Sonya Young Aadam was at a meeting at the Los Angeles Department of Mental Health when she suddenly fell unconscious and had to be hospitalized and intubated. Doctors told her family there was little care the hospital could give her.
But her husband pushed for the hospital staff to try harder with their care. This push ultimately saved Aadam’s life.
“He had to pull out all the stops because he realized that they just viewed me as a Black woman who was found passed out on the floor at the Department of Mental Health building,” Aadam said. “Who, you know, if she had drugs, did she do this?”
On the day of the incident, Aadam was actually at the Department of Mental Health’s meeting to promote her organization, the California Black Women’s Health Project (CABWHP). These are exactly the kinds of stereotypes Aadam has worked to combat since she became CEO of the CABWHP, an organization that raises awareness of medical racism and supports Black women in receiving equal health care, in late 2014.
The CABWHP started in 1992 as a chapter of the National Black Women’s Health Project based in Washington D.C. The nonprofit organization focuses on making all types of health care accessible to Black women in the community with their values of equity, empowerment, change, collaboration and keeping the project Black-women-centric through education, policy, outreach and advocacy. Only 87% of Black women of reproductive age have health insurance and many more experience gaps in coverage throughout their lives.
“The uplift of Black women and girls in our society, in our communities, is essential because the role that we play in the lives of our community is so strong,” Aadam said. “We carry the enormous burden of care from the child all the way up to aging parents.”
Growing up in South Los Angeles, Aadam said it was “the best of worlds and the worst of worlds.”
“I experienced all the pathology that’s associated with growing up in a low-income, under-resourced, poorly served, poorly supported area, and I also grew up as a Black child in America,” she said. “But I also grew up as a young girl who loved music [with] a father who was an avid reader, so I was exposed to literature very early.”
After high school, Aadam attended the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania where she studied economics and management. She went on to hold various financial positions around the country, but eventually returned to South L.A.
“I couldn’t understand how so little could have changed when so much time had passed,” she said.
Aadam started donating to local organizations and volunteering her time, but realized that it “just wasn’t enough,” leading her to join the CABWHP. She said she experienced significant life changes while adjusting to the new role.
“Not only am I finally fulfilled because my passion and my skills and my training have intersected personally, but I’m also richly fulfilled because I know that I’m doing something that makes a difference,” she said.
Geneses Abril, the director of communications at the organization, first met Aadam during the interview process for her current position.
“Sonya is just an outstanding leader and woman and advocate,” Abril said. “And it was through my initial conversations with her about the organization, what their needs are, what kind of work that they have been doing and they’re planning to do and in future that I was really able to see that.”
A CDC report published in February found that Black maternal health mortality rates are no longer trending on a consistent progression. As part of its initiative, the CABWHP has recently shared this information with the public, which Abril said is one of the most rewarding parts of working with the organization. Abril said this means Black women are receiving better access to health care and better treatment when they’re dealing with maternal services.
“Sonya is phenomenal, and she is inspiring and she is encouraging,” Abril said. “She has this great warmth about her that makes you feel like you are being a part of a safe space.”
Part of Aadam’s work involves supporting and training Black women to become advocates and activists to prepare them to navigate the health care systems that often neglect Black women.
“By our African and African American heritage and history and culture, we are a ‘tend and befriend’ kind of people and so we take care of everyone,” Aadam said. “But we also are the first to experience the weathering and the burden and the weight off of what it is that we do.”
The CABWHP uses a “Sister Circle” model of engagement, a community-defined practice that involves welcoming Black women to a space where they are free to discuss barriers for health care and in their communities.
“When I’m in those circles, I begin to feel the spirit of the circle,” Aadam said. “To watch other women somehow break through, some just have moments where they have heard something that really sparks something for them… it just means everything to me.”
Outside of this Sister Circle, Aadam said she is inspired by another influential woman in her life – her mother, who she described as the “wind beneath her wings.”
Aadam is also inspired by the CEOs of the CABWHP that came before her — Fran Jemmott, Holly Mitchell, Tanya Slack and Crystal Crawford.
“I stand on the shoulders of a legacy of leadership of Black women who have come before me in this role,” Aadam said. “I understand why we do what we do, why it’s important and I’m committed to doing it really for as long as I can.”