10 Sisters Shaping the Conversation About Black Women’s Health
Scientists, nutritionists, journalists, celebrities and activists are tackling the challenges that contribute to poor health outcomes and paving the way for us to enjoy a healthier future.
We all know that African American women face greater health problems, from diabetes to hypertension to obesity, especially as we age. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that we have several health champions who are bravely rewriting the story on Black women’s health. Scientists, nutritionists, journalists, celebrities and activists are tackling the challenges that contribute to poor health outcomes and offering sister-centered solutions. Read about some of them, and be inspired to improve your well-being.
Tracye McQuirter, 55, vegan trailblazer
A decades-long vegan, Tracye McQuirter was a sophomore in college when a campus talk by human rights activist Dick Gregory changed her life forever. His description of the link between a hamburger and a heart attack sold her first on becoming a vegetarian and later a vegan. Since then, McQuirter has been on a mission to convert more Black women — more than 15,000 signed up for her 10,000 Black Vegan Women challenge — to this diet and lifestyle that avoids all animal products. Her best-selling books and popular recipes published in The Washington Post have no doubt contributed to the fast rise of veganism in our community. Eight percent of us identify as vegan or vegetarian compared with 3 percent of the general population. “Veganism also opened me up to other natural practices like yoga and meditation,” she explained to Women’s Health magazine. “I feel healthier and stronger now … than I did during those early years in college.”
Kizzmekia Corbett, Ph.D., 36, scientist and vaccine developer
Her lab designed one of the leading vaccines for COVID-19, rapidly moving from vaccine concept to phase 1 clinical trial for Moderna. She’s been praised by the likes of Anthony Fauci, M.D., for her work on one of the vaccines that is 94 percent effective and may help lead to the end of the pandemic. This is critical for Black people, who are nearly twice as likely to die from Covid as white people. Also known for her work in underserved communities, Kizzmekia Corbett, Ph.D., understands the value of representation: “I felt like it was necessary to be seen and to not be a hidden figure so to speak,” Dr. Corbett told ABC News. “I felt that it was important to do that because the level of visibility that it would have to younger scientists and also to people of color who have often worked behind the scenes and essentially [who have] done the dirty work for these large efforts toward a vaccine.”
Black Mamas Matter Alliance, maternal health champions
Sparked by a project that shed light on the challenges facing Southern Black women seeking maternal health care, Black Mamas Matter Alliance has grown into a national network that hosts an annual conference and training institute. The nonprofit works for policy change, research, improved care and a cultural shift to advance Black maternal health at a time when Black women in the U.S. are three times more likely to experience a pregnancy-related death as white women. While the alliance has grown to include many organizations, there’s a reason it remains Black-led: “The solutions are within our communities, and people need to trust Black women, listen to Black women and invest in Black women,” said Angela Doyinsola Aina, cofounder and executive director, according to NewsOne.
Linda Villarosa, 63, award-winning health journalist and author
For decades, as an editor at Essence, Linda Villarosa oversaw the coverage that focused on health challenges for millions of Black women readers and the disparities that fueled them. As a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, she continues to explore those inequities, from the impact of COVID-19 to environmental racism and maternal mortality. In her latest book, Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on American Lives and on the Health of Our Nation, Villarosa reveals the research and root causes for why Black Americans “live sicker and die quicker.” She weaves personal narratives with statistics to explore the structural reasons for ongoing health inequality. “The big idea I want to communicate is that, yes, something about being Black has led to our poor health. But that something isn’t race per se, but racism,” she told Publishers Weekly.
Taraji P. Henson, 51, actor and mental health advocate
Black Americans are 1.5 times more likely to report feeling sad all or most of the time. Countering a pervasive stigma in our community against depression, actor Taraji P. Henson has been unusually outspoken about her struggles with anxiety and depression. But she offers more than talk: Henson has turned her commitment to action by founding a nonprofit, the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, named after her father, who also faced mental health challenges. The organization has raised funds to cover the cost of therapy for Black folks and offers scholarships to college students pursuing careers in mental health. On these multiple fronts, she’s sparked a conversation: “The first thing we wanted to do was get Black people talking about mental health,” Henson told Town & Country. “Let’s just get it out there. I’ll say something. I’ll break the ice.”
