Illustration by Sugey Salazar

When we think about matriarchs, the image of a powerful and wise elderly woman comes to mind. That’s often the way she is portrayed in mass media. However, when applied to black and Latino communities, this image is often not quite broad enough.

In these communities, the matriarch can be an elder, but she can also be a working middle-aged mother, a younger beloved aunt or even a teenage girl caring for her siblings. She is the nucleus who juggles finances, meals, family activities, school, and more. And she usually places herself at the end of the line when it comes to nurturing.

I was thinking about these matriarchs when I attended a press conference last month for the San Francisco Department of Public Health’s (SFPHD) recently launched “Healthy Hearts” campaign, an effort aimed at helping blacks and Latinos improve their cardiovascular health by incorporating physical activity into their lives.

This campaign, which focuses on people with incomes 200 percent below the federal poverty level, can’t arrive too soon. Heart health markers for blacks and Latinos are horrendous. The Diabetes rate among San Francisco’s black community is 15.8 percent, nearly four times higher than the city average of 4.7 percent. Approximately 40 percent of Latinos are overweight, but only 12 percent report doing regular exercise. These statistics from the San Francisco Health Improvement Partnership clearly show that poverty and bad health go hand in hand.

It’s no secret that everyone wants good health, but many lower income people don’t have the time or financial means to achieve it. Join a gym or feed your family? —the decision for many in impoverished communities is a no brainer.

The Healthy Hearts campaign aims to correct this inequality with “exercise prescriptions,” which will provide free access to neighborhood physical activities through a YMCA membership and other resources.

“It is a matter of social justice,” the SFPHD’s Dr. Tomás Aragón said at a recent press conference.

However, a critical, and possibly overlooked, component for success in a program such as this, will be to establish a cultural connection within these communities. That means understanding the role that food, social gatherings and language play within families, as well as the powerful role of matriarchs in black and Latino communities. If the matriarch can be convinced to adopt more heart-healthy practices, those whom she interacts with, including her extended family and circle of friends, will likely emulate her.

But we all know that starting a new health regimen can be an uphill battle. Many black and Latina matriarchs face caregiving responsibilities such as raising grandchildren, helping sick family members and tending to elders with growing health issues. Given this, how is a matriarch, who wants to change her detrimental health habits, going to find the time to do so?

If the SFDPH were willing to use creative strategies that focus on getting matriarchs specific resources, they could also reach the people she influences.

This could well mean collaborating with caregiver organizations that can provide respite support to free up the matriarch to take a swim or yoga class down the block. Or childcare vouchers so that their grandchildren can enjoy an hour at the YMCA while grandma works out. Or it could even be insuring that there is free childcare at the exercise venues.

These low-cost solutions would provide the resources to help matriarchs overcome obstacles in the way of improving their health. And as the role models in their families, these matriarchs could set a healthy example for others to follow.