Strength From Adversity

Photos courtesy of Shawn Campbell

When Uchenna Jones jumped from her burning apartment building on February 3, 2003, a new life began. This moment is etched in the minds of many who lived and worked in the area. It has also been the opening to Jones’ testimony of healing that she has told many times. Looking back, Jones’ perspective of this moment is full of gratitude, which may seem odd to many. While she surely would have preferred not to have to make the choice to jump from a burning building or to have to endure 5 years of surgeries and rehabilitation, Jones would not trade the lessons she has learned and the woman she has become through this process. “I wouldn’t be the woman that I am otherwise,” she said.

Many know Jones as the visionary behind the Madison Gospel 5K, a race held each summer for the last 5 years. You may also know her as one of Brava Magazine’s 2024 Women to Watch. But she is so much more than a nonprofit executive. First, she is a wife and mother whose commitment to family shines through no matter what she is talking about. She is a first-generation African woman born in the United States who is proud of her heritage and grateful to her parents for making the decision to offer their children a better quality of life on another continent. She is a friend, an author, a creative, a birthing practitioner, and a person of deep faith who is clear that she is still her to achieve a purpose that is much bigger than she. And she will not give up until she accomplishes everything that is in her heart to do.

Jones spent her early years in New York City before her family relocated to Milwaukee when she was 16. Her parents chose to move for the sake of their 5 children, but the disconnection from their broader family support structure was detrimental. Although they achieved the goal of home ownership, it came at the expense of her parents’ marriage. 

Looking at her life, Jones recognizes that everything she does revolves around families, women, and children. She is committed to helping others, particularly women, to feel better about themselves and is willing to use all her resources, including her own painful story, to achieve that goal. 

A launching point for this commitment came during her time in the hospital when she experienced much of the malpractice that is characteristic of Black people’s interactions with healthcare professionals. While the doctors were a challenge, Jones found comfort from the nurses. “They knew what to do and they knew the right words to say,” Jones recalled, “and I wanted to be the person who can wipe people’s tears. I wanted to pay it forward.” Jones wanted to be the person who can give news to patients or their families in a way that respects their right to know the truth and delivers that truth with love and care.

While researching options for her nursing education, Jones discovered an opportunity to become a doula. At one time, she had considered becoming an obstetrician and was still interested in birth but was unsure how to proceed. A mentor advised her to watch and learn about birth as a doula. As a doula, Jones observed the changes that mothers experience during the birthing process and later became a nurse consultant and doula trainer at Harambee Village. As an educator, she works to uphold care as the principal value of doula work. Currently, Jones is studying to advance her practice in birthing as a midwife.

Jones’ interest in physical wellness was also birthed from her healing process. She believes that we are a communal people, so she sees our wellness as deeply connected to community. Her motto, “Faith, Fellowship, Fitness,” captures her commitment to God and community. She sees getting healthy as a communal goal to be achieved in accountable relationship with others. She has built walking groups with the women who have been drawn to her throughout her healing. For six years, the group has walked every Saturday and has experienced miraculous health and lifestyle wins for the participants.

Jones has now participated in 80 races but has found that she is often the only Black person in the race. The Madison Gospel 5K, now in its 6th year, is the race with the most diverse group of participants in Madison, but the diversity does not end with complexion. Jones has curated an event where everyone can be successful. For those who don’t want to run, there is walking. For those who are intimidated by the distance, there is a 1-mile option. For those who have no interest in the race, there is a dance contest. To date, the Madison Gospel 5K has raised almost $250,000 to support its wellness efforts. 

Pretty Black Girl is the title of Jones’ latest book. But it is more than a book; it is a movement. “I didn’t find out I was pretty until later in life,” Jones reflected, and she is unwilling to allow any other girl to wait that long to understand her beauty. Jones proudly wears and sells shirts that declare “Pretty Black Girl” as a mantra. 

Twenty years after the fire, Jones learned that a woman she had befriended was the person who had started the grease fire in the apartment building. When her friend made the connection between Jones and the fire, she approached Jones for forgiveness, only to find that she had never been upset with her. “This was the worst day of her life, but it was the start of mine.” This was a full-circle moment that caused Jones to look back over the two decades since the fire and to marvel at all she has become. “Every prayer that I’ve made has been answered,” she said. “I’m grateful.”