Women's Activism NYC

Byllye Yvonne Avery

1937 - Today

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Byllye Yvonne Avery is an American health care activist who has worked to improve the welfare of African-American women for over forty years. One of the founders of reproductive justice, Avery has worked to develop healthcare services and education that address Black women's mental and physical health stressors. She is best known as the founder of the National Black Women's Health Project, the first national organization to specialize in Black women's reproductive health issues. For her work with the NBWHP, she has received the MacArthur Foundation's Fellowship for Social Contribution and the Gustav O. Lienhard Award for the Advancement of Health Care from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Science, among other awards. Avery started out by building grassroots self-help groups, places where black women’s voices could be heard. “It kind of happened organically and we ended up with groups in about 34 states,” she says. “These groups were places where we could tell the stories of our lives, because for us as women, a lot of our liberation is tied up in our stories.” Avery says the self-help groups talked about “very hard issues,” including what it was like being a lesbian or victims of sexual abuse, as well as abortions, domestic violence, infant mortality, how to raise girls and boys, how to relate to our partners, and other health issues. She says the grassroots organizing “started a process of personal empowerment.” In 1984, Avery helped organize the first national conference on black women’s health issues, which drew 2,000 women. She traveled around the country organizing self-help groups, wherever women’s groups would invite her to speak. “Women came out when we had our meetings and they brought their mother, their aunts, their sisters. They somehow knew it was about folks and their family,” says Avery. Following the conference, she founded the National Black Women's Health Project, now known as the Black Women's Health Imperative, officially in 1984 in Atlanta, Georgia. It is the only national organization exclusively dedicated to improving health and wellness among Black women. Avery produced On Becoming a Woman: Mothers and Daughters Talking to Each Other (1987), the first documentary film by African-American women sharing their perspectives on menstruation, sex, and love. In 1990, Avery, along with 15 other African-American women and men, formed the African-American Women for Reproductive Freedom. The organization was created to end the stigma against abortions in the Black community and to make abortions more accessible for Black women. Avery has written and lectured widely on how race, class and sex impact women's healthcare. She has been a visiting fellow at the Harvard University School of Public Health; she has served on the Charter Advisory Committee for the Office of Research on Women's Health of the National Institutes of Health; she has been a health issues advisor for the Kellogg Foundation's International Leadership Program; and she has served as a consultant on women's healthcare in Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa.

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