Part 2 of 2
[The Madison Times continues its coverage on the Dec. 14 Black Women’s Wellness Town Hall Meeting, which took place at the Urban League of Greater Madison. —Ed.]
As the afternoon progressed, a Black woman that works in academia talked about that sense of feeling that you have to be the strongest, the fastest, the most able, and the best.
Lisa Peyton-Caire, founder of the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness, said that mental health is a priority for the foundation, emphasizing the importance of “breaking isolation and creating community as we heal…” She also stated, “We need to begin to define ourselves in our own terms…”
Even though her parents divorced, Peyton-Caire explained, her dad was actively involved in raising her. “I don’t define myself by what society says,” she said, recalling her younger days and how things unfolded going forward into adulthood.
One person in attendance indicated that he is like many other people in that he goes to food for his comfort, when there is a lot of stress in life. “We need to make that trigger, to go other places,” he said, like talking to a friend about what’s happening instead. For him, he said that it’s easier when he doesn’t see all kinds of commercials about food and restaurants on television.
Indeed, food can serve as a comfort, Peyton-Caire pointed out: “There is a tie to running to food, an emotional tie, and illnesses.”
She went on to say that we don’t know the true effect food processing and added chemicals have on the body and a person’s health. “It’s not a White, hippie issue,” she affirmed; the quality of food, what’s in it, and how we prepare it makes a difference in susceptibility to life-changing disease.
One of the questions for discussion included, “What is the quality of life like for Black women in Madison?” By show of hands, the majority of folks in the room said they know a friend or family member who has had, or they themselves have experienced, trouble accessing health care.
One individual talked about perceived sexual orientation and how it can impact a number of aspects of life. “Not only am I Black, I’m poor and I’m queer.”
Another person stated, “If I’m telling you my pronoun is ‘he or ‘she’… and they won’t respect it.”
“It’s hard enough if you’re just a straight, upper middle class, Black female,” one individual remarked. “…I often wonder, ‘What do other people, who aren’t as articulate or don’t have my attitude, how do they handle that?’”
The comment was made about the awkwardness of routine exams “as a Black, gay person that’s poor” and “criminalization of Black women who enjoy sex, be you straight or gay.”
Another individual observed, “…There are very few (health care providers) that have the cultural competency to serve me, even if I have insurance.”
Dr. JoAnn Pritchett remarked that physician attitude is paramount: “The attitude of the physician in many, many ways will drive people away.”
Another person piped in, asking “who in their right mind” would want to go back to see a doctor for a follow up appointment, if he/she had a negative attitude toward them at the first visit. And sometimes when you try to educate them, that’s seen as a “no-no” of sorts, so you decide not to go back to see that doctor.
Peyton-Caire encouraged folks that when this happens, to keep shopping. “You will find a good doctor,” she assured those at the meeting, advising them to try to educate health providers. If the provider still shows constant or persistent disrespect, she recommends lodging a formal complaint, and “then find yourself a new doctor.”
A person that works with people with mental health concerns lamented, “The doctor will talk to me, not the person, like they’re not there.”
Then there are challenges with having a dental insurance card, but not being able to find a dentist in the area that will accept the card.
Lowdown on being Black and gay
One individual referred to how Madison is conservative in many ways, and how she feels the need to censor herself and put up a constant curtain.
“You see a lot of images of gay people in Madison, but not Black gay people,” Peyton-Caire said.
One person that indicated she is a “Black queer women that is out” stated, “I never seen a picture of a strong gay family that represents me, and I feel that affects me.”
Conversation ensued regarding being a Black scholar on a largely White college campus, and about other work settings. “Sometimes you just have to be yourself, and let people interpret it,” said Peyton-Caire. She elucidated that “we are bicultural people” and sometimes, tri-cultural as well.
A registered nurse who is African American shared some of the difficulties she has faced working in the Madison area. She said that when you don’t feel welcome or comfortable, you might not even try for some jobs because you “don’t want to deal with the B.S.”
When one person implored folks in the room to “teach them what you want them to know,” another countered, “You don’t get tired of teaching them?”
“You definitely get tired,” she responded. “You don’t give up what you want because someone doesn’t understand you.” (When it comes to trying to educate people, the comment was later made that is “causes an extra level of stress that I don’t need.”)
