• National Health Care Activist Billye Avery Speaks to Classes


Billye Avery, founder and president of the Avery Institute for Social Change and founder of the National Black Women’s Health Project, spoke to more than 60 Suffolk students and faculty members on Thursday, Feb. 21 as part of the College of Arts and Science’s Distinguished Visiting Scholars lecture series.

“Know that your health is the most important thing that you have,” she told the students passionately, earrings swinging in emphasis above her purple turtleneck and jewel-colored blouse. “It is really one of the only things you own.”

Dedicated to helping African American women embody that belief and take charge of their personal health care, Avery began her work as a health care activist in the ’70s on the cusp of the women's movement.

Leading the National Black Women’s Health Project, which turns 25 this year, Avery’s work grew into a national movement of its own, advocating for such health care reforms as improved patients’ access to health records and increased awareness of racial disparities in the health care system.

Avery maintains a commitment to joining women’s voices to obtain the health care they need, and emphasizes prevention and primary care as the vision for the future.

“We have a sick-care system,” she said, “not a health care system.”

Avery views health care needs through the eyes of black women, white women, and all women of color, because health care is perceived differently by each of them. “The way we are shaped by our experiences determines how we see the world,” she said, and how we see the health care options available to us.

“You need access to health care to stay healthy. People need food, shelter, clothing and support.” The existing health care system is not functioning, she said, because 47 million people in this country have no health insurance, and 1 in 5 are non-elderly women. Other countries with health care access for all don’t understand Americans. But there are people in the U.S. who don’t believe that health care is a human right, she noted, they believe it is a privilege, and that there are those who deserve it and those who don’t.

“What about illegal aliens, should they have health care?” asked a student.

“They should have it,” Avery declared, “because they are humans. Because that is how humans are to each other.” She suggested that there could be some way for them to pay into the system, but they should not be turned away. “We want health care for everybody. It’s that clear.”

Avery has suggestions for reaching that goal and improving the health care system: take health insurance out of the business community, as many businesses are failing and can’t afford health insurance for their employees; create a system in which doctors know their patients; offer debt relief for primary care doctors so more medical students can elect preventive care rather than specializing to cover medical school costs; and put physical education back in schools.

“How do you begin making change happen?” asked another student.

“Get involved yourself. Learn the issue, start small,” said Avery. “Find a few like-minded people and start with a small group discussion.” She raised her arms, appealing to everyone in the room. “What do we want to have as a legacy?” she asked. “We want to engage people around change, vision and a better future.”


For more information, contact Filicia Wiltz, associate professor and chair of Sociology, fwiltz@suffolk.edu
National Black Women’s Health Imperative


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