Black women’s health leader says it’s time to make “culture” and “racism” social determinants of health


Eli Kirshbaum


The 1.2 million Black women and girls in California carry an “inordinate burden” when it comes to health care, according to Sonya Young-Aadam, CEO of the California Black Women’s Health Project (CBWHP).

“In our communities, Black women tend to be the administrative heads of our households, the health heads of our households, and all too often, the heads of our households.”


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Speaking on the “Scaling connections between health care and the community” panel at our 2021 Los Angeles State of Reform Health Policy Conference last month, Young-Aadam spoke about the California health care system’s failure to adequately support Black women and offered ways to better-incorporate this population into health policy conversations.

“We carry an inordinate burden of not only taking care of our own health in the face of a health care system that is not safe, nor tends to respect us and treat us well and fair and properly with quality care, but we also carry the burdens of caring for and supporting better health for our own families … and for the entire community, in many cases.”

One of the most important things the state can do, Young-Aadam said, is to include “culture” and “racism” as social determinants of health, which frequently aren’t considered as such. Her organization conducts community advocacy to train and educate Black Californians about what health care services are available to them and how to access them.

She called on policymakers and health care systems to focus on and make intentional investments in community connection when developing policy concerning Black women’s health. During the pandemic, the state has had to utilize community-based organizations in order to provide beneficial health care to different communities. Young-Aadam said this crucial community involvement needs to continue and be expanded on.

“The importance of utilizing and engaging community-based organizations in the model of care is so essential. We are attempting to do it along with extremely limited resources. And if you are a Black women-led organization, you’re really almost doing it on crumbs — and that is unacceptable.”

She described three “community-defined interventions” CBWHP is leading to support Black Californians’ health across California. 

Sisters Mentally Mobilized is funded by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) and trains Black women across five counties to become mental health advocates for their communities.

Anti-Violence Ventures, supported by Blue Shield of California, focuses on supporting Black men and boys. This program expands the state’s pool of advocates around violence prevention in the Black community.

The Sistahs Aging with Grace and Elegance (SAGE) program supports Black women over 50 in their aging journey by providing them the tools and resources they need to lead a quality life. This subset of the population has received sparse attention and minimal research, and are often left out of policy conversations, Young-Aadam said.