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Advancing Black Feminism In Public Health

Dr Quinn M. Gentry

By Dr. Quinn M. Gentry

Welcome to my blog on “Advancing Black Feminism in Public Health.” My goal is to move black feminism from the margins to the center of public health by applying 10 key principles as legitimate and comprehensive frameworks for adequately addressing health threats and related social and structural determinants of health in the lives of black women and girls.

Dr. Quinn M. Gentry

Principle 4:
Engage women in search of unique experiences

In this blog, I highlight the significance of principle no. 4 (of 10): Engage Women in Multiple Settings to Address Unique Experiences for advancing black feminism in public health. Among the many unique experiences that set black women apart is the unfortunate intersection of enslavement and rape, while attempting loving relationships with enslaved men. This trauma manifests in modern day as economic exploitation of black women’s reproductive health, and the continued politicization of black women’s love relationships. These traumatic experiences have shaped generations of black women’s sexual health vulnerabilities, beliefs, and behaviors. However, diverse coping mechanisms among black women necessitates further analysis to understand and identify appropriate implications and interventions in physical, mental, sexual, reproductive, and maternal health. 

“We must ‘level- up’ public health interventions and engage women in dynamic and different settings to maximize opportunities to optimize health."

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Public health approaches to addressing black women’s unique, traumatic sexual and violent histories can be empowering or oppressing.

Opportunities for empowerment and authentic engagement is linked to selecting the most appropriate interventions for diverse sub-groups of black women and girls. For example, discussing HIV/AIDS in a group setting among peers may not feel safe for some girls to freely engage in conversations about sexuality and sexual risk-taking. Furthermore, if she has been sexually molested, exploited, or raped, she may shut down altogether in a group setting. In both scenarios, program participants might benefit from one-on-one sessions prior to or intertwined with group sessions.

Closely related, women experiencing intimate partner turmoil or violence may be prohibited by partners from attending women’s health events. Still, other women may opt out of some interventions based on the social construction of stigma and bias towards public discussions of sexual health. These latter examples justify community, medical, and structural interventions as paramount to reach vulnerable women typically out of reach of traditional public health initiatives.

4 PRACTICAL POINTS FOR ENGAGING WOMEN IN MULTIPLE SETTINGS TO ADDRESS UNIQUE EXPERIENCES

1. Consciousness-raising

In blog 1, I introduced principle 1 (Respect Individuals’ Right to Self-Definition/Self Valuation) for advancing black feminism in public health. Succinctly, I highlighted how ethnographic interviews and direct observations of sex workers engaging middle class married men raised my consciousness about HIV risks among unsuspecting middle-class black women. In blog 2 (principle 2 on addressing controlling images), I elaborated on my dilemma of identifying appropriate levels of intervention for suburban black women who perceived themselves to be in monogamous heterosexual relationships. Initially, I faced some backlash about the purpose and intent of “raising issues that needed to be addressed as private matters”, which was a recurring response primarily from black women- and girls-serving organizations’ gatekeepers, whose own biases about sex and sexuality blocked access to larger groups of black women and girls. Engaging these leaders with a spirit of cultural humility resulted in aggregable strategies for including “mainstream black women” into evidence-based sexual health discussions under the theme of “healthy intimate partner relationships.”  A glimpse of my approach to creative collaborations is highlighted below in practical point 3 for addressing unique experiences.

2. Complementary approaches

I selected frameworks applicable to a sociological perspective in public health conducive for connecting “the general and the particular” in  operationalizing principle 4: Engaging Women in Multiple Settings to Address Unique Experiences. Each theoretical and research paradigm summarized below prioritizes unique experiences as core to addressing broader public health issues.

  • Wright Mills’ sociological imagination is an interpretive tool for understanding how intimate partner relationships are connected to broader social and health conditions in our society.
  • Trauma-informed approaches center on comprehensive assessments to glean unique experiences as a prerequisite for selecting appropriate intervention settings, where black women feel supported and safe when sharing unpleasant aspects of lived experiences.
  • The health belief model blends social and psychological theories with behavioral change to explain harm reduction and treatment adherence among diverse groups of black women and girls.
  • The life course theory’s “linked lives” principle shapes our understanding of black women’s unique health vulnerabilities as influenced by networks of shared relationships. In this case, sexual encounters with black men links the lives of sex workers with substance use disorders and suburban black women who perceive themselves to be in monogamous relationships.
  • Queer theory provides a lens for centering same gender loving black women as a unique sub-group; thereby normalizing discussions of sexuality as fluid and dynamic over time.
  • Oral history/storytelling’s significance in public health is that it shifts narratives about black women’s sexuality from a public debate filtered through socio-economic and political spectrums, to one that humanizes black women’s love and relationships. 
  • The cycle of violence model explains the complexity and co-existence of love, abuse, insecurities, and intimidation among intimate partners. This model is especially useful in public health for addressing trauma among black women at different phases and stages of intimate partner relationships.

3. Creative Collaborations

It is not enough to study black women because they are invisible. Rather it is incumbent that we examine and interpret their experiences.

In this quote, Dr. Hine is challenging scholars to humanize their research on black women. In accepting this challenge, I adapted evidence-informed interventions on sexual risks to be less stigmatizing and more inclusive of elements comprising “healthy relationships”. This led to opportunities to engage unique sub-groups of black women and girls through partnerships with diverse black women- and girls-serving organizations, including churches, community, civic, and collegiate settings. While the content of these engagements remained science-based, the delivery included music from different genres and generations, about various phases of love relationships.

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I have added the links to some songs I used for this community-level approach; however please note that I deconstruct song lyrics as ‘teachable moments’ to address unequal gender norms and roles, toxic aspects of relationships, and best practices in healthy relationships. I acknowledge that these songs are “old-school”. As you peruse my playlist, recall that this collaborative strategy was implemented between 2007 – 2017, and the goal was to engage intergenerational audiences. While the songs resonated with those 30 and up, a common practice was to ask younger participants for song suggestions to fit various relationship stages and improvise a discussion around an audience-driven playlist. 

Abbreviated Playlist for Healthy Relationships across Key Stages 

Community-level Presentation 

4. Call to Action

This blog provides guidance for multiple level interventions for advancing black feminism in public health. While I focused on addressing one aspect, it is imperative that public health practitioners value black women’s unique experiences in all phases of a public health intervention life cycle.   

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