City News

Empowerment: First black women's health center in Dane County

A space dedicated to black women's health is to open this summer straddling two of the city's highest-need neighborhoods

A space dedicated to black women's health is to open this summer straddling two of the city's highest-need neighborhoods

Image By: Max Homstad

Health disparities based on location and race is a challenge Dane County has struggled to tackle for years. 

Lisa Peyton-Caire, founder and president of the Foundation for Black Women's Wellness, is hoping to change that with the first black women's health and wellness center in Dane County.

Infant mortality is defined as the death of a child in its first year of life. Wisconsin was ranked the worst in the nation for black infant mortality in 2018, according to the CDC.

Between 2016 and 2018, the black infant mortality rate in the county was 12 deaths per 1,000 births, compared to 4.3 deaths per 1,000 for white babies, according to Madison and Dane County Public Health. Additionally, it has illustrated the complex intersection between social, environmental and economic factors that influence health outcomes in their 2011-’12 review.

The black women's health and wellness center in Dane County, straddling zip codes 53719 and 53711 — two of the city's highest-need neighborhoods — aims to alleviate some of the disparity. 

The Foundation for Black Women's Wellness seeks to raise $100,000 to outfit the center and prepare it for a late-summer opening. 

“There is a great need for women of color to have a space where they can gather, and it’s an independent space that’s not government-run."

The non-profit organization was established in 2012 for the explicit purpose of working to eliminate health disparities that impact black women in Dane County and throughout Wisconsin. A big part of that work is helping women in the community develop their voices as advocates while improving their health, Peyton-Caire said.

“We’ve been working on the ground in a very grassroots way, engaging black women here for the past seven years with health education, health promotion, prevention and really building a movement of elevating the issue of black women’s health,” Peyton-Caire said. 

Some activities the center will offer are year-round health promotion and health literacy education, mother and infant wellness, weekly fitness and yoga classes and chronic disease prevention education.

Additionally, the FBWW and the Dane County Health Council released a report in April on African-American infant health in the county. The report was an effort to specifically address and eliminate disparities in birth outcomes of black women and their babies, which the council has been working to do over the past 20 years.

Peyton-Caire said this partnership is unprecedented, but the problem has persisted. 

“The health systems decided last year for the first time to collectively look at this issue of black maternal and child health as a strategic priority, and to enlist an organization who is closely tied to the African-American community to create a community-informed strategy, plan and set of solutions that would really work to turn the tide,” Peyton-Caire said.

Between 2002 and 2007, more African-American babies were surviving their first year of life, and Dane County saw a decrease in black infant mortality rates for the first time in years. It is the first known example of the black-white infant mortality gap closing in any one state or county, according to NewsWeek.

And yet, there is still no consensus for the cause of the anomaly. The rate for black infant mortality reappeared in 2009, and no one is sure why. However, the report released by the FBWW and Dane County Health Council listed stressed black family systems, the generational struggle for economic security and institutional racism as the largest factors for poor birth outcomes.


The rate for black infant mortality increased in 2009 and has been at an alarmingly high rate since.


Peyton-Caire said the black women's health and wellness center would be a space not only to empower black women to improve their health, but where community partners could come together to drive policy changes across health systems.  

“We are working with partners within the [health] council and within local communities that are most impacted,” Peyton-Caire said. “We need space in order to host those very ongoing meetings and conversations that lead to a lot of on-the-ground work.”

Public Health supervisor in Maternal and Child Health Katarina Grande emphasized the importance of the center today.

“The Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness is such a connector organization; they’re well positioned to be the ones to open a center like this,” Grande said. “There is a great need for women of color to have a space where they can gather, and it’s an independent space that’s not government-run. It’s for black women, run by black women — and I think it’s going to be a huge community asset.”

As for the location of the center, it was crucial that it was situated in an accessible place — easy to get to on a bus line and where women from all over the city can convene, Peyton-Caire said. She looked at over 30 spaces across the city since last fall. 

“We let the data zero in and lead us to the best place and here, at this West Side location, we absolutely are right in the middle of some of our most high-need neighborhoods,” Peyton-Caire said. “It’s evenly distributed beyond seven to 10 zip codes, so we really could’ve been located anywhere and sitting in need, but here, on the West Side … we are in a very transportation accessible place where women who are directly within these zip codes can get to us.”  

The FBWW and Dane County Health Council issued several recommendations to improve black maternal and child health including internal health system actions, like rooting out racial bias, community investments, along with system and policy actions. Though the issue remains to be a top priority of Dane County, Grande is looking forward to the future.

“We are at a particularly exciting time in history where there is a lot of coordinated efforts to decrease infant mortality in the community and also at the state level,” Grande said. 

The black women's health and wellness center is set to open later this summer.

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