In celebrating Black History Month, we had the honor of interviewing Byllye Avery, a leader in advancing Black women’s health for over 40 years.  Her work began in 1974, when she co-founded the Women’s Health Center in Gainesville, Florida, and four years later she co-founded Birthplace, an alternative birthing center, also in Gainesville.  She went on to found the National Black Women’s Health Project in 1983 and is still going strong at age 80.

By advocating for “health that involves becoming empowered,” Ms. Avery has worked to improve overall wellness and access to reproductive health care for Black women. “The building of self-concept and self-esteem — as well as claiming our power and rising up to being the women we want to be — has led to Black women’s empowerment psychologically,” she said. “If you look around, African-American women are leading the fights and struggles around what we need to become who we are — from looking at our voting power to looking at our power to change our lives, and looking at our power to help develop direction for our communities.”

The National Black Women’s Health Project, which Ms. Avery created as a grassroots advocacy network, is now known as the Black Women’s Health Imperative. It has grown into an influential Washington, D.C., -based organization conducting research, policy analysis and advocacy to enable Black women to enjoy optimal health and well-being in a socially just society. Her innovative practices regarding reproductive justice and self-care have made significant impacts on Black women’s health.

“Nowadays,” she says, “We are really supporting self-care, and how important it is to care for ourselves and to provide this model for the next generation. There are so many issues that affect us that we can be in control of — but we think we cannot control — such as sexual abuse, physical abuse and sexual harassment. They rob us of our power. One of the most important things that Black women have done is break the silence about these issues.” 

Ms. Avery has worked to change the “conspiracy of silence” surrounding reproductive health issues in the Black community, which she says prevented an open dialogue about the nuanced experiences Black women face. “A lot of the white organizations were only looking at abortion and birth control as singular issues, but we had to look at it within the context of our lives,” she explains. “There are many issues surrounding us that affect our reproductive decisions. By Black women coming up with the concept of reproductive justice, we broadened the whole definition of reproductive health to include justice issues, not just physical health issues.” Reproductive justice is an intersectional approach that brings together reproductive health, social justice and human rights perspectives and addresses the structural inequalities – such as lack of economic and political power — that can affect a woman’s ability to control her own reproductive future. 

“Institutionalized racism prevents us from getting the proper access to health care services that we need, all the way from before birth, “she says.” Institutionalized racism continues to tell us that we are not important, we are not powerful people, we are less than, we always have to try harder than everybody else, we have to fight harder, we have to do more. These are barriers. But in spite of those barriers, we are moving past them and we are moving on as a group of people who are moving up to the forefront, right where we belong.”

In 2007, Ms. Avery co-founded Raising Women’s Voices for the Health Care We Need to make sure women’s voices and concerns are heard and addressed as policymakers carry out health care reforms. It is coordinated by the Black Women’s Health Imperative, the National Women’s Health Network and the Women’s Health Program of Community Catalyst, with 30 regional coordinators in 29 states.

Among the many awards Ms. Avery has received for her work was the MacArthur Foundation’s Fellowship for Social Contribution; she was also profiled in the Makers’ series. Reflecting upon her life’s work, Ms. Avery told us that what has been most rewarding in her career has been, “being able to stand in front of Black women and get them to understand health in the context of their lives, and getting them to really understand how powerful we are and that we deserve to have the best that there is of life.”Certainly Ms. Avery will leave a powerful legacy of improving the health and wellness of Black women, but when asked what she wanted her legacy to be, she humbly responded, “I was someone who cared and someone who wanted change.”

Empress James and Jessica Pierson are both graduate students at Columbia University interning with the Community Catalyst Women’s Health Program