Linda Goler Blount: President and CEO of the Black Women's Health Imperative

“We need to create our own movements,” says Linda Goler Blount, president and CEO of the Black Women’s Health Imperative (BWHI). “We need to highlight our issues, highlight the research, and propose the policy and programs and solutions.”

Founded in 1983 on Spelman College's campus, the Black Women’s Health Imperative is dedicated to health advocacy for black women. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., they push for policies that focus on black women’s health. “It’s my job to get the kind of information that black women need so that they can understand what the issues are and what they should be doing,” explains Blount.

Since Blount took over BWHI four years ago, she has spearheaded an effort to empower black women to take control of their health.

After graduating from Eastern Michigan University with a Computer Engineering/Operations degree, and then going on to receive a Master’s of Public Health from the University of Michigan, she was immediately thrown into the health services research industry. From there she has launched a successful career that spans the public, for-profit, and nonprofit sectors - including seven years of market analysis for Coca-Cola and a number of years working with reproductive health and STD surveillance systems in Africa and the Caribbean.

Now, at the Black Women’s Health Imperative, Blount works to eliminate health disparities between black and white women. “We need to talk about us,” Blount explains about black women, “and the way that disease is expressed in us differently.” She stresses the importance of making health accessible – “at the Black Women’s Health Imperative, we’re taking the science and then translating it into something that women can understand, and most importantly act on.” This includes an upcoming article series in Essence magazine that will feature information about black women for black women.

Blount was featured on a panel at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Women’s Health’s 25th anniversary. As the only black woman on the panel, Blount added more than just health advice. She offered a point of view that is often neglected in the health field.  

Black women are often left out of conversations that we have about women’s health. “It’s like breathing. They’re not going to think about us,” says Blount in reference to current women’s health initiatives, like breast cancer research or the Tampon Tax movement. “The message we get from media is that [black women] are just overweight and lazy.”

Much of this comes from the lack of attention that black women receive in the health field. In the last 20 years, there has only been one health study that focuses exclusively on black women – the Black Women’s Health Study. “I am tired of talking about what’s wrong with black women. I think there’s much more right with us than is wrong, and what we get from how researchers translate data, from how the media presents data, how policy makers talk about [data], it leads us to believe that it’s us. That something is wrong with us.”

But in actuality, black women are doing a lot to promote their own health. “We out-exercise white women, and nobody talks about it because exercise gets defined as going to the gym,” says Blount. “[Black women] walk more – there's other reasons like not having a car – but we do walk more, we do more with our kids...there are things that we do that result in physical activity. We work more.”

At BWHI, Blount has been able to combine her two passions: health and advocacy. While at the American Cancer Society, Blount became the organization’s first national vice president of health disparities. “When I started at the [American] Cancer Society, I started complaining about health disparities,” Blount reflects, “and the CEO at the time basically said, ‘well you got so much to say, you do it.’ So that’s been my approach. I’m going to complain, but then I’m going to do something.” For that reason, coming to BWHI just made sense.

Much of Blount's work revolves around the gaps that exist between the ways white women access health and the ways black women access health. But where exactly do these "gaps" come from? Blount believes that the experience of being a black woman in America is one of the reasons why we see so many differences between black women and white women’s health.  

Take cortisol levels, for example, the biological stress hormone that controls our fight or flight reactions. “Black women have elevated cortisol levels,” explains Blount, “and the problem is, when [cortisol levels are] elevated for long periods of time, it triggers our inflammatory response, which raises our risk for diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, and certain other kinds of diseases.”

Not only that, but high cortisol levels also age black women physiologically – the average 60-year-old black woman could be three to five years “older” than the average 60-year-old woman. This is because stress impacts our health. “The reason why [black women’s] cortisol levels are raised in the first place because of the experiences of being black in this society.”

“We need to talk about us, and the way that disease is expressed in us very differently.” Not just conditions like, say, breast cancer, which affects black women under the age of 50 more frequently than white women, but also emotional health.

“We’ve got to look at how care is being delivered so that it takes into account the entire woman, and treats her as a complete being” explains Blount, “not just breasts today or the uterus tomorrow or the heart next week.”

Blount believes that we can address some of the shortcomings of mental health care at the collegiate level. “I just want young women to practice self-care. Put yourself first, do what’s best for your health,” says Blount. BWHI works with colleges and universities through a program called My Sister's Keeper. Through advocacy opportunities, campus activities and an online curriculum that teaches collegiettes about reproductive justice and sexual health — not to mention professional development skills—BWHI wants to empower women to start healthy habits young. Blount does admit that promoting health for young people is difficult. “It goes back to trying to sell people on preventing something they don’t think they’ll get…talking about heart disease is just not going anywhere on a college campus. So, it’s like what are the issues that are important to women in their twenties? Alcohol, drugs, sex.” Sexual violence is also a major topic of concern, which is why BWHI has partnered with RiskBand, a company that produces small, discrete wearable safety devices that allow you to contact emergency services and live-stream audio and photos with just the touch of a button.

Aside from financial troubles and sexual violence, mental health issues are among the tops reasons women drop out of college

Particularly in the black community, issues surrounding emotional and mental health are rarely talked about. “It’s a sign of weakness,” Blount says, gently rubbing her hands together. “We’ve seen [depression] in our mothers, we’ve seen [depression] in our grandmothers. But nobody wanted to talk about it.” Often, depression and anxiety are viewed as “personal failings,” rather than medical conditions.

Inspired by Atul Gawande’s, “The Checklist Manifesto, Blount suggests writing a list when you are stressed or overwhelmed. On one side of the list, write out everything that you have to do - study for that exam; schedule a doctor’s appointment; meet with a professor; send that email. Then, on the other side, list all of the help that you have. “Once women do that, you start drawing lines. You start thinking, ‘oh, I have this person, this person, this person. And anybody and everybody who can help you and has helped you, whether you’ve asked them or not – these are the people who can help you.”

“This doesn’t solve all the problems, but we as women need to realize there’s something we can do, because otherwise we feel overwhelmed and hopeless.”

Breathing, meditation and counseling are just a few of the many ways that women can cope with mental illness. In the same way that you exercise to stay healthy or take medicine when you're sick, it is important to practice methods that prevent mental illness or deal with it when it becomes an issue. A preventive measure can be as simple as taking a study break to avoid an emotional breakdown in the future.

Women's health has come a long way. From movements such as the reproductive justice movement (which was actually started by black women) to breakthroughs in technology and new policies that continue to bring women's health to the forefront of our minds, there is much to be proud of. But there is even more work to do. "I am hopeful," says Blount about the future of women's health and the fight for justice and equality. 

There is no such thing as women's health until all women can be included in the conversation.

 

Photo Credit: Cover 1, 2 (provided by the author), 34, 5