Avery, Byllye Y. 1937–

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Byllye Y. Avery 1937–

Health educator

Byllye Y. Avery is the founder and director of the National Black Women's Health Project, a research and advocacy group focusing on health issues that affect African-American women. Active in both health education and feminist causes for much of her career, Avery sought to bring her message to women at the community level by establishing in the 1990s a network of walking clubs and other fitness-related groups. “Most of us grew up playing basketball, softball, double Dutch,” she explained to New York Times journalist Julie Flaherty about her mission. “We did all kinds of physical activity growing up, but there's really nowhere you can do group physical activities that's encouraged.”

Born in 1937, Avery graduated from Talladega College, a private school in Alabama that is part of the network of historically black universities and colleges in the United States, and she went on to earn a master's degree in education from the University of Florida at Gainesville in 1969. She began her career as head teacher in the children's mental health unit at Shands Teaching Hospital, which was affiliated with the Gainesville campus. Her interest in physical well-being and chronic conditions that affect African Americans at a higher rate than other Americans was spurred by the recent and untimely death of her husband, Wesley, who died of a heart attack at the age of thirty-three.

Improving women's access to medical care became Avery's first focus, however. She was already involved in the burgeoning feminist movement, and in 1974 she and four of her Shands coworkers established the Gainesville Women's Health Center. The facility offered a full range of gynecological services for area women in the wake of the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, which lifted the final barriers imposed by states for women's access to abortion. In 1978 Avery and her colleagues opened an affiliated alternative birthing center called Birthplace, and she assisted in more than a hundred births.

In 1980 Avery became the director of the Gainesville area's Comprehensive Employment Training Program, a federally funded job-training program, but she still retained her ties to women's health organizations. Active in the National Women's Health Network (NWHN), she became a member of its board of directors but soon recognized that there were marked differences between black women and white women. “People look at health in terms of how they live and what is important to them,” she explained in an interview with Martha Scherzer for the Network News, a NWHN publication. “The women's health movement was started and organized mainly by white women. And white women had no idea about certain issues affecting black women.” She was surprised to find, for example, that in surveys African-American female respondents ranked violence in their communities as the number-one health issue requiring more attention and funding.

Avery founded the National Black Women's Health Project (NBWHP) in 1981 and served as its president for the next decade. The organization worked to educate African-American women about health care issues, advocate for increased research funding, and improve medical care standards. By the end of Avery's decade-long tenure as president, the NBWHP had grown to eighty-eight chapters in twenty-four states.

As a discussion-group leader with the NBWHP, Avery soon came to realize that black women were very much aware of the connection between the mind and body. For example, in one meeting assembled to focus on heart disease, participants told her “‘We want to talk about what makes our hearts hurt,’” Avery recalled in the New York Times interview. She saw that the NBWHP had to address spiritual health, too. “Emotional pain keeps you from doing other healthy things,” she told Flaherty.

Avery's mission was boosted immensely in 1989, when she won one of the fellowships for social contribution from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Commonly known as the “MacArthur genius grants,” the five-year, unrestricted fellowships recognize excellence in the arts and sciences, and Avery's grant, which was $310,000 at the time, was bestowed with the foundation's mission to encourage creative thinking. Avery used hers to fund a fitness education program under the auspices of the NBWHP she called Walking to Wellness. Local chapters encouraged African-American women to organize walking clubs at the neighborhood level, which Avery knew would bring women together and serve as an emotional support group and a network of friends dedicated to improving their physical health. The Walking to Wellness program also sponsored walking events in conjunction with the American Heart Association. Avery saw that such groups could improve more than just its members' collective cholesterol or blood pressure statistics. “If more people are out walking in their community,” she noted in the interview with Flaherty, “more people will start taking their communities back, and realizing, ‘I don't want to have to drive five miles to find a safe place.’”

Avery also urged women to take at least an hour out of each day to do something beneficial for themselves, whether it be physical activity or merely relaxing alone, free from the interruptions of family or work obligations. Many American women, burdened with caregiving responsibilities besides their income-providing full-time jobs, were overtaxed, she argued, and such relentless levels of stress created adverse effects on the body, such as hypertension. “I hear, ‘I don't have time for myself: I'm taking care of my husband, I'm taking care of my children, I'm working. By the end of the day I am tired, I go to bed tired, I wake up tired,’” Avery said in the New York Times interview. “And this is no way to live a life.” Her message was taken up by the influential Susan L. Taylor, the editor in chief of Essence magazine, who penned a column in the January of 2004 issue urging her readers to follow Avery's advice. “Let's not wait to get sick to take a break. Byllye Avery's prescription is preventive,” Taylor declared. “Stress is cumulative, and when we don't stop to rest and restore ourselves, God will lay our body down.”

At a Glance …

Born Byllye Yvonne Avery in 1937; married Wesley (died c. 1970); partner of Ngina Lythcott; two children. Education: Talladega College, BA, 1959; University of Florida, MEd, 1969.

Career: Shands Teaching Hospital/University of Florida—Gainesville Medical Center, children's mental health unit, head teacher, 1970-76; Gainesville Women's Health Center and Birthplace, cofounder, 1974; Santa Fe Community College, Gainesville, FL, Comprehensive Employment Training Program, director, 1980-82; National Black Women's Health Project, founder, 1981, and president, 1981-91; Avery Institute for Social Change, founder; producer of the documentary film On Becoming a Woman: Mothers and Daughters Talking Together, 1987; author of An Altar of Words: Wisdom, Comfort, and Inspiration for African American Women, 1998; Columbia University, Center for Bioethics, member of external advisory board.

Selected Awards: Children's Defense Fund, Outstanding Service to Women and Children Award, 1988; John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Fellowship for Social Contribution, 1989; Institute of Medicine, Gustav O. Lienhard Award, 1994; Dorothy I. Height Lifetime Achievement Award, 1995.

Addresses: Office—Columbia University, Center for Bioethics, 630 West 168th St., P.O. Box 161, New York, NY 10032.

Selected writings

An Altar of Words: Wisdom, Comfort, and Inspiration for African American Women, Broadway Books, 1998.



Essence, January 2004, p. 3.

Network News, May-June 1995, p. 1.

New York Times, June 13, 1999.

Washington Times, February 19, 1998.


Avery Institute for Social Change,http://www.averyinstitute.org/ (accessed December 4, 2007).

—Carol Brennan