Race & Identity
Why Advocating For Black Women And Wellness Is Important, But Often Overlooked
We spoke with the Policy Director of Black Women for Wellness in LA.
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Blavity: Nourbese, tell us about what brought you to this work.
Nourbese Flint: How I got here was an interesting path. Both my mother and cousin are executive directors of Reproductive Justice organizations. My cousin, particularly, was at the beginning spaces of Reproductive Justice. Those questions around RJ were passed down to me and I got to see first hand the work of nonprofits, and the people who do the work of nonprofits. I told myself I would never in my wildest dreams ever do that work. It is so grueling. I have a degree in journalism and I wanted to save the world that way. I got into broadcast journalism, started interning at one of the bigger organizations and realized my ideas of journalism, and what you could do at that type of organization, was very different than how I romanticized the business. And from that, while I was in school, I always fell back on what I knew, which was Reproductive Justice. I stuck with it. It's the work I loved to do, and it's the work that's necessary, especially on behalf of black women and girls.
I'm the policy director of BWW. We're an advocacy organization. We engage in breaking down institutional barriers to black women's health. My job, specifically, is to look at those institutional and systemic areas. I'm looking at policy on a range of reproductive issues, from criminal justice to the environment to economics. I'm shepherding policy at the state and local level to address some of those areas that have been impacting black women and girls.
B: Tell us more about the beginning stages of Black Women for Wellness.
NF: BWW was started in 1997 by six or seven black women who were working in various health fields. They always ran into each other at meetings and would have a meeting before the meeting to strategize. They decided they needed a place where they were the meeting and not have to worry about how to strategize, but have a whole space around black women. From there, they started the first program which we still have today, Sistas at Eight, which meets the second Friday of each month to discuss community issues in a community forum style. All the issues deal with black women and girls. From that, it blossomed into several different programs, some that we still have. For example, we have a program that pairs new mothers with experienced mothers to walk them through motherhood. We have another called "Get Smart Before You Get Sexy," which we started a few years ago, that looks at reproductive and sexual health in a culturally sensitive way.
In terms of our founders, BWW was founded in my living room, and one of the founders was my mother. There was a need and they wanted more spaces to center on black women and girls' health.
B: After the San Bernardino shooting, there was a lot of discussion around intimate partner violence. What insights can you offer about IPV, how it impacts black women, and ways to effectively tackle this problem?
NF: Of course intimate partner violence is something that impacts all women, of all races and ethnicities. Particularly for black women, the rates are so much higher and not talked about. Black women are the most likely to experience intimate partner violence and also are more likely to die from IPV.
The stats are kind of old when it comes to IPV and black women because we don't do enough information gathering. BWW did a survey, a national poll a few years ago, where we asked the question, "have you or do you know anyone who has experienced intimate partner violence?" Half of the respondents said yes. We put that question in that polling because we know this is something that's happening in communities across America, where black women are being subjected to violence. It's not talked about or it's stigmatized and handled "within the community."
These same conversations come up a lot when we have these forums. It came up digitally also when talking about Janay Rice. It was angering in the sense of this idea that black women's bodies are still not of value enough to actually care about if they're beaten.
In terms of organizing, I think BWW touches on IPV, but we touch on it in a way where we start on it earlier—looking at ideas around consent, sexual harassment, having conversations with high school students, talking to them about harassment, respecting bodies etc. If we are ignoring these behaviors when we are in school, it continues to be normalized throughout their lives, so when it escalates, we've already taught them this is how their bodies are going to be treated.
What we need to do more of, is to have more open conversations about it and be real with each other. A lot of conversations about IPV among women and trans women are not talked about. If it is talked about, it's seen as if it's others' business. I think there needs to be more intentional spaces where we can hold people accountable.
What we try to do at BWW is have these convos with our young folks about healthy relationships. What does it mean to be respectful? How can we maintain healthy self-esteem and worth? This is not me saying we need to call the police more or have outside help, because we fully understand the complications of what it means to bring police into our spaces, and how it doesn't mitigate, but further exacerbates issues.
B: Under the current administration, the national rhetoric around abortion rights and abortion access often centers white women. What are your thoughts on this, and the impacts this has on black women nationwide?
NF: What reproductive justice looks like to us is the following: having a child/not having a child and being able to raise your child with dignity. Reproductive Justice is an intersectional framework. When we look at reproductive health access, we are looking at all the issues that go into that.
Abortion access is one that we are fighting desperately to keep. However, it's not just about access to abortion, but access to economics which determines if you can raise your child with dignity and respect, the environment that you live in, having access to clean water, etc. What black women are doing across the country is part of a larger partnership called the In Our Own Voice National Black Women's Reproductive Justice Incentive. Raising the issues, voices and stories of black women in a way that looks at this holistically, and does not take abortion and put it on the side, but we're also protecting the rights of women to have children. While the feminist movement was trying to not have children, black women were fighting to have children—coming out of Eugenics. What we've seen as we uplift Reproductive Justice, is that the movement is getting co-opted and used interchangeably as reproductive health/rights. RJ was made by women of color, and it has specific values that have to do with all of the intersections that come into our lives when we talk about reproductive health.
B: There has been a lot of conversation around health and wellness for black women. Are there any key aspects that you think are missing from the wellness conversations?
NF: Black women have always been resilient. I do think though, the way Black Women for Wellness addresses and looks at holistic health is also looking at the institutional and systemic barriers. I'm looking at that because it is important when we talk about "self-care" and "healing," but if we don't take people out of the space in which they are being re-traumatized, then there's more to talk about. The easiest example is a lot of people will say "just eat healthier," "cut out sugar," etc, but what about when it comes to where the grocery stores are and if people can get to them? I lived in South LA for a while. I went to the local store and was trying to find pure cranberry juice. It was $8.99. At the store I usually go to, it's normally $2.99. We don't have access to grocery stores, and if we do, we're sometimes facing predatory taxes. We want to get people off those foods, but if we don't have replacements, or we have lead in people's water, it's a very different conversation.
Behavior change is necessary. Culture shift is necessary. We want to make it so that the healthiest choices are also the easiest ones. When we do our work, how can we make sure we are creating spaces so when people are trying to work on themselves and hold themselves accountable, that there's a space and environment that isn't throwing them back to the wolves, or making it super difficult for them to stay on that path?
B: What else about black women and wellness would you like people to keep in mind?
NF: One of the things that BWW has been doing a lot of work on is civic engagement. Black women have been the highest voting demographic in the nation. We vote, and in high numbers. In 2012, 70 percent of black women registered and voted. And it wasn't just about Obama. We've been rising in turn-out since 1996. When it comes to representation of black women, we are the least heard and least thought about when people are making decisions, even though we are putting people in office.
Accountability with our elected officials is a big priority for us. We are putting our effort and money into getting folks elected, and then our elected officials are not accountable to those same black women who get them into office. We need to ask them what their black women's agenda is. If they don't have one, we need to, (1) get them one, or (2) get them out of office. We've gotten the short end of the stick for too long. If there's anything I could raise up and have folks think about before 2018, is asking their state and city officials what they're doing for our community. We need to start putting people in office, because although our voting rates have gone up, our health disparities are ridiculous. Black women face 4 times the rate of maternal death, and 4 times the rate of infant death. We're more likely to die of violence, and we have more aggressive forms of breast cancer. It's about having people in office who have the willpower and fire in their belly to advocate for black women.
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