In 2002, Kama Mitchell was visiting a cousin who was in labor when her cousin asked her to stay behind as everyone else left the room. Mitchell was surprised. She had never seen a woman besides herself have a baby. She had no qualifications. Nonetheless, she stayed behind and watched her cousin give birth.
The experience “blew her mind,” Mitchell says. Having already earned certification to teach yoga and in the midst of studying African drum and dance, Mitchell left the hospital and added “birth work” to her career goals.
Now the 41-year old Mitchell is combining all three of her passions — yoga, African drum and dance, and birth work — as the executive director of Rootead (pronounced ROOT-ed), a new nonprofit that aims to address infant mortality and social justice in the greater Kalamazoo area. Rootead offers body awareness through yoga, drumming and movement classes, and birth-work services in Kalamazoo and the surrounding communities.
How do yoga and drumming relate to pregnant women — and to social justice, for that matter?
In 2014, Mitchell attended meetings organized by the YWCA of Kalamazoo where she learned about racial disparities in Michigan’s infant mortality rates: The rate for black babies is three times higher than for white babies (18.2 deaths per 1,000 live births vs. 6 deaths per 1,000 live births) and twice as high for Native American babies than for white babies (13.4 deaths vs. 6.0 deaths per 1,000 live births), according to Michigan Department of Community Health statistics. A year later, Mitchell was participating in a Black Midwives and Healers conference in Portland, Oregon, when she heard the theory that the “black infant mortality rate is caused by stress.”
The source of that stress is twofold, Mitchell says. “It comes from generational weathering on black women and general stress from being a black person in this society.”
That’s when Mitchell reflected on how empowered she feels when she dances and practices yoga. “I started thinking: Maybe that’s why black babies are dying, because the women carrying them don’t feel empowered. They’re stressed,” she says.
In addition, says Mitchell, many African-American mothers are wary of hospitals and doctors. A 2015 report by the Centers for Disease Control’s Division of Vital Statistics showed that African-American mothers are 2.3 times more likely than white mothers to wait to begin prenatal care until their third trimester of pregnancy or to not receive prenatal care at all.
Mitchell, who is currently training to become a certified doula, a professional who provides support to birthing mothers, sees herself as an advocate for women who might feel intimidated or misunderstood by hospitals and doctors. To that end, Rootead works to connect pregnant women in the community to doula services and teaches a doula course that discusses social justice. Mitchell says Rootead wants to elevate levels of “cultural competency” in the community by educating people about “meeting young black mothers exactly where they are, not dismissing them.”
“There’s all these different reasons why black babies are dying,” Mitchell says. “When you go into a hospital and you don’t feel supported because of your race, but you have an advocate there who is culturally the same as you and can speak for you so you can do the work of having a baby, it just makes all the difference.”
Birth work is just one aspect of Rootead’s efforts to empower low-income families of color. The organization’s dance, yoga and other movement classes, as well as its drumming and teen programs, focus on using “body awareness” to help individuals — female and male, young and old and of all races — feel stronger and more empowered.
Using her background in African drum and dance to empower others has been a goal of Michell’s since she and her cousin, Heather Mitchell, began performing African drum and dance at Kalamazoo-area libraries, museums and public places six years ago with their dance collective, Dunuya Drum and Dance. In December 2013, the two cousins won a small grant — $750 — from the Kalamazoo Community Foundation to offer yoga and dance programs for women under the auspices of Dunuya. They called the effort Rooted Queens.
In the spring of 2013, they received a grant for $25,000 from the State Farm insurance company and put it toward renting and refurbishing a space for the organization to hold classes and programs. Unfortunately, problems with the building they were in, including the space being flooded, resulted in their having to leave and start over somewhere else.
That’s when Matt Lechel, who serves as the executive director of Kalamazoo Collective Housing and with whom Kama Mitchell served on the People’s Food Co-Op board of directors, suggested she start her own nonprofit.
So she did, naming it Rootead. The unusual spelling came about in two ways, says Mitchell. “At our events we offer tea — it’s to calm the body and is a ceremonial gesture,” she says. “It’s also for marketing purposes. If you Google the word “rooted,” there are so many other organizations with that name. With Rootead, we are the first one that you see.”
In June, Rootead signed a two-year lease on a space at 1501 Fulford St., in the Edison neighborhood, where it offers African dance, drum and other movement classes and family enrichment programs. They offer some programs for children, including a summer Roots of Hip-Hop camp, which taught art, dance and the history of the African roots of hip-hop music. But a pivotal part of Rootead’s efforts will be to connect pregnant women of color in the community with doula services.
In addition to Kama Mitchell, Rootead’s staff includes Ashley Espinosa, a certified birth doula from Kalamazoo training to become a certified midwife who manages operations for Rootead and serves as its director of doulas. Heather Mitchell, who has been a performer of African diasporic dance in Kalamazoo for almost 10 years, serves as the nonprofit’s director of dance.
“I never had any intention of starting a nonprofit,” Kama Mitchell says. “I’m an artist. Some days I wake up and tell myself, ‘You are crazy.’ But I can’t stop now. I just do what I can and pray a lot. And dance.”