Racism, Not Race, is a Risk Factor for Poor Health: An Interview With Linda Blount

Our BlackHer Shero of the Week is Linda Blount, president and CEO of the Black Women’s Health Imperative (BWHI). Blount’s organization just released Black Women Vote: The 2018 National Health Policy Agenda “to ensure the health needs of Black women and girls are addressed at the federal and state levels during the 2018 and 2020 election cycles.” Her singular aim is to help Black women understand and advocate for the policies that will help us to live our best lives.

Jocelyn: Tell us a little bit about yourself.  How did you become president and CEO of BWHI?

Linda: I tell folks that I have a checkered past!  I have a degree in epidemiology and engineering.

Jocelyn: Wow!

Linda: I started my career at the Centers for Disease Control.  I was doing work on addressing the HIV crisis with Black men.

My husband, who also works in public health, was transferred to Trinidad and Tobago and I joined him.  It was in the Caribbean that I discovered that Black people live differently in different contexts.  In Trinidad and Tobago, there was less maternal mortality and less chronic disease.  People were in better health.

After that assignment, we came back to the U.S. and I worked at Coca-Cola for seven years. Because of my engineering degree, I was able to leverage my technical and analytical skills for the company.  I worked with the science folks on formula management.

That experience crystallized the power of marketing for me.  At Coke, we always used to say, “There is no such thing as the hard to reach, only the hardly reached.”

Jocelyn: Interesting.

Linda: I realized I wanted to go back to public health and make health policy accessible to everyone.

At BWHI, health is our product.  We need to translate health policy into messaging and language women can understand and act on.

Jocelyn: Amen!  Angela and I talk about this all the time at BlackHer.  How can we get very important information into the hands of Black women without boring them to death?!

Linda: Exactly.  For example, we need to be able to communicate the importance of screening mammography in three words.

I’ll give you an example of a great public health campaign. The American Cancer Society wanted to encourage more Black men to get colorectal cancer screenings.  But, what could be a more difficult issue to discuss? They partnered with Steve Harvey to film his colonoscopy.  The video has now been viewed tens of thousands of times and after ten years, has helped avert 30,000 deaths.

Jocelyn: Speaking of making things simple, what is “health equity”?  And what does it mean for Black women to achieve it?

Linda: Health equity is not about us all having the same outcomes.  It refers to our ability to practice self-care.  Black women will achieve health equity when there is no provider bias, when medical personnel value and respect Black women and understand our unique challenges.  In short, when there are no social, political, or economic barriers to us living our best lives.

Jocelyn: BWHI is focused on the role of public policy in advancing Black women’s health.  Can you say more about that?  How is your theory of change different from organizations that focus on helping Black women make personal changes?

Linda: Black women want to be healthy.  And the fact of the matter is that policy can’t be separated from science.  Public policy is so important because often we can’t do the things we want to do without legislative and regulatory change.

For example, the fact that there is no fresh food in so many neighborhoods is a structural issue rather than a personal one.  The fact that a single mother must take two buses and one hour and a half out of her busy schedule to get her children vaccinated is not her fault.

The fact is that poorer communities don’t have the tax base to support these services and currently, taxes are a key way we pay for community-based amenities that help people to stay healthy and employed.

As Black women, we often blame ourselves for our poor health or outcomes but there is so much more to the story.  BWHI aims to help Black women understand how policy issues are affecting our health.

Jocelyn: I really appreciate your analysis and think that the work you are doing is so important.  We need to understand how external forces are impacting our well-being.  In your new report – Black Women Vote: The 2018 National Health Policy Agenda – I was pleasantly surprised to see that you are connecting our health outcomes to our electoral participation.  Can you say more about that?

Linda: Sure. As I mentioned, we want Black women to make the connection between our engagement in civic activities, like voting, and our health outcomes.

For example, it is no accident that Georgia’s Secretary of State Brian Kemp has been systematically trying to disenfranchise Black voters. If Georgians want to address the crisis in maternal mortality for Black (and white) women, we’ve got to exercise our right to vote. These activities are linked.

We wrote Black Women Vote: The 2018 National Health Policy Agenda because we want Black women to be thinking for the long-term and to feel valuable, worthy, and respected simply because they wake up each morning.  We want Black women to know the power that we have to walk, speak, and love.  We have it: it’s ours to claim and spread.

Jocelyn: So where does personal agency come in, if at all?

Linda: Let me share a brief statistic with you.  There was a recent study that showed that Black women in corporate workplaces do 20% more work than white women.  This aligns with the belief that says we must work twice as hard to get as far as others.

The challenge is the study also showed that there is no greater benefit to the organization because of this extra work that we do.  The only measurable impact was on us – we’re more stressed!

Jocelyn: Ugh.

Linda: The extra work we’re doing involves checking and rechecking our work to make sure that no one can find fault with us.

I tell this story because it is stress, not obesity, that is killing us.

Stress is racially and gender-mediated.  Black women age faster than white women.  We have elevated cortisol in our systems and this changes our metabolism.  Stress is the biggest killer.

So, to your point, self-care is important.  And we can’t take it lightly.  At the same time, it’s important that we know that this stress is not our fault.  There is nothing wrong with us.

“Racism not race is a risk factor for poor health.”

Jocelyn: Amen. What do you want Black women to know about the Black Women’s Health Imperative?

Linda: I want them to know that policy impacts your health and you need to know where your elected officials stand on policy issues.

I also want them to use our (and their!) health policy agenda and report card to hold their representatives accountable.

For example, we know that the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act is important for Black women.  Black women who agree should ask their representatives where they stand on this issue.

Jocelyn: I love it.  You talked earlier about the fact that the way that we fund services puts poor communities at a disadvantage.  Is reforming tax policy a key policy issue for BWHI? 

Linda: I wouldn’t say that progressive tax reform is the most important piece of legislation that we’re working on, but it is important.

Let’s be honest, our current tax code favors wealthy white men.  And this economic strategy, to make the wealthy wealthier and marginalize Black men, has been in place since 1972 with the Southern strategy.  And it has a had a terrible effect on Black communities.  Criminalizing drugs and removing Black men from society has had a big impact on Black communities and families. So many low-income and middle-income households have only one breadwinner.  In that sense, bringing more economic activity and resources into poorer neighborhoods is critical.  Reforming the tax code is one way to do it.

Jocelyn: Who are your BlackHer Sheroes?

Linda: I got to speak on stage with Byllye Avery, founder of BWHI, last week in Madison, Wisconsin. It was the highlight of the year.

Like most Black women, I love Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Senator Kamala Harris.

I’m also deeply inspired by young sisters like Simone Askew.  She’s the first cadet to oversee 4,400 students at West Point.  This sister is tough!

I also admire my mother, my number one Shero, who passed last year.  Her message to me was, “Don’t take anything from anybody.”

Jocelyn: Let me ask you the Miracle Question. You go to sleep tonight, and you wake up and it’s October 2019.  The miracle has occurred for Black women.  What happened?

Linda: As I’m putting on my clothes and getting ready for the day, I’m focused on the things I need to get done.  And I have no barriers.  I have the resources I need to help me be successful.  That is just how my life is.  I’m not stressed about anything.





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