Thursday, October 5, 2017

Lessons from the Road


It has been a few weeks since the Black Infant Mortality Awareness Roadtrip and I promised to write about it.  These are my ‘lessons from the road’.  For those who don’t know, I took 10 days and traveled to five states in the South to interview Black Birth Workers about what they do, how they do it, and what obstacles they face when doing it, in relation to addressing Black infant mortality.  I interviewed midwives, doulas, lactation consultants, and breastfeeding educators.  The Black women I interviewed were well credentialed or had none at all.  They were low income, and middle class. They were high school graduates, and college graduates, They were mothers themselves or not yet mothers. They ran for profits and not for profits.  What they had in common was their commitment to address health disparities in maternity care through their own particular area of expertise.  I will not discuss the interviews themselves or the women in them here, that is for another time and purpose.  What this essay concerns itself with is my lessons learned from this awesome experience.  Thank you to Elephant Circle, Praeclarus Press, Center for Social Inclusion and Uzazi Village for financing this trip.  It was a blessing to meet every person we spoke with and their stories carry much weight and value to me.  Special thanks to my companion on the trip, Jolina Simpson, who was the perfect Thelma to my Louise.  Jolina and I flew into Houston (just about a week ahead of the devastating hurricane that flooded it), and from there went to New Orleans, LA, Montgomery AL, Tupelo MS, and finally Memphis TN.  We met the most amazing women, women who are really doing the work.  Women who are sold out to this cause and have dedicated their lives and livelihood to it. We sat down in each place with each woman in her place of business or in a fastfood restaurant with free wifi, hotel lobbys or in her home, but no matter where we met, each woman was eager to share her story.  This is what I learned. 

Lesson 1

We must unlearn in order to relearn. There is so much garbage that African-Americans have been fed about themselves and their culture in this country. We must recognize the lies, refuse to listen to them and begin to discover the truth about who we are, not who this country says we are.  We must return to our elemental roots. The scapegoating and gaslighting that this country and dominant culture people continuously feed us a steady diet of is killing us. We can’t afford to believe the lies any longer. We must claim our rightful nature, and the inheritance and ancestral legacy of our true culture. We must stop believing the lies told about us, fed in abundance to everyone who lives in this country that we are weak, deficient, inadequate, and small. These are all lies, repeated over and over and over until we think they are truths. They are not.  We must throw off these lies, the greatest of which is that we need them. America is like an abusive lover, that tells us we are nothing without them, that no one else would have us, that we are too stupid to make it on our own. Those are all lies. We must reconnect with our true heritage, the ones stolen and buried.  We must unearth them, decipher them, and put them on again. That is our salvation, not anything that dominant culture has to offer.

Lesson 2

Put self first. As African-American women we are subject to the notion that everyone comes before us. Everyone’s else’s needs must be met before our own.  This too is a lie. We cannot give from an empty cup.  As I write this, I am here, in central Missouri, at an event I am hosting for Black Birth Workers, called, The Gathering.  We are taking a week, to walk in nature, to eat nutritious food, to hear the sound of our own voices.  We must make this a daily discipline.  Putting our needs first isn’t selfish (another lie), it is essential. Do that which fills your own soul, then you will be able to do for others what needs to be done. Put money into your savings account FIRST, not if anything is left over.  Do your yoga or take your walk, FIRST, not if you happen to have time in your day left over.  Have that cup of coffee or tea that you love FIRST, not after the children have been tended and are out the door.  Write in that journal, knit that sweater, sew on that quilt, meditate in the meadow FIRST, don’t save your bliss or whatever fills you, until after everyone else is served and you have nothing left to give yourself. Serve yourself first. Fill your own cup first. This is difficult to do as we have always been told it is wrong (a lie). It is essential.  We give too much.  We do too much.  We cannot continue at this pace and be effective for long.  We will burn ourselves out.  We will use ourselves up. We will lose what is most important- our very own self. Precious women, tend to yourself, your body, your mind, your soul and your spirit. You are queens, and queens are not served last, they are served first.

