When COVID-19 began upending everyday life this March, Sonya Young Aadam, CEO of California Black Women’s Health Project (CABWHP), thought the disruption and tragedy of the disease would unite Americans.
“It seemed like it could have a 9/11 effect, where the nation rallied with care around something extremely challenging,” she said. “Instead, COVID-19 has completely exacerbated all the systemic problems that existed prior to the pandemic and has caused added burdens, fears, and complications.”
Now, more than ever, community organizations are needed that address healthcare with a deep understanding of how socio-economic issues impact people’s health access, treatment, and outcomes. For 25 years, the Inglewood-based organization has used the “Sister Circle” model of engagement to train and support Black women to take care of their own, their families’, and their community’s health in the face of systemic racism and pervasive inequities, as well fight for policies to create greater equity.
Sister Circles are advocacy and resource groups run by trained mental health experts through the organization’s Sisters Mentally Mobilized program. Both programs aim to reduce mental health stigma, anxiety, and isolation among Black women.
CABWHP is a recipient of one of six Blue Shield of California Foundation capacity-building grants to Black-led, Black-serving organizations.
“It’s important for organizations to be able to meet the needs they feel are most critical to their communities while also building resilience,” said Debbie Chang, president and CEO of the Foundation. “California Black Women’s Health Project is not only working to create a safe space for healing and sharing within the community, but also works to empower Black women and girls.”
Black women in the U.S. are two to three times more likely to get COVID-19 and die from it. Tragically, that grim statistic is not an outlier. CABWHP has spent years advocating for policy solutions to persistent health disparities, particularly Black maternal and infant mortality. Black women are three to four times more likely to die of complications of childbirth than white women; Black babies are two to three times more likely to die within their first year.
How the program works and why
The organization always has trained Black women to bring someone else with them to medical appointments as an advocate. The program’s “signature Advocate Training Program is designed to build an army of Black women who are knowledgeable, engaged, know how to navigate resources, and are equipped to support others in accessing services,” said Aadam.
The pandemic, with its restrictions on who can enter medical settings with a patient, has added extra layers of anxiety for Black Americans seeking health care, especially those expecting children.
“You’re going pregnant into a health care system that’s already been challenging for you,” Aadam pointed out. “It puts us at higher risk for mental and emotional stress.”
Black people with COVID-19 seeking care are also more likely than white people to be sent home without treatment. “Now we’re having to have new conversations. We’re training people on how to speak about their conditions as they approach a health care professional to ensure that person will accept them and not send them home when they need medical attention.”
The mental tolls of the pandemic and its catastrophic consequences on the Black community can’t be overstated. “We’re headed for sure for post-COVID stress disorder,” predicted Aadam. “When there’s a stabilization in the current situation, our community will feel this inordinate level of stress from all the things that have been elevated as a result of the pandemic and the virus in our lives, including losing more jobs, housing, and facing greater food insecurity.”
Responding to and proactively confronting the challenges is daunting — but CABWHP’s mental health advocacy training program, Sisters Mentally Mobilized, provides a wealth of tools for Black women to help themselves, their families, and those in their communities through terrifying moments resulting from the pandemic.
Martine Wilson, a Sacramento-based home birth assistant doing her masters research on Black maternal mortality, joined the Sisters Mentally Mobilized program a year and a half ago. Then a close friend had a mental breakdown.
“All I could think was, I can’t have the police involved,” explained Wilson. “They would have handcuffed her and thrown her in the car. That’s traumatizing. But I was able to use the tools CABWHP gave me in the training program--places to call, places to go, how to de-escalate the situation, resources they had for referrals. I was able to walk her through and de-escalate long enough to softly hand her over to a facility that handled her with grace. It was so powerful to me to see how that transpired just from my experience with the Sisters Mentally Mobilized training program.”
Help from the foundation
Blue Shield of California Foundation’s support has allowed CABWHP to rapidly move its Sister Circles and advocacy training programs online, while also meeting urgent needs of Black women in the community, from grocery deliveries, housing arrears, to car registrations for essential workers who can no longer afford them.
“Without Blue Shield’s rapid funding, we wouldn’t be able to provide that kind of direct support to people affected by COVID-19 or job loss,” said Aadam. “The Foundation has confidence in our approach to look at things through a cultural lens. They recognize that we need to develop programs that are for us and by us, where our voices and lived experiences are centered so that interventions that are designed to serve us actually do.”
Debbie Chang agreed, “Within an environment that is ever-changing and charged, we are seeking solutions that not only meet people where they are today, but also lead us toward broader goals of systems transformation and community empowerment.”