It was a pretty big move for Lisa Peyton-Caire when she recently decided to leave a corporate post to assume the full-time leadership of the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness, an organization she founded in 2012 to raise the profile and public investment in black women’s health in Dane County.
“The timing was right, and several stars aligned to enable this step to further expand our work and make a bigger impact on black women’s health in Dane County and beyond,” she tells Madison365 in an interview at Cargo Coffee on Madison’s south side. “I’m excited!”
Currently, the Foundation serves over 1,000 women and girls a year across Dane County through health promotion, prevention education, one-to-one coaching, and advocacy. In the near future, those numbers will be even higher as the Foundation scales up and builds out in a broader way to make even more of an impact in this community and beyond. And that, for Peyton-Caire, is very appealing. “It’s scary and terrifying and exciting all at once,” she laughs.
In order to concentrate on building her Foundation full time, Peyton-Caire resigned from her role as Assistant Vice President of Life, Learning & Events at Summit Credit Union on May 30th, a post she held for the past four years where she managed the company’s efforts on diversity & inclusion, financial education, employee wellness, community giving, and corporate events.
“Summit will always have a fan and devoted member in me, and continues to be a supporter of my work,” she says. “I’m proud of the work and impact we achieved together as a team.”
But now she is able to dedicate her focus to her life’s passion – improving black women’s health. It’s a passion that began after she saw her own mother, Roberta W. Peyton, succumb to heart disease at the age of 64 on May 22, 2006. Far too soon, Peyton-Caire says.
“My mother’s passing was the impetus to this beautiful thing that started on my laptop and I had it in my heart,” she says. “There was this idea that I brought forward that black women’s health could look differently and that we had the greatest power as black women to make that transformation.”
To honor her mother, Peyton-Caire hosted her first annual health summit, titled Black Women’s Wellness Day, in Bowie, Maryland on Friday, May 22, 2009.
“The premature and preventable deaths of so many women in my family and community including my own mother was the catalyst for Black Women’s Wellness Day,” she says. “From those terrible losses, we’ve created something truly beautiful that is saving and empowering the lives of black women and girls. We started 10 years ago with 40 women in a room. Since that time, we’ve touched so many people, inspired so many women to set a new path for themselves, to improve their health, recreate their reality. I’m so proud of that.”
The annual Black Women’s Wellness Day
Peyton-Caire had the idea of changing the narrative around racial health disparities and early death among African-American women when she first created Black Women’s Wellness Day – gathering a large group of women to focus on ways to personally and collectively improve black women’s whole-life wellness – and she transported it to Madison when she and her husband, Kaleem, moved here in 2011.
“The conversation had started here in Madison already but there was really a gap tying the need to action and to mobilize black women to say, ‘We control this space. We’re not satisfied with this narrative of disparity and there is something we can do about it. We have the power and capacity the solutions we need to reshape the way we live and to demand more personally and in our systems,’” Peyton-Caire says. “That’s what Black Women’s Wellness Day symbolized to me.”
Black Women’s Wellness Day sparked immediate excitement in Madison and highlighted the urgency of health disparities impacting black women in a way that hadn’t been seen before in the city. The annual event went from 150 women at the Urban League of Greater Madison when it first started back in the day to nearly 600 attendees annually.
“Black Women’s Wellness Day has pulled all of these very diverse black women in the greater Madison community together – and now beyond – into this new behavior and mindset that says, ‘something is missing … create it!’” Peyton-Caire says. “If you don’t have a voice at the table, build your own table… create your own solutions. Let’s be the change you want to see in the world.”
Over it’s 10 years, the event has brought hundreds of women of all ages into the movement to improve their health and wellness through a fun, entertaining, and information-packed experience where health advocates, medical professionals, wellness practitioners, and survivors come together to share life-saving, life-enhancing information, testimonies, and transformation stories.
This year’s 10th annual Black Women’s Wellness Day will take place on Saturday, Sept. 22 at the Alliant Energy Center and will feature two national powerhouses in the black women’s health movement including Byllye Avery, founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Black Women’s Health Imperative, the nation’s flagship organization dedicated to improving the health and wellness of black women and girls; and Linda Goler Blount, the organization’s current CEO & president since 2014.
“To have Byllye Avery and Linda Goler Blount, two women whose voices and leadership have and continued to shape the narrative around black women’s health in this country, is mind-blowing,” Peyton-Caire says. “Their presence in Wisconsin for our 10th anniversary is timely and necessary as we work to move Wisconsin from the worst to the best for black women’s health. We’ll get there.”
