You may never have heard of the President and CEO of the Black Women’s Health Imperative (BWHI) Linda Goler Blount, but for over 25 years she has done the arduous yet vital work of ensuring that black women achieve health equity and reproductive justice.
Sometimes working behind the scenes to get funds, and other times in front of the cameras or on Capitol Hill, fighting what may seem like a feat of Sisyphus to further his organization in its mission. Blount is resolute in her fight against two of the biggest health risk factors for black women are racism and gender discrimination.
UP: What are some of the biggest challenges black women face today – vaccine hesitancy, preventative health, maternal mortality, diet, stressâ¦ etc? ?
LB: Stress is the number one health problem for black women. Obesity syndromes such as hypertension, diabetes and heart disease have their roots in stress – and microaggressions trigger stress. We know there is a causal relationship between stress and weight. Black women have about 15% more cortisol in their bloodstream than white women. This changes their metabolism. If you give black women and white women the same low fat diet, black women will lose weight more slowly, and if both groups eat a high fat diet, black women will gain weight faster. We can see it at the DNA level. So, we focus our programs on asking women how they to feel to be a black woman in this environment right now. Because if we don’t understand this and, more importantly, if providers, policymakers, and business leaders don’t understand it, then we’re not going to make the kind of progress we need to improve results. health of black women. And fairness is far away.
UP: Talk about the connection between racism and the health of black women.
LB: In 1992, Arline Geronimus published an article on “bad weather” where she explained that black women literally age faster than white women. Between two women, a black and a white, both aged 65, although they may look alike, black women can be biologically five to seven years older due to the effects of racism and gender oppression. Fleda Jackson Mask found a causal relationship between experiences of racial and gender discrimination and low birth weight and premature deliveries and maternal deaths. We understand the biological response and what it does to the body, but not the psychological impacts. And I’m really interested in the daily experiences of black women and what it feels like [to the body]. When you gotta have this conversation with your 16 year old son on the road and when the police stop him. When you see people not being promoted or things said at work that are downright racist. When you go to a store and get followed because you’re black and they assume you’re gonna steal something. We don’t have a full understanding of what it does to us.
UP: What are some of the changes in the health of black women since the beginning of the organization compared to today?
LB: Our roots are in personal care. BWHI started 38 years ago with groups and circles of sisters talking about health. Then over time, with regard to reproductive health in particular, the organization had to deal with political and structural obstacles that prevented us from practicing and taking care of ourselves. The changes revolved around evidence-based strategies and the fact that black women are not included when drugs, therapies and devices have developed without the participation of black women both as participants and as participants. as researchers.
More recently, we’ve started working to change the narrative around how we talk about data, gender and race, and how we tell the story. If we don’t start changing the way we use language, then we’ll never understand black women’s health. People will say, âBlack women die 42% more from breast cancer than white women. But, that doesn’t tell the whole story and what a reader is led to believe is that this data is as it is because these women are black or Latin. It’s not biological or genetic, it’s lived experience.
UP: What can black women do today to change their health?
LB: We talk a lot about meditation or prayer, and breathing. Breathing is critical. On 5-7-9, where you inhale for 5 seconds, hold for 7 seconds and exhale for 9 seconds. It can literally reduce the cortisol in your bloodstream. We have to take time for ourselves. Be intentional about separating yourself from the things that are not good for you. For me and my team, we try to make it a point of honor to take breaks. This work can be overwhelming. When you talk about hundreds of years of oppression and people who want to keep things just the way they always have been, but say very different things. I try to keep a step back. But it’s difficult because there is exactly one organization to do this work and if we weren’t there to do it I don’t know what would happen.
UP: Can you give some anecdotes where the state of health of a black woman was affected by one of the BWHI programs?
LB: I would say around screening and mammography. In 2015, the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) had the brilliant idea of ââraising the age of mammography for women from 40 to 50. So in 2016, we worked with several members of Congress on the PALS Act aka Protecting Access to Lifesaving Screening to secure a moratorium on recommendations for women to start screening at age 40. Because if that became a policy, insurers would stop paying for mammograms under 50. I attended at least 30 meetings, I testified before Congress, I met the HHS, and other than the one black person who is in the USPSTF, I was the only black person in the room. . It was disheartening, but not surprising. But, these recommendations are based on science. So here I am one-on-one with my old American Cancer Society colleagues who want to raise the age. So I told them, âI know the data. These studies were done in Sweden and Canada and there is no black woman in it. Black women get breast cancer 5 to 10 years younger than white women. It highlighted the organization and science of a black woman and the fact that we know the data as well as you do. While you can interpret it in a way, let’s look at the full story. You talk about applying a body of evidence to a group of people who had nothing to do with its creation in the first place.
UP: Do you feel a sense of pressure because right now the door of interest is open regarding the health and well-being of black Americans?
LB: It’s an exponentially higher stress level. We talk all the time about having that window open and being afraid it might close. Like, white people are going to be done with this. âOkay, you’ve had your moment. We have invested millions of dollars and you must all be happy. So back to the way it used to be. Shut up and dribble. But, while feeling that pressure, there isn’t much to do in six months, nine months, or even a year, so we need to keep the conversation going. Right now we’re creating a business index so that people can look at businesses and say, âWell, this is your statement from last year. Now what are you really doing? ‘ If we don’t keep the pressure on these people, they can ignore it and pretend they never said what they said.
UP: Are there any celebrities or well-known personalities that you would like to partner with at BWHI? Specific initiatives?
LB: Having Serena [Williams] to talk about maternal health would be amazing. We need women throughout life. We need Oprah and Alfre Woodard. All of these women for whom health is critical and understand the importance of black women’s health. If we are successful, I think we need to involve black men in this work as well.
UP: What can people reading this do to advance the issue of black women’s health in their lives and / or their communities?
LB: They can learn more about BWHI and the issues because they’re not really what they read, but they understand the context black women live in and what it means for their health. Thus, they don’t fall into the trap of blaming the obese black woman or blaming the woman with high blood pressure and considering the language they use when talking about race, gender and health. It takes understanding to reach a level of compassion. And for those who have the resources, they can contribute.
UP: Which women are you looking for inspiration?
LB: I would say civil rights activist Gloria Richardson. She has always been the symbol of what a black woman can do. I want to be the Gloria Richardson of epidemiology and I can say to these scientists, “Talk to you in the hand”, the same way she fought off a National Guard with a bayonet in her hand and [a fierce side eye].
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