Title: Profile on Byllye Avery, crusader for black women's health
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Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00081159/00001
 Material Information
Title: Profile on Byllye Avery, crusader for black women's health
Physical Description: Archival
Language: English
Creator: Simurda, Stephen J.
Publisher: American Health
Publication Date: 1993
Subject: Feminism -- Florida -- Gainesville   ( lcsh )
Feminists -- Florida -- Gainesville   ( lcsh )
Women -- Social conditions -- Florida -- Gainesville   ( lcsh )
Women -- History -- Florida -- Gainesville   ( lcsh )
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Bibliographic ID: UF00081159
Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: University of Florida
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Full Text

profile: byllye avery

Shooting Star


woman with close-
cropped hair peers at
her audience through
large round glasses
that rest comfortably
on the tip of her nose.
"When I got my period for the first
time," she tells the Planned Parent-
hood luncheon guests, "my mother
said, 'Oh no, it's here. If you get preg-
nant, I'll kill ya.' That's how we talked
about sex in my family."
As the audience in Amherst, Mass.,
laughs and begins to relax, Byllye (pro-
nounced "Billie") Avery fires offa bat-
tery of statistics to document the woe-
ful disparity between the health of
white women and black women in this
country. Credited with starting the
black women's health movement, the
55-year-old Avery has a soft-spoken
manner that belies the passion behind

her message. "Byllye is a
great storyteller," says Dr.
Harvey Fineberg, dean of
the Harvard School of
Public Health, where Av-
ery is currently a visiting
fellow. "She has that rare
ability to universalize her
personal experience." Adds
Dr. Diana Chapman Walsh,
chairwoman ofthe school's
department of health and
social behavior, "Byllye
has an aura that changes
the tone of any room she
enters." At the end of
this speech, one woman
approaches Avery and
says, "I just want to give
you a hug."
Avery is founding presi-
dent of the National Black
Women's Health Project
(NBWHP), the first advo-
cacy group in the U.S. to focus on black
women's health needs. Created in 1984,
the Atlanta-based organization stresses
the importance of psychological well-
being as well as physical health. "A lot
of black women neglect their needs,
both emotional and physical," says Av-
ery. "They function as empty wells:
They give and they give, and nowhere
do they get replenished."
The NBWHP encourages them to
take care of those needs. "First, we urge
black women to get together to talk
openly and honestly about their prob-
lems and feelings," says Avery. "Once
we get our heads straight, then we can
take care of our bodies." Next comes
self-help: "We don't want to just give
ourselves over to doctors or to be
preached at," she explains. As executive
director of the NBWHP from 1984 to
1990, Avery set up 100 self-help groups
in 31 states that offer peer support and

health education, produced a video to
help families talk about sexuality, and
created a local health center for women
in three urban housing projects.
The need for groups such as the
NBWHP is supported by statistics from
the U.S. Department ofHealth and Hu-
man Services: Compared with white
women, black women are 1 times as
likely to die from heart disease, nearly
twice as likely to die from a stroke and
almost three times as likely to die from
diabetes. While many white Americans
are taking better care of themselves
through diet and exercise, explains Av-
ery, the majority of blacks, especially
women in low-income neighborhoods,
lack the money, motivation, time and
opportunity to change their unhealthy
behavior. "A combination of racism,
sexism and 'classism' are keeping us
from receiving all the things we need to
be whole, healthy people," she says.
Last fall, Avery launched Walking for
Wellness, a program that promotes
health through fitness walking, peer sup-
port and education. Avery believes walk-
ing is great exercise for low-income
black women because it's convenient,
affordable and relatively easy. "Many
black women view exercise as a luxury,"
she explains. "For them, Walking for
Wellness has a nonthreatening appeal.
We tell them that walking for 20 min-
utes, three times a week, is a time to clear
the cobwebs from their minds and help
their bodies." The program has started
on a small scale, with about 100 women
participating in four groups around the
country, but Avery hopes to enlist
25,000 more over the next five years.

ASKED TO DESCRIBE Avery, colleagues
call her "a national treasure," "a shoot-
ing star," "a jewel." But there is noth-
ing showy about Avery: "She has a quiet
charisma, and sometimes I think she
doesn't even realize how influential she
is," says Walsh. Adds Shiriki Ku-
manyika, associate director of epi-
demiology at Penn State's College of
Medicine, "She has the best interests of
black women at heart, and what she
does isn't for personal aggrandizement."
Avery's commitment is rooted in her



