A Health Hero

How a local woman's mission to shine a light on wellness is having real impact

Most folks need no introduction to Urban League head Kaleem Caire, who passionately waved the racial achievement gap in front of our faces back in 2010. Despite valiant efforts by Schools of Hope and others, we’ve struggled as a community to wrap our minds around the problem, acknowledge its root causes and work toward a solution. Caire redoubled those efforts, shining a new light on the terrible condition, galvanizing the African American community and renewing a call for action.

While Kaleem is practically a household name, there’s another Caire in Madison shining her own light on a disturbing trend: African American women are dying younger and in greater numbers than any other female demographic due to poor diet and lack of physical activity. Kaleem’s wife Lisa Peyton-Caire runs the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness, a project that grew out of a painful personal experience, the loss of her mother to heart disease at just sixty-four years old.

In 2009, three years after launching the nonprofit, she held the first Black Women’s Wellness Day to convene, inspire and empower women of African descent to take control of their own health. That same year, an academic journal called Obesity had predicted that by 2034 nearly one hundred percent of black women would be overweight unless they increased activity levels and improved their diets. According to the Centers for Disease Control, four out of five black women are overweight and fifty-three percent are morbidly obese. And the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports this: “Black women have higher rates of obesity-related diseases than any other demographic in the U.S. They die younger and at higher rates than white women in every state in the country.”

My eyes nearly popped out of my head when I read these statistics, and local studies by the United Way of Dane County back them up, pointing to an epidemic that starts in childhood. According to the 2012 Dane County Youth Assessment, girls in general are less physically active after middle school, and African American girls fare worse, leading some to speculate that while diet and exercise are key factors, taking care of family needs are likely contributors as well. As these young girls move into adulthood, they do what their mothers and grandmothers did before them: put everyone else’s health and wellbeing ahead of their own. “There’s an inherent beauty but also an inherent stress in being the caregiver,” says Peyton-Caire, who saw it happen to her own mother.

As the daughter of a hair stylist, Peyton-Caire grew up listening to the beauty shop chatter—story after story of sickness and illness—and attending funerals of women who died too young from preventable health problems like diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. After her mom died, Peyton-Caire had an epiphany.

“I picked up a pad of paper one night amid my tears and started to write down names of women who’ve passed away that are connected to me through kinship, family and community,” she says. First ten names, then ten more, then ten more … “I put the pen down and thought, this is huge. It became crystal clear that we have issues.”

Now Peyton-Caire and other activists like Marilyn Peebles Ruffin and Vanika Mock are changing the climate of black women’s health in Madison through education and advocacy, what Peyton-Caire calls “lessons in self-love and self-care.” Peebles Ruffin and Mock are co-organizers of the Madison Tubman Walkers, based on a very cool national organization called GirlTrek that puts a modern spin on the civil-rights era legacy of marching for change. Peyton-Caire is organizing the fifth annual Black Women’s Wellness Day on September 21 at the Alliant Energy Center Exhibition Hall, a mind-body-spirit gathering that grows in attendance, community support and impact every year. For more info visit blackwomenswellnessday.org

Brennan Nardi is editor of Madison Magazine.

Find more of her columns here.

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