Uzazi Village is nurturing Black mothers and birthing bodies, and fighting health inequities in Kansas City

By Kelcie McKenney

Sandra Thornhill came to Uzazi Village in 2018 when she was pregnant with her son Jerren Junior. 

“That’s where I met the co-founder and CEO of Uzazi Village, Mama Hakima,” Thornhill said of Uzazi Executive Director Hakmia Tafunzi Payne. She had stopped by for a labor and delivery class and got to talking to Payne about where she wanted to give birth. At the time, Thornhill wanted to have a home birth, but felt like going to the hospital was easier. 

“But [Payne], being the true, authentic, warrior sister that she is, called me out,” Thornhill recalled. It turned into an hour long conversation about the autonomy of Thornhill’s body and that she had every right to determine how she wanted her birth to take place.

“Two years later, that has taken me on a journey to always question, ‘Am I being the most true and authentic?’” Thornhills said. “So after having my son, who is a boy, I realized that my first child would be a Black male. And looking at the climate of the existence and history of Black men in America—not only in America, because I’ve traveled internationally—and seeing how the Black male was treated, that made me realize I don’t want him to have to wait until he’s 27 or 28 to realize that your voice matters.”

Thornhill and her son. | Photo by Travis Young

Thornhill gave birth to her son Jerren Junior thanks to help from an Uzazi Village-sponsored Doula, where donations paid for the assistance of a professional labor support person to guide Thornhill through her birthing process. 

“I’m thankful that someone donated a doula for a birthing person, because I was able to be a recipient of that,” Thornhill said. “The last month of my pregnancy, I received my doula and she was with me, she checked on me prior to my delivery. And then during my labor delivery process, she was the first person besides my husband to come to my house, to show up. And she was with me the whole way until we got to the hospital again.”

Thornhill held her baby shower at Uzazi’s headquarters, and this year her son had his first birthday party in the same space. At the time of her pregnancy, Thornhill was working with Mayor Sly James’s administration. When his time as mayor ended, Thornhill saw the chance to do something different. She became more involved with Uzazi Village, and now holds a position as outreach and community liaison. Thornhill brings her son with her to work whenever she’s in the office.

Welcome to Uzazi Village

Ceciley Wong packs diapers with her daughter ahead of the diaper drop-off. | Photo by Travis Young

It’s a Wednesday morning at Uzazi Village, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting Black and Brown birthing bodies and their families. The weekly diaper drop-off has just ended, and staff members are organizing the donated diapers in preparation for families who will stop by this afternoon to pick them up. A group of children are playing on a couch in the open room, which feels more like a living room with comfy furniture, rocking chairs, and big windows than the office of a nonprofit. 

“It’s not like most nonprofits,” says co-founder and Executive Director Payne. “People even ask, when they walk through the doors, is this somebody’s house?”

That design is intentional. Payne founded Uzazi, which means “birth” in Swahili, along with Tasha Reed, Rebecca Liberty, and Mariah Chrans in 2012 to support families in maternal infant health and to improve the health inequities in the Kansas City community. The nonprofit has grown to share childbirth education, train and connect doulas, provide breastfeeding support, and create a “village” of Black and Brown families who uplift and support each other through child rearing. 

Racism in healthcare

Hakmia Tafunzi Payne inside the new wing of Uzazi Village. | Photo by Travis Young

Not every birthing story is like Thornhill’s, and too often those stories turn tragic. In the United States, Black women are three times more likely to die due to pregnancy than white women. Black babies have 2.3 times the infant mortality rate as white babies, and Black infants are nearly four times more likely to die from complications related to low birthweight as compared to white infants. Our medical field is steeped in racism, so much so that the survival rate of Black babies is higher when Black doctors are delivering. 

“These numbers are racism, it’s racism,” Thornhill said. “Our birth outcomes are worse now than they were during enslavement. But the main difference in enslavement, it was like, because you can profit off of our bodies. Our bodies are still being profited off of in other ways, but you can profit off her, you profit more of her body for having us alive. So what, so now it’s like if a Black woman dies and the Black baby dies, what does that mean to our bottom line?”

“These systems are by design inequitable. And, you know, I could pretend that I was making some change internally by making a big stink and always be in trouble for something. But that wasn’t me making a dent to the system. That was the system making a dent in me.”

— Hakmia Tafunzi Payne

Payne is all too familiar with those healthcare disparities. She was born in Kansas City at General Hospital #2—a segregated hospital that existed before Truman, which was built when Payne turned 12. At the age of 15, Payne had her first baby at Truman Medical Center. She later became a nurse and had her first job at Truman Labor and Delivery.