March 1993

own life. Born in Waynesville, Ga., in
1937, she was the oldest child of Alyce
Ingram, a strong, ambitious schoolteacher
who had a profound effect on the young
Byllye. (Less influential were her father,
a restaurant owner who died when she
was a teenager, and her stepfather, a
minister.) "My mother always stressed
the importance of education and doing
a job well," recalls Avery.
In 1955 Avery went to Talladega Col-
lege in Alabama, a small black liberal arts
school where she got her first exposure
to the burgeoning civil rights move-
ment (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was
the commencement speaker at her
graduation). Upon receiving a B.A. in
psychology in 1959, she took ajob as an
occupational therapy aide at a Florida
mental hospital; a year later, she mar-
ried Wesley Avery, whom she had met
at Talladega, and in 1961 their son,
Wesley, Jr., was born.
Shortly after the birth of her daugh-
ter, Sonja, in 1966, Avery, who was
studying for a master's degree in special
education at the University of Florida
and teaching emotionally disturbed
children at an elementary school in
Jacksonville, developed a chronic
cough, lost her appetite and felt drained
of energy. Her symptoms persisted for a
year before doctors diagnosed her ill-
ness as pulmonary sarcoidosis, a poorly
understood autoimmune disease that is
common among blacks. After a year on
the steroid prednisone her symptoms
abated, but it caused her to gain about
25 pounds that she's still trying to shed.
Avery's illness opened her eyes to black
women's health problems. "We're ex-
tremely vulnerable to diseases like this
because of all the things we're expected
to do, especially during the childbear-
ing years," she claims.
Three years later, just after Avery fin-
ished her master's degree, her husband
died of a heart attack at age 33. Over-
weight and a smoker, he'd had high
blood pressure that had gone untreated
for years. "We lived in the black com-
munity, where everybody had bad
nerves and high blood pressure," Avery
recalls. "It just didn't seem like a big
deal, and the doctor never told Wesley
to do anything about it." The death
jolted Avery: "It made me think about

health in a very different way, in terms
of how you put information out to peo-
ple so that it makes sense."
In 1970 Avery became head teacher
in the children's mental health unit at
the University of Florida teaching hos-
pital in Gainesville. The department
was run by Dr. Paul L. Adams, a Quaker
who influenced Avery's political ideas.
"Byllye had an open mind and took
part in antiwar demonstrations," recalls
Adams. Because abortions were illegal
in Florida at the time, Avery and two
colleagues gave patients underground
abortion referrals. After the passage of
Roe v. Wade in 1973, the three women
left the hospital to found the Gainesville
Women's Health Center, the first clinic
in that city to offer abortions.
Margaret Parrish, another of the
Gainesville center's cofounders, re-
members Avery as "an incredible orga-
nization builder, with an innate ability
to arouse enthusiasm for her ideas." She
is also a great diplomat, says Parrish:
"Byllye could confront you with some

negative aspect of your personality, and
instead of getting angry, you'd end up
thanking her for it." Parrish recalls the
condescension of male doctors at the
teaching hospital toward female and
child patients. "When the doctors
would start focusing on their own egos,
I'd get angry, but Byllye would calmly
redirect their attention to the patient. It
was amazing," says Parrish.
By 1978 Avery had become frustrated
by the fact that most of her patients
were white. "I used to ask myself, 'Why
am I here with all these white women?
Where are the black women?' She
found out in 1980 when she became di-
rector of a federal Comprehensive Em-
ployment and Training Act (CETA)
program at Gainesville's Santa Fe Com-
munity College. "I saw these young
black women with all these health prob-
lems. They were having kidney prob-
lems and diabetes and lupus, or having
four children before they were 20," says
Avery. "They raised my consciousness.
(Continued on p. 32)

March 1993

I -


profile: byllye avery

(Continued from p. 29)
When black women talk about health,
they don't just talk about high blood
pressure and lumps in their breasts.
They talk about being beaten, being in-
cest survivors, having a teenage son
who's packing a gun. They're often
dealing with day-to-day survival."
In 1983 Avery's conference on black
women's health at Spelman College in
Atlanta drew 1,500 participants. Out of
that gathering the NBWHP was born.
Says Cindy Pearson, program director

of the National Women's Health Net-
work, an advocacy group in Washing-
ton: "Byllye represents all black women,
not just middle-class blacks. She's always
involved low-income women in the
management of her programs." Norma
Swenson, coauthor of the Our Bodies,
Ourselves books, says that "Byllye more
accurately represents the full sweep of
the women's health movement than any
of us. She has done it all."

AVERY'S DAUGHTER, Sonja, now 27

and a medical assistant at the Feminist
Women's Health Center in Atlanta, likes
to tell the story of the day she got her
first period. "It was five days before I
turned 11, and my mom gave me a cake
that said, 'Happy Birthday, Happy Men-
sturation.' [The bakery misspelled 'men-
struation.'] In my mind, that's the day
my mother first got involved in helping
black women help themselves."

Stephen ]. Simurda is a freelance writer in
Northampton, Mass.

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