Lesson 3

We take on too much. We think we can do it all. We cannot- or at least not well. As Black women we are continuously adding to our plates. We can’t keep doing that and be effective. We have to choose, choose wisely but choose. We cannot do it all.  That too is a lie. What I observed during my travels was Black women being effective but also being overloaded. Overloading of your plate causes burnout.  Put some back. Let others shoulder their portion. Don’t take it all on. Consider carefully what is yours to do and let others do the rest. Learn to say no, and mean it. Learn to delegate and do it. Please stop this destructive habit. The world won’t come to an end if you don’t do it.  Someone else will step forward to shoulder the burden, and if they don’t, it will still be okay.  Make your lives manageable and livable.  You’ll live longer and happier lives if you do. Remember you deserve some happiness, it’s not just about the work you do or what you accomplish in the world. Dump everything that leeches your energy and gives nothing back.  Doesn’t matter if it’s a spouse or a business partner or a subordinate. Get rid of them and enjoy some psychic and soul bound peace. Do the work that is yours to do and allow others to do theirs.

Lesson 4

Black women reap little but sow much.  If you want to get a lot done with little resources, ask a Black woman to do it.  We are the mothers of invention. Everywhere I went, this is what I saw. If we were well resourced, I’m convinced we could fix the world.  We do so much with so little. I fear it is because we are overlooked and ignored that we have learned this skill. We are not thought to dream big dreams- that is for others.  So we must piece our dreams together from the scraps others leave behind. It turns out, our patchwork quilts made from other’s leftovers are the most beautiful of all.  I don’t understand the mystery of this. I chalk it up to God’s grace. Those who grandstand get the glory, but those who do the work, get the results.

Lesson 5

Money most often flows around us but rarely to us. We are being consumed. That consumption often comes in the form of being used for someone else’s purposes. That someone else is always getting paid. We get a pat on the head, a thank you, or a few token ‘gifts’.  We must recognize when we are being used for other’s gain and say no. We must demand that the money flow directly to us and our communities.  They are fat ticks that feed off our community’s life blood. We must remove these blood suckers and demand the right to assess, diagnose, and implement our own solutions in our own communities.  We are not organisms for them to study under a microscope.  We are living, thriving, vibrant communities and no one, NO ONE, is more suited to the work of serving and solutioning our communities than we ourselves. We must start our own IRBs, do our own research, pitch our own RFPs, start our own foundations, find our own internal philanthropists or grow them. We can self-actualize our communities instead of being food for others. First we say no to crumbs and hand outs, and demand a place at the table where decisions are being made, OR better yet, make our own damn table.

Lesson 6

White opposition is real, and most often comes in subtle forms from those who call themselves our allies.  Be very careful with whom you align yourselves, your work, your mission. If they are not willing to be your subordinate, it can only mean they see themselves as your superior. Stay far away from these people. It doesn’t matter that they have better credentials (that’s only a confirmation that they have greater access and resources). Only you can be the expert on your community.  It doesn’t matter how long they’ve worked with ‘this population’. This isn’t a ‘population’ to you.  It’s your community- and as a card carrying member, your knowledge as a member will ALWAYS trump their knowledge as an outside observer. Yes, they come with resources that you may need.  Consider the cost. Whatever you do, don’t let them hold the purse strings to your efforts.  He who holds the gold, holds the power. Don’t give others ultimate power over the work you do by being able to shut it down. Make do with a little on your own (see lesson 4) rather than a lot that is controlled by someone who has veto power to overrule your decisions.  It won’t be too long before what you want to do is a) too extreme b) too pricey c) too outside the box d) too ethnic or cultural e) too uncomfortable. Then they will put the cabash on your work and you won’t see it coming. I’m not saying all white people are not trustworthy, I’m saying you must be very careful with whom you align yourself, Black or white. (Some of the greatest and most damaging opposition I’ve faced is from my own, mostly African-American board). However overt white opposition was a reoccurring theme during my trip. They often sent Black faces to do the dirty work. Just because someone calls themselves an ally does not mean that they are one.  I too often saw so-called allies and ally organizations oppose Black leadership, Black collective action, and impede Black progress.  Actions still speak louder than words. Take the time to vet people and see what they are really about, not just what they say they are about. When people tell you who they are, believe them.

