Founder of Non-Profit Organization Mamatoto Village on Empowering Mothers
Michael Rowe

Aza Nedhari knew she wanted to become a doula after a midwife helped deliver her first child in 2006. The decision was solidified when the Washington, D.C., resident learned that African-American women have the highest infant mortality rate of any group in the U.S., with nearly 7,000 infant deaths every year.

Eager to help lower those numbers, the 31-year-old married mother of three and her best friend, Cassietta Pringle, a single mom, sprung into action. With $25,000 of their combined savings, the women launched Mamatoto Village. (Mamatoto means “the connection between mother and baby” in Swahili.) Recently the nonprofit organization received a $100,000 Roslyn S. Jaffe Award, given to those who help empower women and children. We talked to Nedhari about her group’s mission and her vision for the future.

ESSENCE: What motivated you to start Mamatoto Village?

AZA NEDHARI: I saw the treatment that women of color receive in the maternal health system, as well as the disparities that exist within the profession. Black women’s babies are dying at a higher rate than any other group, regardless of socioeconomic status. Research suggests that infants born to White women with high school educations fare better than those born to Black women with advanced degrees. There’s also exclusivity in the birthing world, so I wanted to create a program where women who couldn’t afford to hire a doula or midwife would have access to one.

ESSENCE: Why are doulas so important during the birthing process?

NEDHARI: Doulas educate expectant mothers and new families on how to best care for their children and themselves. At Mamatoto, we recognize that there are cultural, economic and environmental factors that impact women of color and affect their abilities as parents. How can a woman have this wonderful birth experience if she’s hungry, or if she doesn’t know where she’s going to sleep? So when a mom-to-be comes into our care, we make sure that she has food and a stable place, and if she has a partner, we make sure that the relationship is healthy. If it’s not, we offer free counseling.

ESSENCE: How effective has Mamatoto been in changing the lives of expectant mothers?

NEDHARI: We’ve assisted about 120 local women since our launch in 2013. All of our clients initiate breast-feeding with their babies and they are more likely to have babies that go full-term. Our new mothers are also more likely to have reduced risk of postpartum depression because we go into their homes and ensure they have a strong support system. We try to make sure that when a mom leaves our care, she’s not only in a better place but she also has tools to empower herself.

ESSENCE: Any success stories that stand out?

NEDHARI: We worked with a 17-year-old girl who had dropped out of high school and didn’t have a secure living situation. She was six months pregnant and unmarried. We counseled her and her boyfriend on how to establish a solid relationship and maintain it. We also helped her set some goals around going back to school. Not only did she go on to have a successful birth but she also finished high school and is now enrolled in college. Her daughter is almost 2.

ESSENCE: What are your plans for Mamatoto moving forward?

NEDHARI: We re using the Roslyn S. Jaffe Award money to open a breast-feeding resource center and to launch a health and wellness program. There will be a prenatal component where women can come and learn how to construct healthy meals during pregnancy and for their children after they’re born. We are also getting a larger space to operate out of and utilizing some of the money to offer moms free or discounted diapers, clothing and breast pumps. My goal is to build a sustainable model and to expand. We want to go beyond D.C. into areas like Detroit, which in 2012 saw a greater proportion of babies die before their first birthdays than any other American city. We want to create little villages throughout the nation that will alter the lives of mothers, their partners and, of course, their babies, giving them the best possible opportunities in life.

This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of ESSENCE magazine on newstands now!