Peyton-Caire later stated, “Intergenerational sharing of knowledge and experience is critical.”
Two women that hailed from New York discussed their experiences in moving to and getting settled in Madison. One said she feels it’s hard to be yourself in Madison “because everyone wants to make you something else…someone will say, ‘She thinks she’s all of that!’ Yes, I do!”
The other former New York resident remarked that none of her elders helped her, which surprised her but she felt it had to do with competition.
Jobs are pretty limited in the Madison area, Peyton-Caire said, especially jobs for Black people. When it comes to job discrimination (hiring, retention, promotion practices), one individual drew a comparison, “(it’s) almost like being in the South.”
As to the question, do you stay in Madison or go someplace else, Peyton-Caire said that she has struggled with that issue herself, on more than one occasion over the years. With sons that are now 18 and 20 years old, she stated, “I worry about them being here long-term” because of the color of their skin and “what that poses to people that see them and their perspectives.” However, she contends that she does not think that any of these concerns do not have solutions.
More on mental health in Madison
As the conversation turned more specifically to mental health needs, the comment was made that unemployment itself can be traumatic and can lead to mental health issues. Then there’s the growing suicide rate in the Black community, in particular for Black men, which “we don’t talk about a lot.”
According to one person, it seems like a disconnect, that mental health services are available, “but the Black community’s not taking advantage of them.” Stigma plays a big role, echoed another individual in the room.
Then there is the need to disaggregate data, to get the real picture of what health issues in Wisconsin (according to specific zip codes) truly look like for Black women.
The comment was made that if White people can help educate other White people when it comes to issues concerning Black people, “…That adds legitimacy to anything that I could say as a Black woman.”
Peyton-Caire said it’s critical to ask Black women two questions, “What do you want?” and “What do you need?”
According to Dr. Pritchett, the fact that there is “just too, too much apathy” needs to be addressed. “If services are there and they’re not being used, that it is a problem. If the information is there and you don’t use it, how do we know there’s a problem with it, or it needs to be tweaked?”
Peyton-Caire expressed caution about what mind setpen when “we begin to pull back and not expect much,” and the subsequent mindset. Referring to what she has observed in the Madison area, she said she has “not seen African American people (other places) with such low expectations of what they demand.”
Pritchett attested that she wants to know what we’re doing over here. “…We don’t show up. We don’t do the kinds of things we need to do for ourselves.”
One attendee said, “Because we don’t always know (what we need to do).”
Number One: A misnomer?
The remark was made that Madison is often listed as the Number One Place to Live, “but not for us…” The city gets ranked as the best place to bike, raise kids, etc., she said, stressing, “…not for us.”
Another individual called for different outreach methods, more specifically, she “would like some of our White allies to teach White people how to work with Black folks in the workplace.”
When it comes to talking about things that are important to local Black women, one person said “these conversations need to be with just Black women in the room”-not men, not with White women there, etc. Otherwise, Male Privilege and White Privilege could stand in the way of Black women being completely candid and real about what is in their thoughts, hearts, and lives.
Regarding quality of life, attendees also raised the issue of the disproportionate number of Black children in foster care, and a person that identified herself as a “youth representative” expressed desire for folks, Black young people in particular, to be “preventative and not reactionary “ when it comes to key issues.
Indeed, Peyton-Caire contends that “it takes soldiers on the ground,” recognizing that on the flip side of that heavy reality is the need for folks to work together to improve quality of life and health.
Venus, a personal trainer at the gathering, called for people to create their own personal mission statement. “What are you here for? What are here on this world to do? Why am I doing what I’m doing?”
In addition to verbal discussion, written comments about thoughts on Black women’s health and wellness in Madison included the need for “access to gyms and more yoga and stress reduction activities,” “zones/ (workout) areas free of skinny and judgmental White women,” “opportunities to be active with our children,” “reducing the stigma of receiving mental health care,” “understanding that pastors and clergy are insufficient mental health consultants,” “Black women’s mental health needs are clearly not addressed in Madison/Wisconsin,” “physical, mental, and dental care should be made more holistic and within the places that we live, learn, play, work, and worship,” “gatekeepers’ belief that Black women are ‘welfare queens,’ “I believe access is lacking….there should be greater access (to care) and it should be affordable,” and “life in Madison (as a Black woman) is challenging.”