Past Black Women’s Wellness Day events have hosted such notables as Susan L. Taylor, Editor Emerita of Essence Magazine; Loretta Ross, credited as a co-founder alongside Byllye Avery of the reproductive justice movement; and Queen Afua, notable holistic health practitioner and author.
Big initiatives for the Foundation
Black Women’s Wellness Day is the signature event for Peyton-Caire’s Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness (FFBWW) a Wisconsin based non-profit organization she founded in June of 2012 committed to eliminating health disparities and other barriers impacting the lives of African American women and girls.
The Foundation got a huge boost recently when it was awarded a Community Collaboration Grant from the Wisconsin Partnership Program at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. The award, which includes $300,000 in funding over four years, as well as training and technical assistance, will strengthen the Foundation’s efforts to improve the health outcomes of black women and girls in Dane County.
“What we’re missing in all the great programs and initiatives is alignment and true collaboration across sectors that results in black women’s lives being fundamentally changed, improved, elevated,” Peyton-Caire says. “This has implications within and beyond our health systems, and every sector, from health to economic development, must play a role if we are serious about eliminating disparities that are driving the poor health outcomes we see. That’s our focus.”
The organization will use the dollars to train, deploy and support black women as health workers in high need neighborhoods and to facilitate work across sectors to create a community health improvement model that addresses root causes and shared solutions to issues impacting black women’s health.
This past spring, the Foundation also won a Request for Proposals (RFP) with the Dane County Health Council to lead an engagement effort to address and uncover solutions for lowering the incidence of low birth weight babies born to Black mothers in Dane County.
The Foundation and its project partner EQT By Design, led by Madison consultant Annette Miller, are undertaking a nine-month public engagement process that will gather the concerns and feedback of local black women, fathers, and their communities as a critical step to identifying needs and solutions that result in stronger health outcomes for African-American babies.
“We know that babies born to black mothers in Dane County are two times more likely to be born at low birth weight which is technically below five pounds, seven ounces,” Peyton-Caire says. “And it’s not just a problem in Dane County … it’s a problem throughout the state of Wisconsin. In fact, Wisconsin leads the nation in black infant mortality. The low birth weight factor is the biggest factor contributing to black infant mortality.
“Because this is such a stagnant issue in Dane County, the health systems came together. This is really unprecedented. It’s never happened before,” she adds. “United Way, Access Health, Madison Metropolitan School District came together to point to a singular issue that they’ve all agreed to focus on and pour resources and attention into.”
Because of the Foundation’s strong relationship with black women across the community, they are able to work directly with community members. “We’ll be engaged in this process over the next months,” Peyton-Caire says. “We’ve already hosted several sessions and we aim to reach at least 200-250 women, and men, and we’re confirming things that we already know and we’re learning about some trends.
“What we’re hearing will have implications for the health systems and implications for economic opportunity and will have implications that are broad and sweeping in terms of how do we as a community and a county address racial disparities and economic security,” she adds. “That will be a big driver for any solutions to ultimately eliminate the low birth weight crisis.”
Peyton-Caire says the Foundation expects additional investments from partners to support the expansion of their work. Just last week, Madison Gas & Electric committed $75,000 to the organization over the next three years to support a city-wide wellness ambassador initiative and financial empowerment efforts.
Foundation goes well beyond health
The Foundation offers health-related workshops, support circles, fitness & yoga classes, and walking collectives, but it also provides coaching and assistance to women and families around employment, housing, health care access, and connecting them to resources to stabilize their lives and increase their capacity for independence. What the Foundation of Black Women’s Wellness does goes well beyond health.
“One of the biggest challenges facing women in Dane County is housing insecurity, costs of living … just being able to secure and exist and have a level of quality of life for you and your children to be stable and health at home,” Peyton-Caire says. “We’re looking how we enter that space beyond troubleshooting and referrals. How can we make a bigger impact and bring the right people together to help in all of these interconnecting issues?”
That’s why, she says, her organization is called Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness versus Foundation for Black Women’s Health.
“Wellness encompasses all of those pieces that really create the conditions for a person to thrive – that’s mind, body, spirit, financial, career,” Peyton-Caire says. “It has implications for community and the environment we live in and what resources are available. It pushes us to have to be present as advocates and influencers to impact systems. That’s a big part of what we do every day.
