On Friday, Nov. 8, Portland State University’s black studies department was host to Byllye Avery, a renowned advocate for African American women. A visionary and grassroots organizer committed to defining, promoting and maintaining the physical, mental and emotional well-being of African American women, Avery gave a brief discourse on the history of the black women’s health movement and how today’s black women are meeting challenges in today’s world.
Avery was one of the first voices at the grassroots level for black women’s health. Since then, she has engaged in several important mainstream dialogues within the feminist movement.
Avery took the podium and within moments had the audience enthralled with humorous renditions of her initial interest in her chosen field.
“In life, the most important thing you have is your story. It has all of your lessons, learned and the one’s you are working on. I will tell you my story. Start thinking of your story,” she said.
Avery’s interest in black women’s health care did not start until the 1970s, when her husband died of a sudden heart attack.
“Until then, I had never thought much of it. His death made me think of what we really know about health,” she said.
In May 1974, in conjunction with her colleagues, she helped open the Women’s Health Center. They did not ask the county medical center for permission, knowing that they would be denied.
“We thought we’d open the facility and they’d hear about it when everyone else did,” she said.
In 1978, Avery spearheaded the opening of Birth Place, an alternative birth center where families could come. This time, she said they requested approval from the county to give women “a fabulous experience with the quintessential health services.”
During the same year, Avery helped organize a national conference called “The First National Conference on Black Women’s Health Issues,” under the theme “Sick of Being Sick and Tired.”
“We organized a conference where we would want to come,” she said.
During the conference, it was shocking to hear that the number one health issue, as disclosed by participants, was violence in the form of domestic violence and sexual abuse.
“We thought it happened only to white women, because they talked about it. We didn’t,” Avery said.
With that brief talk, Avery opened the discussion to the audience and encouraged a question-and-answer forum.
The issue of sexual abuse was deep among the audience, and in response Avery said, “Get over your fear of being alone. We don’t need to be abused by anybody and we don’t need to take it. Deal with your issues, and this is to everyone – white and black women.”
Encouraging audience participation, Avery was asked what she saw as the first step to a solution. Her suggestion was education starting from elementary school.
“If young people don’t get up and take charge of this country, we’re going to hell in a handbag.”
While recognizing that there was potential for the squandering of tax dollars within the state administration, Avery suggested that after ironing out that issue to consider the fact that “health care is a human right and not a privilege.”
“What is the use of all this technology if you don’t have access to it,” she asked.