Lauren Ash, 34, yoga and meditation instructor
In a world where meditation and yoga have long been popular in the mainstream, Black Girl in Om (BGIO) founder Lauren Ash leads a wellness movement that speaks directly to Black women’s ills. With a free meditation tool and podcast that boasts over 2 million listeners, BGIO offers a full range of wellness support not just to help sisters feel good but also to address deeper issues such as trauma. Originally motivated to start offering yoga classes by the lack of Black female teachers, Ash is determined to help women of color heal from the inside out. As the BGIO website states, “Black women over-index in health disparities around the globe. Yet, we brilliantly possess the power to prevent, cure, and carry dis-ease out of our lives by inviting healing possibilities into our psyche.”
Valerie Montgomery Rice, M.D., 60, president, Morehouse School of Medicine
As president and CEO of Morehouse School of Medicine, Valerie Montgomery Rice, M.D., has made history as the first woman to lead the institution. In addition to being an infertility specialist, Dr. Rice has made it part of her mission to address health disparities. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and revealed deep differences in how it was affecting African Americans versus others, she joined the Black Coalition Against COVID. This group of distinguished Black medical experts issued a “Love Letter to Black America,” committing to the development of a vaccine that Black people could trust. She leads an institution that will produce the next generation of Black doctors, who will have not only the training but also the cultural competency that we need to be well. Addressing graduates of Harvard Medical School, she said, “It is easy to get lost in the science of medicine, but you have a responsibility to bring your voices to the discussion around the broader ills that impact society: racism, violence, discord.”
Jessica Jones, registered dietitian and diabetes educator
Tired of diets and feeling conflicted about food? Jessica Jones Nutrition has a more intuitive, inclusive approach to nutrition and wellness. Her website offers nutritional counseling, and her Food Heaven Podcast claims more than a million downloads. For over a decade, Jones has promoted a positive approach to healthy eating for people with diverse backgrounds. A certified diabetes educator, Jones also authored Diabetes Guide to Enjoying Foods of the World. This is critical given that Black women have a 63 percent higher risk than white women of developing diabetes. Her philosophy, with partner Wendy Lopez? “We look at everything from an inclusive lens. Not only culturally inclusive but also inclusive of people of different body shapes and sizes, because we all have the right to pursue health,” Jones said in an interview with The Wrap.
Michelle Obama, 58, former First Lady and menopause role model
As if there were not enough reasons to admire Michelle Obama, her candor about dealing with “The Change” adds to the list. On her Spotify podcast, she shared her first experiences of dealing with menopause-like symptoms while taking hormones to overcome infertility in her 30s. Later, as First Lady, she described having a hot flash while on Marine One. Her experiences may reflect the fact that research shows Black women enter menopause earlier, stay in transition longer and suffer worse hot flashes. While honest about the downsides, she shared a positive spin: “What a woman’s body is taking her through is important information. It’s an important thing to take up space in a society. Cause half of us are going through this.”
Latoya Shauntay Snell, 37, runner, chef and activist
Founder of Running Fat Chef, Latoya Shauntay Snell does not fit the profile of your typical chef-turned-fitness-influencer. She is full-bodied and a person with disabilities who is known as an ultrarunner, an athlete who runs marathons longer than 26.2 miles. With more than 68,000 followers on Instagram, she shares un-Photoshopped photos and no-holds-barred posts about topics like “white people’s validation,” which she’s decided she doesn’t need. The experience of severe illness and injury while in culinary school — and a painful body-shaming episode — led Shauntay Snell to fearlessly explore her relationship with her body and share it with a global audience. “I know that my story is the best contribution I can give to someone else who doesn’t think that their body is capable of doing things people tell us we’re not supposed to do,” she told Sports Illustrated.