When Sophia Packard and Harriet Giles traveled through the South prior to the founding of Spelman College, they found an illiterate community of former slaves in desperate need of education.  Recognizing that a community of educated women could be transformational, they set a literacy revolution in motion when they opened their school in 1881.  One hundred thirty-one years later, another literacy revolution is needed in the African-American community – fitness literacy – and a community of educated women can again be transformational.

The need is urgent.  According to a recent report of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 44 percent of Black women over 20 have high blood pressure.  Type 2 diabetes has become a public health epidemic, and African-American women are among the most vulnerable, more than twice as likely to develop diabetes as white women.

Whether it is diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, breast cancer or stroke, Black women are more likely to suffer from these ailments and die from them – early.  All of these illnesses are linked to obesity and lack of physical activity.  About four out of five African-American women are overweight or obese and among all children, Black girls are most likely to report they got no physical activity in the past week.

A National Institutes of Health study found that by the age of 17 more than half of Black girls were reporting no leisure time physical activity at all.  Poor diet and lack of exercise – symptoms of fitness illiteracy – are literally killing us and shortening the lives of the next generation.

This is, and must be, a serious concern for us at Spelman because it is our population – young Black women – that are among the most at risk for negative health outcomes.  We as an institution – committed to educating the whole person, mind, body and spirit – have an opportunity to change this epidemic.  And we are, through the development of a creative Wellness program.  Students are flocking to participate in activities like Aqua Aerobics, Zumba, Fitness Walking and Yoga, to name just a few.

It has become obvious now, though, that Read Hall, built in 1950 when our student population was just 500 students, no longer meets the needs of a campus of 2100 students.  Our goal is to renovate and expand Read Hall so that it can support a state-of-the-art fitness education program that will benefit all of our students, not only improving their health outcomes but also preparing them to be wellness champions in communities beyond our gates.

We must raise $13 million this year so that we can begin construction in the summer of 2013, with an expected completion date of Fall 2014.  We have great momentum, with more than $5 million already committed.  Fortunately our students don’t have to wait for that Read Hall expansion to start improving their health.  We are already planning new Wellness activities for this year, and will be making plans to sustain that activity while Read Hall is under construction.

It has often been said that necessity is the mother of invention, and certainly the inspiration for our wellness initiative was borne from initial adversity. When we learned in December 2011 that our NCAA Division III conference would be dissolved in May 2013 because three of our member schools left our conference, our challenge was to find another conference.

It was possible to do so, but at great expense and investment in our athletics infrastructure. When we analyzed the data, we realized that the number of student athletes at Spelman was quite small (approximately 80), the cost of maintaining our intercollegiate participation was high (almost a million dollars per year), and the fitness needs of more than 2000 students were going unmet.  It was then that the idea of shifting our resources to move in this new direction began to take shape.

With this fitness-literacy approach, will there still be opportunities for competitive sports activities at Spelman?  Yes, but not in the conventional way.  As of Fall 2013, we will be shifting away from the continuation of high school sports to emphasize those that career women are likely to maintain for a lifetime – tennis, golf, swimming, running and walking, for example.

Just as Packard and Giles forged a new educational path for Black women, Spelman is forging a new fitness path, one that will lead the way to better health for this generation of students and for those whose lives they will touch. –  Beverly Daniel Tatum is president of Spelman College.