At Healthy Black Families, or HBF, racial justice works from the macro level of systemic reforms down to a micro level so personal that, for Executive Director Wilhelmenia Wilson, the fight is quite literally in her DNA.
“To whom much is given, much is required,” Wilson said. “The fight, it’s DNA-level stuff. I don’t have a choice. I must do this. I must teach my children how to do this, I must train the community how to do this and I must train the politicians to see their error of not leaning into this work, because all of us deserve better.”
HBF, a public health grassroots organization dedicated to building a thriving Black community in Berkeley, focuses on housing, health and birth equity and the promotion of healthy foods and beverages.
The nonprofit is relatively small, made up of about nine employees — almost all Black women, according to Wilson. She noted her respect for the team, who kept the organization running through the COVID-19 pandemic and the departure of their former executive director.
When leadership was up in the air, the women “held the organization down,” Wilson said.
“I think their philosophy is different from others in that it’s holistic,” said Derethia DuVal, a supporter of HBF. “It understands all aspects of the family: physical, psychological, emotional and mental health. The programming they do feeds all parts of you.”
One of its programs, Sisters Together Empowering Peers, or STEP, is a peer-led support group for Black Berkeley mothers with children ages zero to five, according to HBF program manager Erin Alexander. She noted that listening to women, instead of deciding what they need for them, helps create a thriving community.
STEP also provides school enrollment workshops and resources to obtain food and other necessities, in addition to a place for Black women to simply gather and talk about their lives, according to Kameka Goodwin, the program coordinator for STEP.
“It helps the moms see that they’re not alone,” Goodwin said. “There is hope, and we are able to show them a new way of thriving and being a better version of themselves for their children.”
Goodwin noted that STEP has seen an increase of regular meeting attendees from two to 20, and a leadership workshop yielded a 100 percent completion rate of 21 women. Several women said the workshop “changed their life,” according to Alexander.
As part of a greater push for healthy eating education and habits, the team also decided not to serve sugary beverages at STEP meetings, something that received pushback at first, according to Goodwin.
Goodwin noted many attendees have shifted to healthier drink options, like spa water.
“I’m meeting with these women every month,” Goodwin said. “They’re able to call me anytime outside of a meeting, so we’re building more than just an organization participant relationship — it’s really like a sisterhood.”
Wilson said HBF “has, and always will be” a public health grassroots organization. HBF’s focus is shifting to programs, policy advocacy and training, Wilson added, while maintaining a primary responsibility of engaging the community.
Another one of HBF’s initiatives is its monthly People’s Assembly meetings. The gatherings consist of a healthy dose of laughter, community and productivity. Community members are invited to stand up and get moving, grab a bite to eat and visualize the changes needed to create a “thriving Black Berkeley,” Wilson said.
“Community is really our accountability touchpoint as we move forward,” Wilson said. “Every month, we’re coming back to them, telling them what we’re doing and how we’re moving forward and getting our direction and guidance from them.”
The assemblies gather people from the city of Berkeley, BART, Friends of Adeline and other community organizations and members to engage in conversation on the development of the Adeline Corridor and affordable housing on the Ashby BART station.
Wilson noted HBF is pushing for 100 percent affordable housing on the Ashby BART station property.
“From an ethical framework, we don’t feel it should be a lucrative project for BART,” Wilson said. “It should be a publicly viable project for BART, but they shouldn’t stand to earn a lot of money from property they seized from other people, namely Black families in Berkeley.”
Wilson added that Black families and businesses have not recovered from the Ashby BART transit project, which seized their lands via eminent domain.
For Goodwin, the gentrification of South Berkeley is a shift that has turned longtime residents into outsiders on their own street. She said the displacement of residents, alongside the closing of the shops and movie theaters she grew up with, makes her feel “hopeless.”
For Wilson, the connections to BART and racial equity go way back — Wilson grew up in El Cerrito because her father moved their family to avoid the possibility of losing their land through eminent domain when the North Berkeley BART station was built.
Her father fought for the same principles Wilson fights for now, she said. As an attorney, her father was contracted by former California Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown to write the California Fair Employment Practices Act.
Wilson said she keeps a “futuristic” outlook, knowing her work will serve generations to come just like the work of her parents and ancestors allowed her to be here today.
Prior to joining HBF, Wilson worked in a corporate setting, where she said people expressed “lofty values” they often didn’t act on. She said HBF’s community work means much more to her because people practice what they preach.
“The friction at the boundary of progress was so painful,” Wilson said. “So I left there and came to Healthy Black Families. I feel like I fell out of the jaws of the dragon into the bosom of Black women — and it was a great landing.”