Celebrating 40 Years of the Black Women’s Health Imperative

By Deirdre Jonese Austin — October 30, 2023

On Friday, October 13, 2023,  Black women and allies gathered at the Black-owned Salamander DC Hotel to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Black Women’s Health Imperative (BWHI). The theme for the night was “Loving Black Women Deep in Our Souls.” This theme was exemplified when Byllye Avery, the founder of BWHI, opened her remarks with the statement, “People ask me why I do this work… I thought I would tell you in a different way tonight. We’re going to sing a song. It’s called “I Love Black Women.” She then invited the audience of mostly Black women to sing along:

“I love Black women deep down in my soul. I love Black women deep down in my soul. I said deep, deep. I said down, down. I said deep down in my soul. I said deep, deep. I said down, down. Deep down in my soul.”

When I first learned about the opportunity to attend this event, I was excited. As an employee of Our Bodies Ourselves Today, I had familiarized myself with the history of Our Bodies Ourselves and the feminist movement. Yet, there was one area where my research continued to come up empty. Where were the Black women who were advocates for women’s health during the earlier feminist movements? I knew they were out there, but I couldn’t find them. Attending the Black Women’s Health Imperative 40th Anniversary Gala answered this question for me. I was introduced to the work of Byllye Avery and the Black Women’s Health Imperative.

It was clear throughout the speeches offered during the night that this was meant to be a space for Black women and by Black women, reflecting the mission and goal of BWHI. As a Black womanist scholar who is committed to centering Black women in my work, I appreciated this intention. I was also grateful to be in the company of another Black woman connected to Our Bodies Ourselves, Diana Namumbejja Abwoye, the chair of the board of directors.

During the night, I learned that the BWHI works to ensure that Black women have the care and resources needed to live a healthy life. It is the only national organization focused on Black women’s health. In her reflective remarks, Linda Goler Blount, the president, noted, “As long as there are Black women facing health inequities, we will be here… We stand on the shoulders of millions of Black women who never gave up.” While BWHI celebrates all that they have accomplished, they recognize that there is still work to be done, as long as Black women continue to face racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression in the medical field.

The evening’s keynote was offered by Pastor Sarah Jakes Roberts, who discussed the recent partnership between BWHI and her organization Woman Evolve, which is focused on Black women of faith. Roberts said of her desire to partner with BWHI, “I wanted to expand our pursuit of miracles beyond the church because sometimes the miracle meets us at the doctor’s office.” Through the partnership, Roberts connected over 2,000 women to the services offered by the BWHI. As a minister, it was great to hear about the ways that Roberts is able to integrate her faith and a commitment to Black women’s health. In her speech, Roberts also reflected on her own experience with medical racism as it related to a recent surgery and the ways that “the cost of simply showing up as a Black woman is present in our bodies.” Part of caring for Black women’s health is setting boundaries and taking “care of the women in our orbit” because “Black women deserve health, wellness, and joy.” For her work with BWHI, Roberts was honored with the Vanguard Award.

The long-awaited speech of the night came from Byllye Avery as she recognized the recipients of the Builders of the Movement Awards: Julia Scott, Dr. Natalia Kanem, Lula Christopher, Catherine Lampkin, MPH, Dorothy Roberts, J.D., and Brenda Shelton-Dunstion, MPH. These are women that are doing important work in the field of Black women’s health, but they are also people with whom Avery has deep, personal connections, as each woman was introduced with a personal story. Her remarks opened with the previously mentioned song. After the song, she continued her remarks with a reflection on the current political climate, “I’ve been doing this work fifty years of my eighty-six years [of life]. When we started this work, it was around women getting the right to abortion. I would have never thought it would be taken away…We have this struggle all over again.” She addressed forced pregnancy and forced birth, the current foster care system, and the need for birthing centers and doulas that are also being restricted by current legislation: “They don’t want us to have abortion, and they don’t want us to build birth centers.”

In contextualizing the political climate, Avery set the stage for a call to action aimed at the audience but particularly young people: “Stop agonizing and organize. Young people, run for office in your hometowns.” As one of the few young people in the audience, and perhaps the only Gen Z’er in the audience, I was inspired. She noted Black women in public office who are trailblazing and making change then continued, “Black women, we’re not doing so bad. We just have to get our white sisters to talk to their sisters and get them onboard.” It will take all women working together to fight for reproductive rights and reproductive access. I left the event with a new appreciation for the work of Our Bodies Ourselves Today, a platform where women and gender-expansive people can come together to ensure that we have the information that we need to care for our bodies and advocate for our reproductive rights.

Deirdre “Jonese” Austin, MDiv, is a scholar, writer, minister, and womanist committed to promoting liberation, healing, and wholeness in her work around religion and bodies and sexuality.

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