July 1, 2020

Open Hand Studio Celebrates Grand Opening of Equal Access Midwifery Clinic at Jamaa Birth Village in Ferguson

While headlines about high infant mortality rates and lack of maternal care for Black women continue to mount, there is little momentum toward creating tangible change and resources for this population.

In Ferguson, Mo., Tru Kellman wanted to create a space where women of color provided midwife and doula services – currently a predominantly white industry – that were accessible and affordable to her community. Tru, the first black Certified Professional Midwife in the state of Missouri, created Jamaa Birth Village in 2015, a nonprofit that offers these services to Ferguson and other St. Louis-area communities. 

CannonDesign project architect Elise Novak was introduced to Tru and her work in the fall of 2018. A local physician had donated his building to Jamaa Birth Village, and Elise and others from the St. Louis office teamed with Jamaa to help transform the space into an Equal Access Midwifery Clinic. It became an Open Hand Studio project, which connects CannonDesigners with public interest nonprofits seeking design services.

The design team assessed and documented the building in Ferguson, and produced a concept design with renderings and new construction plans for cost estimation. However, after meeting with contractors, retrofitting the building to accommodate a birthing room was too expensive, and Tru and the team had to rethink the project’s goals.

In the end, Tru led a smaller scale renovation, and CannonDesign helped her see the project through to completion. Several CannonDesigners even helped with the renovation work. 

Jamaa’s Equal Access Midwifery Clinic held its grand opening on Juneteenth, the anniversary of the day in 1865 when federal orders in Texas were read declaring all slaves were free. After the ribbon cutting, Tru gave guests a tour of Jamaa’s achievement, and Elise and Olivia Gebben were thrilled to be in attendance and see years of work come to fruition.

“For those of us involved in the project, every aspect of our work took on additional meaning – knowing the value of this project to the St. Louis community and the project’s social justice implications made even the small tasks feel important,” said Elise Novak. “It was great to see the willingness of many CannonDesigners to get on site and get their hands dirty to support this effort.”

Ultimately, the completed renovation allows Jamaa, which means family in Swahili, to expand its services, including pre- and post-natal care, access to mental health services, a community garden, custom childbirth and nutrition classes, doula care and more. Clients can choose their pregnancy and birthing experience, an option that Black women have long been denied. Jamaa also provides midwife and doula training, to empower more women of color to enter the profession. Since Jamaa’s creation in 2015, Tru has won several grants to support her work, and her organization has gained recognition on a national level.  

“We want to let people know we are here, and we are doing everything we can to free people from oppression and make sure babies are not being born into this same system of racism and bias,” Kellman told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.