Conclusions
What are my conclusions from the observed lessons of this trip? Health disparities aren’t an accident.  They are a reflection of American’s disdain for African-Americans.  They are rooted in historic oppression and colonialism and manifest today in everything from planned gentrification, to continued redlining, to abandonment of communities in crisis. So what is the solution to health disparities if the country gains from our collective losses? We must do it.  We must be our own solution.  We must start our own, and do it ourselves. Start from scratch.  Start from nothing if you must, but start.  Arthur Ashe said it best: start where you are, use what you have, do what you can. Finally, we must restore the village way of life.  We must return to collective action, collective caring, and collective living.  What we cannot do alone, we can do together. We can make our lives better, improve our health and wellbeing; physical, mental, and spiritual.  This we must do for ourselves

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Your Equity Committee Ain't Shit

I've had two events occur this week that compelled me to write this blog post.  A phone call and a radio interview.  First some background.  I was invited to speak as an expert on a local radio show about maternal mortality.  Here is a link to said interview:  http://kcur.org/post/maternal-death-rate   Fine. There were three of us.  One was a reporter who had written nationally published articles on the topic.  Her name is Nina Martin and I thought her contributions to the conversation were stellar.   The other guest was a local physician.  Like many of her ilk, she seemed clueless about the realities of daily life of the women she 'serves'.  She actually mentions 12 week maternity leaves!  Maybe that's what she gets but not the women I serve at Uzazi Village.  If they get 2 weeks off (even after a cesarean) they can consider themselves lucky.  So that was the interview.  I only spoke the last 20 minutes, which wasn't near enough time to make my points, but I did my best.  Next, the phone call.
I received a call from someone who was a board member for a national professional organization. I represent many professions and nearly all of them have a professional organization.  While I have vowed, on this very blog, not to sit on any more professional national boards, I will take calls from them.  This call came from a board member who had read some of my work and basically asked me to speak to her sister board members.  Now it just so happens, that this board commissioned a report in 2014 to study how they were doing on equity and diversity issues.  They were doing terribly.  The report was scathing and embarrassing to the organization. So what did the organization do?  They buried it.  I asked the caller to give an account of which recommendations were followed so far.  Of course she could not.  I told her, if they didn't listen to their own report- which they had commissioned- then why would they listen to me?
Okay, that was the preamble.  Here is the message to all White led professional organizations out there: (bold letters because I'm yelling at the top of my lungs)
STOP FORMING YOUR SHITTY LITTLE COMMITTEES.  STOP MAKING EQUITY AND DIVERSITY PANELS.  STOP FORMING TASKFORCES.  STOP COMMISSIONING REPORTS. NONE OF THAT IS THE WORK- THOSE ARE ALL WAYS TO LOOK LIKE YOU ARE DOING THE WORK WHEN YOU AREN'T DOING JACK SHIT.  WORSE- ITS A WAY TO MAKE THE PEOPLE OF COLOR IN YOUR ORGANIZATIONS DO THE WORK YOU SHOULD BE DOING AND WHEN THEY AREN'T SUCCESSFUL, YOU CAN SAY ITS THEIR FAULT.  THESE EQUITY COMMITTEES ARE JUST ANOTHER EXPRESSION OF WHITE SUPREMACY. STOP THIS SHIT NOW AND START TO MAKE SOME ACTUAL CHANGE IN YOUR ORGANIZATIONS.
The caller asked me what I would do if I could make change happen- make the boards more diverse? I said, fuck no, I'd make them ALL diverse.  I'd fire everyone white and replace them with a person of color.  That would start some culture change.  One token black or brown wont' do anything but keep white people in their comfort zone while making them think they have done something noteworthy.  THAT SHIT AIN'T NOTEWORTHY.  These fucking committees don't change organizational culture- they keep organizational change from happening by sealing up all the change makers in a bureaucratic little bundle that has little clout and even less power. Diversity is a smokescreen that in and of itself insures nothing. Equity committees are some serious bullshit.  When organizations are serious about change- we'll all know it, because white people will be shitting their pants from the discomfort. Until that happens, its business as usual. If you think this essay does not pertain to you- rest assured, it does.  There is not one organization that I am aware of that I don't find wanting. None of you is actually doing the work.  Some of you talk a good game, but your shit still stinks. Don't complain to me that you are TRYING.  Well my people are TRYING not to fucking die.  Black women die in childbirth in these shitty hospitals, Black babies die from preventable causes, and Black men die like dogs in the streets or rot in the white man's prisons.  This whole fucking country isn't TRYING hard enough. These organizations could change, but they don't actually want to.  Heaven forbid that these good ol' (white) girls clubs give up any fucking power.  Therefore, here's what needs to happen.  Black and Brown people, start your own organizations.  Leave en masse (like what happened at MANA) and let them work on equity without any Black or Brown people to hold their hands and reassure them that their token efforts are good enough. That's what I'm doing.  Rather than squander one more moment of my precious and valuable time on the local breastfeeding committee that never listens to a damn thing I say, I'm starting the MOKAN Black Breastfeeding Collaborative here in my city.  Instead of Black infant mortality being used to legitimize funding streams that never quite make it to our community, we will make it a true priority and actually promote and protect breastfeeding in our Black and Brown communities.  Instead of pimping Black death for organizational profit, we will work within our own communities to create solutions that improve the lives of families that live among us.  That's what I'm gonna do.  Join me, or get the fuck out of my way.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Stories Wrung from Bone