Payne went back to school and got her masters degree in nursing education and started teaching at nursing schools.

“I did that for a few years. I became really disenchanted, really disillusioned,” Payne said. “Just the rampant racism within the systems, within health care, within education. I mean, it’s no secret that it’s not new, but having to be close up and personal, be a participant in it, was very difficult. These systems are by design inequitable. And, you know, I could pretend that I was making some change internally by making a big stink and always be in trouble for something. But that wasn’t me making a dent to the system. That was the system making a dent in me.”

Uzazi supports Black births

Uzazi Village is Black-mom founded and ran. | Photo by Travis Young.

What makes Uzazi Village so special, is that it’s Black-mom founded and ran. Most of the employees are Black, and the community-focused mission puts women and birthing bodies at the center of decision making.

“It really is a unique experience to come here. You immediately walk in and say, ‘Oh, this place is for Black people,’” Payne said. “And then in having that experience, you realize—and you probably knew it beforehand—but you realize to a much greater degree how much most spaces aren’t made for you, aren’t made to accommodate you.”

Thornhill experienced that sacred Black space first hand: “I got drawn into Uzazi as a place that wasn’t just the service for me, there was more of a hub and a home, a sisterhood,” Thornhill said. “I often refer to that idea as having this essence of Blackness, a safe Black space. I was immediately drawn in.”

Thornhill’s son helps with the diaper drive. | Photo by Travis Young

Uzazi Village is a space that is used frequently by the community. Like Thonrhill’s baby shower and birthday party for her son Jerren Junior, Uzazi community members have thrown wedding showers, bridal showers, birthday parties, and holiday celebrations at the space. Before the pandemic, Uzazi was open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. as a walk-in breastfeeding clinic, and they offered a full calendar of classes and events—now many online—from birthing education to anti-racism training. 

Along with the diaper drive, Uzazi Village also has a large closet of baby clothes and maternity wear, along with winter coats in the colder months, that are picked up by community members twice a month.

The donation closet, with kids clothing and maternity wear, at Uzazi Village. | Photo by Travis Young

Payne’s programming is carefully crafted to be “Afro-centric, replicable, and scalable” and it works to undo the healthcare disparities Black birthing bodies face. A central part of that is the community Sister Doula Program. Doulas are trained professional advocates for birthing bodies who provide emotional, informational, and physical support. Not only does Uzazi provide sponsored doulas—like Thornhill experienced—they also train doulas. 

“You want somebody who’s going to really be there for you. But then especially Black birthing persons, we have to have a doula for us. It’s a matter of survival,” Thornhill said. “We need advocates who will stand up for us, who will be our ear, who will protect us, who will look out for our best interests in order to help reduce that negative outcome.”

Breastfeeding mentorship

Payne and Thornill in the rocking chairs in the front room of Uzazi Village. The welcome area feels comfortable and welcoming, more like a living room than a nonprofit. | Travis Young

After birth, Uzazi’s support continues. The Chocolate Milk Cafe is a peer-to-peer breastfeeding support group that is similar to La Leche League—an organization founded in 1956 by seven mothers who wanted to share support in breastfeeding. 

“It’s been an excellent breastfeeding support group model,” Payne said of La Leche League. “It has not spread to the Black community. Why not? Because again, that mother-to-mother support, I think is really valuable. But all the La Leche Leagues are in the suburbs, and they weren’t happening in Black communities. And so I said, what if I created something like that, that’s specifically for Black women? And that’s where Chocolate Milk Cafe came from.”

The Chocolate Milk Cafe supports Black mothers and birthing bodies with peer-to-peer support, and is now it’s own nonprofit outside of Uzazi Village located in six states.

Uzazi also has a Lactation Mentorship Program that trains people to become lactation consultants and reach breastfeeding specialist credentials, which are required for hospital lactation positions. According to Payne, only one to two percent of breastfeeding specialists are Black. The now four-year-old training program helps Black candidates reach the credential and better represent communities within hospitals.

Thornhill and Hakima stand in front of a mural in the new Village Circle clinic. | Photo by Travis Young

This spring, Uzazi Village will also open their new clinic, the Ida Mae Patterson Center for Maternal and Infant Wellness, in a newly built wing of their Troost location. The space opens up with large all-window garage doors that let light stream into the open area, surrounded by different office rooms that will house medical staff along with a chiropractor, herbalist, mental health professionals, and other services Uzazi finds essential to the birthing process. 

