Three organizations addressing kidney disease in Flint's African American community

FLINT, Michigan — Although chronic kidney disease is the ninth leading cause of death in Michigan, over 1 million Michiganders have chronic kidney disease but only about 3% are aware they have it. This reality disproportionately impacts African Americans who are almost 4 times more likely than White Americans to experience kidney failure. 

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, “For Americans with diabetes or high blood pressure — the two most common causes of chronic kidney disease — the risk for CKD is even greater. Nearly 1 in 3 people with diabetes and 1 in 5 people with high blood pressure have chronic kidney disease.” 

Within the state of Michigan, the Organ Procurement and Transplant Network records that African Americans comprise only about 14% of the Michigan population yet make up nearly 33% of individuals on the kidney transplant waiting list.

Chronic kidney disease specifically continues to be a challenge for the African American community of Flint due to existing racial disparities. These disparities stem from disproportionate rates of preexisting health conditions like diabetes and hypertension — both leading risk factors for chronic kidney disease. Disproportionate rates of chronic kidney disease in communities of color have also been linked to poor access to health insurance and quality medical care ultimately leading to delayed diagnosis and treatment. 

In an attempt to level the health playing field, many community organizations and health organizers are currently advocating for and creating health education materials to further raise awareness of chronic kidney disease. 

Gift of Life Michigan sits on Research Park Dr. in Ann Arbor, MI.
Gift of Life Michigan

Gift of Life Michigan is an organization founded in 1971 by five transplant surgeons with the goal of creating a statewide patient-centered system that allocated organs equitably among transplant centers and to those patients most in need. The organization has grown to serve 9.9 million people, 176 hospitals and 8 transplant centers and maintain the Michigan Organ Donor Registry in cooperation with the Secretary of State. 

Dr. Silas P. Norman, Professor of Medicine and a nephrology specialist with Gift of Life Michigan, says the biggest issue currently facing the African American community of Flint when it comes to kidney disease is a lack of awareness of kidney disease and access to nephrology care. 

To combat this challenge, Gift of Life Michigan is helping encourage community members to engage in regular wellness checks, especially if residents are dealing with diabetes and/or hypertension as those are the two principal causes of kidney disease and kidney failure.

“Our most effective programs have been the ones that engage directly with the communities such as engagement in schools with barber and beauty shops, fraternities/sororities, and other groups of local leaders,” says Norman.

Aside from direct engagement through programs and events, Gift of Life Michigan has provided awareness literature to help inform community members about organ donations and health conditions like kidney disease that can lead to patients needing organ transplants. 

“Talking about organ and tissue donation is not a fun conversation. I get it but it’s a conversation that needs to be had — preferably before tragedy strikes. If you’ve made a documented decision in advance and shared that decision with whoever will be speaking for you when you can’t speak for yourself, that alleviates just a little bit of the pressure that comes during a very stressful time,” said Gift of Life Michigan’ communications specialist, Sholanda Griffin.

To donate or learn more about Gift of Life Michigan, visit:

The National Kidney Foundation Michigan

According to NKF, African Americans are more than 3 times as likely to suffer from kidney failure compared to White Americans. Studies also show the African American community suffers from “much higher rates of high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and heart disease, all of which increase the risk for kidney disease.”

“While this work is incredibly important, it alone cannot possibly solve every problem of racial disparity facing the African American community or in any community of color. But it can make progress towards addressing the healthcare disparities which continue to serve as a catalyst for disenfranchisement among minority communities. Together, we must continue to do the work that is tangible, results-focused, and lifesaving,” stated Linda Smith-Wheelock, NKFM President and CEO.

In an attempt to close the current health gap, NKFM is currently fighting for affordable healthcare for all, access to medication and transplantation, patient choice, and home dialysis options.

“All of our programs attempt to close the health disparity gap as we target funding, scholarships, and grants to those most in need of our programs and services. The NKFM offers many programs that work to reach the African American population through various ways such as messaging, location, and community partnerships. These programs include our early childhood programs, the Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP), Personal Action Toward Health (PATH), and EnhanceFitness, among others,” said Joyce Williams, NKFM communications representative.

NKFM’s grant-funded programs also include social support to enable participation such as assistance with transportation and getting healthy food into the community.  

“The NKFM is very active in working with state and local partners to seek Medicaid coverage and Medicaid expansion for the people that we serve. The NKFM also serves as direct resource navigators for anyone with or at risk of kidney disease who might need help understanding and accessing all the support services available to them,” shared Williams.

According to NKFM community members are always welcome to volunteer. Volunteers work at fundraising events as program instructors and in community work. People with chronic kidney disease can become “peer mentors'' to support those newly diagnosed. Peer mentors have “been there” and can answer their questions, help them understand kidney disease, navigate the healthcare system, and live a quality life.

To get involved with The National Kidney Foundation Michigan, visit:

The Flint Area (MI) Chapter of the Links, Incorporated

The Flint Area (MI) Chapter of the Links, Incorporated is another Flint community outreach group working to raise awareness of chronic kidney disease and provide helpful activities and resources to educate the Flint community about risk factors and the importance of routine checkups.

The Flint Area (MI) Chapter of the Links, Incorporated, an international women’s service organization developed the Black Kidney Awareness Resource Education (K.A.R.E.) initiative to raise awareness of the racial disparities of chronic kidney disease within Genesee County. Links, Incorporated creates and distributes brochures, and nutritious recipes and also hosts free community educational initiatives.
A Black K.A.R.E. billboard located in Flint, MI.
“The goal of Black K.A.R.E. Initiative is to educate the Black community in Flint and surrounding areas about risk factors and complications of chronic kidney disease as well as focus on positive health outcomes for those who currently have chronic kidney disease,” said Shirley W. Johnson, president of the organization’s Flint Area (MI) chapter.

With the goal of cultivating greater awareness of chronic kidney disease and providing resources to those who have been impacted by chronic kidney disease, The Flint Area (MI) Chapter of The Links, Incorporated has partnered with Hamilton Community Health Network, the Sylvester Broome Empowerment Village, Hasselbring Senior Center, and other local and state resources to distribute educational materials and host all-age programming.

“We have worked hard to integrate this information into community-based programming to help reduce the number of new CKD cases in the Black community, increase awareness about how to best manage this disease, and reduce CKD-related disparities and kidney failure,” says Johnson. 

To learn more about the work of the Black K.A.R.E. Initiative, visit:
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Read more articles by Brianna Nargiso.