First annual Baraza conference called ‘a huge success’: Event launches movement to improve Black women’s health and wellness


What does it mean to be health conscious and mindful of preventive care? The 2012 “Baraza: A Black Women’s Health Gathering!” conference that took place last month at Saint Paul College in St. Paul addressed that question as well as others relating to the current health crisis facing African American women.

For African American women, diabetes, heart disease and stroke occur more frequently among us than among other races. And, a high percentage of Black women also struggle with weight challenges.

A diverse array of over 300 women of various ages and backgrounds attended this first-time conference that is planned to occur annually according to organizers. It is interesting to note that several presenters called the organizers “trailblazers” for their committed efforts to this event. The name “Baraza” comes from an East African term that means a deliberation or “gathering” held by a collective group of people of wisdom.

The premise of Baraza is to provide women with an enriching experience for inspiring, motivating and launching a community-driven framework for improving the health and wellness of Twin Cities African/African American women. The African American Leadership Forum’s Health & Wellness work group presented the conference along with presenting sponsor HealthPartners.

The 2012 Baraza co-chairs were Babette Jamison of the Minnesota Department of Health and Office of Minority Health, and Toni Carter, Ramsey County Commissioner, District 4.

Throughout the day, Baraza attendees had the opportunity to visit with local vendors and get a health screening and fitness assessment. In addition, they enjoyed inspiring national keynote speakers offering a diverse range of expert perspectives and approaches, as well as the chance to participate in a refreshing and lively discussion during the Black physicians panel.

Three things stood out from the beginning. First, there was an overriding theme of the importance of being proactive about having a healthy life. Second, the atmosphere was one that embodied tremendous energy for inspiring women to change their lives and their world. And finally, women seemed genuinely mesmerized and uplifted by the varied terrain covered by the invited speakers and panelists.

At a pre-conference session, attendees viewed and talked about a portion of Place Matters: Unnatural Causes, a four-hour documentary that illustrated how “housing policy is health policy” and highlighted how living in certain neighborhoods can affect your health. The discussion was facilitated by Caitlin Caspi, ScD., currently a research fellow in the University of Minnesota’s Health Program in health disparities research.

LaDonna Redmond of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and KMOJ radio host of the program “It’s Your Health” served as emcee of the conference, keeping everything and everyone on track in an entertaining yet informative way.

Keynote speaker and nutrition coach Rovenia M. Brock, Ph.D. said she was on a mission and has been for two decades during her “Change Your Mind, Change Your Life” presentation. That mission, since she relocated to Alabama by way of Virginia, has been to help others live a healthy and active lifestyle.

The award-winning health journalist, leading nutrition coach, and television personality is the author of Dr. Ro’s Ten Secrets to Livin’ Healthy (Bantam, 2007). Addressing the audience at Baraza, she said, “We can have curves without the rolls.” To help achieve that objective, Dr. Ro strongly suggested eating a rainbow of food.

Dr. Ro posed the question, “Are you willing to change your plate? Have a half of that plate fresh fruit and vegetables, a quarter of the plate lean meat protein, and another quarter whole grains. Are you willing to do that? Are you willing to move just a little bit more than you do today?” Dr. Ro asked, and then suggested, “These can be the components of a health pledge. You can start right now.”

She also asked, “Are you willing to give up soda pop?” and then stated, “Black women drink more soda pop in the United States than any other people. We could put Pepsi out of business and make them change their product.”

Board-certified pediatrician and health policy specialist Dr. Michelle A. Gourdine, M.D., also a keynote speaker at Baraza, addressed health policy and preventative health. She is the author of Reclaiming Our Health: A Guide to African American Wellness (Yale University Press, 2011) and CEO and principal consultant of Michelle Gourdine and Associates, a health policy consulting firm. Gourdine grew up in Jackson, Mississippi in the early ’70s but is now based in Baltimore, Maryland.

The topic of Dr. Gourdine’s address was “Black Women, Stress, and Health: I’m Not Your Superwoman.” She said, “Being a superwoman is stressful, and it makes you sick,” adding, “It’s time to get serious about your health.”

She advised women to do four things: 1. Learn to say no. (“No” is a complete sentence.) 2. Ask somebody for help. (It doesn’t mean you’re weak. It keeps you strong.) 3. Take a break. (Take some me time.) 4. Make two appointments. (Go to the doctor for a physical, and go to the spa.) Dr. Gourdine also recommended journaling as a way of getting rid of pain and knowing your own feelings, because we all need each other, and we need each other’s gifts and talents.

She also talked about stress hormones as it relates to us always being “on,” and internal aging, also referred to as “weathering” in Black women. Coping mechanisms such as self-medicating with food were also mentioned. Dr. Gourdine said that she was pleased to see more women of color moving, walking, and in the gym.

In addition, Gourdine said that she was blessed to be at the event and believed there was a spirit in the room among the women that was truly inspiring, especially considering all the history, accomplishment and prosperity that she acknowledged as being beyond wealth or money. She described the overall event as “a rich gathering of women” and encouraged audience members to keep it going.

For more on the Baraza Conference, including a presentation by Dr. BraVada Garrett-Akinsanya and discussion by the Black physicians panel facilitated by Beverly Propes, go to MSR online:

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