When Merry Green first decided 28 years ago to hold an exhibition just for black women, she never would have guessed what a huge success it would become.
As promotions director for radio station V103, she often hosted events aimed at connecting businesses to black customers. Through this work, she saw an opportunity to create an event just for black women and founded the first Black Women’s Expo in 1993.
The 27th annual Black Women’s Expo was held over the weekend, with more than 400 stalls in McCormick Place offering everything from business advice to hair care tips and selling products from clothing to insurance. Expo sponsors included JP Morgan Chase, Walgreens, and Verizon.
“When the expo started, we knew we were going to hit something. The women filled the hall at the first show and come back year after year,” said Green. “This event really empowers women and gives them the chance to meet people and learn how to do things like grow their business and build community.”
From Friday to Sunday, attendees explored the many exhibits and attended sessions on topics such as health equity, financial assistance for business growth, and mental well-being.
“This exhibit not only gives women information, but it also gives them confidence,” Green said. “Women come to me and thank me for doing this and tell me it has changed their lives.”
Green said she aimed to make the exhibit accessible to everyone. Discounted tickets are available at Walgreens, and many exhibitors had booths at the show for the first time, Green said.
One of Sunday’s sessions focused on black women’s health care, particularly related to gynecology and breast and colon cancer.
Much of the discussion has focused on empowering black women to be their own advocates within the healthcare system, especially when doctors don’t take their concerns seriously.
“In this era of awareness and empowerment for black women … we need to make sure that we are also empowered about our health,” said Ramona Burress, an equity-focused health executive, who moderated the panel. “We always fall into that nurturing role, but that means we end up putting ourselves last.”
One of the panelists was Donna Christian-Harris, a breast cancer nurse practitioner at the University of Chicago Medical Center who works on “survival” with patients.
She helps ensure that breast cancer patients who are recovering have access to all their records, keep up to date with other routine care, and check themselves regularly for any recurring cancer.
“I’ve had many patients tell me that they haven’t been listened to by doctors and burned in the past,” Sandra Laveaux, an obstetrician and gynecologist at the University of Chicago, said during the panel.
“It’s so important to find that doctor who will actually listen to you and hear what you’re saying when you tell him something’s wrong, something’s wrong. But I know it can be hard to find.
Candace Henley, a colon cancer survivor, spoke about what she went through to get diagnosed and the struggles she faced afterwards.
Henley was misdiagnosed for six months before finding out she had colon cancer. After a third trip to the ER, an emergency colonoscopy found a grape-sized tumor on her colon.
But after surviving cancer, Henley said she couldn’t function due to the huge financial burden that entailed. She could no longer do her job as a bus driver for the CTA. She had five dependent daughters.
“I became invisible to the healthcare system,” Henley said.
Now Henley works with the Blue Hat Foundation, a local group that helps colon cancer patients and their families.
“We have to speak for ourselves, we have to say we disagree today,” Henley said. “We have a power that we don’t realize.”
Sandra Davis, a real estate broker and financial adviser, was in the audience and said she was particularly inspired by Henley’s story.
“After hearing about the financial difficulties she went through, I now want to develop a course on financing health care to help people who might also be facing these issues,” Davis said.
Davis attended the expo to seek advice on growing his business called Wealth Equity, Wealth Justice.
“It’s been amazing, exploring the booths and also coming to these sessions and hearing real stories from real women,” Davis said.
“It has been empowering and inspiring. And I learned great information to help me and help me grow my business.