Black women are healthy, happy and claiming a new day for their health and wellness.
This was the overarching message of the 10th Black Women’s Wellness Day (BWWDay), held on Saturday, September 22 at the Alliant Energy Center.
In 2009, Lisa Peyton-Caire organized the first Black Women’s Wellness Day in a library in Bowie, Maryland. There were 40 people in attendance. On Saturday, her and her team welcomed a sold-out crowd of 560 women – ranging in age from babies to centenarians – to hear speakers and share health information. It’s the 7th consecutive year of sold out attendance.
“It’s just an honor to see women show up each year and to become a part of what we’ve built,” Peyton-Caire said. “I feel fortunate that our message continues to resonate.”
The event was born two years after Peyton-Caire’s mother, Roberta W. Peyton, died of heart disease at age 64. When she looked around, she saw not only her mother, but aunts, cousins, and neighbors who had died prematurely of preventable illnesses.
African American women account for roughly 7 percent of the U.S. population and 14 percent of the total population of women, yet are over-represented in all major categories of disease and illness, including hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, stroke, obesity and reproductive disorders. The same disparities persist in Dane County and across Wisconsin, a reality that pushed Peyton-Caire to grow the work after moving back to Madison with her family in 2011, establishing the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness, a 501c3 nonprofit organization in 2012. The Foundation’s mission is to eliminate health disparities and other barriers impacting the lives of black women and girls.
Photos of Peyton-Caire’s family and the photos of many others lined the podium as a reminder of why Caire and her team of volunteers do the work.
“Wisconsin leads the nation in health, economic, and educational disparities among African Americans. We also lead the nation in black infant mortality. Our goal is move from the worst to the best for Black women’s health,” Peyton-Caire announced from the podium at the luncheon presentation.
For the immediate future, she explained that the Foundation will continue its year-round outreach and health promotion efforts while focusing heavily on heart health and maternal and child health. The organization will also launch its wellness ambassador initiative with plans to train and deploy 100 ambassadors throughout Dane County by 2020 to create a culture of wellness.
To support this work, the Foundation was awarded a $200,000 two-year grant from the Healthy Dane Collaborative. The collaborative includes Group Health Cooperative, SSM Health, Unity Point Health-Meriter, and UW Health. In addition, local utility company MG&E donated an additional $75,000 over three years.
“Ladies, this is for us,” said Peyton-Caire. “And we’re going to be good stewards. We have everything we need to transform black women’s health in Dane County and we’ve already started,” she added.
Keynote speaker, Linda Goler Blount, president and CEO of the Black Women’s Health Imperative, the premier national black women’s health organization in the country, spoke about reclaiming a positive narrative around health for black women.
“We are not defined by obesity and poverty,” she said. “And yet, there is a sick narrative about being black. What people don’t realize is that we’re not sick because we’re black, we’re sick because of the lived experience of black women.”
She explained that in Dane County, black women can expect to live to 60 and white women to 85. Black women are overrepresented in all categories of illness. She encouraged the crowd to take control of your own bodies and lives.
“We are not more depressed than white women, but we are more stressed. We have much higher cortisol levels,” she said. “Black women work 20 percent more than everybody else, not because we need to but because we think we have to. We put a lot on ourselves.”
She encouraged the audience to meditate, pray and get away from family for breaks and to walk at least 30 minutes a day.
Byllye Avery, the mother of the modern black women’s health movement also addressed the crowd. Avery founded the Black Women’s Health Project that led to the formation of the Black Women’s Health Imperative in 1983.
Avery encouraged women to break the “conspiracy of silence about sexual abuse. Today we have “me too” but we’ve been working on sexual abuse since the early 1980s.
“My daddy beat my mother and most women have experienced this or have been sexually abused,” she said. “Your fear is your greatest power if you don’t let it stop you.”
She also said that incest is rampant in our country’s culture.
“If you are letting your man sleep with your daughter because you’re afraid of being alone, then you are fooling yourself. You are alone,” she said. “Teach girls that they don’t need to be messed with.”
She also encouraged women to talk to their kids about abortion. She said that black women have been getting abortions like all women for years and it’s important to talk about medical abortion. While abortion has been legal since 1974, we need to be prepared for the consequences if suddenly we have no more abortion. She closed her remarks by giving advice to women that focused on self-care and love.
“Train your kids to leave you alone for one hour a day. We are willing to help others, but we’re not willing to help ourselves.”
Jasmine Bradley Wilson, 27, came with her mother and got the self-care message. It was her first time at the event.
“I learned that I can say no and not feel bad. I usually feel bad when I say no,” she said.
The Foundation also presented awards to key volunteers at the conference. Mary Wells, has been a member of the planning committee for 7 years and loves getting health information for herself and others. She and planning team member Carola Gaines of UW Health-Quartz and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority were awarded Sister Soldier Awards for their volunteer efforts. Sarah Noble, founder of the former Reproductive Justice Collective in Milwaukee, was awarded a Legacy Award along with Byllye Avery and Linda Goler Blount.
“You can’t buy your health. If you have your health, you have everything. We get the tools here to be healthy,” said Wells who was inspired by her work with the Foundation to start a support group for African American women living with lupus.
“When we first opened the doors we knew we were going to be big. Our first event was at the Urban League. It was very intimate, but we grew out of that space right away,” she said.
The event keeps growing.
Peyton-Caire stressed that BWWDAY is more than an event. “It’s a catalyst for a significant change in a woman’s life. This is a gateway and it’s getting wider. Milwaukee was here and Beloit, Racine, Kenosha. We are not accepting disparities in Wisconsin anymore.”
Wanda Sloan, 70, came from Beloit. She has participated for the past five years and looks forward to it. She was proud to learn there was a venue for black women’s health so she keeps coming back and brings her friends.
“The camaraderie is refreshing. I get a morale boost and I think more about myself now and my needs. I used to think I couldn’t do that. I’m writing a lot more too.”
“The beauty is in what women take away from this and what they bring back each year,” Peyton-Caire said.
Next year’s event is scheduled for September 21, 2019. You can learn more about Black Women’s Wellness Day and the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness on Facebook and online at www.blackwomenswellnessday.org and www.ffbww.org.