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Project Ujima: Building Community to Support Pregnant Women and New Moms

In honor of Black Maternal Health Week (April 11-17, 2022), Ready, Set, Soar Ohio has invited local Black-led organizations and organizations committed to advancing health equity to participate in a blog series sharing how their work supports Black maternal health and improves outcomes for Black mothers.

Founded and led by Black Mamas Matter Alliance, Black Maternal Health Week is a week of awareness and community building intended to deepen the national conversation about Black maternal health in the United States; amplify community-driven policy, research, and care solutions; center the voices of Black mothers, women, families, and stakeholders; and more.

The blog featured below was written by LaKesh Hayes, Executive Director of Project Ujima, Inc.

Project Ujima (Ujima) is a grassroots community engagement organization that teaches and facilitates Circle processes that enable diverse citizens to come together, discuss issues of shared concern, develop relationships of trust, and go from talk to action. Our organization is named after the third principle of Kwanzaa, which is defined as follows: “Collective Work and Responsibility: To build and maintain our community together and to make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems and to solve them together.”

Project Ujima fosters the conditions that lead to individuals discovering their own efficacy and capacity to work together to strengthen their families and their community. We serve the community as a convener, coordinator, project manager, volunteer generator and communicator. Building a foundation of trust among and between residents, service providers and institutions is at the heart of our organization.

Our Contribution to Black Infant Vitality

We serve pregnant and new mothers and their children up to the age of 1 in the Greater Akron area. Special emphasis is placed on serving women in Akron’s 44306, 44307, and 44320 ZIP Codes, which have predominantly African American populations. These areas have some of the highest poverty and infant mortality rates in Summit County. Our goal is to help decrease infant mortality by (1) providing space and a structured process to enable pregnant and new mothers to receive the educational, social, and emotional support needed to ensure healthy moms and babies; and (2) coordinating and providing racial equity programming, including race dialogues, to increase cultural responsiveness of providers and decrease racial inequities that contribute to the high infant mortality rates of African American babies.

Project Ujima partners with Summa Health and Minority Behavioral Health Group to:

  1. Provide CenteringPregnancy® to expecting mothers in the target population.

  2. Provide CenteringParenting® to new mothers in the target population through their babies’ first birthday.

The Centering Pregnancy and Parenting sessions are held every Wednesday and Thursday morning, during which the women first receive a checkup with Dr. Cheryl Johnson, fellowship over refreshments, and then “circle up” for a two-hour discussion led by Project Ujima and Minority Behavioral Health Group trained facilitators. During the Circles, the mothers learn about various pregnancy and parenting techniques from safe sleep to proper nutrition and breastfeeding. Parenting Circles include topics such as infant feeding, soothing and comfort, immunizations, development of family adjustment, childproofing and home safety, maternal stress and depression, and child care choices and challenges.

Our Success

The Circle provides a safe place and space for the women to share openly and honestly with each other about their struggles, challenges, fears, and triumphs. They become fast friend and refer to the Centering Program as their sisterhood. They contact each other outside of the Centering sessions and endeavor to be there for each other in times of need. They recognize that they will forever have a bond, anchored by their children who will celebrate first birthdays and other milestones together throughout their early years and beyond. In essence, the Centering Program provides a much-needed sense of community and support for the mothers in the targeted population. Many attest to this being the first time in their adult lives that they have had positive women in their lives on whom they can rely.

At the inception of the Centering Program in 2016, the Circles were held once every other week. After the first group of moms had their babies, they expressed a desire to continue receiving the educational, social, and emotional support they experienced in the Circles. In response, we added a Parenting Circle for moms and babies up to age one. Within the last year, due to increased demand, we added an additional Pregnancy and Parenting Circle, so that now Circles are held every Wednesday and Thursday, alternating every other week.

The Zalika Gathering Home

Source: Project Ujima, Inc.

In 2018, in response to increased safe sleep related infant deaths in Summit County, the decision was made to expand the Centering Program to include a Respite/Safe Sleep Simulation house which would provide demonstrations, education, and peer support to Centering moms in a non-clinical setting. In addition to that, families can drop by the house during the week for a hot shower, wash clothes, use the internet, prepare a meal, or watch their favorite television show. We also offer and distribute over 2,000 diapers monthly to families who participate in our program and live in Summit County. We’re excited to share that we hired two women from our program who help manage the drop-in home.

Project Ujima is looking forward to expanding the programming and engagement offered at the ZGH and launching an Akron chapter of Queens Academy (we’re applying to the next cohort).

To learn more about Project Ujima, please visit

LaKesh Hayes is a native of Columbus, OH but considers Akron to be her second home having lived here for over 18 years. She is a dedicated community leader and advocate on behalf of women and children.

Her enthusiasm for women, youth, families, and community lead her to obtain a BIS and a certificate of Nonprofit Management from Kent State University. She is currently the Executive Director of Project Ujima, Inc., a nonprofit organization that guides diverse groups of people to come together to address issues of shared concern, develop relationships of trust, find common ground, and go from talk to action. Through Circle dialogues, Ujima creates space for participants to discover their ability to take action that strengthens their community, organization, or group.

When people engage in collective deliberation, they find the common ground that becomes the foundation for action. “I consider it an honor to serve as the leader of an organization that centers the needs of their community, challenges me to reach beyond my comfort zone, and allows me to walk in my purpose,” says LaKesh.

When she’s not busy serving the community, LaKesh can be found exercising, making crafts, trying new recipes, watching a good ole nature show, and spending time with friends and family.


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