story title image

My Sister’s Keeper helps Black women in Memphis tackle health disparities head on

Key Takeaways

  • The BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Community Trust donated $7,500 to the Methodist Healthcare Foundation to help address the significant health disparities Black women in Memphis and Shelby County face.
  • The funds are being used by My Sister’s Keeper, a health initiative focused on helping Black women take control of their health with support from Black female leaders.
  • In 2020 and 2021, more than 700 women attended My Sister’s Keeper’s virtual health and wellness summit. This year's event was headlined by Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child, who spoke on the importance of mental health for Black women.

“When it comes to our overall health, we generally think about what we eat and how often we exercise — but those aren’t the only things that have an impact,” says Dr. Andrea Willis, chief medical officer of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

“Social determinants — the circumstances in which people are born, grow, live, work and age — also have a major effect on health outcomes, especially for those in vulnerable populations.”

In Memphis, one of those vulnerable populations is African Americans. Black people make up 52% of the population of Shelby County, yet they account for 70% of deaths from diabetes . They’re also more likely to die from heart disease, stroke and lower-respiratory diseases than white people.

For Black women in particular, the challenges are even greater:

  • Black women in Memphis are 3 times more likely to die from breast cancer than white women.
  • Black women face life-threatening health disparities in heart disease, cervical cancer and mental health issues.
  • Black babies have a higher premature birth rate than white babies and a death rate that’s nearly 3 times greater.

Looking at those numbers, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare and the Methodist Healthcare Foundation knew something had to change. They needed a way to reach Black women directly, so in 2018, they created My Sister’s Keeper (MSK), a comprehensive health initiative specifically focused on addressing the health disparities Black women face.

In Shelby County, where our community is nearly 30% women of color, many of us aren’t thriving ,” says Katrina Kimble, program coordinator for My Sister’s Keeper. “Black women fall behind in owning homes, in access to healthcare, and perhaps most importantly, in having a voice. That has to change.”

Getting women to the table

To do that, MSK needed to be smart about how to connect with Black women.

  • They started by tapping into their community’s greatest resource: Black female leaders across Shelby County.
  • They connected with Black women in groups such as the National Coalition of 100 Black Women and The Links, as well as Black sororities and churches. Methodist has a Congregational Health Network of 728 churches in Shelby County.
  • They also reached out to nonprofits including the American Cancer Society and American Heart Association.

Most importantly, they figured out how to deliver key health information directly to women: getting them to the table.

“We started hosting Kitchen Table Talks, which are lunchtime events where we discuss topics that are — or should be — important to women,” Katrina says. “What is financial wellness and how do I get started? Is it safe to go back to my doctor during COVID? I’m feeling really isolated; where can I turn?”

There’s a disconnect when it comes to health literacy for women, she adds. In most communities, women take care of everybody else and forget about themselves. And while there are often logistical hurdles such as transportation or insurance, many women have health insurance and still don’t go to the doctor.

“At one Kitchen Table Talk, I was sitting in the room with 12 female attorneys and not one of them had had a mammogram!” Katrina says. “As a Black woman, I understand the barriers. There’s distrust in healthcare that goes all the way back to Tuskegee, and it takes time to find a provider who you know will listen when you talk. When we’re all around the table, we can talk about that, and we can encourage women to find a provider they can trust. I say, ‘You took time to find the right hair stylist; Take the time to find the right doctor!’ We want women to know: You have the power. You can use your voice so you have the best quality of life.”

Turning talk into action

Pre-COVID, Kitchen Table Talks were held everywhere from churches and community centers to corporate offices. Today they’re all virtual, which MSK views as an opportunity since anyone with a smartphone can now be part of conversation.

Crucially, outreach doesn’t end when the talk is over. My Sister’s Keeper connects women with whatever they need — whether that’s a provider, a class for managing their chronic disease or counseling services, which have become even more critical during COVID.

“Earlier this year, Dr. Altha Stewart gave a talk called: It’s okay if you’re not okay,” says Katrina. “We broke down the stigma around getting help for mental health, and we gave women information on creating a care plan and finding a therapist.”

“Over the next few weeks, a couple of ladies called back and said they were going to see a therapist. One had moved from Boston to Memphis for work during COVID. She said she’d been feeling extremely isolated for months, but after listening to that Kitchen Table Talk, she understood she wasn’t alone. She got help, and she’s still here, and she’s thriving. If we hear one story like that, we know we’re doing something right.”

Reaching out the right way

Moving forward, My Sister’s Keeper will continue to be strategic in making connections. Katrina is excited to get back out into the surrounding communities — Frayser, Whitehaven, Collierville — where women may be siloed, so they can ask them what they need and deliver. She also wants to continue prioritizing outreach to younger generations.

“We know we’re reaching women between 30 and 65, but I want to connect with young professionals and college students,” she says. “If we’re going to shift the narrative around the health of Black women, we’ve got to get the younger generation to understand that their health is as important as Jordan shoes and Gucci purses!”

One way they’ve helped to make that connection, especially with younger audiences, is with this year’s virtual health and wellness summit — which happened to be headlined by Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child.

“Having Michelle talk about her journey through mental health showed exactly why it’s so important to Black women,” Katrina says.

More than 700 women from all over the country attended the virtual summits in 2020 and 2021 . This year’s event was broadcast live from the Hattiloo Theatre in Memphis. 

“It’s because of support from organizations like the BlueCross Community Trust that we can get quality speakers like Michelle,” Katrina says. “And that brings women in so we can tackle critical issues like heart disease, which is the #1 killer of women of color. Or child and maternal health, which is a huge issue in Shelby County. Or lung cancer, which is the leading cause of death in Tennessee right now.”

And while My Sister’s Keeper is, first and foremost, an organization dedicated to the health of Black women, Katrina is quick to clarify that every woman is welcome — at the summit, at a Kitchen Table Talk or just as part of the conversation.

“We’re all sisters, and we’re all trying to help each other,” she says. “Even if you’re not a woman of color, I’m quite sure if you come to this event, you’ll hear something that will help your life. It’s for every woman. And everybody is welcome at the table.”

Related Content