In October, 1996, seven women between the ages of 25-50 accepted an invitation from Toni M. Bond Leonard and Winnette P. Willis to attend a meeting at the Harris YWCA Women’s Services Center. They were, Toylee Green, LaDonna Redmond, Sheila Baldwin, Kim Sams, Sharon Powell, Billie Woodard, and Dru Johnson. Not only were the women ready to roll up their sleeves and come up with ideas, they were also interested in developing a larger network of Black women to work on reproductive and sexual health issues in Illinois. There was a collective agreement at this initial meeting that Black women needed to define where they were individually on the issue of reproductive health before they could feel comfortable talking with each other, White women, or anyone else about the issue. They also believed that Black women needed to create their own picture or plan for reproductive health. The issue of abortion, while a vital part of reproductive health, was not the primary reproductive health issue confronting Black women. Understanding the menstrual cycle, breast cancer, fibroids, access to birth control methods with little or no side effects, pre- and post-natal care, and support to care for the children they already had were of equal and many times, greater importance.
“The sharing of stories at that first meeting was very draining but we decided to meet again. If all of this [sexual and domestic assault, challenges obtaining health care] was happening to Black women…we knew we had to do something. We didn’t feel helpless. Somehow we were empowered in our pain and felt we could make a difference. We also knew we had to do it for ourselves and in our own organization where we set the agenda instead of struggling to fit it into a pro-choice organization with a different focus.”
Toni M. Bond Leonard
The group agreed that the agenda for that next meeting should start with a process of self-help where the women would share their personal experiences with trying to obtain information about reproductive health and sex education. The self-help model was created by educator and activist, Lillie Allen, one of the founding members of the National Black Women’s Health Project (now called the Black Women’s Health Imperative (BWHI)). Allen’s self-help model became one of the BWHI’s core organizing strategies to help Black women transform their personal experiences into organizing and mobilizing efforts to dismantle the forms of oppression that were impeding Black women’s ability to lead healthy lives. The next meeting was set for February, 1997.