The Foundation is currently training, deploying, and supporting black women as health workers – whom they are calling “Empowering Wellness Ambassadors” – in high need neighborhoods to facilitate work across sectors to create a community health improvement model that addresses root causes and shared solutions to issues impacting back women’s health.
“They will be placed in our highest-need communities to be able to do neighborhood-based work that really digs deep into meeting the needs of people where they are,” Peyton Caire says.
“By 2020, we want to have 100 Wellness Ambassadors deployed across Dane County and beyond,” she adds. “These are women or men who really serve as wellness activators in their neighborhoods, their families and their communities. They really model what wellness looks like and will be the go-to people to extend our reach to help drive people to the solutions they need and to really improve their health and access to resources they need.”
Preventative health is the key
“Preventative health – that’s what we do best. Through all of the education outreach, the workshops, the seminars,” Peyton-Caire says. “Once you equip a woman with knowledge and awareness on how to improve her health – healthy behaviors – and how to reshape her lifestyle and how to connect to resources, it can be so powerful.
“It’s so important for women to break isolation and know that they are not alone and not the only one confronting these challenges,” she adds. “It begins to give them the wherewithal and the confidence to know that, ‘I can make these changes, too!’ That’s the community we create in everything we do. It’s less the programming, and more the networks and support systems that women can then navigate and find their way through whatever challenge or barrier they are facing and overcome it.”
Peyton-Caries says that the Foundation always tries to be a very valuable source of information and connection at their workshops.
“It’s often at these events where we get to engage women that we connect them with the services that they need and they learn that they have a health risk,” Peyton-Caire says. “We’ve literally send women from Black Women’s Wellness Day and Wear Red Day directly to the emergency room after they’ve had a blood pressure check because something’s wrong. And then we’re able to refer them to women in our network who are public health nurses, physicians and get them the health care they need for their condition.”
Peyton-Caire stresses that it is going to take partnerships and collaborations and a true community effort to put a dent in the racial health disparities she sees every day.
“It’s going to take community-based agencies, economic-development engines, the city … to really build what we’re calling a ‘community health improvement model,'” she says. “We’re really looking at social determinants of health and deciding what are the big gaps in the systems and the resources that really stabilize a black woman and her family.
“Because we know that our disparities reach beyond health – economic disparities, income and wealth gaps, employment gaps. All of those pieces drive what we’re seeing manifested in folks health outcomes,” she continues. “We have to address these gaps that keep Wisconsin ranked highest in disparities and worst for racial equality. Addressing racial equality will be absolutely critical if you want to see major gains in health outcomes.
“We’re extending our network across the state and working to build coalitions with black women in other communities like Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha, and Beloit,” she adds. “We’re having those conversations so we can broaden this beyond Dane County over time. This is really a statewide conversation around black women and health disparities.”
Lofty long-term goal: From worst to best
Peyton-Caire has a lofty goal in mind: to move Dane County from the worst to the best in Wisconsin for black women’s health and well-being.
“That means really changing the ecological landscape from what it is now to what we want it to be,” she says. “Ten years from now, we want the numbers and statistics to look very different in our health outcomes.
“We want to look back and say that we’ve moved the needle significantly. There have been many efforts and many movements, but we have not seen significant gains in any one of the health measures or quality-of-life measures,” she continues. “We’ve been talking about health disparities since I moved here the first time in 1993-2001. We still have the same issues. It drives the question: What’s the missing piece?
“Our goal is to fill in those missing pieces and build coalitions and partnerships with health systems and to really change how black women experience opportunity in Dane County,” Peyton-Caire adds. “Our goal is to impact that ecological landscape that black women and families experience and to fill in those gaps and to pull the community together to prioritize the health of black women and families. We want to become the model for how a community really transforms opportunity and health.”
It’s a very busy and exciting time for Peyton-Caire right now. But even through the most hectic of times, mom is always on her mind.
“Mom is my motivating force. When I get tired and when I get exhausted, she propels me and she keeps me moving forward,” Peyton-Caire says. “She’s always there. She’s always there at the front of my mind in everything that we do. Not only her, but there are so many women I can point to in my family and extended community who have succumbed to early death or just chronic illness. They inspire me to do what I do … but also the women we’ve been able to help and the lives we’ve been able to transform … all of that is front and center thinking about the urgency and the possibility of the work that we do every day.
“We haven’t saved every life,” she adds, “but we know that we are saving lives by being present and making a difference.”
Black Women’s Wellness Day will be held on Saturday, Sept. 22, at the Alliant Energy Center. Tickets are available at www.blackwomenswellnessday.org .