American health care activist whose efforts centred on bettering the welfare of low-income African American women through self-help groups and advocacy networks.
Avery studied psychology at Talledega (Alabama) College (B.A., 1959) and received an M.A. in special education from the University of Florida (1969). She devoted herself to the education of emotionally disturbed children, first as a teacher and then as a consultant to the state of Florida. Her husband's sudden death at age 33 was the catalyst for Avery's commitment to improving the health of the African American community; she focused particularly on women who, like herself, had a high level of stress in their lives. Self-help groups for African American women facing poverty, crime, violence, and racism were the cornerstones of her activism.
In 1974 Avery cofounded the Gainesville (Florida) Women's Health Center and later became its president and executive director. Four years later she cofounded Birthplace, an alternative birthing centre, also in Gainesville. The self-help groups she initiated served as models throughout the nation and worldwide, and they paved the way for her founding in 1983 of the National Black Women's Health Project (NBWHP; since 2003 the Black Women's Health Imperative). That year the NBWHP held its first national conference at Spelman College in Atlanta. As executive director (1982–90) of the NBWHP, Avery helped the grassroots advocacy organization grow to an international network of more than 2,000 participants in 22 states and 6 foreign countries, producing not only the first Center for Black Women's Wellness but also the first documentary film by African American women exploring their perspectives on sexuality and reproduction.For her proposals and work with the NBWHP, which enabled thousands of African American women to take charge of their health care, Avery was awarded a MacArthur fellowship in 1989. In the 1990s she wrote and lectured widely on how race, sex, and class affect women's empowerment in the women's health movement. In 2008 Avery received the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Award for a Pioneer in Women's Rights. In January 2009 she became a community host for BeWell.com, the first expert-guided online health and wellness social network.