It feels far different than a cold and sterile hospital. The clinic is a midwife and doula driven prenatal care facility that is rooted in a non-hierarchical care structure—meaning no doctor at the top, but instead a system that “encapsulates all parts of prenatal care,” according to Payne.

Care in the community

A painting in the new healthcare clinic, Village Circle. | Photo by Travis Young

Support of Black women and birthing bodies goes beyond what Uzazi does within its walls, and Payne has been fighting for better healthcare through local research and policy work. When research happens in labs, behind figuratively closed doors, it leaves out community needs. Do community members even want that type of solution? What are their actual needs? Payne and Uzazi are there to speak on behalf of those conversations.

Kansas City representatives, the Mayor’s office, and city hall have all learned to look to Payne for advice on anti-racism, and local organizations do the same. But do they always listen?

“These are the decision makers that I’m sitting in meetings with, but you know, they usually have one or two responses. It’s like, ‘Oh, well we want racial equity, but we don’t know how to do it.’ It’s like, yeah, you do, because I keep telling you,” Payne said. “Or they say, ‘Oh, thanks for telling us what to do. And we wish we had the power to actually do it.’ And so playing out plus they can’t do the things that I suggest. It’s like, why am I here?”

“I’ve been around strong Black women my whole life,” Thornhill said. “But these strong Black women were like this unapologetic, in your face, anti-racist, we ain’t playin’ no games type of women.”

— Sandra Thornhill

“It just wears me down because they will take useless action,” Payne continued. “So they’ll form a committee or a task force and let them spend two years generating a report. And then they’ll take that report and let it sit on the shelf for 10 years and gather a nice layer of dust on it without doing anything that report recommends. I’ve seen way too much of that. And so I try and give them low-hanging fruit action and things that they can actually do that have some substance, not hire DEI professionals, not look at their areas of diversity, not create a diversity passport or really substantive change that involves their own policy and culture. And organizations are just much slower to move on that step. Especially in Kansas City. Kansas City is really racist and really conservative, but it doesn’t want to own any of that.”

Thornhill works in policy activism through Uzazi’s Community Expert Review Board (CERB), which advocates for revolutionizing “Black maternal-infant health outcomes by amplifying the Black birth experience, fostering equitable research, and ensuring culturally congruent care.”

“I’ve been around strong Black women my whole life,” Thornhill said. “But these strong Black women were like this unapologetic, in your face, anti-racist, we ain’t playin’ no games type of women. I’m just like, wow. Like this is a whole other level of understanding that resonated with me so deeply, and was something I was really, really missing.”

So how can we help?

Thornhill’s son Jerren Junior helps out before the diaper pickup. | Photo by Travis Young

Uzazi Village is putting in the work for Black and Brown birthing bodies and their families—and uplifting the overall Black community of Kansas City. 

As a white woman with no children, it’s important I note my privilege in writing this story. I will never experience the racism in American prenatal care, I will only benefit from it. If I do have children in my future, I am likely to experience the sexism of our healthcare system, but that will pale in comparison to what Black and Brown birthing bodies face through their childbirth journey.

But what I can do—what we can do—is support Uzazi Village and its programming. Bring diapers on Wednesday mornings to the diaper drop-off. Donate used and new baby clothes and maternity clothing. Though COVID-19 has added complications, Uzazi is always looking for volunteers to help in the closet, in the community garden—which is lush in the spring and summer—and for the day of service where building repairs are made. And donate, through paypal, cashapp $UzaziVillage, and venmo @Uzazi_Village, or by purchasing an item from Uzazi Village’s wish list.

Uzazi Village is building the future; let’s support them.

Kelcie McKenney is a writer, editor, and artist who is passionate about feminism. She currently works as Strategy Director at The Pitch , where she writes and edits for Kansas City’s alternative magazine. You can find Kelcie on Instagram with #kcdaddy, where she talks about her three-legged cat Luna, thrift finds, and ways to overthrow the patriarchy.

Travis Young is a Kansas City based photographer with roots in photojournalism and visual storytelling. He enjoys using film cameras to help him process, celebrate, and challenge his understanding in topics of race, gender, status, and mental health. When not behind a camera, you can find him creating things in 3D, obsessing over your grandmother’s dope Volvo Wagon from the 80’s, or getting lost in some tedious cleaning activity because he is a relentless Virgo.

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