There is an ever growing need for sacred Black space.  I feel it more and more.  More of my precious brothers and sisters are seeking a space where they can breathe a collective sigh of relief, if only for a short while.  There has gone up a call for a community retreat.  I agree that this is something that needs to happen all over the US. Those of us in the daily trenches need time set apart, on the land, in the spirit, singing songs, beating drums, telling our stories, nourishing our bodies and our souls.  I didn't know how badly I needed it, until a dear Sister posted this" 
I seriously need an all black retreat! #wilderness #noelectricity #Africansonly #ancestorworship #feedmysoul #ancestorscalling

When I read this I thought immediately  of the passage from the book, "Beloved".  I thought of the gathering in the field on a Saturday afternoon of the entire Black community.  In lieu of worship to a cruel white god, they were led in a worship of their own Black selves. Baby Suggs leads them in what is the purest expression of love:   "Here, . . . in this place, we flesh; Flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it, love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. . . . Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them, touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face, ‘cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, You! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. . . . You got to love it. This is flesh that I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance, backs that need support; shoulders that need strong arms. . . . More than eyes and feet. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear em now, love your heart. For this is the prize"  I thought of that worship in the clearing.  The worship of an outcast people.  That's how I imagined the OP's request being manifest.  That in that holy clearing, the modern day descendants of the original worshippers gather, to find respite from a world that does not love them, by profoundly loving one another and themselves.  I love her admonishment to "love it, love it hard"  We must love hard.  We must move our feet hard.  Raise our voices in song hard.  We must beat our drums hard.  We must love ourselves hard, love our families hard, maintain our communities hard.  We must educate our children our hard, grow our own food hard, birth our babies hard, invest and divest hard. We must teach our own hard, grow our own hard, pool our resources hard, own the land hard, build on that land hard, bear fruit on the land hard.  Our inheritance from the world is inequity and despair, but we can change that.  We can claim our rightful inheritance.  We are our own best thing.  That is the lesson.  It is just not the OP who is tired and in need of respite.  All my people are tired and in need in respite.  I can stand in the field and bid them come, and love their beautiful selves.  I see now, I was born to this.  I will take up the work of my mother before me and her mother before her.  I will call forth the ancestral call to worship, the call to prayer.  The call to work hard, and play hard  and rest hard.  The call to love hard the Black bodies that move through this world, buffeted on every side.  We will build a fire under the full moon as our ancestors did.  Men, women, children, Black bodies connected to the earth.  We will dance the dances that emerge from our bodies, sing the songs that emerge from our souls, we are the descendants of the stolen.  Our bloodlines are severed from our original mother, but our bones remember.  Our stories are hidden away for safekeeping in our DNA.  Only in sacred Black space, will they be coaxed to the surface.










Sunday, March 19, 2017

Lessons Learned

Greetings Readers, I've been too long absent from this blog.  Rest assured that things are progressing as planned.  I've entered my third and final year of my midwifery apprenticeship.  I am learning so much about life, relationship, and healthcare.  It has been an amazing journey with an amazing preceptor.  My preceptor has one other student, who is just about finished.  Our little threesome has become a sisterhood.  We are about to add another to our number- another Black woman who is an Uzazi Village Sister Doula.  In fact we have two women from Uzazi Village who have just applied to an online midwifery program.  I wrote letters of recommendation for both of them.  I am so excited to see this progression toward growing our own midwives, finally!  Our core group of doulas and other birth workers grows as well.  Between the Community Health Worker course, and the Basic Perinatal Health Course, and the Perinatal Doula Course, we are seeing amazing growth in folks who want to do birth work in our community.  It has been an amazing privilege to galvanize and prepare these amazing individuals who value what Uzazi Village has to offer.  We now have a groundswell of birth workers to restart our Birth Workers of Color group.  We have aspiring doulas, lactation consultants, midwives, and physicians and nurses.  It has been quite amazing.  We can now offer more services and support to these folks because we are moving to a bigger space!!!  Our new space is just down the street a few blocks.  I feel so blessed when I think of the new space.  We will move in May- the landlord is completing a buildout.   Our capacity will increase by so much with the new space- the first floor will hold a common area for classes and receptions, There will be a lactation/examination room, a fixed area for Uzazi Closet, a demonstration kitchen, and out back, a community garden.  Upstairs will be devoted to the midwifery school.  We will have a big open area for classroom space that can also be used for yoga classes, drumming lessons, Tai Chi, whatever we want.  The second floor will also hold an office, and a private therapy room that can be used for counseling, massage, chiropractic, lactation, other provider visits.  There will be bathrooms on both floors and we have a full basement for storage.  I am so excited about this space and the good work that will be accomplished in it.  I feel that we (the board and I) are being entrusted with so much.  I am ready for that challenge.  I'm up for it.

