Aaron Perry and the Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association (RLWA) kicked off their new Community Collaboration Grant: Black Men’s Wellness Sustainable Initiative, a four-year strategy that aims to reduce health disparities that adversely affect black men and boys in Dane County.

The initiative builds upon the success of RLWA’s Men’s Health and Education Center. The center, located inside JP Hair Design, Madison’s largest black barbershop, is an innovative model that strives to improve health and reduce barriers to health care for black men. Perry’s goal is to replicate his model in other Dane County barbershops and serve as a model beyond the county as well.

Portrait photo of Aaron Perry
Aaron Perry

Perry, the world’s first African American diabetic to complete the Ironman Triathlon, founded the Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association in 2007. He recognized that many of the health challenges faced by black men in Dane County are preventable and treatable through proper diet and exercise and appropriate care, but men are not seeking or finding the care they need due to many barriers, including lack of trust, lack of knowledge and limited or no access to screenings and health care. A 2017 joint report from the RLWA and Public Health Madison Dane County shows:

  • Heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes are the leading causes of death in black men
  • Although the gap is getting smaller nationally, black men in Wisconsin die seven years younger than white men
  • Lack of access to healthy food, safe places to exercise and targeted alcohol and tobacco advertising in low-income neighborhoods contribute to these risk factors and health outcomes

Through the Men’s Health and Education Center, Perry has been successful in bringing health care to men in a place they go regularly — a barbershop — a place they trust and respect, and feel respected and understood. Perry provides health education materials and services including oral, blood pressure and body mass index (BMI) screenings. He helps identify clinics and providers for those with insurance, and helps others enroll in BadgerCare.

In April, Perry says the center provided 84 blood pressure screenings and of those, 68 percent of the men had high blood pressure.

“We know we are in the right place,” says Perry. “By removing barriers including cost, access and discrimination, we can help our city’s black men address their health challenges and get on the path to better health.”

He says, “We’ve stumbled onto something that’s different – and that’s working – and if we can replicate this model in more black barbershops and community organizations in Dane County, we can reach thousands of black men and boys.

A group of people standing around a poster
Pictured left to right: Johnathan Gant of JT Barber Hair Design Studio, Joshua Wright and Aaron Perry of Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association and Jeff Patterson of JP Hair Design.

Perry is using a Community Collaboration grant from the Wisconsin Partnership Program at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health to support his goal. The new grant program provides $300,000 in funding over a four-year period and includes training and technical assistance from the university. The grant program was designed in response to feedback sought from nonprofit organizations across the state.

“What we heard loud and clear was that in addition to funding, organizations want to build their capacity to be more effective in their communities – and that the resources of the university can support that,” says Courtney Saxler, program officer for the Wisconsin Partnership Program. “Through this grant program, we hope to ensure these organizations are equipped to make lasting change in their communities – enduring beyond the grant period.”

Perry’s organization received one of five Community Collaboration awards.

Says Perry, “As a community, we cannot continue down this path. Through the barbershops and other partners, we will bring one unified voice and message to our community’s black men, and together, help make Madison a place where all black men can lead healthy and full lives.”

Perry’s project was featured in this Capital Times article and UW-Madison News.