come to exploit us. We are going to reclaim that.”
Justice says her goal is to empower women like Hayes to make decisions, seek resources and find things out for themselves.
Even after their doula relationship ends, Justice says, she will help Hayes if she is needed.
“She can always call me, text me, ask me questions, even after this,” Justice says. “Because I love my community.”
‘You’re not alone’
Uzazi Village also emphasizes the importance of breast-feeding and offers clinics, classes and support groups.
“We do quite a bit of work to promote breast-feeding because African-American women are the least likely to breast-feed their babies. That also feeds into the health gap for black infants,” Payne says.
Uzazi Village offers a lactation mentorship program, based on the International Board Certified Lactation Consultant credential. Those who hold the credential are known as lactation consultants.
Geared toward aspiring lactation consultants of color, the program enables participants to receive mentoring at local hospitals.
Jessica Garcia of Kansas City, Kan., is going through the program. Garcia said she received help with breast-feeding her daughter and that motivated her to become a lactation consultant.
“I know from research that not everyone has the same type of help, everything I got,” Garcia said. “So I wanted to be one of those people who would not look down on anyone, not judge anyone, and help them on their journey the best I can.”
Other Uzazi Village offerings include a free clothing closet, baby showers and baby wearing classes, which teach women how to carry a baby in a sling or similar carrier.
While Uzazi Village services are available to all women, Payne says the organization focuses on “changing maternity care dynamics for low-resource communities, and it just so happens that the low-resource community we’re located in is an African-American community. We are very culturally specific in our approach, and the culture that we seek to celebrate and uplift is African-American culture.”
Uzazi Village representatives also reach out beyond their core constituency, cultivating relationships with hospitals and talking to medical providers about the history and cultural needs of women in the black community.
“Uzazi fills a niche about educating the mainstream medical community on how to best serve the population most at risk,” Martin-Anderson says.
Down the road, Uzazi Village would like to move to a bigger space. The organization is housed in an old commercial building at 3647 Troost Ave. that’s crammed with boxes of clothing, childbirth class supplies and a plethora of pamphlets, booklets and magazines.
It’s “busting at the seams,” Payne says.
But with rising rents and property values, the search has been difficult.
Other goals over the next five years include establishing a prenatal clinic, a birthing center and a midwifery school.
“I see midwives as a critical missing piece in the whole perinatal health scene,” Payne says. “Kansas City has seen a resurgence of midwives in our community, but not midwives of color. We can look back historically and see that the black community-based midwife was a big part of the health surveillance and the health keeping of the black community. Now that that’s been completely erased, we want to hearken back to that previous model of community-based care.”
Hayes is looking forward to Aug. 29, when she’s scheduled to deliver at Truman Medical Center. Her advice to expectant mothers is to “never give up. Don’t give up on life. I know it’s going to get hard. It’s going to be very, very difficult.
“Uzazi Village is an awesome place to go. They love you down. Embrace the fact that you’re not alone, and you’re not going through it all by yourself, and that you are loved.”
3647 Troost Ave. Hours are 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Wednesday and Friday. 913-638-0716; uzazivillage.org
Sept. 6, 5:30-7 p.m.: Chocolate Milk Café, a breast-feeding meet-up for African, African-American and Afro-Latino families
Sept. 10, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.: Childbirth class
Sept. 20, 5:30-7 p.m.: Chocolate Milk Cafe
Sept. 24, 9 a.m.-noon: Black Infant Mortality Awareness Walk. Truman Medical Center Hospital Hill to Research Medical Center, 2316 E. Meyer Blvd.