One of my lessons in this journey of discovery is that I accept who I am- and all that comes with it.  I accept that I am a leader in a movement and at the same time a deeply flawed person.  I accept that I was given certain work to do, and that I must do it- to the best of my ability, for as long as I can do it.  I accept others as they come and go to partake in this vision.  I welcome those for whom this place has been prepared.  I live in an extreme state of grace.  I have so much to be grateful for.   I am so glad I began this journey.  It is tough from time to time, but overall, I confess- I love my life.  I love waking up everyday and putting my feet on the floor and seeing my dreams become realized in ways I could have never expected.  Everyday is a step of faith, yet everyday brings a miracle.  Here are a few things in the works:
  • The Gathering- A weeklong gathering in the woods of central Missouri for Black birth workers from Kansas and Missouri (and a few guests from other states) sponsored by Uzazi Village and Community Birth and Wellness. This is a learning intensive for us to teach one another skills that honor our African traditions.  If it goes well, we'll do it annually, but maybe find a bigger space to accommodate more people. We will use grant money to underwrite the cost so that folks only have to pay a nominal fee. Families are welcome, but you must be willing to pitch a tent and help with communal meals. We expect this event to be ground breaking and move us all forward in the trajectory of becoming self sufficient within our own communities. 
  • I will be starting a city-wide organization focused on Black infant and maternal mortality.  Instead of playing at decreasing disparities, like current local organizations do now, we will do the actual work of dismantling white supremacy as it is expressed in healthcare organizations,  that undergirds these disparities and makes them impenetrable to any clinical solutions.
  • BWOC- Birth Workers of Color will re-start in April 2017 every 2nd and 4th Friday of the month from 6-8pm.  We will have a potluck meal and discuss issues of relevance to birth workers of color.  We will share local and regional resources, trainings, and classes.  The group will offer a supportive place to land for those who are in or seeking to get into the perinatal fields.
  • I will be moving deeper and deeper into anti-racism training, which I am feeling called to in order to work more closely with those who want to make real change.  Warm fuzzy feelings don't change outcomes.  Gut level hard work and sheer determination do.  We can't keep pretending that getting Black women to come to (functionally useless) prenatal care visits will change outcomes.  We have to do the work of dismantling discriminatory systems.  We must and will focus our efforts there.
  • We are currently re-focusing, sharpening and refining Uzazi's vision.  With the move to a new space, we will also be doing essential house cleaning with our Council of Elders to tighten things up in order to increase our influence and effectiveness and measure our impact in our community.
  • Increasing partnerships.  Uzazi Village has worked in its own silo up to this point, but no more.  It is now time to join others who are equally invested in the work we are doing to increase both our influence and impact.  We look forward to working with others who have demonstrated a common lens on where the problem lies and who seek community led solutions that center families of color and Afro-centric values.
  • We now have the required five people (3 in Kansas City, 2 in St. Louis) to start a WOC committee of the Missouri Midwives Association.  We will be applying to the organization to start such a committee within the greater organization. 
  • Watch this Spring for the new Lemonade Series- a front porch gathering (with Lemonade) that will focus on real talk about women of the African Diaspora and Sex.  Be sure to wear white, natural hair optional, and come discuss sexual health matters over a potluck lunch at the Guest House.  We plan a series of 3 over the Spring and Summer over the following topics: Orgasm Class, Pregnant Sex, and Sex and Body Image.
There is this and so much more to come.  I want to hear from the community, what more you would like to see happen at Uzazi Village.  Thanks for listening.