It’s widely accepted that breast-feeding is the best way to feed an infant. But in some communities, breast-feeding has fallen out of favor. Nationally, only about 60 percent of African-American women attempt to nurse their babies. And many of them stop within the first three months. But breast-fed babies are less likely to die of SIDS or develop asthma and obesity later in life — health issues that occur most often in African-Americans. In Kansas City, Mo. Uzazi Village — a Swahili word meaning birth — is trying to address such infant health disparities, particularly through breastfeeding.
At Uzazi Village on the corner of 37th and Troost, Executive Director Sherry Payne, says she has lived in the neighborhood her entire life. She is a nurse and has taught labor and delivery to other nurses. Payne says it was during her first time breast-feeding that she received a vision for what she wanted to do.
"When I was laying there after successfully having that homebirth and successfully breast-feeding, I'm sort of in the warm after-glow, and holding my newborn — I remember thinking this very clearly, 'this is what I want to spend the rest of my life doing. Helping women have experiences like this one,'" says Payne.
The Community Says. . .
In May 2012, Payne’s vision came to fruition. Uzazi Village is geared specifically to improving birth outcomes for women living in the urban core, especially low-resource African-American women. Payne says the organization grew out of a community meeting, where she posed the question: If this community could create its own maternity care system, what would that look like?
Based on the community response to that question, Payne and three other local women drew up a strategic plan and found the space to open Uzazi Village. There, families can take the Birth Bootcamp class, get advice from the on-staff lactation consultant, or get paired with a doula — a non-medical person who provides physical and emotional support to a pregnant women and new mothers. All of these services are free to women in the community.
Right now, Uzazi Village doesn’t offer any medical services. Rather, Uzazi is a place for community education and support for issues in pre- and post-natal care. A key part of that is breast-feeding support, though most women aren’t looking for breast-feeding support when coming to Uzazi.
Why Many African Americans Aren't Breast-feeding
Kathi Barber, author and national breast-feeding advocate, says the barriers preventing African-American women from breast-feeding are multi-faceted, and some are institutional. Barber is concerned that healthcare providers are less likely to talk with a black woman about breast-feeding because they assume she’ll use formula.
There’s also economic barriers. Many of the women at Uzazi work jobs without paid maternity leave and have to go back to work soon after giving birth. At work, there’s often no private space to pump breast milk. So, formula seems more convenient. Kathi Barber says there are social hurdles too.
"The black family is not as united as it once was. There's a high divorce rate. And because it was once a very united community when the black family started to shift, breast-feeding started to shift because families weren't together," says Barber.
Now that less black women are breast-feeding, Barber says many don’t have breast-feeding role models.
"We don't see our friends breast-feeding, we may not have seen our mothers or out aunties or grandmothers breast-feeding," says Barber. "So, you look at the history, the lack of modeling, the lack of education, and lack of support, and then you get to 2013, all of these factors come together."
That’s where Uzazi Village steps in, to try and normalize breast-feeding in the black community. One way is through mother-to-mother support here at the Chocolate Milk Café, the only breast-feeding support group in Kansas City that’s exclusively for African-American women. Payne says Uzazi serves women of all races, but at the root the organization is culture specific. Its purpose is to address maternal health disparities in the urban community, and Payne says, that usually means African-American women.
"Notice that there were other Caucasian people here, but they did not join the circle. That is purposeful," says Payne. "We're trying to create a safe space, what I like to call a 'sacred environment' that is just for them so that they can nurture one another, they can heal, they can rejuvenate. They can talk safely, speak about all the harm that has been done to them, process it, take up a healthy attitude, healthy behaviors and go on."
Part of developing a "healthy attitude" is seeing images that look like them. Payne says a lot of literature around breast-feeding and infant care shows pictures of Caucasian babies and women. But she says black women can’t relate to that. So she displays photos and uses multimedia presentations of African-American women breastfeeding, like this one:
"When you have generations of women who haven't breast-fed, it's important for them to see images of themselves breast-fed to say, ‘okay, this actually does happen,'" says Barber.
'I Like What I See'
Other organizations in Kansas City have taken notice of Uzazi Village. At Swope Health Services, Sherri Tauheed, breast-feeding educator with Women, Infants and Children (WIC), says she meets a lot of women needing maternal health services. She refers them to area programs like Kansas City Healthy Start through Mother & Child Health Coalition or The Birthplace at Truman Medical Center. In the last year, she has started referring women to Uzazi Village. Even though it’s a young organization, Tauheed says that so far, she likes what she sees.
“That has been a real flower in the weeds. They’re in the heart of the community and really engaging,” says Tauheed.
Solutions In Hand
Barber says that despite national initiatives, there’s no consensus on how to address the disparities in breast-feeding. But, she thinks the answer will blossom from within the African-American community.
"The community, the group, the people who are dealing with their particular problem, they already have the solution in hand. They just need help with tweaking it and finessing it to bring it to fruition," says Barber.
That’s what Sherry Payne is trying to do at Uzazi Village. In the next five years, the community plans to expand the Village, by opening a birth center and an urban school of midwifery.